Podcast: Is Evangelicalism out of Touch with Church History? (Gavin Ortlund)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Our Christian Heritage

In this episode, Gavin Ortlund, author of Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future, explores whether or not Protestant Evangelicals are out of touch with church history. He discusses the rich legacy of Christian thinking that evangelicals have as their own heritage, the dangers of ignoring church history as if it doesn't matter and has no bearing on our lives today, and how to appreciate and learn from other Christians in the past without letting go of our own doctrinal convictions.

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Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals

Gavin Ortlund

This book aims to set forth a vision for theological retrieval, demonstrating through specific doctrines how engaging historical theology can enrich and strengthen the church today—without abandoning a Protestant identity.

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Full Transcript

01:25 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Well, Gavin Ortlund, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

Gavin Ortlund
Great to be with you.

01:30 - Restless Dissatisfaction in the Church

Matt Tully
Many people have noted the somewhat recent trend among evangelicals, especially younger generations—where they are increasingly drawn to more historically rooted—often liturgical—expressions of Christianity and of church. And it seems like many younger generations are saying that they’re unsatisfied with the consumeristic, therapeutic types of Christianity and types of doing church where it’s almost like a concert, and they want something more “ancient,” is often a word that’s thrown out. You call it actually a “restlessness” in your book. I’m curious, what has this tended to look like in practice? Do you recognize this trend? And how would you describe how it’s actually been working itself out in churches?

Gavin Ortlund
Yeah, people are leaving evangelicalism and in some cases becoming Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic. So I’ve tried to listen really carefully to their stories. Obviously each case is different for why someone makes a denominational move, but I do think one factor is this restlessness and the sense of wanting to be connected to something transcendent. I think a lot of younger people have this sense of feeling a little bit lost in the world and needing something big to organize life, and I think history is one way people try to find that. Feeling historically connected. So one of the things that I see is an indication that people are leaving evangelicalism altogether. And so the book is trying to argue that you don’t need to go outside of protestantism—and evangelical protestantism specifically—to meet that need for historical rootedness.

03:30 - Is It Just Rebellion?

Matt Tully
Do you think one of the cynical readings of this phenomenon among younger people would be, Oh, they’re just young people. They’re rebelling against their parents’ Christianity, rebelling against their parents’ church. This is young angst and really nothing more. Do you think that’s true?

Gavin Ortlund
That’s probably part of it for a lot of people, but I do think it’s good to be humble and say, What are we doing poorly that is contributing to it as well? Because I think a lot of evangelical churches and institutions are not historically rooted, and anything from the 1990s is ancient history, and we don’t have any connection to something that is from the past. And so if you go to an Anglican church service, there’s something really beautiful and good about this sense of being connected to tradition. And when we become a Christian, we don’t just come to Christ. We come into a family—the church. And the church is not just people who are alive. It’s also this tradition of people who’ve gone before. So I do feel like as evangelicals we need to do better at thinking about how to help people who have that angst and help them understand that what it means to be a Christian is to see yourself in this grand, awesome tradition.

04:51 - Lack of Historical Rootedness

Matt Tully
We’ve seen a lot of examples in recent years of pastors—sometimes very prominent pastors—getting themselves into trouble, falling out of ministry, and hurting a lot of people, and you seem to connect that this lack of a historically rooted sense of who we are as Christians. Can you elaborate on that at all?

Gavin Ortlund
I do think we have an underdeveloped pastoral theology and that our vision of the pastorate has been a little bit influenced by secular views of leadership and what can produce results. I’m an evangelical, I’m grateful for evangelicalism, but I just think we have some eccentricities or some areas where we need growth, and I see that as one of them.

When you go back to the Puritans or you go back to Gregory the Great, the vision of what it means to be a shepherd is really deep and it’s theologically rooted. It’s not just pragmatic. We see this trend happen over and over. It’s happening so many times—where someone rises to prominence and falls—so at least it’s good to be asking the question, How do we need to think better theologically about what it means to be a shepherd? And certainly I think we’ve got some great resources for that from church history.

