Saturday, February 07, 2015

John Murray on “traditions”: “We should not be dupes of Rome …”

Murray wrote on “tradition” – including Protestant traditions and Reformed traditions:

There is truly a catholic tradition to which all due respect is to be paid and for which we should thank God. The Romish Church has attempted to monopolize the word ‘Catholic’ by trying to fix upon itself the denominational name, ‘the Catholic Church’. Protestants should not be the dupes of Rome in this respect and should resist every attempt on the part of Rome to appropriate that denomination. The Church of Rome is not the catholic church. It is presumption for her to claim to be. We should understand that all who profess the true religion belong to the catholic church and in the catholic tradition we glory. The catholic tradition is enshrined particularly in the ecumenical creeds, and is found also in the line of orthodox interpreters and theologians throughout the centuries.

There is also a Protestant tradition. It is the viewpoint of the Protestant church as over against the perversions and apostasies of the Romish communion. This tradition is enshrined in the great Protestant creeds and in the theology of the Protestant reformers. It is also embodied in the worship and practice that prevailed in the Protestant churches of the 16th and 17th centuries.

There is in like manner a reformed tradition. It is enshrined in the reformed creeds, theology, worship and practice. It is in this latter tradition that we specially glory. And we glory in it because we believe that it is the purest repristination and expression of apostolic Christianity. It is in this tradition that we move; it is the stream along which we are borne; it is the viewpoint we cherish, foster and promote. We cannot abstract ourselves from it; it gives direction and orientation to our thought and practice.

The entire article is here.

From The Presbyterian Guardian, 1947, May 10 and 25 and reprinted in Collected Writings of John Murray - Vol. 4 Studies in Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982) pp. 264-273. This was mentioned in a footnote in Allen, Michael; Swain, Scott R. (2015-01-13). Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Kindle Locations 3133-3134). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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With all of that having been said, I agree there is a “catholic tradition”, but I disagree that we should stumble all over ourselves to find it and claim it. Here’s what I wrote in some Facebook comments in response to reviews I’ve seen of the work “Reformed Catholicity”:

I think “catholicity” is over-rated as a goal or concept. The word “catholic” has come to mean “universal”, but the “universality” was derived from a Greek cultural project before it became identified with the early church. The word “catholic” is derived from the “Second Sophistic” movement, among Greek city-states, to retain their Greek culture in the face of their Roman masters (Allen Brent, “Ignatius of Antioch”). It certainly is not a New Testament word, and while it was a useful concept, helping to unite a geographically disparate group of churches, like the concept of “apostolic succession”, it has been and can continue to be abused. I don't think it is a strong enough or safe enough concept around which to rally in our time.

Reasons why: Here is another marginalized concept from Allen and Swain:

There is no other such gulf in the history of human thought as that which is cleft between the apostolic and the immediately succeeding ages. To pass from the latest apostolic writings to the earliest compositions of uninspired Christian pens is to fall through such a giddy height that it is no wonder if we rise dazed and almost unable to determine our whereabouts. Here is the great fault—as the geologists would say—in the history of Christian doctrine. There is every evidence of continuity—but, oh, at how much lower a level! The rich vein of evangelical religion has run well-nigh out; and, though there are masses of apostolic origin lying everywhere, they are but fragments, and are evidently only the talus which has fallen from the cliffs above and scattered itself over the lower surface.

Allen, Michael; Swain, Scott R. (2015-01-13). Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (p. 1). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Citing B.B. Warfield here, B. B. Warfield, “The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed” (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 4.

Warfield is correct about the “cleft between the apostolic and the immediately succeeding ages”. I’ve cited other writers, extensively – not marginalized kooks, but first-rate theologians of the 20th century, who have studied this period, including Cullmann, Torrance, and others, who note the absolute abyss into which the “Apostolic Fathers” fell.

“Traditions” (small “t”) as we come to know them are always going to be useful to us, in one way or another. Either they will be helpful to us in understanding what certain generations of Christians believed to be helpful, or as bad examples in seeing excesses that we are to avoid.

But to enshrine “traditions” as normative – this is not something we should be eager to do. Whether they are useful and helpful to us, as are the traditions of the Reformed Orthodox, or whether they are found to have been unhelpful and even harmful (as “apostolic succession” has been) – these are all things that we should be very keen to hold up to the light of Scripture, which is “the ground and pillar of our faith”.


  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for continuing your posting. Just a comment or two for you. if I may.

    I agree with what you say, about the futility of chasing down the "catholic." At least, in the sense of expecting a contiguous tradition from the apostolic through into subsequent history. That quote out of Allen and Swain is well put, is it not?!

    But may i offer that there is indeed a loving way to pursue to the catholic? Let's start with this common misperception. You wrote about the catholic that "It certainly is not a New Testament word..." but have you considered Acts 4:18?

    You also write, "it was a useful concept, helping to unite a geographically disparate group of churches." I'd suggest that too is an historic canard and actually plays into a Roman Catholic reading of things.

    As i show in my article, the word catholic was hardly used at all among the Apostolic Fathers, and when they did use it, it referred to all the genuine believers in a city in one and the same ecclesia, as opposed to those schismed in other churches in the same city.


    1. Ted, the word "kathoulou" does not do what you want it to do in Acts 4:18. Bock notes that there, "the leaders ... command them not to speak or teach at all..." The phrase "at all" ("kathoulou") "strengthens the negation" -- it is a simple modifier that is being used to amplify the opposite effect from what you are suggesting.

      The fact is that we don't have to stretch the biblical record the way you are doing in order to try to superimpose a concept ("catholic") where it does not exist.

      You may or may not be correct in the usage of the word in the Apostolic fathers and the second century writers. The church was formed along much more geographical lines then than it is now. Jerusalem was cognizant of being Jerusalem, Antioch was cognizant of being Antioch, Alexandria was cognizant of being Alexandria.And of course, Rome became cognizant of being Rome, and that's where we have a significant amount of mischief beginning.

  2. What did Cullman, Torrance, et al. say about the church fathers and this abyss?

  3. The thing I observe is that we are plagued with forms of non-Roman neo-traditionalism today. A couple of examples might be KJOism or the so-called worship wars. That's something that I notice about younger Reformed theologians today. They (we) are sometimes charged with coming up with something new because they don't hold all the traditional lines of Calvinism. I think the argument is meant to trade against the observation that original Protestant theology is explicitly Reformed. The thing is that much of Reformed theology remains unchanged. The areas where it has been refined is evidence that younger Reformed theologians haven't simply followed the tradition, but have appropriated the theology through careful thought and study anew. Interestingly, in the SBC the non-Reformed theologians like to call themselves "traditionalists".