From a sociological standpoint, it is a stretch to say that most evangelicals have any relationship to ecclesiastical traditions that extend beyond the past fifty years at all. Among those who convert to mainline Protestant or Catholic denominations, this is typically the first and primary critique: evangelicals have no sense of history.
It is a fair assessment, but hardly an argument against evangelicalism per se. Evangelicals may not have a robust understanding of tradition, but the tradition from which evangelicalism sprang has numerous resources to recultivate evangelicals’s sense of the past.
Consider John Calvin: while some would not think of him as a father of evangelicalism, his articulation of the Christian life lurks in the background of John Wesley’s theology. Wesley, I would argue, Arminianizes–to coin a term–Calvin’s understanding of justification and sanctification.
In the “Address to King Francis” that precedes his Institutes, Calvin writes:
Yet we are so versed in [the church fathers'] writings as to remember always that all things are ours, to serve us, not to lord it over us [1 Cor 3:21-22, Luke 22:24-25], and that we belong to the one Christ [1 Cor 3:23], whom we must obey in all things without exception. He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves. It is not without cause, they say, that Solomon bids us not to transgress the limits set by our fathers [Prov. 22:28]. But the same rule does not apply to boundaries of fields, and to obedience of faith, which must be so disposed that “it forgets its people and its father’s house” [Ps. 45:10 p.].
Calvin’s approach to tradition is one of respectful appropriation, while occasional separation might be required. All things are ours, but the obedience of faith occasionally calls us to reject the house of our fathers. It is one that allows for theological progress–the holy men were ignorant of some things–and places Christ as supreme above all. We belong to Christ, who is the one Lord over all. All else, including the tradition of the church, is subservient to Him.
Zwemer’s sermon, delivered at the Keswick convention in 1915, is a summons to “enter into the boundless heritage of Christianity.” He doesn’t just mean to read old books or sing old hymns, though that is obviously a good place to start. He also isn’t just asserting that every modern Christian has the right to loot, pillage, and lay claim to whatever they find in anybody’s church. The great tradition of Christian teaching and experience is ours, not because we are postmodern bricoleurs or consumers with a credit line that extends to the past, but because of our real union with Christ and his with the Father. Without this real union, all of us are just squatting on the territory of others, or decorating our houses with antiques to make ourselves feel more authentic. But all things really are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. The “all things” of the great Christian hinterland must become our homeland if we are to be in the company of the saints where our fellowship is with the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
Sanders deploys 1 Corinthians to argue against the fractures between social justice, intellectual engagement, and pentacostalism. But Calvin’s addition that all things are there to serve us, and not to lord over us is a helpful reminder that though all things are ours, they are ours only insofar as they remain in their proper position in the universe: below Christ.