In Search of Ancient Roots - A Review

There have always been some evangelical Christians that decide to swim across the Tiber to join the Roman Catholics. That trickle has, according to some commentators, become a steady stream, especially among younger evangelicals. I’ve met a few people that have converted to some form of liturgical worship, like Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, and their reasons have tended to be similar.

In general, those that convert were involved in pop evangelicalism, which is usually high on hype and low on content. They were often nonplussed by the flashy, non-substantive style of the young, tanned mega church pastors that some people find so motivating. Largely it was concern that many of these forms of evangelicalism had few connections with ancient Christianity, were willing to renovate doctrines or push them to the background in order to draw a crowd, and had more of an affiliation to the dis-ease causing contemporary culture than anything like the pre-modern vision of the world the gospel calls us to. Those that I’ve spoken to that have jumped connected to Roman Catholicism have done it because they recognize that, in many ways, many “conservative” evangelical churches are really only a bad budget year from compromising critical Christian doctrines.

I share many of the same concerns about much of evangelicalism. There are altogether too many pastors that are more modern or postmodern than Christian. There is way too much time spent in trying to run the most efficient church and fundraising campaign, and too little spent asking what holiness looks like. There are streams of evangelicalism that function as moral therapeutic deists. This is true. However, the answer is unlikely to be found in a version of Christianity that claims to have hit peak revisionism 500 years ago, instead of one that is now going through many of the same struggles. (Never mind the more recent evolutions in Roman Catholic dogma.)

Kenneth Stewart, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, is helpful in his 2017 book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.  Since one of the arguments that many Roman Catholics use against Evangelical Christianity is that it is a novel invention from about 500 years ago, Stewart evaluates that claim deeply and others along the way to show that while various forms of Protestant Christianity are far from perfect, the claims of novelty and disconnection with ancient forms of Christianity are unfounded.

In Part One, Stewart explores the question of the Evangelical identity crisis. He begins by showing connections between the current Evangelical movement and earlier mini-reformations and revivals that pushed back anti-Christian traditions that confused the gospel. He also begins to wrestle with the question of authority: whether the Bible is authoritative or the interpretation of a select group of self-selected gate keepers. Finally, this section discusses the reality that doctrines have developed throughout Christian tradition; they were not handed down on stone tablets on a mountain. As a result, throughout Christian history, there have course corrections, adaptions, etc. Even within Roman Catholic teaching, there has been ongoing adaption as the Pope or various councils reject former teachings, adapt them, and propose new doctrines (Like the relatively recent addition of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the infallibility of the Pope). A trip across the Tiber is far from a trip toward rock solid connection with the original Christian past.

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The second part explores the use and evaluation of Protestant Christians to pre-Reformation Christianity. With the exception of the modern period, in which much of Protestantism became infected with the same sort of Enlightenment rationalism that much of the rest of the world did, it turns out that Evangelicals have engaged the early Church Fathers fairly consistently. Stewart shows how reliance on the Apostolic Fathers has shaped ongoing Protestant doctrinal debates. There is more continuity with traditional Christianity among many faithful evangelical Christian traditions that some Roman Catholics will admit.

In Part Three, Stewart defends the Protestant Christian faith, by tracing out the problems with the Apocrypha and its limited authority before the Council of Trent. He also considers the attractiveness of different forms of monasticism, whose contemplative life is another draw for many young Christians. Then, he closes this section by evaluating the history of arch-convert John Henry Newman, whose famous quote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” is used as a cudgel to prove that people who reject the authority and adaptations of the Roman Catholic church are ignorant or the real history of the church. The problem, as Stewart shows, is that this statement comes from a book that Newman had to demur about, because it was written before he converted away from Protestant Christianity. Additionally, Newman scholars continue to show that Newman never left behind his believe in the primary authority of Scripture, which is significantly different than official Roman Catholic doctrine.

