In Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, one of the suggestions he has for “creating a gospel culture” (ch. 10) is for Christians to get to know the history of Christ’s church. Now in your evaluation of this advice you have to take into account McKnight’s evangelical audience, many of whom will be highly skeptical about positive assessments of church history. One of the major criticisms I have of the book, in fact, is McKnight’s treatment and evaluation of the Reformation and its legacy (full disclosure: I’m a Reformed theologian and a Reformation historian).
But aside from the particular disputes about this or that era or this or that particular figure, McKnight’s got the right instinct about what is lacking in the largely a-historical evangelical approach to the Bible. The remedy need not simply be an embrace of Tradition with a capital T, although many converts to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy find this embrace compelling. But the remedy must at minimum include a knowledge of those who have gone before, especially perhaps (but not exclusively) those who have gone before in your own tradition. As McKnight writes, “We need more of us to be curious about our ancestors.”
I’ve had the distinct privilege of being involved with a project devoted to bringing to light some of the many primary sources and writers from the early modern era, the Post-Reformation Digital Library. I’ve described the project at Mere Comments before, but this last fall we went public with a major new upgrade of the site. We are now approaching 2,500 authors from a variety of ecclesiastical and theological traditions. The ability to search the site for early modern works in English makes the site potentially useful not just for specialized scholars of the early modern period but also for those laypeople who want to dig in to some of the primary documents of our ancestors.