October 25, 2020

Recommendation and Review: Evangelicals and Tradition by D.H. Williams

williams.jpgMy list of must-read books for post-evangelicals is short. Newly added at the top of the list: Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church by Baylor University professor of patristics and Baptist minister D. H. Williams (Ph.d, University of Toronto.).

Reviews of D.H. Williams’ work on the need for evangelicals and free churchers to recover the catholic tradition are everywhere on the web. (By both Roman Catholics and by leading Evangelicals.) Williams’ previous book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, is universally acclaimed and I would predict similar accolades for his more recent work on the formative influence of the early church.

I have simply devoured Williams’ book. Seldom have I underlined and noted so much in one book. As a post-evangelical in spirit, I still have much to learn about the early church and the role of tradition. My own seminary training included absolutely zero specific courses on the first five centuries of Christian history, and no discussion at all of the place of tradition in regard to my own denominational heritage. So Williams has been both a revelation and a feast.

Williams knows what evangelicals (and some Roman Catholics) will be saying at his introduction and proclamation of the essential role of tradition and he is not shy about taking on those objections to build his own case. He demonstrates that tradition was essential for the vital work of the early church during its first centuries. He shows that this use of tradition is not hostile to any evangelical use of scripture, but the proper place of tradition will clarify the relationship of scripture in the development of creeds, baptismal language, catechisms, hymns, commentaries and works of theology. He clarifies what is meant and not meant in sola scriptura, and corrects the misunderstandings common among both evangelicals and Roman Catholics. He takes a critical and helpful approach to the insistence and claims of evangelicals on specific theories of inerrancy. He shows how the reformers used tradition and how the later heirs of the reformers often bought into mythology in attempts to portray themselves as the recovery of the pure and ancient faith. Williams even takes on some of the current discussion of justification and imputation, showing how the early church fathers approached these subjects.

Williams, like Craig Allerd and as pointed out in reviews of his previous book, does not spend any ink responding to the specific Roman Catholic uses of traditions that are most troublesome to Protestants. He is clearly persuaded that a strong view of tradition does not bring anyone into a position where Roman Catholicism becomes a default option. I, and many others, are still waiting for Williams and his scholarly cohorts to specifically address the uses of tradition that create substantial differences between Christian communions whom he wants to share the heritage of the early church tradition.

Works like Evangelicals and Tradition are vital reading for young evangelicals seeking to find their way in the post-evangelical wilderness. With several centuries of Protestant propaganda in our heads and a resurgent evangelical Catholicism asserting itself, many of us want to claim the treasures of the early Christian tradition and apply them to the questions confronting evangelicalism today. Williams’ book is must reading for those who appreciate the vision of post-evangelicalism that is gaining influence today. Here is solid, documented, scholarly help for what many of us were never told and an antidote to the mythology and distortions that we wound up believing instead.

I cannot recommend Evangelicals and Tradition enough. Acquire this book and you will find, as I did, a rich return for your investment. Look for future reviews of books in the Evangelical Ressourcement series Williams is editing for Brazos Press.


  1. chrisstiles says

    Hi Michael —

    Would you or your readers have an opinion as to whether this effectively replaces his earlier book on “Retrieving the Tradition” – or if the older work is the one to get?

  2. This is a really good book. In fact, someone in Saint Pat’s Church has my copy. I need to get it back!!

  3. I also recommend the classic work by Yves [Marie Joseph] Congar, Tradition and Traditions, though it’s hard to find in print these days.

  4. Nicholas Anton says

    The dynamics operating in the early church in the first centuries were integral with and virtually identical with those operating within secular politics of the time. It seems that as the “world” functions, likewise the church. The transition of the early church from a family-type natural organism (elder/senior led which includes both male and female in their respective traditional roles) as Jesus taught, to an autocratic class defined institution (the rulers versus those ruled) occurred very rapidly towards the end of the first and into the second century A.D. Along with practice, the definition of the terms themselves [“elder” (presbuterus), overseer (episkapos), servant (diakonos)] transitioned from Hebrew to Greco-Roman concepts, frequently without the general populace being aware of and taking significant note of the change. This debate continues into our times as seen in the various forms of church government. And yet, few in our generation are aware of the dynamics of early church history.

  5. Your blog has given voice to my own slow-moving search through the modern evangelical landscape for what my spirit longs for as authentic church. I will get a copy of Williams book as I continue that journey.

    I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable yet with calling myself “post evangelical,” but I do resonate with most of your convictions about the recovery of tradition in the evangelical church. My own are mostly being formed at this point by personal experience and biblical reflection, not by “post evangelical” thinkers and authors. I just don’t know who they are, how to speak their language, or which of their books are the best.

    So, could I humbly ask you to share your “must-read list for evangelicals” for those of us who have an intuitive sense of what our spirit longs for, but need to have it confirmed and sharpened by more disciplined thinkers. A short-list would be fine.


  6. To stand in church singing “Gladsome Light” (Phos hilaron) at Vespers or “O Only Begotten Son” (Monogenes hyos )at Liturgy, “Nunc dimittis”, “Magnificat’ or “The Great Doxology” in a church where this has been done unceasingly for centuries, that is indeed TRADITION. Not something “recovered” by scholars, but the incessant prayer of a people mostly unaware that they, in fact, carry on the unbroken tradition of the early church.

  7. I just got my copy from amazon. Your review had me very interested