Standard disclaimer – in the UK this book is published by IVP, who I work for. I hope this won’t affect my review, but I think it’s important to know that before you read my reading of it!
What does Evangelicalism, in its myriad of forms, have to do with church history? Why do evangelical Protestants, often as they get older, convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? Do contemporary evangelical churches have any historical roots or grounding?These are some of the questions that led Kenneth Stewart to write this book. As someone who has been an evangelical for nearly all of his Christian life, and has spent the last few years predominantly in churches that are less than 30 years old, I’m fascinated by the interplay between church history and evangelical identity. Having studied theology, I’m something of an oddball with many of my evangelical and charismatic friends and family – so this book is one I’ve been looking forward to for a while.
This book is a joy to read. Drawing together history and theology, with the wisdom of someone who has been following Jesus in a changing culture, this is an immensely helpful and accomplished book that is also incredible readable. Stewart makes it clear the two things he is trying to argue – both controversial and vital in their own way. Firstly, that “too many evangelicals today are failing to grant that evangelical movements are perennial and recurring” – this is an important observation, and bold claim, that I would personally see as being very much the case in the stories of former evangelicals who want a deeper or older expression of faith than what they’ve experienced. Secondly, that “appropriation from the pre-Reformation Christian past is both acceptable and welcome provided it is done according to some agreed principle“. This second point is particularly interesting – moving past the facts of history to the practices and ideas of the past as being helpful and beneficial to the journey of following Jesus today.
As well as being a thoroughly researched, beautifully written and deeply argued book, I think that it is also a surprisingly practical one. Each chapter closes with questions for reflection and discussion – inviting the reader to dig deeper into what they have read, and consider what it might mean. Some of these questions bring what could have been a historical overview right up to date – challenging me on my care and concern for friends, as well as the way I articulate my faith to others.
One of the most valuable features of this book is the way that Stewart does his historical analysis. Like an enthusiastic uncle showing a relative the treasures and tools of his trade, he weaves summary and evaluation of key books and movements into a very readable narrative. For those looking for a potted and careful history of Evangelicalism, this book has that.
The only criticism I have of this book is it’s length – which means that it is, unfortunately, unlikely to be fully read and digested by those who need it most. I would recommend this book to people seriously thinking about the kind of Christian they are, whether in or outside of Evangelicalism. It is certainly a useful volume for those thinking about the history and openness or otherwise of Evangelicalism. From a more pastoral perspective this would be a useful tool for those pastoring in contexts of so-called new churches, particularly where their evangelism is engaging people with a previous historic Christian experience. This book is a fascinating and readable contribution to an important conversation – it encouraged me in the robustness of my Evangelicalism, and the vitality of the Christian tradition.