Many years ago, one my academic mentors told me that the task of the historian was to make things more complicated. There are hints of that over at Scot McKnight's blog. In a post yesterday he commented on recent observations by Albert Mohler on recent conversions of Southern Baptist twins to Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism respectively. In addition to the entertaining ambiguity of the title of the piece, McKnight concludes by suggesting that some of such conversions might be precipitated by the discovery of church history:
[M]aybe their pastors were wise and pointed each of them to the great tradition of the church, a great tradition often ignored by Baptist approaches to theology. My own research (in Finding Faith, Losing Faith) on why evangelicals become Catholic revealed some crises were created when evangelicals discovered the minefield called church history and, in particular, the patristic era.
McKnight puts his finger on one of the key problems faced by those evangelicals who tend towards a no-creed-but-the-Bible approach: It is not quite Protestantism as the Reformers conceived of it. They delighted in the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. The Protestantism they founded has since had a rich history of confessions. The very existence of these witnesses to the fact that classical Protestants understand that Christianity is not reinvented every Sunday when the minister opens his Bible and begins to preach. That being the case, it is critical that in educating the rising generation within the Church, there is proper acknowledgment of the role of history in the formation of Christianity and a proper appreciation for the richness of the Christian heritage. Indeed, I would expand McKnight's comment to include not only the Patristic era but also the Middle Ages. An evangelical narrative and an approach to theology which tends to sever the theological present from the theological past, or which seeks to find continuity in a constructed and selective ‘trail of blood,' fails to offer its people a proper understanding of why Protestantism thinks the way it does and what riches there are available to it.
With regard to the Middle Ages, any thoughtful reader of sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant texts will notice clear continuities with the immediate past, whether with Aquinas (e.g., Peter Martyr Vermigli, James Arminius, John Owen), Scotus (e.g., John Calvin, Gisbertus Voetius) or Occam (e.g., Martin Luther). The very founding fathers of Protestantism were eclectic in how they related to previous theological tradition but relate to it they did. To deny this or merely to ignore it or to present their theology as arising simply out of them reading the Bible for themselves is to miss the way in which their thinking was itself shaped by, and dependent upon, the past. Scripture was the norming norm; but that which it normed was provided by the heritage of previous Christian discussion. That is why confessional Protestantism, committed by definition and principle to an acknowledgment of historic Christian confessions, is surely a better alternative for evangelical Protestants than any number of attempts to maintain the Christian faith via a myriad congregations who really do love the Bible, and rightly so, but who have no understanding of how that love is itself shaped by history.
A Protestantism which fails to acknowledge those historical roots and indeed to teach them to its young people leaves itself vulnerable to Canterbury and Rome. There is an historical dimension to Christianity which is important and which needs to be an integral part of pedagogy and discipleship. McKnight is correct to point to the weakness of strands of evangelical Protestantism in this area and we do well to take his criticism to heart.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.