The study of ancient Christianity is important for the future of evangelicalism for three reasons: 1) the work of ancient Christians laid the foundation for orthodoxy as it has been known and defended ever since, 2) a thorough understanding of the history of the Church, both in its ideas and practices, will save evangelicalism from repeating the mistakes of the past, and 3) will ultimately right the misaligned course currently being run.
At no other time were the convictions of the Church more malleable than during the first few centuries (roughly until the early 4th century) after the resurrection and ascension of Christ. During this time, just about every major doctrine of the faith was established as orthodoxy, set apart from the surrounding heresy of the day. The early Church fought with everything they had to uphold and defend these beliefs, even to the point of death, so that generation after generation to come may know what it meant to be a follower of Christ. However, it seems that modern evangelicals have been traditionally taught to devalue tradition, neglecting to study the establishment of traditional orthodoxy. This has resulted in a stagnation of academic progress, as countless scholars spend most of their time and energy defending that which has already been so valiantly defended or attempting to establish orthodoxy where it has already been so firmly established. From the foundation of what the early Church has previously paved, evangelicals can progress beyond the basic tenants of the faith, laying down new sediment on the path toward truth.
Additionally, if evangelicals do not begin to thoroughly study and learn from their ancient past, they will be doomed to make the same mistakes their ancestors did. We learn from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This holds true within Christendom. If ancient Christian thought is not studied, evangelicals will find themselves publishing works on ideas that have already been explored by the likes of Origen, Nestorius, and others, ideas ultimately condemned as heresy by Christian councils of long ago. A proper understanding of the roots of the Christian faith, both in what became orthodoxy and what was thrown out as heresy, will save evangelicals from falling into heresies that have long been cast out into the other darkness (e.g. no more Love Wins).
Finally, the study of ancient Christianity becomes immensely important to the future of evangelicalism when one begins to see the true state of the modern movement. Evangelical Christians are a dying breed. Without going too far into a definitive diagnosis, this seems true for two reasons: 1) evangelicals are accused of being separatists, choosing to abandon affiliation with others and start new denominations and new churches anytime there is the slightest disagreement on a subject and 2) evangelicals are commonly seen as anti-intellectual. Constant and continual dissemination into new sects, if not ceased, ultimately ends in the complete dissolution of any Christian community whatsoever, while the abandonment of academic pursuit results in the inability to ascent to anything true at all. A concerted effort to study the time when Christianity came to be will save evangelicalism’s waning culture from these two plagues. When evangelicals begin to understand and refocus on the work of the ancient Church, they will begin to regain sight of what is most important to their faith. They will see what is common amongst all of Christendom and can then begin to restore the unity that once existed within it. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it in his introduction to Saint Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, “The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity… which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.” All throughout this process of reunification via study of the ancient past, evangelicals will begin to exercise the renewing of their minds, sparking a revival of serious scholarship and adamant academia.
The importance of studying ancient Christianity cannot be emphasized enough for the upcoming generations of evangelicals. A proper understanding of the ancestry of Christianity will reestablish orthodox faith, prevent scholars from repeating the mistakes of the past, and solve the current dilemmas of separatism and anti-intellectualism that those who claim the name “evangelical Christian” are so commonly accused of. The study must start at the university level, as all education must—at institutions such as Moody Bible Institute, in Spokane, Washington—and work its way down until both scholarship and laity alike can once again be united under the common banner of orthodoxy founded and established by the ancient Church. The future of evangelicalism, and of Christianity itself, depends on it.