It’s true that evangelical Christians and churches need to get back to the riches of the earliest Christian theology. Gavin Ortlund makes an eloquent case for this in his book Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Crossway, 2019; read TGC’s review). The slogan ad fontes—back to the sources—captures the spirit of rediscovery that animates some of the great movements of cultural renewal.
For Christians who have been getting by on either secondhand truth, a sense of resourcelessness, or distorted memories of their origins, going all the way back to the sources is thrilling and empowering. Movements of retrieval like this are worth encouraging, and theology in the mode of retrieval is especially medicinal for what ails the church in our disjointed, 21st-century moment.
Minding the Middle
But when we retrieve and reclaim the theology and spirituality of the Christian tradition, we should take care not to leapfrog over the time between us and the more distant past. Skipping that “middle distance” is a common mistake, one that seriously weakens our connection to the past. If you think of the present as a jumping-off point, and the remote past as your landing point, you can see that everything depends on your launching power as you leap. And there’s something arbitrary about that: you’re picking a spot to land on and soaring over the intervening territory. But all that ground between the launch and the landing is also significant: it also counts toward how you got where you are.
Skipping the ‘middle distance’ is a common mistake.
Or picture it another way: as an actual picture. In composing a painting, the artist has to account for foreground, background, and middle ground. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the lady is in the foreground, while some sky, cloudscape, and pale-bluish mountains are in the background. But in the middle ground—although most people are unable to reconstruct it from memory—are a river, a road, a bridge, and more, all in brown tones that help establish the lady and situate her in a meaningful way. If you sketched a version with just the lady in front and the cloudscape in back, you’d have a much poorer composition. That forgettable middle ground powerfully connects. It ties things together.
In theology and church life, we often take the foreground (here! now!) as the obviously urgent thing, and then, if we’re wise, look away to the distant background to help us get oriented. So far so good: ad fontes! But the middle distance is often where the real connections are. These are the actual things that link us to the past. But it may seem a little too familiar to be interesting and a little too far back to be urgent. It’s middling. In terms of fashion, you may think your grandparents had some cool clothes, but you’re less likely to esteem your parents’ choices. Grandma is retro, but Mom is just old.
But ignoring the middle ground has the curious consequence of suggesting we’re sovereignly in charge of making the remote past serve us in whatever way we choose. We can appropriate the distant things and do with them what we will; they’re far enough away that they don’t obviously carry obligations or organic connections. It’s the figures in the middle distance, though, who can link us and bind us to the distant past.
How Some Are Recovering the Middle Ground
I’ll share three examples of this principle. First, in order to teach Trinitarian theology accurately, I had to become deeply conversant with patristic theology and its medieval developments. But to teach it effectively, I also had to become fluent in Protestant and evangelical sources, so I could model for my evangelical students how people like us talk about doctrines like that. The communication strategy in my book The Deep Things of God (Crossway, 2017) was to quote as many middle-distance figures as possible.
A second example: Protestants often, commendably, take up the task of reclaiming the theological insights of Thomas Aquinas (13th century) or Augustine of Hippo (fifth century) but have a bad habit of skipping over the entire Protestant Scholastic period (16th and 17th centuries). The medicine for this ailment is to take a dose of vitamins PRRD and PRDL. That is, Richard Muller’s four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, a remarkable guided tour of the major figures of Protestant theology after the Reformation, and the Post-Reformation Digital Library, a vast clearinghouse of original sources scanned, categorized, and freely available. PRRD and PRDL have led a generation of readers into the world of Protestant thought often overlooked in the middle distance between the Reformers and us.
A final example: the Center for Baptist Renewal is committed to “retrieving the beliefs and practices of the historic Christian church for the sake of contemporary Baptist renewal,” and their 2021 Reading Challenge appropriately focused on theological classics. Starting with Irenaeus and Athanasius, it led Baptist readers on through Anselm and Aquinas and beyond. But what about the middle distance? For their 2022 Reading Challenge, CBR has shrewdly turned their attention to reading “Baptist classics” precisely to show “there actually is a Baptist theological tradition.” The picture they’re painting is well composed, complete with a foreground (today’s task), background (the great Christian heritage of patristic theology), and middle ground (their own Baptist heritage).
If your church or tradition is well situated with regard to its present task, and properly oriented with regard to the ancient Christian heritage, ask yourself how much you know about the middle distance.
It would be easy to list other examples of churches and theologians cultivating the middle distance in a strategic way. Sadly, it would also be easy to give examples of people letting the middle distance remain a giant blind spot—and suffering the consequences of spiritual and historical impoverishment.
If your church or tradition is well situated with regard to its present task, and properly oriented with regard to the ancient Christian heritage, ask yourself how much you know about the middle distance. What was your denomination doing in the 1970s, or maybe in the 1870s? The territory to be explored is different depending on our particular traditions.
The temptation to ignore the middle ground afflicts almost all of us. It’s because the middle distance doesn’t have the heft and gravity of the ancient background or the urgency and immediacy of the present foreground. But it’s quite often the place where your real, historical identity takes on its particular accents, hues, and forms. And it’s always what connects the present to the deeper past.