About 20 years ago, theologian D. H. Williams wrote a book called Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. He focused on a certain sector of evangelicalism—the free church tradition, including many Baptists, independent Bible churches, nondenominational churches, and the like. These churches were admirably devoted to preaching and studying Scripture, but they were dangerously neglecting the rich legacy handed down to them from the church’s past. Williams worried that this disregard of the historical church’s wisdom would spell disaster, gradually resulting in shallow worship, superficial discipleship, and weak missional and social engagement, among other ills.
Accordingly, he issued a clear warning: “If the aim of contemporary evangelicalism is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integration of the foundational Tradition of the early church. . . . Tradition is not something evangelicals can take or leave.”
Since Williams’s dire warning, contemporary evangelicals have made significant strides in linking their theology and practice not only to the early church, but to the church of the past two millennia. But critical voices still scold evangelicalism for its historical rootlessness. Such criticism often comes from adherents of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, especially those who were formerly evangelicals.
In 2002, observing the recent drift of evangelicals toward Roman Catholicism, theologian Scot McKnight speculated on the cause:
Many feel they are isolated in the faith, in a modern evangelical movement that has cut itself off from the history of the Church. Most evangelicals know almost nothing about the early Fathers, and what they do know (they think) supports what they already believe, so why bother studying them. . . . This historical disenfranchisement, when discovered, can lead to curiosity. Even more profoundly, it can lead to a need to discover how the Church developed. And many [evangelicals] were led right to Rome when they began to study this part of Church history.
Does modern evangelicalism suffer from a lack of tradition and historical awareness? Not so fast, says Kenneth Stewart, a theologian teaching at Covenant College. His book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis, tells a different story than we’re accustomed to hearing.
Many people treat evangelicalism as a late-blooming phenomenon. Some experts believe it began during the Reformation, others would place its origins in the 18th-century Great Awakening, and still others would contend that it dates back to the period after the Second World War. But Stewart denies that evangelicalism is “an upstart and a latecomer.” Indeed, he demonstrates that this movement, centered on the evangel (or gospel), has been “a perennial and recurring feature of Christian history.”