Evangelicals and History: An Uneasy Relationship
Evangelical Protestants have an uneasy relationship with their past. To put it more bluntly, they have an uneasy relationship with the past, because they are not sure if there is such a thing as their past. To be sure, they are not entirely ahistorical. They love to quote Edwards, Spurgeon, Luther, and the like; however, these men all lived within the past 500 years. In America historians trace Evangelicalism’s roots to the First and Second Great Awakenings. However, that does not take the movement back even 300 years. Does not the history of Christ’s church extend for nearly 2000 years?
What of Bonaventure, Aquinas, Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Sienna, Anselm, or Thomas Bradwardine? What of the entirety of the Middle Ages? Do evangelicals have no legitimate claim to this era; is it entirely the property of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy? Or can Evangelical Protestantism rightly stake a claim in this territory; can it rightly and in a historically justifiable manner trace its own narrative all the way through 2000 years of tangled and messy ecclesiastical history?
I believe it can. What’s more, I believe it must. While the question does not trouble many evangelicals, if evangelicalism and evangelical Protestant doctrine is only several hundred years old, should that not make it immediately suspect? Why should we believe something that…..young? While we live in a day of constantly shifting fads, I for one do not wish to stake my life on a religious fad that is simply a product of my own historical and cultural location. Moreover, should not we evangelical Protestants wish to be part of a story that extends for thousands of years; a story filled with good and evil, tragic mistakes and great victories, rather than a truncated narrative only invented rather recently in America? I for one want to be a catholic Christian in the small-c sense of that word; a Christian who traces his lineage through the whole scope of our 2000 years of history.
In the 19th century, Anglican turned Roman Catholic John Henry Newman famously wrote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I disagree. To be deep in history is to become a catholic Protestant, a Protestant who sees themselves not only as a product of the 16th century, but as an heir to the entire history of Jesus’ church.
In the following weeks I’ll be writing a series of posts aimed at helping us recover some of that past.