A growing number of thinkers–Christian and otherwise–tell us that the Church must return to some specific strain of its history to survive the coming (or present) storm as the once Christian West collapses. If we could only retrieve this strand of Christian history, if we could only recreate this part of the tradition, then we might just make it, and revitalize the West while we’re at it. We need a weirder, wilder kind of Christianity, so the thinking goes.
There’s doubtless much truth here. No church service should give the impression that Christianity was invented five minutes ago. A church that simply tells people what they could hear elsewhere, but in a slightly more religious tone of voice, is doomed to swift irrelevance. We should shake off our anxiety about the peculiarities of the faith, like angels–after all, Generation Z and the Religious Nones, the data says, are more open to some “weird juju.”
Yet these calls to return to some past era are, so often, dead on arrival. More often than not they are simply beholden to aesthetic–as much about “vibes” as any Gen Z TikTokker. Even when valid in their criticisms of the moment, the past is, unsurprisingly, past. The conservative reactionary who goes down swinging, we must admit, can be as much of a toxic romantic illusion as the liberal revolutionary: Che Guevara in tweed smoking a pipe and reading Latin.
But there is good news. The fact is: Christianity is bigger than any of those moments. Throughout church history, the reform movements which have failed most spectacularly are those which attempt to return to a particular era–whether the apostolic, or some other. The most fruitful have been those that honor the inheritance of past generations, but adjust appropriately to the shifting circumstances of their day. At Ad Fontes, we would contend that the Magisterial Protestant Reformation is one such movement. Over against the equal and opposite extremes of both Rome and the radicals, the Reformers maintained that, whilst the Church can greatly err, she sits through all ages under “one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.”
This unity of faith within the diversity of time and space seems to mark all the pieces in this issue in some fashion. We are privileged to feature an essay from the esteemed Gerald Bray, busting the myth of a more “wild” kind of Christianity in the Celtic Britain of yore. In a more contemporary piece, Glenn Butner gives an introductory survey of global trinitarian theology, exhorting readers to explore the riches of majority world Christians who worship the same triune God as us, but who “speak Trinity” in their own native tongues. Matthew Hoskin provides us with a fine-grained study of how the fifth-century theology of Leo the Great permeated every fiber of Reformed Christology over a thousand years after his death. And Nathan Johnson contributes an essay I have always hoped for but never before found: a Reformed study of “Old Testament” sacraments, affirming that, as the Apostle Paul says, God’s people in all times and places have shared the same spiritual food and drink.
In our book reviews, the venerable John Wilson reviews a landmark collection of modern American Christian poetry, remarking upon the surprising unity among such a diversity of poets. Michael Riggins, our Assistant Editor, reviews an acclaimed biography of John Donne, and queries the author’s post-Christian inability to find a transcendent unity in the life of a saint who seemed to be ever changing. And our issue concludes (in a now regular feature) with a review from our President, Brad Littlejohn, which in part refutes the idea that everything true, good, and beautiful in the American founding belongs to Rome.
Peppered through this issue, our Poetry Editor, Colin Chan Redemer, has once again assembled a beautiful collection of original poems, which may provide room for pause between all our well-argued prose. We are honored once again to feature the great Malcolm Guite as well as the widely published Dan Ratelle. Colin himself contributes a sonnet in tribute to an early supporter of the Davenant Institute now promoted to glory.
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The fate of the West, and the Church within it, are not matters of indifference. In a time of undeniable social decay, the Church is called to both preach the Gospel and contend for the common good. Perhaps much more can be saved and regained in the coming years than we care to imagine, and retrieving past wisdom will doubtless be part of that. But we have no idea what the Western church will look like in fifty, one hundred, or five hundred years time–other than that she will look different to today. And yet she will be ever the same, the pillar and buttress of the truth.
*Image Credit: Pexels