Book Thoughts #2: „In Search of Ancient Roots” by Kenneth Stewart

This post was first published two years ago elsewhere. I thought that it may be a good idea to make it available again. All time references are kept as they appeared in my original text. I would like to add that the question of the historical rootedness of our faith remains close to my mind and heart. While I respect, and to some extent understand, the choices that some of my friends made to seek this rootedness in the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodoxy, for me the compelling answer to this quest lies in the Protestantism that is historically rooted and critically engaged with the entire catholic Christian tradition. 

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

Two years ago, I attended a small conference. The majority of its participants were students majoring in biblical studies from a broadly evangelical background. Even though this group was not big, I met a couple who converted to Roman Catholicism and two young men who had 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 is not 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 the United States) who either seriously considered a conversion or actually joined the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. Many of them had formal theological education and all of them were highly interested in deepening their faith. 

Although 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 these forms of Christianity happen often enough to constitute an unsettling phenomenon. Why are they dissatisfied with their 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 disillusionment with the current state of the evangelical Protestantism. The Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem to offer a robust liturgical tradition and deep theological reflection that contrast with the 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 the 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, 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 the appropriation of the Christian past. First, Scripture is the primary authority above all other authorities, which, argues the author, was the view evident in  the earliest centuries of Church history. Second, the Christian doctrine has developed over history. 2 These developments do sometimes constitute a genuine growth of understanding but there are also at times departures from the apostolic teaching.

Having laid these foundations, 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 should not accept the claim of the 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 the evangelical Protestantism seen both in its entirety today and taking in account its history.

Second, the reader should heighten his or her appreciation of the Protestant historical reflection. As Stewart explains, not only the initial patristic studies gave a stimulus to the Reformation, but also subsequent centuries were marked by a consistent tradition of extensive patristic scholarship within the 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 a more frequent celebration of the Holy Supper. 

Third, 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 hardly defensible claim.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 the things I have highlighted. Certainly, we may sometimes feel uprooted. And evangelical Churches – especially 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 the history of Protestantism is to cease to doubt its ability to critically appropriate the history of Christianity. 

  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 the 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.

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