The book concludes in Part Four considering whether Christian Unity, which many desire, is dependent on all Christians bowing to the Bishop of Rome as the supreme representative of Christ, or whether some form of unity can be established on those biblical truths are commonly held. Second, Stewart considers whether there can be true unity when the vastly different positions on the question of justification by faith or by works is considered. Finally, Stewart closes with some thoughts on how evangelical churches can be more connected with the global church and the ancient roots of Christianity and thus stem some of the concerns expressed by young evangelicals who are drawn across the Tiber.

This book is helpful because it presents a calm rebuttal to the claims made against Protestantism that often go unchallenged. Many of the reasons people list for converting to Roman Catholicism are, in fact, not as valid as they suppose. This book is a bit dense to hand a young undergraduate caught up in the pomp and smells of a high Roman mass, but it is powerful. Pastors and parents dealing with children drawn to Roman Catholicism may find this a very useful resource for engaging in discussions with information that evidentially rebuts propaganda used to draw people toward Rome.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Importance of Amateur Theologians

There are two very important aspects of the Christian theological enterprise that need to maintained in order for the church to be (or become) healthy. First, there need to be professional theologians. Second, the discipline of theology needs to be accessible to amateur theologians.

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The terms “professional” and “amateur” are intended to refer to more than the status of being paid for thinking and writing. It is certainly true that someone who is paid to think theologically and express those thoughts cogently (we hope) for others to read should be able to be more productive theologically and, perhaps, research and think more deeply. However, the bigger concern here is the training for becoming a theologian. The discipline of theology needs to be accessible to those that have the professional credentials (read advanced degrees) in the discipline and those that don’t.

Recently, a group of professional Catholic theologians got together to call on the New York Times to silence columnist Ross Douthat. It wasn’t just any Catholic theologians, it was a group of leading Catholic thinkers from Georgetown, Loyola, St. Thomas University, Yale, Harvard, Lasalle, and more. In other words, a pretty big group of well-credentialed theologians got together to call for the muzzling of one journalist.

What did Douthat do to incur their wrath? He argued that there is a movement that is pressuring a change in Roman Catholic doctrine to permit individuals who have been divorced and remarried to participate in Communion. This, he argued, is a bad thing for the Church. He also made the assertion that the Pope himself is involved in pressuring the church to change. This is a bold accusation for a Roman Catholic to make.

The Issue Under Debate

For those of us in Protestant circles, particularly we low-church Baptists, it may not be clear exactly how monumental this shift is. In brief, I will attempt an explanation of the problem without much nuance.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is one of the seven sacraments as is the Lord’s supper. Marriage, by their definition, is essentially (and not merely incidentally) the spiritual union of one man and one woman before God. There is, then, an actual event that happens when a couple is wed; it isn’t merely the case of two people being legally associated to keep society in check. The only way out of marriage, then, is for one spouse to die or for the Church to annul the marriage. The annulment process basically says that the marriage never really was a marriage, which frees the individuals up to pursue other ventures. If the marriage is not annulled by the Church, then whatever occurs in the legal system is irrelevant because the two individuals are still married according to God and the Church. If a couple divorces without an annulment and remains celibate, this is unhealthy but acceptable. However, if one of the divorcees remarries without the annulment, this second marriage puts the individual in a state of unrepentant sin and thus the individual is barred from receiving the sacrament of Communion.

According to Douthat, there is a move afoot within the Roman Catholic church to change the Church’s practice by a) removing the requirement for annulment for remarried divorcees to take Communion and also b) expediting the annulment process including creating a “no-fault” annulment category. Douthat correctly argues that this reflects a significant change to the Roman Catholic doctrine of marriage; if this change is made in the practice of the Church is tacitly admitting that marriage is dissoluble, which is something they have denied for centuries. The change would be huge.

The issue of the doctrinal change is, in itself, interesting from a historical-theological perspective. However, the response that it engendered is more significant for the way that theology is done.

The Response to Douthat

Douthat’s critics, which include a host of heavyweight Catholic theologians, have called for the editors of the New York Times to shut him up. They write:

Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

Of course it isn’t what anyone expects of the New York Times. The so-called “newspaper of record” is so far left of center politically that it always amazes me that Douthat is able to survive from week to week. Sometimes I click through to his columns even when I’m not interested in the topic just to increase his web-traffic so that maybe, for a little while longer, the New York Times will continue to allow a more or less conservative columnist to continue writing. Douthat isn’t what we expect of the New York Times because his voice is a reasoned dissent from the liberalized mainstream.

