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In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis

ISBN: 9780830892600

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Today it is increasingly difficult for Protestants to identify what counts as distinctively Protestant, much less what counts as evangelical. As evangelicals increasingly lose contact with the churches and traditions descending from the Reformation, and as relations with Roman Catholicism continue to thaw, it becomes harder to explain why one should remain committed to the Reformation in the face of perceived deficits and theological challenges with the Protestant tradition.

A common complaint about Protestant evangelicalism is its apparent disconnect from ancient Christianity. The antiquity and catholicity of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem to outshine the relative novelty of the Reformation. Some evangelical churches appear to be uninterested in the ancient historical roots of their faith as well as being liturgically and doctrinally unstable. Many within evangelicalism seem to have accepted at face value the suggestion that the evangelical faith is no more than a threadbare descendant of ancient Christianity. The result is that a number of younger Protestants in recent years have abandoned evangelicalism, turning instead to practices and traditions that appear more rooted in the early church.

In Search of Ancient Roots examines this phenomenon and places it within a wider historical context. Ken Stewart argues that the evangelical tradition in fact has a much healthier track record of interacting with Christian antiquity than it is usually given credit for. He surveys five centuries of Protestant engagement with the ancient church, showing that Christians belonging to the evangelical churches of the Reformation have consistently seen their faith as connected to early Christianity. Stewart explores areas of positive engagement, such as the Lord's Supper and biblical interpretation, as well as areas that raise concerns, such as monasticism.

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Key Features

  • Comparative discussion of church history of contemporary evangelicalism
  • Thoughtful analysis of how evangelicals engage with church history
  • Suggestions for dealing with evangelicalism's weaknesses


  • Introduction: The Situation from Which We Begin
  • Setting the State: Our Evangelical Identity Crisis
    • Only a Latecomer in Christian History? The Evangelical Identity Crisis
    • Evangelical Movements as a Perennial and Recurring Feature of Christian History
    • Needed for Appraising the Christian Past: A Principle of Authority
    • Needed for Appriasing the Christian Past: A Concept of Development in Doctrine
  • Evangelical Engagements with Ancient Christianity: Examples to Encourage Us
    • Five Hundred Years of Protestant Views
    • The Apostolic Fathers in the Hands of the Protestants: 1600—2000
    • Eighteenth-Century Evangelical and the Frequency of the Lord's Supper
    • Early Church Baptism in the Hands of Evangelical Protestants
    • Theological Exgeesis, Biblical Theology, and the History of Interpretation
  • Some Contemporary Examples that Should Give Us Pause
    • Short-Changed for Lack of the Apocrypha
    • Bringing Back Monasticism?
    • A Tale of Two Newmans
  • Three Challenges that Remain
    • Is Christian Unity Dependent on a Central Bishop of Rome?
    • Is Justification as Protestants Teach It the Historic Faith of the Church?
    • Why are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?
  • Appendix: The Colloquy of Regensburg (1541) on Justification

Top Highlights

“too many evangelicals today are failing to grant that evangelical movements are perennial and recurring” (Page 7)

“Since the Reformation era, there has been a widely accepted opinion within evangelical Protestantism that entails viewing the movement as the continuation of an earnest Christianity characterized by strong loyalty to Christ, submission to the central authority of the Bible, and the necessity of a living, personal faith, extending far back in the Christian centuries.” (Page 15)

“I propose that this line of explanation ought to be that the current resurgence of interest in early Christianity is not a swing of the pendulum toward something neglected for the five centuries of Protestantism’s existence. It is, in fact, a return to emphases regularly present in historic Protestantism.” (Page 73)

“First, those departing (especially from sectarian expressions of evangelical Christianity) are very prone to attribute the perceived defects of their own somewhat raw and imbalanced evangelical past to the whole of the evangelical movement.” (Page 14)

“Second, such approaches about the poverty of evangelical Christianity entail the embracing of an estimate of evangelical Christianity’s origins, habits of thought, and expanse that is at odds with this movement’s self-understanding.” (Pages 14–15)

Praise for the Print Edition

If evangelicalism is to have a coherent future, it needs to understand not only its own past but also the past of the church catholic. In this collection of essays, Ken Stewart brings his typical combination of insight, conviction, charity, and catholicity to bear on evangelicalism's relationship to history. You do not have to agree with all of his conclusions to agree with his basic thesis—we need history—and to be challenged by the range of interlocutors he chooses—from the ancient church fathers to Cardinal Newman and beyond. This collection should provide professors and pastors with much food for thought.

—Carl R. Trueman, Westminster Theological Seminary

This remarkable book seeks to trace the deep roots and determine the DNA of evangelical Protestantism. Using his considerable and profound knowledge of a vast terrain, Dr. Ken Stewart digs deep to show that evangelicalism is firmly rooted in Scripture, the early church, and historical Christianity. His archaeology of doctrine and liturgy argues against the recent loss of confidence and self-identity of evangelical Protestants who may be tempted to seek more 'stable' pastures or to wander with historical amnesia into cul-de-sacs. Instead, evangelical Protestants are urged to share the confidence of their Protestant-era forebears who knew their ancient pedigree and stood on sturdy ground. This is an important and timely book.

—Robert M. Solomon, bishop emeritus, The Methodist Church in Singapore

Ken Stewart's In Search of Ancient Roots is a panoply of well-argued, well-documented, and well-written chapters centering on evangelicalism's engagement with its own pre-Reformation past. He provides a compelling case not only for the deep roots of evangelical movements throughout history but also for evangelicalism's attention to its historical Christian roots as the norm rather than the exception. Stewart also provides exceptional discussions on important practical matters facing evangelicals as they begin to engage with church history—matters like the frequency of the Lord's Supper, the apostolicity of infant baptism, the interpretation of Scripture, and justification by faith. In the process, Stewart also takes on many of the exaggerated claims made by evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy regarding the historical priority of those ancient traditions. Any evangelical should read this book before abandoning the orthodox, Protestant, evangelical faith for traditions that claim to be more authentically connected to Christianity's ancient roots. In all of these cases, Stewart's work becomes a conversation-starter rather than a conversation-ender. He is refreshingly irenic and candid. I enthusiastically recommend this book to anybody interested in the Christian past and evangelical identity as well as those who need to reflect deeply on the vital questions Stewart raises for today.

—Michael J. Svigel, chair and professor of theological studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, author of RetroChristianity

Kenneth J. Stewart is professor of theological studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Stewart is a specialist in the history of Christianity from the Reformation to the present with special emphasis on the development of the evangelical Protestant tradition. At the same time, he has a growing interest in early Christianity and the transmission of doctrine from the early church forward to our time. He is the author of Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition and co-editor of The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities.

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    Digital list price: $32.99
    Save $12.00 (36%)