06:40 - Realizing the Treasures of Church History

Matt Tully
Do you remember the moment where you first realized there is treasure here in church history that maybe you haven’t been exposed to as much as other things? Can you describe that moment that you might have had?

Gavin Ortlund
I think the first thing that comes to my mind is when I discovered Anselm, who was a medieval theologian. I’d never heard of him before, had no idea anything about his theology.

Matt Tully
What years was he alive and operating?

Gavin Ortlund
Okay, so 1033 to 1109. So eleventh and twelfth century. And he was a monk. A medieval monk. And I remember when I first encountered his argument just finding it so bizarre because he’s trying to argue from the idea of God to God’s actual existence. And I just remember thinking, Surely you can’t prove that God actually exists just starting out with the idea of God in your mind. But I also couldn’t tell what was wrong with the argument.

Matt Tully
It seemed to fit together correctly.

Gavin Ortlund
Exactly. Yeah, I couldn’t see a loophole in it. So that was fascinating and it kind of drew me in. There’s a scene in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus where he’s describing how he fell in love with music and he says that he got a John Coltrane album and he hated it and he could not understand it. So he listened to it again and he listened to it again. And then he says, “Eventually I couldn’t stop listening to it. And then I knew what I wanted to do with my life.” And I think Anselm for me kind of drew me in because he was so different, and not just in that argument, but in other ways too. The way that he approached theology was just different in some ways and I think he kind of left me with just a sense of the beauty of theology and the beauty of the idea of God. I’d always thought that God is beautiful. But I’ve never thought of the idea of God as beautiful. And the way Anselm thinks about God left me with that sense. And I remember thinking, This is really valuable. This is not just like a tiny little add-on to reading the Bible. There’s really some substantive value of engaging these older theologians that fleshes out your theology and fleshes out your thinking. So that was probably a first step for me and then of course Anselm leads you to other things too as you keep going.

09:09 - Is Protestant Evangelicalism Out of Touch with Church History?

Matt Tully
Turning then to that common critique that Protestant evangelicalism is largely out of touch with the full scope of church history, the common claim is that we as Protestant evangelicals start with the apostles and then we essentially jump right to the Reformation, maybe with a short detour through St. Augustine. And then we’re into maybe a couple of Puritans if we’re doing really well, Jonathan Edwards, and then Billy Graham or something like that. Do you feel like that’s a fair critique of evangelicalism broadly?

Gavin Ortlund
I think it does accurately describe how some evangelicals function. I grew up sort of thinking that you know, there’s the Dark Ages and there’s really not much of value in that time.

Matt Tully
Why else would it be called the Dark Ages?

Gavin Ortlund
Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Or the idea that there was the fall of the church early on and we’re still sort of recovering from that. So I do think a lot of evangelicals function like that, but I also think that it’s not necessary to think like that as an evangelical and as a Protestant. And what’s helped me with that has just been reading the Reformers because they didn’t think of themselves as starting a new church or starting a new tradition so much as reforming what they had inherited. And they were going back to the church fathers and not only drawing from the church fathers, but kind of depicting their whole effort as to go back to the church fathers.

At one point Calvin says, All we’re trying to do is go back to the fourth century, to the purity of the early church before all these accretions came along gradually throughout the medieval era.

Matt Tully
But doesn’t that kind of cut against the idea that there’s treasures to be mined in the medieval periods? Maybe the church fathers is good, but you know, it seems like we do often view the Reformation as—at least the way it’s characterized, rightly or wrongly—a rebellion against the medieval church. Full stop. We’re recovering the apostolic and maybe the early church.

