In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis

Kenneth J. Stewart, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017. pp. 304. $30.00, hardcover.

It is all too frequent these days to hear of prominent evangelicals converting to the Roman Catholic Church. There are shocking migrations of public figures, and worse, for some of us, unsettling departures of family and friends. Kenneth Stewart, Professor of History at Covenant College, analyzes this phenomenon. Some claim to be leaving something light and frivolous for a faith more substantial and rooted in history. They are departing from a latecomer to history for a welcoming and nurturing mother, from anti-intellectual belligerence to a wiser and deeper fount of learning and sophistication, from incoherent sectarianism to a competing expression of Christian unity.

What these stories all share is the perception that historic Christianity must be found beyond the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism, which cannot account for three-quarters of the Christian tradition.

Or so they think. The past plays tricks on us, and many pilgrims are “venerating an imagined past” (171). Stewart appeals to readers for discernment, care, and modesty that must approach our use of the past. (It bears noting that while challenging these popular impressions, Stewart also questions the math. The Roman Catholic Church is not growing, contrary to some claims, either internationally or in the United States. Like mainline Protestantism, it too is hemorrhaging members at vast rates.)

Two chapters in particular are worth highlighting. “A Tale of Two Newmans” portrays John Henry Newman, the famous nineteenth century Anglican convert to Rome in terms that are largely forgotten, especially by those who have followed in his steps. Stewart notes irony of this “poster-child” for ex-Protestants: “Newman carried into Roman Catholicism certain definite convictions that were more Protestant than Catholic” (206). For instance, Newman’s reflections of the evolution of doctrine did not resonate well with Catholic teaching in the Victorian Age, and only after Vatican II was he fully embraced by the church he had joined.

A helpful discussion of justification in chapter 14 demonstrates that “faith alone” was no sixteenth century novelty. Here and in other doctrines, the convictions of the sixteenth century Reformers find expression in patristic and medieval antecedents. “There is therefore, no reason for evangelical Protestants to fly the white flag of surrender over justification by faith alone” (252). Lofty claims of Rome about its ownership of church antiquity simply do not stand under closer scrutiny.

Stewart is honest enough to press this very point on the Reformed community, where he finds similar vulnerabilities. In chapter 8, “Early Church Baptism in the Hands of Evangelical Protestant,” he cites the work of Everett Ferguson and David Wright on baptismal practices in antiquity. An honest reckoning of this evidence warrants that the case for infant baptism be made less triumphalistically. “What would it require of us,” he asks, “to see infant baptism occupy this more modest place in our churches today?”

I think that the answer is obvious. We would need to commit ourselves to reversing the proportion of those baptized in infancy (the vast majority in today’s paedobaptist churches) for those baptized out of the world (the clear minority today). Does not the very frequency with which infant baptism is practiced in our churches practically obscure our failure to evangelize and baptize from the world? (139)

For Stewart, “baptizing the world” is less missional than retrieval. At its best, he argues, Protestantism has had a healthy respect for its pre-Protestant past: “the Reformation was itself a fresh appropriation of all the early Christianity deemed to be consistent with the supreme authority of Scripture” (88). Historical myopia, he argues, is a recent phenomenon. (In this sense, evangelicalism may be as “modernist” as liberalism.)

Stewart urges that Protestantism be reconceived as an organic extension of the past, not its repudiation. “Evangelical” impulses, he notes, recur throughout church history. But he concedes several times throughout his argument that some distinguishing characteristics of modern evangelicalism are unique. He further acknowledges that evangelical adaptability accounts for both its resiliency and its myopia. For this reason, Stewart may be too hopeful that contemporary evangelicalism can recover a full expression of the whole counsel of God. Perhaps it is better to make the case for historic (i.e. confessional) Protestantism, liberal and evangelical forms both being counterfeit expressions of the Reformation faith. Neither has the liturgy nor the stability that the disaffected are finding in their resettlements in Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.

Stewart closes with practical suggestions for churches to reconnect with Christian antiquity. Worship practices should recite and provide instruction on the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed. Catechesis should precede admittance to the Lord’s Supper. The song of the church should challenge our prevalent presentism: “a good hymnal and a good church musical director will familiarize Christians with praises from all ages” (272). Here, and throughout the book, charity characterizes the author’s probing analysis, especially when he raises hard questions.

The Search of Ancient Roots is theological retrieval aimed at the lay level. Beyond its value for Protestants contemplating conversion to Rome, there are lessons here for all Protestants in their faithful witness. Discussion questions at the end of each of the 15 chapters enhance the value of this book for group study.

John R. Muether
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando