Motivated by Myth
A Feature Review of
In Search of Ancient Roots:
The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis
Kenneth J. Stewart
Reviewed by Andrew Stout
Kenneth J. Stewart is in the business of debunking myths that surround Protestant traditions. In his book Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (IVP Academic, 2011), Stewart offered a historical defense of Reformed Protestantism in response to misrepresentations from both adherents to and detractors from that tradition. In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis finds him casting a broader net. Stewart is here concerned to counter the impression that evangelical Protestantism is historically adrift, severed from the legacy and influence of ancient Christianity. This concern is motivated by former evangelicals who have converted to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as those whose journeys have brought them to “post-evangelical” expressions of the faith. According to Stewart, many of these departures are motivated by a myth – the myth that evangelicalism’s roots are located elsewhere than in the early expressions of the Christian faith.
Stewart’s argument is twofold. He claims first, “that too many evangelicals today are failing to grant that evangelical movements are perennial and recurring,” and second, “that appropriation from the pre-Reformation Christian past is both acceptable and welcome providing that it is done according to some agreed principle” (7). The book is structured in four parts, and the first part deals most directly with these two claims. Stewart surveys different approaches to evangelical origins from a historical perspective to counter the “evangelical identity crisis.” In response to those who view evangelicalism as impoverished, trivial, or ahistorical, Stewart offers a range historical perspectives on the shape and character of the movement. He argues ultimately that evangelical movements are a recurring feature of church history, that “the evangelical tendency has always been active within the church Jesus founded” (40).
This survey of scholarly views on the origins of evangelicalism is very helpful, and Stewart’s claims about the recurrence of evangelical movements bear up under scrutiny. However, the chiding tone he uses when writing about those who have “abandoned” contemporary evangelicalism is both unwarranted and (I would suspect) ineffectual. Perhaps the major flaw of the book is that Stewart never offers a concrete, workable definition of contemporary evangelicalism. And frankly, this is no surprise. As Christopher Ben Simpson points out, contemporary evangelicalism, “sometimes called Neo-Evangelicalism, is difficult to talk about because it does not have a formal structure. In fact, this lack of formality is characteristic of it.” Simpson goes on to point out that evangelicalism is defined more by a kind of cultural ethos than by particular ecclesiastical bodies or confessions. Given the slipperiness of defining “evangelicalism,” Stewart needs to offer much more definitive description in order to prove his thesis. Whatever the merits of his arguments, I wouldn’t expect them to overwhelm the very real ahistorical ethos that many Christians experience in contemporary evangelical culture.
In the second part, Stewart assesses Protestantism’s legacy of engagement with the early church. These chapters include many examples that are designed to highlight the ways that Protestants have dealt seriously with ancient Christianity. These include the patristic scholarship of Anglicans James Ussher and J. B. Lightfoot, 18th century Protestants who argued for the apostolic practice of frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper, 20th century Protestants who have studied patristic baptismal practices, and recent Protestant evangelical advancements of theological interpretations of Scripture that draw on patristic hermeneutics.
Stewart here succeeds in demonstrating that Protestant neglect of patristic sources is a recent phenomenon. The Reformation, and much of the tradition that has flowed from it, “was itself a fresh appropriation of all the early Christianity deemed to be consistent with the supreme authority of Scripture” (88). One of the strongest points that Stewart makes in the book has to do with the patristic scholarship of Ussher and Lightfoot. While many converts appeal to the apostolic character of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Stewart convincingly demonstrates that much of our modern knowledge of patristic texts is due to the scholarship of Protestants with an evangelical bent.
The specific examples offered don’t always clearly support Stewart’s claims. While he shows that some Reformed Protestants were arguing for frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper in the 18th century (and citing apostolic precedent), he acknowledges that Protestant observance of the sacrament remained infrequent. What we are given is a picture of competing evangelical practices of the sacrament – and the practice of infrequent communion has clearly won out in contemporary evangelicalism. Similarly, while he shows that contemporary theologians David F. Wright and Everett F. Ferguson have engaged patristic sources on the question of baptismal practices, it isn’t clear how such a limited point really fits into his bigger argument. This is a recurring flaw in Stewart’s argument: Demonstrating that individual Protestants or evangelicals have engaged with the early church does not also prove that the corporate identity of contemporary evangelicals has been shaped by the early church.
Part three takes up the issues of the Apocrypha and monasticism – two issues which seem to set evangelicals apart from the ancient church. The final chapter in this section is entitled “A Tale of Two Newmans.” This is one of the more interesting chapters in the book. It is essentially an annotated bibliography of works published on Newman and a critical assessment of Newman’s legacy. John Henry Newman, a 19th century convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, is a kind of patron saint to many Catholic converts. However, Stewart shows that his legacy is incredibly complicated, and that many of his most distinctive theological contributions are thoroughly Protestant in character. As interesting as this chapter is, it does not fit obviously within the broader argument of the book. In addition to Stewart’s lack of a clear definition of evangelicalism, this is the book’s other major weakness. The chapters and sections don’t really form a coherent whole that can support Stewart’s argument. They read more as a collection of essays centered on the loose theme of evangelicalism and the early church.
The fourth and final part takes up the contemporary challenges of Christian unity, consensus regarding the doctrine of justification, and evangelical conversions to other traditions. On the whole, these chapters are generous and insightful. Rather than abandoning the contemporary evangelical movement, Stewart claims that evangelical Christianity – consistent with its being a Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered, and scripturally guided movement intent on the evangelization of the world – must again become adept at what it was doing until a hundred years ago” (269). Stewart is certainly right that an ecumenical agenda, rooted in the early church, can be effectively pursued from within Protestant traditions.
Ultimately, Stewart succeeds in showing how various Protestant traditions have well theorized relationships to early Christianity. As a historian, he complicates superficial assessments of the evangelical tradition through deep investigations of Protestantism’s historical ressourcement of the ancient church. The claims of overly enthusiastic converts notwithstanding, Orthodoxy and Catholicism are far from the exclusive bearers of patristic legacies. However, Stewart often equivocates between particular Protestant traditions and contemporary evangelicalism. His assessment of the current evangelical scene is not specific or coherent enough to justify his insistence that “evangelicalism” is somehow a tradition that should be cherished and defended. The book also lapses into an unfortunately defensive tone at points, and Stewart seems overly concerned with scoring points for conservative evangelicals against other traditions. I think it is telling that all the book’s endorsements come from fellow conservative evangelicals. There are many resources here for Protestants of different varieties – conservative, mainline, progressive, etc. – but I suspect that evangelicals who have moved to or are considering moving to other traditions will do little more than shrug at Stewart’s warnings.
Andrew Stout is the Access Services Librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His articles and reviews have appeared in Religion and the Arts, Literature and Theology, and Pro Ecclesia.