Gavin Ortlund
I’ve wrestled with this a lot because I don’t want to over correct. So I’ve really wrestled with what’s the precise balance here of where do you want to maintain continuity? And where do you need to see there have been ups and downs throughout church history. There have been periods of spiritual and theological declension. And I believe that. Some people act as though the Reformation sort of came along and ruined this time of spiritual abundance and it split the modern world. And I don’t believe that. I’m a Protestant. I think the Reformation was a recovery. I think it was a good thing. But I would say that even with the medieval era people like Calvin and Luther were qualified in their criticisms. They did see great corruption, but they didn’t see the death of the church. And they still retrieved and drew from medieval theologians. Calvin quotes Peter Lombard a lot, he interacts with various other theologians from that time period, and they always affirmed the preservation of the church. So they very carefully kind of worked out, Here’s the corruption that we see in the doctrinal error were trying to oppose. But we believe that God was still at work during those times preserving a remnant. And they point to the separatist movements that occur, that precede them, and they also say within Roman Catholicism God was preserving a remnant of people. Especially you see that when they’re being lumped together with the radical reformation or the Anabaptists.

Matt Tully
Which they didn’t appreciate.

Gavin Ortlund
No they were very strong against the Anabaptists and when they’re facing that pressure and they’re being charged of novelty, you start to see some of the nuances of how they’re viewing church history. So I think that’s instructive for us today.

13:18 - Why Theological Retrieval?

Matt Tully
You write that the Protestant Reformers “cast their entire reform effort as one of retrieval.” Why do you think that word retrieval is helpful in how we think about . . . I mean, it is part of the title of your book, Theological Retrieval. Why is that a good idea or term to use when talking about this?

Gavin Ortlund
Well, it is becoming kind of a buzzword. So there’s always a danger with that that something can become trendy and then that can influence how we think about it. And the way I have thought about that is we shouldn’t accept something just because it’s trendy, but we also shouldn’t reject something just because it’s trendy. So we have to ask What is good about retrieval and why is it resonating with so many people right now? I find that a helpful term. With the Reformers, for example, they are drawing from church history and applying these historical resources to the current needs. It’s always amazing to me even Martin Luther who’s not afraid to let loose on the criticisms of the Roman Catholic church and the Pope—but at the same time he’ll draw from earlier Roman Catholic popes or theologians to do that. And so even he is doing retrieval. He’s drawing from the early church to say, Look, we’re not just standing on the Scriptures in our opposition to what we regard as errors. We’re also standing on tradition. The early church is on our side of these disputes. So they’re doing retrieval and I think that’s instructive for us. And we ask, What does it mean to be a Protestant Christian today? Because you know, the scenery today is different and one of the huge criticisms is protestantism is divisive. It’s split Christendom into all these tiny little denominations. While I’m a Protestant and I think some of those criticisms I think are unfair. At the same time, I think we can learn from that. It is true that we have been divisive and sectarian at times. And so for me going back to the Reformers is one way to try to find a more balanced posture of looking for the continuity, seeking to be lowercase c catholic, but also seeing the Scripture as your final authority.

15:45 - Affirming the Reformation’s Distinctives

Matt Tully
Maybe there’s someone listening who hears you say that and it starts to sound a little bit like there’s an ecumenical agenda here that you just want to gloss over some of the important distinctives that came out of the Reformation. That that’s kind of the hidden agenda in this kind of an approach to church history. What would you say to that?

Gavin Ortlund
Any of the distinctives that came out of the Reformation I would want to affirm and the topics covered in the book are really elsewhere in theology. I think my interest is not so much to blunt the distinctives of Reformation theology, but more to shine the flashlight on what really wasn’t being talked about at that time and sometimes what we don’t talk about today.

So the doctrine of God, for example, there’s a lot that the Reformers had in common with their Roman Catholic opponents, things that they shared. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, other things in the doctrine of God. Some of those things are now in dispute among evangelicals today. So some of the things in the doctrine of God like the notion that God is simple or the notion that God is without passions, those are things that the Reformers had in common with their opponents; and yet sometimes today we’ve just forgotten about them or sometimes we reject them without even realizing how common they have been throughout church history. So I think that’s where my interest is. Not at all to blunt the force of Reformation theology, but drawing from the early and medieval church in ways where we have some imbalances, and we have some areas where we’re just a little bit underdeveloped, and we can we can grow in.

Matt Tully
And it sounds like you’re saying we’ve seen this phenomenon with all kinds of prominent figures that the next generation of followers or disciples often lack the nuance, they lack the robust fullness of the views of the forbear. It seems like you’re kind of saying the Reformers themselves had a more robust appreciation and understanding of the history of our theology and we often have a little bit more stunted view based on what they were may be fighting about most.

