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.

download (9).jpg

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.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

Often, when reading Church History, I get the impression that things are pretty much the same as they ever were. This idea was brought to a head recently, when I read Christopher Hall’s book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Hall is an expert in Patristics. This is the fourth in a series of volumes that synthesize the thought of Church Fathers on particular aspects of Christian thought. The present volume is a book about ethics. Although technology has changed, the topics of concern for the early church often have close analogies to the topics of our day.

In this volume, Hall summarizes, compares, and contrasts the teachings of various early Christian authors on martyrdom, wealth and poverty, war, sex and lust, marriage, entertainment, and the development of character. There is little doubt that Hall has chosen his topics wisely, which saves us the work of weeding through contextually dependent passages, but it is also clear that the wisdom of the ancient has a great deal of benefit for contemporary readers.

In C. S. Lewis’ preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius, he commends his readers to read old books to help break through the blind spots of our time. On the Incarnation is an excellent book for that introduction because it is a timeless work that both helps undermine the arguments about doctrinal innovation (at least with respect to core doctrines like the incarnation), but also because that particular volume is lucid and, in a good translation, exceedingly easy to read. There are, however, some Patristics works that are not as clear, no matter what the translation says. Also, as Phillip Schaff’s monumental set of the collected works of the early church shows, the volume of writings is more than most of us mere mortals can manage in one lifetime. Hall’s synthesis helps break through that feeling of being overwhelmed.

At the same time, Lewis also warns of reading books about ancient authors. On the surface, it seems like he is warning us against book like Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, but on further consideration that is not clear. First, Lewis did not argue against reading new books, but merely against not reading old books. Given that wrote a few new books himself and a masterful book about old books (his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature), that cannot have been his intent. Rather, he is arguing against reading new books about old books as the only point of contact with those earlier works. It is clear from Hall’s interaction with the Church Fathers that his desire is for his readers to go beyond his own works and to return to the sources. At the same time, he is offering helpful pointers to lead readers through the sometimes-tangled forest of antiquity.

51SBAL1nDqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 In this volume, Hall serves as an advocate for the blessings of reading our theological predecessors. He does not gloss over the inconsistencies between authors and eras, but highlights the difference, showing, in part, how they arrived at opposite conclusions. By doing so Hall defeats the often triumphalistic proof-texting that goes one when someone finds an early author who agrees with them. One would think that tendency would have been defeated by Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but pacifists, abortion advocates, economic socialists, and their opponents still find pleasure in vindication when someone ancient says (or appears to say) exactly what their side is thinking. That becomes harder when one encounters opposing perspectives from eras adjacent or contemporary to those of the ancient author--clearly, there was more debate than many of allow. Hall points toward the consensus that arises at times and the need to read the full context to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier reasoning when disagreement exists.

What is clear, however, is that the most enduring writings from Church History pull people outside themselves and cause them to look for the common good. The value in reading Church Fathers is not to find the killer proof-text, but to figure out how someone with vastly different cultural blind spots arrived at the conclusion they did and how that can inform our own thinking. This book is helpful because it leads us to do just that.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

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