The evangelical patient awaits a medieval transfusion


The Summer of Research has given way to the Summer of Writing, issuing in the first halting words of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants (Baker Books, forthcoming). Here are some initial, gut-level thoughts–rough and unrevised:

I write this book not as an expert but as a pilgrim. The subject is medieval faith, but academically I am an Americanist. I write for the American evangelical Protestant church(es) in a time of intense pain and confusion. Battered by modernity, we have tried in turn rational apologetic, pragmatic ecclesiology, charismatic experience, and postmodern experimentation. None of these has proved lasting.

The rationalism of modern apologetics has collapsed as the questions of the unchurched have turned away from doctrine and the agonies of the churched have centered on spirituality and practice rather than belief.

The pragmatism of the church growth specialists has dissolved, as it always has, as its shallow spirituality has become evident.[1]

The experientialism of the charismatic movement seems often to have failed to build lasting, faithful, discipled churches as worshippers have bounced from one high to the next.

The postmodernisms of some emerging Christians seem already to be veering into heresy.[2]

Could it be that God is driving us out of these failed experiments and into the wilderness, traveling as pilgrims toward a faith more solid and a church more faithful?

Or turning to a direr metaphor: because the Spirit and the Word never abandon their own, could it be that the evangelical patient now lingers in a twilight between vitality and morbidity, on a kind of spiritual life-support? And if so, then what is our prognosis?

I believe there is hope, for we are on the list for a life-giving transplant. It had better come soon, to be sure. But when it does, it promises to revive and strengthen us in ways unimaginable to us. This transplant, like all others, will involve the surgical implantation into the patient of living organs taken from dead donors.

What living organs? The life-giving beliefs and practices of our own spiritual heritage. Which donor? Our mother: the Church in her first two thousand years. This is not “traditionalism,” which as Jaroslav Pelikan famously quipped is “the dead faith of the living.” To transplant a dead organ will only kill the patient. Rather, it is tradition: “the living faith of the dead.” Weak on our sickbeds, we await a transfusion of that life.

So far, surgeons such as D. H. Williams, Robert Louis Wilken, and Thomas Oden have found vital organs in the doctrinal formulations of the church’s first six centuries, and they have rushed them to evangelical hospitals. And individually, though not yet as ecclesia, a few here and there are beginning to receive these, and new life is rushing into them.

Other medics such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Eugene Peterson, though not equipped like the first group with the surgical tools of academic theology or history, are turning to organs of spiritual practice. They provide from any and every Christian tradition a piecemeal infusion of intentional spirituality that, while still largely unformed and understudied, now sustains some. From the rich medieval tradition of spirituality in particular, these good doctors are leading evangelicals to rediscover ascetic practices, grow under spiritual directors, go on retreats at monasteries, meditate after the manner of the lectio divina.

Yet, many evangelicals still believe that they can be faithful Protestants only by rejecting this medieval heritage. They perceive it as not just catholic, but Roman Catholic—or in its Eastern forms Eastern Orthodox—and thus hyper-sacramental, semi-Pelagian, institutional, nominal. For these wary evangelicals, as for the Hollywood of Pulp Fiction, to “get medieval” is to do violence. It is to do violence both to the Reformation doctrinal heritage of salvation by faith and to the revivalist spiritual heritage of direct, unmediated access to God in Christ.

These alarmists do not know how badly they misconstrue the continental Reformation (and to a lesser degree American revivalism) and, especially, the medieval traditions from which they insist on cutting themselves off. To read deeply in history is not (contra Newman) to cease being Protestant. There is an “evangelical spirit” that has persisted throughout the history of the church. The True Church did not disappear as God lost control after Constantine, to reappear only with Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Billy Graham.


[1] See the recent admission of Willow Creek leadership that they have failed in the area of discipleship.

[2] Or at least I fear this is so, having heard Tony Jones fail to articulate the “strike zone” of orthodoxy in response to a question from the audience at the 200_ Wheaton Theology Conference and, more recently and worryingly, read reviews of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity (2010).

12 responses to “The evangelical patient awaits a medieval transfusion

  1. Chris,

    I keep thinking of a remark Owen Barfield made about how he differed from Lewis with regard to the imagination. Lewis, he says, was in love with the imagination –“but I wanted to marry it.” I remember reading Bede in college and thinking, “Why don’t I take for granted the things he did–Eucharist, saints, monasticism. . . .” It isn’t just that I found things in medieval Christianity that were beautiful and worthy of love. I encountered a coherent living reality, and the desire that was born in me then (and which has never died) was for this to be not just an exotic and beautiful subject of study but something to which I could come home at night.

    And no, I don’t think I’m quite there as an Anglican, though I’m closer than I dared to hope I ever would be twenty years ago.

  2. Just because there is an entity called evangelicalism doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just another acceptable “branch” of the Christian church. There is a sin in scripture called “schism” or “divisions” (it’s in the Galatian’s 5 “damnable” list) that we protestants cannot really address or have no way of dealing with.
    The medieval church had a context from which it came that, as Edwin alluded, we protestants do not have. The sacramental, Conciliar, heirarchical, liturgical, eucharistic, Christological, and scriptural ethos of the ancient church and it’s descendants will not fit piecemeal into a Protestant paradigm that rejects the very underpinnings of that ethos. What it may create is a few more denominations from those that want to implement some new (old) things into their present ecclesial bodies but find resistance. They may band together to form Uncle John’s Ancient Faith Assemblies or something like that, only to perpetuate the problem (sin). Without authority, a principle of unity, and an organic connection to the faith once for all delivered to the saints…these things are optional fads that come and go.

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