Jumping into the Tiber or Black Sea: A Movement ‘Back to the Sources’ by Protestants

There is a movement of evangelical Christians back to the sources ad fontes; something of the sort that we saw take place in the 16th easternorthodoxcentury among Christian thinkers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, et al. A movement away from what many an evangelical likely considers the shallow end of Biblicism, and a move into the deep end of Christian thought; away from, as many of these movers perceive, their rather vanilla evangelical upbringing. How this movement happens takes various expressions, nevertheless, it is happening. Note Jason Radcliff as he highlights this in his PhD dissertation:

The latter half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century has seen a paradigm shift from modernism to postmodernism which opened the door for evangelicals to return to classical Christianity. Accordingly, during this time there has been a resurgence of patristic studies among evangelicals. Indeed, there has been a move towards ressourcement within evangelicalism, in which Torrance has played and continues to play an influential role. This may be a sign of something big. As Webber puts it, “throughout history a revived interest in the insights of the early church has usually been accompanied by significant renewal in the church.” Thus, it seems highly probable that the current trend towards the classical church Fathers signifies Christianity is currently on the brink of important revival, making Torrance highly relevant as a figure to be uplifted as an example.[1]

As you can see, Radcliff believes Torrance is the type of teacher the church is ripe for; I agree. But more broadly, and to the point, this movement of ressourcement is an encouraging thing. Us evangelical Calvinists see ourselves dead center in this movement, and of course we see TF Torrance the teacher par excellence in this regard.

Having said that, I also have some concern. I think as a Protestant (Reformed) Christian, and I think that the best of that has always been a return to the theology of the early Church Fathers. But my concern comes in directly at this point; I am aware of many who do indeed have this desire of ‘return,’ but this movement has taken the form of abandoning Protestant theology wholesale, and simply converting to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Why does this concern me? Because I am Protestant (a very principled one). If the best of Protestant theology has been shaped by its ressourcement of Patristic theology (historically), then who are these folks who are returning to Rome or Constantinople? Many of them are indeed Reformed Protestant thinkers and theologians, but the majority, I would contend, are people with not a lot of theological training, but who sense a hollowness in their lived Christian experience as evangelicals (with a Fundamentalist doctrinal pedigree). They are making this ‘return’ without ever realizing (because of the naked Biblicist backgrounds they are coming from) that there is a depth dimension and reality within Protestant theology that they have never been exposed to; and so they end up skipping right over it (not ever realizing that it was right under their noses all the time), and plunge head first into the Tiber or even the Black Sea.

[1] Jason Radcliff, T.F. Torrance and the Consensus Patrum: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Church Fathers (Scotland: University of Edinburgh, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2013), 50.

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6 comments

  1. This really resonated with me, Bobby. I’ve felt the pull myself and, from my perspective, the appeal of these older expressions of Christian faith is not so much an assurance that I’d be closer to Christ as it is a feeling that I’m missing some important salvation experience that the traditionalism might provide.

    I’m not sure whether that would make sense to anyone else. But a practical example would be: when I became depressed and felt that I’d lost my evangelical, dispensational identity, I began desperately snatching at various doctrines which happened to be different from what I’d always known…but only because they appeared to offer a better understanding of how to “get and stay saved”. It was fear and discouragement that drove me and not a desire to know Who Jesus is or where He would prefer that I enter into close fellowship.

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  2. Those swimming the Tiber or sailing to Byzantium are leaving behind a world held together by evangelical ‘static cling’ rather than ecclesiastical ‘superglue.’ This desire for more palpable community in Christ will inevitably spread as the civil society around evangelicals drifts further away from Christian moorings. Swimmers and sailors to strange shores are fleeing, not Protestant theology per se, but a community that began in opposition to national churches but must now fulfill their function in the postmodern world and are failing in that new calling. Peter Leithart is right: Protestants will need a better churches with better ecclesiology to survive the C21.

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  3. I totally understand, Heather, especially in re to an identity crisis; I went through a similar process–losing my evangelical Dispensational identity. But I would still claim to be evangelical in a historical sense 🙂 .

    It is good to know that the salvation we have belongs to Jesus and not ourselves; he will never lose that 🙂 !

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  4. Ha, yeah I meant Tiber, Bowman thanks. How I came up with the River Rhine is beyond me ;-).

    Yeah, I think there are whole groups within Dispensational evangelicalism who have seen the emptiness of that and don’t know where else to turn. Radcliff notes that 43% of Orthodox seminarians are converts from evangelicalism or other Protestant expressions and that 1/3 of Orthodox priests in N America are former Protestant Christians.

    I’m not encouraged by people going Leithart’s way, but would be if they went Torrance’s :-).

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  5. t is good to know that the salvation we have belongs to Jesus and not ourselves; he will never lose that

    I need a “Like x 10” button for that remark.

    While the move to traditionalism makes some sense to me, I do wonder whether there is a great danger of seeking salvation in the comfort of an established method rather than in a Person. At least, that was what I where I was heading…

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