However, the more significant question is why someone has to have “professional qualifications for writing on the subject.” It seems odd that theology is such a difficult topic that only those who have special training should be able to have any opinion on the subject.

I’m a Southern Baptist working on a PhD in Theological Studies. I regularly deal with “bubba theology,” which is generally a painful and draining experience. However, for every blog post, newspaper article, or sermon I encounter that has poorly done theology, I encounter another where someone without the guild certification—an amateur theologian—is doing quite as well as many professional theologians.

In fact, as a Southern Baptist, I am thankful for the many “amateur theologians” that managed to reclaim the denomination’s theology from the so-called professionals during the Conservative Resurgence. It seems, though, that the concern is not as much for Douthat’s qualifications, as for his conservative opinion.

Liberalism and Elitism

There is an assumption by some academics that good theology is liberal theology. Being a conservative myself, I obviously question this truth. However, the feeling is so entrenched that a a pair of California sociologists (they are professionals so we can trust them) argued that it is the liberal theologians and church leaders that will save the planet if only their silly conservative parishioners will cooperate. In their article, “Why Conservative Christians Don’t Believe in Climate Change,” Bernard Zaleha and Andrew Szasz write:

“There is also a longstanding recognition that liberal policy statements from national denominational bodies frequently do not filter down to the individual congregations, which often will not tolerate too much liberalism from their pastors, ministers, and priests. Church conventions and liberal seminaries may be doing an excellent job promulgating the urgency for increased environmental concern; getting congregants to internalize and act on these ideas has so far proved to be a much harder life.”

Liberal theologians would likely never have written this so clearly. However, sociologists writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are apt to be more frank, and more hopeful that conservative Christians won’t find their article.

There is an assumption native to much of academia that pushing boundaries and formulating innovative doctrines is good theology. Confessing traditional orthodoxy is repressive, repetitive, and thus bad theology. There is a condescension native to the way much liberal theology is done; only the backward are concerned with reconciling the way things have been understood. The amateur, unencumbered by a commitment to such chronological snobbery, is more likely to find resonance with tradition than to seek new territory to make a name for himself.

Rather than admitting their bias against tradition, which is nearly sacrosanct among some Roman Catholics, these professional theologians just called on the amateur to shut up because he isn’t an expert.

It may well be that he is not an expert, but their letter to the editor failed to show why Douthat’s comments were inadequate. They simply assert that he is unsuited for the field and should keep his comments to things about which he has been properly trained. To my conservative mind, that seems a bit pretentious.

The Importance of Amateur Theology

In reality, the amateur is not entirely unsuited to discuss the merits of changing Roman Catholic doctrine or practice. He likely has not read as much on the topic. He also probably has less professional capital involved in his pet theory or theological innovation being the newly approved version. However, as an amateur theologian or, as some might call him, a layman, Douthat is well positioned to know what has been taught and recognize that this new thing is something quite different. It doesn’t matter how many supporting sources can be cited, he recognizes the thing for what it is.

Laypeople doing theology is not a problem to be confronted in the church, but an indication of the strength of the church. When theology is driven from above, by an elite class of scholars, it has a tendency to miss the most significant practical needs of the world around. When theology is done within the pew in addition to in the ivory tower, it an indication of vitality and intellectual activity.

The church needs to have professional theologians who are doing work, engaging important critical issues, and debating fine points of theological nuance. This is essential if the integrity of confessions of faith is to be maintained against the tide of change or, perhaps, revised in expression (not content) in response to cultural change.

At the same time, the church needs to have intelligent people, who may lack the credentials or full training, to stand and shout “stop” when the scholarly guild gets out of hand. Douthat provides that for the Roman Catholic church, just as others provide it for other denominations.

Douthat may be right or wrong, I’ll leave that for the reader to decide. However, his position as a layperson critiquing the professional theologians is essential to keep them honest.