Evangelicals and History: An Unsettled Issue
Present-day Evangelicalism has a strange relationship with history. On the one extreme there are those who endorse a ‘gap theory’, whereby their experience of the Christian life has little if anything to do with a sense of historical continuity. On the other, recent fascinations with romantic and selective appropriations of ‘tradition’ show how easy it is to uncritically embrace beliefs and practices that are idiosyncratic with regards to Scripture. What is at stake is the historical nature of Evangelicalism as such.
In his new book In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), Kenneth Stewart wrestles with the present-day discussion about if and what Evangelicalism has to do with history. As a learned historian and acute theologian, Stewart helps the reader to come to terms with the diachronic dimension of Evangelicalism that runs through church history, taking different shades and colours but ultimately responding to the same principles of biblical faithfulness and spiritual involvement.
This book is a vigorous and rigorous rebuttal to John Henry Newman, according to whom ‘to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant’. Stewart is convinced that to be deep in history one does not need to turn to Rome (become Roman Catholic) or to Antioch (become Orthodox). To be Protestant means being rooted in Scriptural teaching first and foremost, as well as to be connected with a historical stream within Christianity throughout the centuries that has always carried an ‘evangelical’ banner.
The book is much needed in times in which the label ‘evangelical’ (mainly in the US context, I should say) is again going through a stress test, being too closely associated with political affiliations and too loosely defined by its theological core.