Gavin Ortlund
Yeah, I think that’s right. Yeah, I think some of those following immediately after the Reformers, so second-generation Protestant theologians and then the Puritans I think, they also had a very nuanced and carefully thought out sense of Protestant identity. A sense that you can be a Protestant Christian and yet still be a lowercase c catholic Christian. That is, the word catholic just means universal. So that just means you understand that you’re connected to the universal church. There are different extremes that we could go into. Some of those who are have kind of an ecumenical appeal, there is a worry about kind of theological minimalism and kind of lopping off all of the differences to just find the common core of unity and just focusing on that. And I think that’s a mistake. We need to talk about the differences that exist among the different branches of Christendom. On the other hand, Protestants can be sectarian. We can be totally uninterested in being connected to the universal church, and we just have our little enclave that were functioning in and there’s not even dialogue with other people who are within the boundaries of orthodoxy. So I have found not only the Reformers, but the Puritans and some of those in subsequent generations to have just a more carefully thought-out approach to those things. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from them today.

19:47 - Words to the Skeptic

Matt Tully
So taking a step back a little bit, what would you say to the person listening to us today who maybe is a little bit skeptical about the benefits of really looking to church history for help because they would say that it’s where we find human words and opinions about God, that opinions that often contradict each other; that there’s disagreement in church history; that what we really need as Protestant evangelicals is a return to God’s word and God’s word alone. How would you respond to that that kind of thinking?

Gavin Ortlund
Well, I certainly don’t want to take away from the primacy of Scripture. And I would agree that that’s our ultimate foundation, our ultimate authority. But a similar thing could be said about the contemporary church. We could say, Well, we just need the Scripture. So therefore we don’t need sermons because those are just human words and they can be in error. And I would say the fact that something is not infallible doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. And in a subordinate way, sermons are really helpful to enrich our understanding of Scripture. And similarly, church history has incredible value. I don’t know how to impress that upon people as much as I want to except just to encourage them to give it a try. Just doing it is amazing. I mean, to read Augustine’s Confessions and have a sense of the richness of his love for God, and the richness of his reflection upon God, and just the beauty of that book as it’s written, is really an amazing experience.

Matt Tully
I think sometimes we can we can almost put church history, and the writings of people in church history, in a different category when they’re church history as opposed to the reflections of a true person—a real Christian who was wrestling with a lot of the same things that we wrestle with today. Maybe there’s a nuance there to how we view it even that affects what we think of it.

Gavin Ortlund
I think that’s right. If we just take the words church history off the table and just think about the doctrine of the church, the fact that we’re members of the body of Christ, that that has a reference not just to people who happen to be alive, but Augustine is our brother in Christ. One of the metaphors that I use in the book to describe the benefits of retrieval is traveling. So people who have studied abroad or spent a significant amount of time in a different culture often really benefit from that experience. You see the world differently after having done that, it shapes your values, it gives you self perspective on your own culture a little bit—you see things that you didn’t see before because you’re looking at the world from a different angle and in a different culture. And I think history can be like that too. You’re looking at the world through a different set of eyes when you’re engaging premodern theologians. And I think there’s a similar kind of stretching experience and it’s not that you will always agree with the other person. Just as when you travel you don’t automatically agree with everything about a different culture, but it’s a healthy experience. It stretches you, it helps you deepen in your self-awareness, and in how you look at the world and I think church history can be like that. It’s healthy to consider the world from a from a different set of eyes.

23:10 - Modern Assumptions and Preoccupations

Matt Tully
You mentioned in the book that turning to pre-Reformation church history can sometimes expose some of our modern assumptions and preoccupations when it comes to what we think about God. What would you say are some of those modern assumptions and preoccupations that might need exposing for us? Not that they’re wrong, necessarily, but that we maybe don’t even realize they’re operating in our own thinking about who God is.

