Tolle Lege Institute

Book Review: In Search of Ancient Roots

3 September 2018 | Filip Sylwestrowicz

Kenneth J. Stewart. “In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.” Apollos: London 2017.

Two years ago, I attended a small conference. The majority of its participants were students majoring in biblical studies who had a broadly evangelical background. Even though this group wasn’t big, I met a couple who converted to Roman Catholicism and two young men who admitted to some interest in the Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Recently, I learned that another participant of this conference had just joined the Orthodox Church. And this isn’t an isolated experience. Over the past few years I met several young people from various evangelical traditions (Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist and Pentecostal) and various countries (Poland, Canada and United States) who either seriously considered conversion or actually joined the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. Many of them had some kind of formal theological training and all of them were highly interested in deepening their faith.

Although though the majority of the traffic – so to say – seems to be from Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy to Protestantism and not vice versa, conversions of theologically literate young evangelicals to those forms of Christianity happen often enough to constitute an unsettling phenomenon. Why are they dissatisfied with their own traditions? What arguments make them cross the Tiber? In my experience, often a prominent factor contributing to this move is the sense of historical uprootedness. Their churches seem to cultivate no meaningful connections to the history of Christianity, or at least not to the history going back further than the origins of their particular tradition. This is often combined with a disillusionment with the current state of evangelical Protestantism. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem to offer robust liturgical tradition and deep theological reflection that contrast with pragmatic and experience-driven approach of the churches of their upbringing. And, last but not least, these Churches claim to preserve the stable tradition going back to apostles, whereas evangelical Protestantism is hopelessly divided by numerous doctrinal differences.

Kenneth Stewart’s book “In Search of Ancient Roots” addresses many of aforementioned issues. He states in the introduction that he will argue: first, that evangelical movements (understood as Christian movements striving for greater holiness, call to conversion and biblical literacy) are perennial and recurring in the history of Christianity, and, second, that the history of Christianity should be appropriated by evangelical Protestants according to appropriate principles. 1 These foundational points are elaborated on in the first part of the book. In the second chapter, Dr. Stewart demonstrates that both Catholic and Protestant authors in the past were drawing lines between certain figures, movements and doctrines from the history of the pre-Reformation Church and later evangelical Protestantism. Subsequent chapters set forth two principles for appropriation of the Christian past. Firstly, Scripture is the primary authority above all other authorities, which, argues the author, was the view evident in earliest centuries of the Church history. Secondly, the Christian doctrine has developed over the history. 2 Those developments do sometimes constitute a genuine growth of understanding, but they are also at times departures from the apostolic teaching.

Having laid those foundations, Dr. Stewart outlines various ways in which evangelical Protestants interacted with the pre-Reformation history. In the second part of the book he shows positive examples of that: the long history of Protestant patristic scholarship, appropriation of the Apostolic Fathers and the utilisation of historical knowledge in approaching the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The third part of the book is devoted to some contemporary discussions where a deeper knowledge of the past would serve us better: the Apocrypha, monasticism and Newman’s legacy – especially his famous claim that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. The concluding part of the book argues that in the light of history we shouldn’t accept the claim of papacy to being indispensable for Christian unity, nor should we consider the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone to be an unprecedented novelty in history.

It seems to me that there are at least three larger concepts which the reader should take away from Kenneth Stewart’s book. First, the book should make him or her realise the breadth of evangelicalism. It is a truism that modern evangelicalism is difficult to define, as even the author himself admits. 3 But however we define it, we must not see it only through the lenses of our limited personal experience. Whereas our local congregation may be less than satisfying in terms of theological depth, liturgical robustness and historical awareness, all of that can be found in evangelical Protestantism seen both in its entirety today and taking in account its history.

Secondly, the reader should heighten his or her appreciation of the Protestant historical reflection. As Dr. Stewart explains, not only initial patristic studies gave stimulus to the Reformation, but also subsequent centuries were marked by a consistent tradition of extensive patristic scholarship within Protestantism. Furthermore, Protestants were in the past capable of appealing to the ancient Christian practice and incorporating it appropriately in the present. I appreciated especially the example of John Erskine and John Mitchell Mason who used the early Christian practice as an argument for more frequent celebration of the Holy Supper.

Thirdly, one should be encouraged to appropriate history critically. Evangelical Protestants who joined the Roman Catholic Church often claim that while reading the Apostolic Fathers they discovered the great resemblance between their doctrine and practice and Roman Catholicism. But there are numerous practices and teachings which were developed only later in the history of the Church, including transubstantiation, papal infallibility or purgatory. Nowadays that fact is frequently accounted for by Roman Catholics through Newman’s concept of the development of the doctrine. It is said that those teachings constitute organic developments of the more basic biblical teachings. However, the dominant position of the Roman Catholic Church until the time of Newman, and even later, was that the Church’s teaching has never substantially changed – a claim that is hardly defensible. 4 The Protestant position allows us not only to learn from the ancient Christians, but also to evaluate them critically in the light of the Holy Scripture. We should most definitely be appropriating early Christian tradition, but we shouldn’t follow it slavishly.

To summarise, I think that Kenneth Stewart’s book is a very needed plea for thoughtful and critical engagement with the pre-Reformation Christianity. I wish that my friends who are disappointed by their Protestant Churches would read it and consider deeply the things I have highlighted. Certainly, we may sometimes feel uprooted. And evangelical Churches – when we confine our view to certain periods and certain geographical location – may seem defective in terms of their historical rootedness. But to be deep in history of Protestantism is to cease to doubt its ability to critically appropriate the history of Christianity.


Filip J. Sylwestrowicz – editor of the Tolle Lege Institute’s blog and student of theology at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. He has a licencjat (BA) in Hebrew Studies from University of Warsaw.

 

  1. Kenneth J. Stewart, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Apollos: London, 2017), p. 7.
  2. Ibid. 51.
  3. On pp. 17-21 he discusses three major views on evangelicalism: (1) evangelicalism is continuation of the earnest Christianity of the past, (2) evangelicalism was born as a result of revivalistic movements ca. 1730 and (3) evangelicalism is essentially 20th century fundamentalism.
  4. Ibid. 65.