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.”
As for the common charge that evangelicalism is ahistorical and bereft of tradition, Stewart judges it an overstatement: While this critique might apply to certain varieties of evangelicalism (20th-century fundamentalism, for instance, or many parachurch movements), it misses the mark more often than not. After all, he argues, the trunk from which contemporary evangelicalism developed—the Protestant Reformation—was firmly rooted in creeds and beliefs from the early church. The Formula of Concord (1577), a Lutheran statement of faith, underscored the importance of the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. In their writings, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others made regular reference to Augustine, Bernard, Jerome, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, Cyprian, and others. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin claimed, “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory would turn to our side.” Moreover, the Reformers criticized Roman Catholicism for its doctrinal and liturgical innovations, such as purgatory (a 7th-century development) and transubstantiation (a 13th-century novelty).
Interestingly, Stewart points out that Protestants are responsible for many modern translations of writings from the early church fathers. J. B. Lightfoot edited the five-volume critical edition The Apostolic Fathers (1885–1890), and Henry Wace and Philip Schaff coedited the series Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers (1887–1900), following Alexander Donaldson and James Robertson’s edition Ante-Nicene Fathers (1860). Serious-minded Protestants wanted their churches to carefully study the church fathers because their writings belong to all Christians, not just Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.
In all of this, Stewart sets himself firmly in opposition to John Henry Newman, the famed 19th-century Anglican turned Catholic convert. In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman argued that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He was confident that the more one explores the early and medieval church’s doctrine and tradition, the more obvious it becomes that history tells in favor of Catholicism.
But Stewart uses several detailed examples to find fault with Newman’s perspective. He demonstrates, first, that the early church had a strong tradition—developed by such luminaries as Melito of Sardis, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, and John of Damascus—affirming that the Old Testament should consist of the 22 books of the Hebrew Bible, and not include the apocryphal writings found in the Septuagint (or Greek Old Testament). The Protestant canon reflects this early church tradition. Second, Stewart shows how Catholicism’s own history undermines “the lofty claims made about the antiquity and universal role of the [pope].” He mentions several heretical popes, the many anti-popes, and the Great Schism of 1378, when the emergence of three rival popes precipitated a decades-long crisis of authority.
Stewart then takes up the Catholic charge that Protestants essentially invented the doctrine of justification by faith alone. As he points out, the problem with this claim is that the Reformers and their post-Reformation acolytes marshaled support from early church fathers, including Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Indeed, Stewart highlights a Roman Catholic “justification by faith alone” party that existed prior to, and even during, the 16th-century Council of Trent, where the Catholic Counter Reformation took shape.
The Bible’s Authority
Stewart does not confine himself to answering the common caricature of evangelicalism. He also makes constructive suggestions for how evangelicals should draw from their past. Chief among them is an appeal to the principle of authority: In other words, is a particular doctrine or practice in accordance with Scripture? Stewart shows how this question guided the early church, which read Scripture together, developed its doctrine from Scripture, and fought heresies according to Scripture. None of which means that other resources were neglected, but only that early traditions like the creeds and the rule of faith (a set of core doctrines) derived their authority ultimately from the Bible itself.
By emphasizing the principle of authority, Stewart makes a key point that the church should resist engaging in a “simple imitation of the practices of an earlier time.” Take, for instance, the question of how frequently we should celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Unlike most evangelical churches today, the early church did so every week. But for Stewart, “the early church’s Communion practices had been seriously compromised by the transformation of the church begun in Constantine’s time,” during the fourth century.
In other words, a loss of gospel centrality resulted in disregard for the Lord’s Supper and a corresponding decrease in the frequency of its celebration in the church. Accordingly, as churches become more gospel-centered and develop a greater appetite for Christ, they are under no obligation to administer this sacrament as infrequently as the post-Constantinian church prescribed.
What goes for practices must apply also to doctrines. To insert my own example, once upon a time, church leaders understood Christ’s crucifixion as a kind of ransom payment to Satan, who was thought to be holding humanity in bondage. From the era of the church father Origen up through the medieval theologian Anselm, this was the dominant model of the atonement. Today, however, one is hard-pressed to find any church or denomination—Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—that takes this view of Christ’s death. Which goes to show that even if a doctrine holds sway for a thousand years (or longer), the contemporary church might be perfectly justified in abandoning it. Longevity doesn’t guarantee orthodoxy. Rather, the church must apply the principle of authority to determine orthodoxy and distinguish it from error.
Our Identity Crisis
In Search of Ancient Roots is a unique and important book for evangelicals and those critical of them. It counters the common charge that contemporary evangelicalism is a novelty, suffering from a lack of tradition and historical awareness, and it presents constructive proposals for strengthening the movement in ways consistent with Scripture.
Moreover, the book comes at an opportune moment, given the lively debates taking place today about the nature of evangelical identity. Some evangelicals are asking whether we should even retain the word evangelical anymore. Perhaps, some say, that word is just too tainted from close association with conservative politics or the Trump presidency. Even without the political baggage, you’d still have massive difficulty getting everyone who identifies as an evangelical to agree on what that terms means. So why bother?
I won’t attempt to speculate on how Stewart would advise those currently casting about for an alternative to evangelical. But the core themes of his book would seem to caution against discarding that label too hastily. Certainly not when, as he has demonstrated, evangelicalism represents a “perennial and recurring feature of Christian history.” Our movement may be in the midst of an identity crisis, but there’s no doubting that our roots run deep into the fertile soil of the church’s past.
Gregg R. Allison is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Crossway).