Thursday, January 30, 2020

Retro-Christianity – Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith: an evangelical professor encourages fellow evangelicals to examine a fuller history of Christianity

A few days ago, I finished reading Michael J. Svigel’s, Retro-Christianity – Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Google Books preview).

Joining a small, but growing number of evangelical writers, Svigel in this 2012 book, challenges his fellow evangelicals to explore the history of Christianity in a much fuller sense. He begins the book with a look back at the 1990’s when he, "was a student at a conservative evangelical Bible College" [p. 17], and relates that, “one of my fellow students shocked many in the student body (and alarmed many professors) when he announced he was becoming Greek Orthodox“ [p. 17]. He then. “heard about a free church evangelical who becames Anglican [p.17], and “about a Baptist who converted to Roman Catholicism” [p.17]. He also , “learned that many Low Church or free church Protestants hand left what they regarded as evangelical ‘wilderness wanderings’ to follow the 'Roman Road,’ the ‘Way to Constantinople,' or the ‘Canterbury Trail.’" "Over and over again”, Svigel “kept running into more examples like these: men and women leaving the open fields of of free roaming evangelicalism for the gated gardens of a clearly defined denomination" [pp. 17. 18].

Svigel goes on to identify three categories that these converts from  evangelicalism fell into: aversion-driven converts, attraction-driven converts, and preference-driven converts [p.18].

The aversion-driven converts are those who simply have had enough of of Low Church, free-church, or no-church evangelicalism" [p.18].

The attraction-driven converts...claim they were compelled to forsake their evangelical tradition because of their study of church history” [p.19].

Finally, the preference-driven converts are motivated not by the ills evangelicalism  or the merits of classic Christian denominations, but by personal preferences regarding worship” [p.19].

After stating that evangelicalism appears “to be spinning out of control, losing appeal to younger generations, dwindling in numbers, or selling out to pop culture to muster a crowd”, Svigel then asks two questions: “Where is evangelicalism headed? What can we do about it?" [Page 20]

The above questions are immediately followed with a detailed description of the intent/focus of the book—note the following:

This book will introduce to evangelicals the historical theological branches of the Christian faith that have grown through the Patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras. RetroChristianity seeks to challenge us to begin thinking both critically and constructively about history and how it informs our current beliefs, values, and practices as evangelicals. However, unlike many attempts to change the present by looking to the past, this book also begins exploring practical ways for both individuals and churches to apply its principals today. Arguing that the way forward is to draw on the wisdom of the whole Christian past, RetroChristianity not only points out the trailhead of the biblical, historical, and theological path, but it supplies provisions for the journey without forsaking the healthy developments that have benefited Christianity along the way.

Svigel’s book is a multifaceted treatment. Though ultimately an apologetic work for independent/free church evangelicalism, it is also an introduction to the important topic of doctrinal development, and offers a working theory as to how one can identify true developments from false ones, using Vincent of Lérins famous ‘rule’—correct doctrine is “that faith which has which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”—as a starting point. Svigel interprets Vincent’s 'rule' as, "the core teachings of the Christian faith [that] must never change" [p. 55].

On pages 83-143 (Part Two: RetroOrtohoxy: Preserving the Faith for the Future), Svigel builds upon Vincent’s 'rule' with what he terms the three “Canons of RetroChristianity”. The first canon is: "Some Things Never Change and Never Should". The second is: "Some Things Have Never Been the Same and Never Will Be". And the third: "Some Things Grow Clear through Trial and Error".

I am sure most folk will agree with the stated principles of Svigel’s three canons. However, I am just as sure that most non-Evangelicals will disagree with much of the content that he places in each of those three canons.

On page 143, Svigel introduces the reader to “Part Three: RetroClesiology: Beyond the Preference Driven Church” [pages 145-218]—“With these three principles [i.e. the three canons] as our guide, we now can tackle two of the most vital areas affecting evangelicalism today: the church and the Christian life.

In "Part Three" Svigel identifies four "myths” concerning the Church: first, “The Church is Merely a Human Organization"; second, "The Church Is a Supermarket of Spiritual Groceries"; third, "The Church Is Just a Gathering of a Few Believers"; and fourth, “The Church Is Optional" [pages 146-162]. The four myths are then followed by the, “Four Classic Marks of the Historical Body of Christ”: "one, holy, catholic and apostolic” [pages 162-172].

