Heritage gives us a sense of belonging. Our roots connect us to the past and provide a foundation for who we are and a launch point for where we are going, or in some cases a clear idea of where we are not going. These are important matters for personal identity, but maybe even more so for religious stability. Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future, by Gavin Ortlund, explores the rich heritage of Christian thought we have to glean from today; a heritage that goes much further back than Martin Luther.
Admittedly only a few names sprang to mind when I was prompted to consider the early thinkers in Christendom—Calvin, Augustine, and Luther. Gavin Ortlund introduces several new (old) fathers in the faith, and provides a rich sampling of the writing and work they produced. Furthermore, he begins by highlighting why this study is critical, as today we are seeing a mass exodus of believers from evangelical Christianity, all in search of deep meaning and tradition. We are making a grave mistake, argues Ortlund:
“What shall we make of this movement and seeming restlessness within evangelical Christianity? …We are aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance…I believe that evangelicals can cultivate a sense of historical placement without abandoning evangelicalism…evangelical and ancient are far from antonyms.”
Ortlund does not scold the longing, he importantly redirects it, and demonstrates that what many have longed for has been there all along—we need only unearth it again.
“Sometimes the best way to go forward is, paradoxically, to go backward. This is true in solving math problems, executing military operations, navigating relational conflict, and (here I suggest) doing theology. That is to say, contemporary evangelical theology can be enriched and strengthened in her current task by going back to retrieve classical theological resources.”
Ortlund introduces Anselm, Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, John of Damascus, and many others over the course of his book. What I appreciate most is that Ortlund handpicks some of the most helpful and relevant works from these men, in relation to evangelical Christianity. While we may not see eye to eye with the whole of any one man’s beliefs (when do we ever?), we would be missing out on some essential building blocks of our faith if we dismissed them entirely. Ortlund cautions us not to “bask [too much] in our particular denominational enclave that we lose touch with the entire Christian tradition”. He argues that,
“We contemporary Protestants need to live a balanced historical identity. We should engage both the last five hundred years and the previous fifteen hundred, discerning areas of discontinuity as well as appreciating points of overlap, being careful not to give the impression that the former is our real tradition…warts, blemishes, and all, our family is still our family—and it would be foolish to cut ourselves off. After all, we wouldn’t even be here without them.”
Ortlund’s discussion of works by these forefathers of faith stretched my mind and grew my thinking in ways I never would have expected. I was introduced to the omnipresence, incarnation, and ascension of Christ in ways I never have been before. Ortlund was like a tour guide, taking me on an exploration of the best thoughts and ideas of unfamiliar men of God, and it broadened my understanding of many essential truths of the Christian faith.
Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals is not light reading by any means. In my opinion it is written for pastors or academic circles, and in some sections requires particular perseverance. But for the average Christian (me), I would still encourage you to take the journey through because Ortlund delivers some powerful ideas for consideration, meditation, and reformation. My only critique is that the book could have ended with a better summary of the whole. The final chapter left me hanging— I wish Ortlund had summarized the value of what was just presented and its implications. It would have also been helpful to read how we can pursue the exercise of theological retrieval on our own, outside of Ortlund’s book.
Predominantly, this book delivers to the reader a restoration of roots; reviving a dedication to rediscovering our past and shoring up the ancient foundations of our faith. I think Ortlund would echo Paul’s prayer that we “may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ” (Col 2:2).
I received a free digital copy of this book for review. All opinions are my own.