New Life in Ancient Sources

Matthew Lee AndersonBy Matthew Lee Anderson

Does evangelicalism have a future?

That the question has been asked in such a way suggests that all is not well in our little movement. There are, however, reasons to hope. The recovery and influence of the Puritan spiritual tradition and the rise of the social justice movement suggest that evangelicals are beginning to connect their doctrine with the rest of their lives in ways that previous generations had forgotten.  

But if these renewal efforts are to be more than passion's fashions, we evangelicals need to cease dating (or "courting," as evangelicals prefer to say) the broader Christian tradition. We need to marry it outright. 

There are signs that we might be willing to do precisely that, not least of which is the publication and widespread praise of Jim Belcher's Deep Church, which is a call for evangelicals to ground themselves within church history. Contrary to claims among some proponents of the emerging church, many among the younger generation of evangelicals are increasingly disinterested in the passing faddishness of progressive theology and are returning to a historically centered, creedally expressed Christian orthodoxy. We cannot claim to be progressive until we know not only what we are progressing toward, but what we are progressing from -- and a single generation of data is simply not enough. 

But there are other green shoots. The next generation of Christian worldview teaching, like Wheatstone Academy, has begun to morph away from the didactic instruction given in textbooks and lectures toward seeing and discussing ideas through the texts, cultural artifacts, and events that have shaped history. And the ongoing popularity of authors like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis has begun to move the younger generation ad fontes toward the thinkers from whom they learned. The explosion of the classical education movement and the corresponding rise of homeschoolers are creating a new generation of evangelicals who are more aware of the particular vices of our own age because they have engaged with texts from outside of it. 

In addition to the renewed appreciation for the depths of church history, the shift toward liturgy that Robert Webber first identified in Ancient-Future Faith continues to exercise a strong appeal. The Acts 29movement has been one of the most prominent bearers of this mantle, as it has brought back the practice of weekly communion into evangelicalism. While some evangelicals continue to be wary of institutions, as the bearers of tradition, institutions are the only means by which the vitality that our generation so desperately seeks will be passed on to the next. The formalization of these practices within the institution of the church makes me hopeful that evangelicalism will prove more resilient than commonly expected. 

Beneath the surface of this new openness to tradition is an increasing focus on the role of the physical body in the human experience. The centerpiece of this resurgent interest is N.T. Wright's enormously popular Surprised by Hope. But others have moved toward the issue through questioning the role of technology and reasserting the importance of bodily presence. Additionally, the issues many younger evangelicals care most about -- environmentalism, social justice, the arts, poverty, and so on -- depend upon an anthropology that takes human embodiment seriously.

Of course, developing such a theological anthropology is no simple matter. The centerpiece must be the reformation of evangelical worship and spiritual practices toward those that view our response to God as training for our bodily postures and habits. The reintroduction of the church calendar with its cycle of fasting and feasting, corporate kneeling, the recovery of art and beauty within the worship service -- these are the sorts of embodied activities that evangelicals must reintroduce if they wish to live out a fully Christian anthropology, a crucial prerequisite for handing the faith on to subsequent generations. Of course, as in theology, there are abundant resources available within the history and collective experience of the church that we can appropriate with appreciation and discernment.

Evangelical wariness of tradition runs deep. But grounding ourselves in tradition need not subvert our understanding of scripture or commit us to a form of legalism. There is room for a uniquely evangelical engagement with tradition, an engagement that retains the evangelical distinctives and yet is motivated by the reality that "all things are ours" by virtue of our union in Christ. 

8/2/2010 4:00:00 AM
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