Gavin Ortlund
Yeah, that’s a great question. So one that comes to my mind would be—and this would be a point of difference with Anselm where Anselm wrote a whole book wrestling with the question, How can a just God be merciful? and that’s the driving question. He’s perplexed by it. And it has often struck me that for us in the modern West we have the exact opposite question. We say, How could God not be merciful to everybody? In Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God which I’ve read a number of times and been really influenced by, he tackles I think it’s eight or so really common objections of the modern West, and that’s one of them. How could a loving God ever judge people? And I’ve often thought that’s so interesting that that’s not the question that most people throughout history would have wrestled with necessarily. A lot of people would have a different problem, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that our culture’s wrong in every way and someone like Anselm is right, but I do think it’s good to humble us to consider the fact that we have cultural presuppositions. We have things that just seem automatic to us. It’s like, you know, our presuppositions are what we see through, they’re not what we see. And so it’s good to sort of be cautioned and remember there are things that we don’t even know that we’re assuming. And sometimes reading people like Anselm, wherever you might disagree with him, he’s a helpful conversation partner because he sometimes can expose your assumptions.

Matt Tully
And that feels particularly relevant when thinking about engaging with Scripture, and again, as Protestants would affirm Sola Scriptura, this really foundational doctrine that Scripture is our final and ultimate authority. And yet as you’re saying here, sometimes we don’t even realize the assumptions that we bring to Scripture, the things that color our interpretation of Scripture, and that’s where our church history can come in and sort of expose those a little bit for us by showing us something different.

Gavin Ortlund
Yeah, I mean there are things about just my own basic walk with Christ each day that have been enriched from studying church history. And with Anselm one of them would just be his sense of God’s glory and God’s honor and how important it is for him that God’s honor be protected. So how seriously he takes sin, and that would be another one where in the modern West sometimes we tend to think of sin sometimes more in therapeutic categories, just brokenness, and we sometimes lose a little bit of the sting of the sense that sin is also an affront to a holy God. And something like that, whatever problems you might have with Anselm, that’s something he sees pretty clearly. So that’s an example of where I think we can learn a lot. We have much to benefit from humbly considering—just as when you visit a different culture. It’s not a good thing if you go to a different culture and just assume I’ve got everything to teach and nothing to learn. And that’s the same with us as modern Western people and as evangelicals. We need to consider where we can—even if we don’t finally agree with the other side, there’s a healthy stretching process and listening to different ways of looking at the world.

27:12 - Doctrines That Need History

Matt Tully
What are some specific doctrines that you think we might be prone to lose if we view the process of interpreting Scripture as an isolated me and my Bible type of thing or me and my church, me and my pastor, me and my favorite celebrity pastor. What are some of the doctrines that we might lose without a real understanding of church history?

Gavin Ortlund
I think some of them would be related to the doctrine of God and also the person of Christ. Those are the things that are really hammered out in the early church. So the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. A lot of Christians you hear praying,Father, thank you for dying on the cross for me. And there’s not an awareness. Actually that’s a theological error. Many Christians think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as sort of three different manifestations of God, and they don’t have a sense of the basic import of what the doctrine of the Trinity means—that there are three distinct persons in the Godhead

Matt Tully
And that it matters. It’s not just theological nuance for nuance’s sake. Church history would teach us that no, those distinctives, and even the use of the correct terms, has real significance to our Christian lives.

Gavin Ortlund
Absolutely, and the early Christians considered the view I just described—they used the term modalism—to be a heresy. And for practical purposes just think of prayer. When we pray or when we’re singing to God in worship, we’re singing to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And I think it helps to have a distinctness in our minds of what it means to pray to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. John Owen wrote a whole book on what it means to have communion distinctly with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So at the most basic level of everyday Christianity, just what you think of when you hear the word God, it helps to have a good understanding of the Trinity. So that would be an example.

