The famous early Christian curmudgeon Tertullian once asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" What he meant was that Christianity, rooted in the God of the Hebrews and identified with that God's revelatory presence in Jerusalem, would be corrupted if infiltrated by the Greco-Roman learning of pagan Athens.

Today another question vexes another suspicious lot—though perhaps we evangelicals are less curmudgeonly than Tertullian: "What does Alexandria (the traditions of the early church fathers) have to do with Wheaton (evangelicalism)"?

Young evangelicals are increasingly wondering what it means to be evangelical—and indeed to be faithfully Christian at all, in this "post-Christian" age. The rationalistic doctrinal approaches of old-style fundamentalists and the pragmatic, culture-imitating approaches of boomer-era mega-churches both seem to many young Christians somehow less than authentically Christian. Instead, young evangelicals are embracing ancient liturgies, reading Bible commentaries penned by church fathers, even studying the early church at the graduate level. In The Younger Evangelicals (2000), the late Robert Webber recorded the battle cry of these modern seekers: "The road to the church's future runs through our past."

In the spring of 2007, the 16th Annual Wheaton Theology Conference, instigated by Webber, convened to ask how we can find an "ancient faith for the church's future." And the new book of that title (dedicated to Webber) reports some of the conference speakers' answers. Their consensus runs something like this:

First, although Scripture is our primary authority, tradition—for example, the writings of church fathers and the decisions of councils—carries an important secondary authority. This is because Scripture does not immediately yield the same answers to all questions for all people in all times and places. Indeed, those in the early church who proclaimed most loudly their exclusive, literal reliance on Scripture tended to be the very heretics that the normative councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, etc.) struck down. So we are wise to turn to the witness of the larger church as we read Scripture.

Second, the church of the first few centuries was temporally closer to the apostles and self-consciously guarded the apostolic teachings (in, for example, the various forms of a "rule of faith" that believers affirmed at baptism and used as a test of doctrine). Whether we know it or not, we have received our faith today in the form "traditioned" (literally, "handed down") from the early church. So we are wise to turn, specifically, to the witness of the early church as we read Scripture.

Third, the early church teaches us how to read Scripture: We must read in the light of Christ, of the whole canon, of the holiness God demands of us, and of the worshipping community.

Fourth, although it is good to read Scripture in the light of tradition, there are bad ways of reading the tradition itself. We cannot go back to the church fathers and assume that they are just like us, nor that we can take all of their words and apply them directly to our own lives and ministries. "Before we are tempted to remake the patristic church in our own image," writes D. H. Williams in his chapter "Gauging Our Expectations of the Early Fathers," "let us first encounter it with its own problems and solutions."

In other words, even to understand the parts of early church tradition that are nourishing, we must first do the hard work of understanding the historical and cultural context of the church fathers. This should not surprise evangelicals, who understand that this discipline of contextualization is essential to our Bible study. Without exception, the writers of this book seek to move would-be evangelical "users" of the church fathers beyond immature uses and into mature, theologically grounded ones.

To this end, the book's editors have arranged the book into an introductory section on how evangelicals can retrieve the past with integrity (D. H. Williams's essay appears here, along with another helpful introductory essay by Christopher Hall), followed by three further sections. The first of these addresses how the church fathers read Scripture; the second, the social practices of the early church (especially its hospitality and treatment of the poor); and the third, early Christian theology (including early teachings on the Lord's Supper, atonement, and the relationship between the church and the world). An epilogue talks about how Christians in today's "Emergent" movement are finding resources in ancient Christianity.

There is much academic language here, but these authors also have a passion to communicate their findings in the field of early Christianity to a broader audience. I found the essays in the introductory section the easiest to follow and had the hardest time with the essays in the second section (on exegesis). But insights abound throughout, and the book repays careful reading, even if you must "blip" a sentence or paragraph here and there. If you believe "Alexandria" does indeed have something to do with "Wheaton," and you seek to mature in your engagement with the early church, then this is an excellent next step.

Chris R. Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.