In recent years there has been a marked movement of evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This trend has included not just younger, untrained evangelicals, but established pastors and professors and even one president of the Evangelical Theological Society. While the causes for this phenomenon are doubtless complex and different in each individual case, one frequently cited reason is the sense of historical rootedness these traditions offer. Thus at the website Why I’m Catholic, one former Baptist chronicles his conversion to Roman Catholicism in terms of his parallel discovery of church history; at Called to Communion, one former Presbyterian equates his acceptance of Roman Catholicism with an acceptance of “historic Christianity”; and at Journey to Orthodoxy, one former Anglican describes how blessed he feels to be worshiping in direct succession with the apostles through the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox church.
Within Protestantism also there’s a migration toward more historically rooted traditions (especially Anglicanism, the so-called via media) and more liturgical, historically conscious expressions of worship and spirituality. For devotional reading, most of my younger Protestant friends love Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ but wouldn’t be caught dead with a John Eldredge book. Hymn writing is on the rise, and many evangelicals are suddenly interested in the liturgical calendar.
What’s causing this shift? While leaving room for the complex theological issues inevitably at play, I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We’re aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it’s driving many of us out of evangelicalism.
At 29 years old, I can relate to this feeling of being lost in the world without a context by which to interpret it. But I don’t think we need to abandon evangelicalism to find a sense of historical placement. In fact, I believe this thirst for rootedness can be fully satisfied within a Protestant and evangelical framework. You can be catholic without becoming Catholic, and orthodox without becoming Orthodox. As we promote “gospel-centered ministry for the next generation,” we must make clear there’s nothing inconsistent with being both evangelical and ancient, “gospel centered” and “historically rooted.” The reason is simple: gospel-centeredness is itself historically rooted. In fact, it’s as ancient as the gospel itself.
Evangelicals and Pre-Reformation Church History
How many Christians between the apostle John and Martin Luther do you think today’s average American evangelical can name? It seems we contemporary evangelicals have a tendency to neglect this span of church history, acting as if the important stuff basically skipped from the 1st to the 16th century. Yes, we acknowledge the importance of Augustine (especially his Confessions). And there were some key battles about Christology and Trinitarianism early on, and some courageous martyrs somewhere back there, too. Sometimes we’ll even enjoy a John Chrysostom sermon or Bernard of Clairvaux poem. But all too often we give the impression that our real tradition is roughly 500 years old—with a few scattered precursors, perhaps—rather than one solid, 2,000-year-old tradition. And there are huge stretches of time to which we have no conscious connection. What would it have been like to be a Christian in the 9th century, for example? Did gospel-centeredness (the reality, not the word) exist then? How does the ministry approach we champion today relate to the entire history of the church?
If we contemporary Protestants have sometimes failed to explore these questions, it isn’t an error we learned from the first Protestants. Nor is it intrinsic to Protestantism. In fact, the Reformers took pains to emphasize they were seeking to reform the church, not recreate it, and that the true gospel had never entirely vanished from the earth. Even the most strident critics of Roman Catholic theology (like Luther, or later Turretin) insisted that during seasons of great corruption and decadence God had always preserved a regenerate people (though Luther, in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, speculated that at times it had perhaps dwindled down to a few maidservants). And when Roman Catholic theologians appealed to Augustine and the church fathers to vindicate the tenets of the Counter-Reformation, John Calvin didn’t respond by saying, “Who cares about Augustine and the fathers? They’re nothing.” Instead he became a diligent student of the church fathers, seeking to establish points of continuity between Reformation theology and patristic theology. Sola scriptura meant Scripture alone is the supreme authority—not that Scripture alone is valuable.
Owning the Family Photo Album
I’m a Protestant, and I believe Reformation theology protects the gospel. But I also believe it’s possible to be robustly Protestant and vitally connected to, say, medieval Christianity. The church didn’t completely sink during the eras of castles and cathedrals, monks and monasteries, bows and arrows, and knights in shining armor—only to suddenly re-emerge with Luther’s 95 theses. No, there’s a solid and steady chunk of Christianity subsisting right alongside Caedmon and Charlemagne and Chaucer. And since through many advances and retreats, corruptions and renewals, Jesus has always been building his church (Matt. 16:18; cf. Isa. 42:4), we can stand to learn from medieval theology. It can serve as a resource for ministry in our post-Christian, wandering culture.
To be sure, it’s possible—and dangerous—to so emphasize “mere Christianity” that we lose our Protestant distinctives. But it’s also possible to so bask in our particular denominational enclave that we lose touch with the entire Christian tradition. We contemporary Protestants need a balanced historical identity. We need to engage with both the last 500 years and also the previous 1,500, recognizing areas of discontinuity as well as encouraging points of overlap. As an African Christian in the patristic era remarked, “I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself.”
I think this statement captures exactly what our attitude should be in engaging pre-Reformation church history: this is part of my heritage, my identity. The image I think of is a family photo album. In any such album there may be pictures that embarrass us, and we may be more proud to be related to one great uncle than to another. But warts, blemishes, and all, my family is still my family—and it would be foolish to cut myself off. After all, I wouldn’t even be here without them.
Where to Begin?
If we want to increase our awareness of our pre-Reformation roots, where should we begin? The first six chapters of Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity serve a great starting point in terms of secondary literature, but let me here mention three primary texts. These are all classic works of theology I believe deserve a wider readership among contemporary Protestants.
1. Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy
Despite being one of the most influential books throughout church history, this work has been almost forgotten in recent centuries. Of it C. S. Lewis remarked: “Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. . . . To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.” Written in alternating poetry and prose while Boethius was awaiting execution in AD 524, The Consolation explores themes of suffering and divine providence. Boethius’s treatment of the classic difficulty of divine foreknowledge and human free will in Book 5 alone makes the volume worth reading.
2. Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule
Calvin called Gregory (c. 540-604) the last good pope. This book is a classic of pastoral theology; every minister should consider reading it. Gregory’s thesis is that pastoral ministry requires a delicate balance of inner and outer qualities—theory and practice, contemplation and activity, administration and asceticism, otherworldly holiness and earthly wisdom. This is a helpful reminder since pastors tend to gravitate toward one of these realms more than the other. A good edition can be found in St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Popular Patristics series, which in general is a great resource for becoming acquainted with early Christian thought.
3. Anselm’s Proslogion
Although famous for its “ontological argument” for God’s existence, this volume’s rich theology and impassioned prayers make it a nourishing and edifying read as well. My doctoral research concerns St. Anselm’s doctrine of heaven in chapters 24-25, and my delight and amazement with this book is the chief cause of this article. If anyone doubts the value of reading pre-Reformation theology, all I can say is, find a good translation of the first chapter of Proslogion, and tolle lege!