A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
Don’t Skip Theology’s Middle Ground
The Gospel Coalition
It’s true that evangelical Christians and churches need to get back to the riches of the earliest Christian theology. Gavin Ortlund makes an eloquent case for this in his book Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Crossway, 2019; read TGC’s review). The slogan ad fontes—back to the sources—captures the spirit of rediscovery that animates some of the great movements of cultural renewal.
For Christians who have been getting by on either secondhand truth, a sense of resourcelessness, or distorted memories of their origins, going all the way back to the sources is thrilling and empowering. Movements of retrieval like this are worth encouraging, and theology in the mode of retrieval is especially medicinal for what ails the church in our disjointed, 21st-century moment.
But when we retrieve and reclaim the theology and spirituality of the Christian tradition, we should take care not to leapfrog over the time between us and the more distant past. Skipping that “middle distance” is a common mistake, one that seriously weakens our connection to the past. If you think of the present as a jumping-off point, and the remote past as your landing point, you can see that everything depends on your launching power as you leap. And there’s something arbitrary about that: you’re picking a spot to land on and soaring over the intervening territory. But all that ground between the launch and the landing is also significant: it also counts toward how you got where you are.