Svigel’s definitions of "one, holy, catholic and apostolic” are all violations of Vincent’s ‘rule’ in that they have their origin in the 16th century via the Reformation and cannot be found in the extant Christian writings prior to that revolt.

On pages 173-198, Svigel delineates what he believes are the “essential marks” of a valid “local church: “orthodoxy, order, and ordinaces.” His understanding of what the mark of “order” means is one of the more interesting parts of the book for me, in that he seems to part with most evangelicals view. Svigel maintains, “that the leadership offices in the church established by the apostles must continue in our day” (page 178), and “that the New Testament apostles and prophets intended that local Christian churches reflect a threefold office later identified with the terms episkopos (overseer), presbyteroi (elders), diakonoi (ministers).” (Ibid.)

The final section of the book, “Part Four: RetroSpirituality: Living the Forgotten Faith Today” [pages 219-279] deals primarily with the local church’s role in the sanctification of Christians. For me, this is the most disappointing part of the book in that his evangelical understanding of soteriology has caused him to misread and/or redefine what Christian theologians/writers taught prior to the Reformation period. One example concerns baptism—note the following:

Let me make one final note regarding baptism in order to clarify a common misunderstanding. Although the idea of “baptismal regeneration" is universal among the early church fathers, it should not be confused with the notion of “baptismal salvation" common in later church history. In the early church, the term “regeneration" or being "born again" originally referred to a practical change in lifestyle. [Page 237]

Though Svigel is correct in affirming that, “the idea of ‘baptismal regeneration’ is universal among the early church fathers”, he is certainly in error in his belief that “[i]n the early church, the term ‘regeneration’ or being ‘born again’ originally referred to a practical change in lifestyle.

In ending my review, I would like to recommend Svigel's book to those interested in the subject of doctrinal development. Though the book has some serious weaknesses, its strengths outweigh them.

Grace and peace,



Rory said...

David, hello.

I am sure you have heard my story about church history class in Bible College. Student complaints were heard by the President of the College. They only wanted to hear the history of "our bunch". Apparently our presedent at the time agreed that The Church Fathers did no qualify. The semester I took the class was immediately after the President of the school assured the student body that a change was coming to our church history. I know I considered myself fortunate as I anticipated how our Baptist roots could be traced to the beginning.

About half way through the semester, one bolder student challenged our professor asking when we were going to start hearing this more Baptist-like history that had been promised. I noted our professor's frustration. As I remember, he threw his hands in the air and admitted, "I can't. It isn't there.

I know of a young couple right now, and grew up reading Scripture, never missed a Sunday or mid-week service, in their congregational churches that denied baptismal regeneration. They seem to be taking the Canterbury Trail and the Roman Road for now. Its tough to be Anglo-Catholic as J.H. Newman discovered.

What I find interesting is that you don't hear about lukewarm, biblically ignorant evangelicals, turning towards a more formal worship, with sacerdotal authority.

Many of the converts moving slowly Romeward seem like they were already strong, bright lights in the churches that they once attended, pastored, and served. We could come up with a dozen prominent names in a flash. In reverse, where are the strong, well-informed Catholic converts to Evangelicalism that have knowledge of history and the Council of Trent the way these converts to Catholicism have knowledge Scripture?

What prominent Catholic intellectuals can we think of that have left the Catholic Church for the claims of sola scriptura Christianity?

David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Thanks much for sharing your classroom experience with me again. Your professor's admission that, "[i]t isn't there" (i.e. that there were independent Baptists in the centuries immediately following the apostolic age) was an accurate and honest assessment. I have found the recent attempts by a number of evangelical authors to read evangelical soteriology into the Church Fathers to be flawed, and for those who know better, dishonest.

Your assessments in the last three paragraphs of your post are quite good—no examples come to mind to for me to question those assessments. If others can in fact provide some examples, I suspect that they would be very few.

Grace and peace,


P.S. I would not count the priests I am aware of who left the Catholic Church for Protestantism as valid examples, for the impetus behind their leaving was initially not intellectual—intellectual support for their leaving came later.

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