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Why Evangelicals Need Theological Retrieval

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Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Gavin Ortlund’s new book, Theological Retrieval For Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Crossway).

When “Bible answer man” Hank Hanegraaff converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2017, Rod Dreher (an Orthodox believer himself) invited others evangelicals to follow his lead:

Many evangelicals seek the early church; well here it is, in Orthodoxy. I am sure some will be scandalized by Hanegraaff’s conversion but I hope at least some will wonder how someone as knowledgeable about the Bible as Hank could convert to Orthodoxy, and go to a Divine Liturgy to taste and see what it’s like.

Many evangelicals, especially among the younger generation, seem to feel the allure of this appeal. Testimonies of conversions into both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism abound. Back in 1993, in his foreword to Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, Peter Kreeft described their testimony of conversion into Catholicism as “one of increasingly many such stories that seem to be springing up today throughout the Church in America like crocuses poking up through the spring snows.”

This trend should not be exaggerated or regarded with alarmism. Globally, more people are converting to Protestantism from Roman Catholicism than vice versa. Nonetheless, there is enough movement toward Rome or Constantinople among evangelicals that the phenomenon shouldn’t be ignored—particularly since it often occurs in relation to rather well-known, influential leaders in the church.

When Francis Beckwith converted back to the Roman Catholic heritage of his youth, for example, he had been elected president of the Evangelical Theological Society just four months prior; and many evangelicals had been long familiar with the sociologist Christian Smith’s diagnosis of “moralistic therapeutic deism” before they encountered his book How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.

In a few cases, strikingly, the allure of the ancient seems to take hold within an entire Protestant institution or setting. For instance, the first paragraph of the back cover the 2016 book Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome narrates a fascinating story:

Over the course a single decade, dozens of students, alumni, and professors from a conservative, evangelical seminary in North Carolina (Southern Evangelical Seminary) converted to Catholicism. These conversions were notable as they occurred among people with varied backgrounds and motivations—many of whom did not share their thoughts with one another until this book was produced. Even more striking is that the seminary’s founder, long-time president, and popular professor, Dr. Norman Geisler, had written two full-length books and several scholarly articles criticizing Catholicism from an evangelical point of view.

In the book’s introduction, Douglas Beaumont observes that “this movement from conservative evangelicalism to Catholicism is not limited to this school; in fact, some refer to the phenomenon as an exodus.” If the term exodus is too strong, at the same time we cannot deny that there is a phenomenon that begs for exploration and listening.

Reactions to a Real Problem

What’s causing the trend? Obviously, every person’s story is unique, and we must leave room for a wide array of different kinds of factors in each case. One recurring theme among these denominational migrations, however, corresponds to Dreher’s interpretation of Hanegraaff’s conversion: the desire for historical depth. Particularly among the younger generation today, there seems to be a deep thirst for historical rootedness that evidently isn’t being met in many evangelical contexts.

Those of who go by the name “evangelical” should give careful attention to this phenomenon. We have much to learn from the testimonies of those leaving our ranks. Many of their criticisms are valid. All too often, evangelical habits of worship and spirituality have been driven by the latest passing fads, with little concern for the historic practices of the church.

And what connection we do have to church history is often limited to our own denominational heritage, with little interest in the broader catholicity of the church.

Evangelical and Ancient Are Not Antonyms

But, I don’t accept that one must abandon evangelicalism to seek an ancient faith. For one thing, the vision of the earliest Protestants—the reformers themselves—was thoroughly catholic. As severe as the reformers’ criticisms of medieval Roman Catholicism could be, they always distinguished themselves from the Anabaptists, making clear that their intention was to reform, not recreate, the true church of God.

In keeping with this view, they not only regularly retrieved the theology of the early church, but in large measure cast their entire reform effort as its retrieval. John Calvin, for example, summed up the Reformation’s goal this way:

All that we have attempted has been to renew the ancient form of the church . . . [that existed] in the age of Chrysostom, and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins.

Martin Luther also, for all the harshness of his attacks on Rome, affirmed God’s preservation of the true church amid seasons of corruption. Writing in the 1530s, he declared that the Church of Rome, though compromised, did not nullify the testimonies to the gospel within her.

There is nothing intrinsic to Protestantism that would encourage us to be isolated from the early and medieval church. On the contrary, the best of Protestant theology has always been historically informed. As Timothy George puts it, “For all their critique of the received doctrines of medieval Catholicism, the reformers saw themselves in basic continuity with the foundational dogmas of the early church.”

Exciting Time for Retrieval

Happily, many evangelical leaders today are calling for a more catholic and more historically rooted vision of Protestantism, in line with the vision of the reformers. Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, explores the five solas of the Reformation to envision “mere Protestantism” as a renewal movement for the 21st-century church. For Vanhoozer, the five solas provide “not an alternative to orthodox tradition but rather a deeper insight into the one true gospel that undergirds that tradition.”

Vanhoozer and others have drawn together the Reforming Catholic Confession. This document acknowledges that Protestants have sometimes been divisive and sectarian, but denies that such a posture is necessary to Protestantism. It seeks to recover the “unitive Protestantism” originally expressed in the five solas.

Similarly, the Center for Baptist Renewal is helping Baptists engage the great tradition of the historic church, and other evangelicals are producing helpful works on retrieving the theology of the early and medieval church.

This rising interest in theological retrieval is an exciting opportunity for the church today. Of course, in one sense, theological retrieval is nothing new. The church has always drawn from the past to meet the needs of the present. Nevertheless, our cultural context has created a fresh need for retrieval. In particular, the individualism and autonomy of the modern West have created a sense of barrenness and a loss of transcendence. Retrieval is one vital way to touch this need.

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