Ancient-future: does the future really lie in the past?

In the emerging church, some people have been rediscovering the ancient church. I consider myself evangelical, but not emerging, but have also discovered the past, and have been reading a little of some of the early church fathers like Iranaeus, Basil, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, etc. The emerging church movement should be more careful about completely buying into the historic past and thinking that the past has all the answers for the future. Looking into the past is not necessarily a key to discovering the truth for the present and future. The early church fathers had much theological debates about the trinity, the creeds, the eucharist, the persons of Christ and Holy Spirit, and many more issues. They all said some things that could be seen as being heretical today. Our newfound romanticized notion of the past is not necessarily as rosy as it seems. The early church fathers all fought over issues to the bitter end but could never come to any conclusive agreements.

With this being said, should we assume what the early church fathers taught was the gospel truth? No, certainly not. If we did, we would never be able to come to any theological conclusions on any issue because the church fathers never did themselves. Today’s new found enthusiasm for the patristics is wonderful, and it does help give us a deeper and richer sense of the history, apostolicity, and universality of the church, but it doesn’t necessarily give us any real solid answers. Does the future really lie in the past? It does and it doesn’t. The past is the past. I agree that it is good to study historic Christianity but doing so doesn’t carry more merit than any other academic discipline that looks back into its history. History is also full of mistakes—even grave mistakes. History should be read for the purpose of learning about past mistakes, but also for learning about what worked right. This is why the study of the early church fathers should never be seen as some sort of rediscovery of some long lost secret truths. History has shown that it can just as easily make bad mistakes as the present and future.

This search into the historic past in the use of icons, lectio divina, and etc. is nice but we must keep in mind that it is only one way of expressing spirituality; and it doesn’t necessarily work for all people either. In looking at it from the other side of the fence, many Christians who come from liturgical traditions like Anglicanism or Catholicism have also found that their traditional forms of liturgical worship have not satisfied their search for higher spirituality either. That is why they turned to evangelicals and/or charismatics for a taste of an alternate spirituality. We should realize that lectio divina or stations of the cross, and other ancient forms of spiritual practice are not the only ways and means to experience spirituality.

Each style of spirituality has its own unique value. Evangelical spirituality also has a rich spirituality. In recent decades, however, evangelical and pentecostal megachurches have gained a bad rap for being marketplace-driven, following the latest fashions, being success-driven and program-oriented, etc. This has hampered the richness in evangelical spirituality rather than helped it. This is one of the reasons for the rise in the emerging church. This megachurch phenomena is really a very recent trend in evangelicalism and dates back only to the last 20-30 years. It is not representative of early evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before this time, early evangelicalism was known for genuine piety, humility, deep spirituality, and small-time church-ianity. It would be a shame for evangelicals to lose this kind of humble spirituality. If evangelicals forget about their own history, evangelicals will leave behind a rich history and spirituality. Each style of Christian expression has its own unique flavour of spirituality. And each style brings with it a wonderful way to express and experience spirituality, including the Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, Anabaptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and etc. Why do you think the church continues to discover new forms and styles of worship? The Holy Spirit is constantly showing the Christian church, in each generation, new ways of worship. So I think there is hope for the future. (From left to right: Saint Basile-the-Great, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus; Tertullian of Carthage)

2 thoughts on “Ancient-future: does the future really lie in the past?

  1. anonymous, I wasn’t claiming that the emerging church was “completely buying into the historic past.” What I said only serves to be a warning about the past. Some new emerging evangelicals may naively believe that the answers lie in the past but this is a fallacy.

    If anything, the ancient past was a time when the church in germination was just beginning to flush out new erroneous doctrines that were constantly cropping up. It was the early stages of the church when new doctrines eventually developed into the orthodox doctrines of today’s church.


  2. Is the emerging church truly “buying in completely” to the historic past as you claim? It would seem to me if they actually were doing that, rather than being the “emerging” church, they would be the “converting” church — to Eastern Orthodoxy.


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