Another thing I’ll mention regarding your original question: if you just have a me and my Bible approach and you’re not aware of church history at all, another thing that can happen is you can become incredibly narrow without realizing it because you heard your pastor say something, and so you assume that it is of the same importance as something in the Apostles’ Creed, and you just simply aren’t aware that actually lots of godly Christians go a different way on that. And I think that happens a lot with Evangelicals. So part of the value of church history can be to broaden us in certain ways and make us more generous and help us find, you know, what are the right hills to die on? And what are the things that are actually kind of distinctive of me and my upbringing but aren’t necessarily true of Christians everywhere?

30:14 - Where to Begin

Matt Tully
So what advice would you offer to the person listening who’s thinking, Man, this is interesting. I can see the need to deepen my understanding of historical theology and the history of the Christian faith more generally? Where should they start? Because I think you give the metaphor of traveling and the stretching experience that that can be. But the other side of that, the more negative side of that, is it can be very awkward, and we can drink the water and get sick. And so what advice would you give to somebody who would like to start on that journey but doesn’t really know how?

Gavin Ortlund
Yeah, that’s a great question. One thing I would say to people to try to encourage them is to not be intimidated by reading the older books and the classic books. Because sometimes people assume that those are harder to read, and my experience has been that sometimes they’re hard to read, but other times they’re actually really easy. They’re easier than modern books because they’re shorter. They’re more honest. Some of them were written specifically for the purpose of catechesis or teaching. So they’re written to be broadly read. Like Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica would be a good example of a book that is really clearly organized, and it’s not that hard to get into and to understand it in English translation just diving right in. So that would be a great example of a hugely influential book that I think most lay Christians can read and understand most of, certainly much more than they can understand a modern academic theology book. It’s much more accessible and more honest in some ways.

And then I will just give a couple of recommendations of books that are really helpful starting points. I mentioned earlier Augustine’s Confessions. I don’t know too many people who have really put in the effort to reading that book and felt that it was a waste of time. As I said, it’s got it all. You know, it is both theologically and spiritually so, so rich and it’s been so influential.

Another great book that people can start with is Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word, which is a defense of the deity of Christ. And it’s pretty brief. I mean you could read it in one sitting. And again, it’s pretty accessible and pretty honest, and I think most people won’t find it that hard to follow the overall train of thought. You know, sometimes there can be issues of translation or certain words that are hard, but the overall argument is not super complicated.

Matt Tully
Didn’t C.S. Lewis write an introduction to that?

Gavin Ortlund
Yes, he did.

Matt Tully
That could maybe be a helpful indicator for modern readers who would probably be much more familiar and comfortable with someone like Lewis.

Gavin Ortlund
Exactly, yeah. So there’s a series of books called the popular patristics, which I think is put out by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and in that edition of On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis has a foreword that’s called On the Reading of Old Books, which is really helpful, and it’s making the exact point that I have tried to make here about how these books are actually more fun. And they’re more honest. And they’re more engrossing to get into.

Matt Tully
And doesn’t Lewis have this quote—maybe it’s actually in that introduction or that foreword—“For every new book we read, we should always read two or three between,” or something like that?

Gavin Ortlund
Yeah, that’s in that foreword. Yeah, exactly right. Yeah.

33:48 - Favorite Pre-Reformation Figure

Matt Tully
Who’s your favorite pre-Reformation figure? And since you’ve talked a lot about Anselm already, I’d ask you to pick somebody else. Who’s your favorite pre-Reformation figure from church history, and why? And then I have another follow-up question after you share that.

Gavin Ortlund
I think the other one that has probably influenced me the most would be Augustine, and the reason would be the spiritual depth and how poignant it is, the way he wrestles with God in a book like Confessions. But also in some of the other work I’ve done in Augustine, what we were mentioning earlier—the humility that he reflects, which he’s not commonly known for, but I have found that in him. For all of the views that he held that some people regard as harsh or narrow, I think he’s a very generous person as a theologian, and I think he’s very humble in how he operates theologically. He has a keen sense of his fallibility. And his love for God is just so deep. So he would be another figure that’s influenced me a lot.

34:58 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well, Gavin, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast and hopefully instilling in our listeners and us, I know I feel it, a desire to dig into the treasures of church history for the sake of our spiritual lives today.

Gavin Ortlund
Thanks, Matt. Great to be with you.


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