Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World
Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious
reviewed by Addison H. Hart
There has been a concern within Evangelical Protestantism since the late 1970s to rediscover its own roots in ancient, patristic, and catholic Christianity. The watershed event for this effort can perhaps be found with the Chicago Call of May 1977, when a gathering of Evangelical leaders and scholars from various backgrounds signed a joint document calling for a return to “historic” Christianity. Among those who signed, one finds the names of Donald Bloesch, Peter Gillquist, Thomas Howard, and Robert Webber. Of these, Gillquist moved on to Eastern Orthodoxy and Howard to Roman Catholicism. Robert Webber, who now teaches theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (and formerly at Wheaton College), became an Episcopalian, and was indeed the editor of a book during the 1980s about Evangelicals venturing forth on the so-called Canterbury Trail. Before that he had written a book entitled Common Roots (Zondervan, 1978), in which he exhorted Evangelicals to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the church fathers.
Since 1978 there has been some headway in the Evangelical rediscovery of the Fathers. To note just one encouraging sign (and one previously commented upon in these pages by Father Patrick Henry Reardon), InterVarsity Press has been producing its Ancient Christian Commentary series, under the editorial oversight of Thomas Oden. When it is complete, this series will run to 27 volumes, containing the text of the entire Bible (with the Apocrypha), along with a substantial catena of patristic commentary.
But despite such promising evidence, American Evangelicalism has mostly moved in a direction other than that proposed in the Chicago Call of 1977. Mark Noll and David Wells have been prominent among those most critical of their own tradition, revealing the unsettling extent of theological illiteracy among American Evangelicals in the 1990s.1 Before that, Philip J. Lee delivered a withering critique of what he termed “Protestant gnosticism”—that wide current of thought that had reduced a formerly robust Protestant theological tradition to individualism, subjectivism, anti-authoritarianism, escapism, emotionalism, and a sentimental “conversion” to a “Christ without content”2 (May American Catholics with similar leanings take warning!). The growth of the secularized mega-churches, for example, which cater to their consumers’ “felt needs” and are characterized by their “market-driven” and “state-of-the-art-ministry” mentality, illustrate the very worst of nightmarish American Evangelical religion. A visit to the Willow Creek mega-church near Chicago (which I made not too long ago) is to step into a version of “Christianity” that would seem surrealistic, or even somewhat traumatizing, to just about anyone but a modern American suburbanite who is already inured to the frenzied and hectic environment of an airport or shopping mall. The church fathers would flee such a place to find a true sanctuary for the worship of God Almighty.
Two new books have appeared this past year, sounding once again the call to an Evangelical ressourcement. Both books address the American Evangelical scene, and both authors still find the remedy for Evangelicalism’s culturally contracted ills in a vital appropriation of the patristic Tradition.
Robert Webber has returned to his earlier work, Common Roots, and has rewritten it entirely as Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. The major new ingredient in this latest rendition is his engagement with “postmodernism”—something of no concern, obviously, back in 1978 when Common Roots first appeared. However, since then, a cultural shift has taken place, and postmodernism has supposedly come to dominate Western culture. In a nutshell, postmodernism is a worldview that denies the knowability of absolutes, asserts that all so-called truth is (really) subjective, denies any authority to language and insists instead on its radical relativity (that is, it has no immediate relation to universal truth), insists that the “meta-narrative of a particular community only speaks for that community,” and consequently sees “the demise of the subject/object distinction” altogether (p. 23). Webber claims that this emerging culture poses both new challenges and new opportunities for the mission of Christianity. Correctly viewing the older cultural paradigm of “modernism” (depicted as rationalistic, the product of the Enlightenment, Cartesian, etc.) as hurtful to Christianity, Webber finds some promising aspects of the emerging postmodern worldview, which he enumerates in the book. “Where do we find a Christianity that speaks meaningfully to a postmodern world?” he asks pragmatically. “The classical tradition appears to be the most productive,” he answers (p. 24). It is, it seems, “the kind of Christianity that attracts the new generation of Christians” (p. 27).
Rather surprisingly, then, this line of reasoning sounds starkly utilitarian (indeed, “modern”), similar to the sort of thing one might hear as an excuse for George Barna’s market-strategy version of “doing church” or for the Willow Creek emporium. The rationale here for restoring “the classical tradition” is, apparently, because it works. Sad to say, you can’t get a whole lot more untraditional than that. Webber does insist a few pages later, though, that “the primary reason to return to the Christian tradition is because it is truth that has the power to speak to a postmodern world” (p. 29, emphasis added). Still, I’m tempted to ask: What if this didn’t have the “power” (a more appropriate phrase might have been “perceived relevance”) to speak to our postmodern world, would it still be “truth” for us? That may seem an unfair question, but when we’re talking about postmodernism, such things get awfully slippery.
The underlying issue here is a serious one, and it concerns the nature of truth itself. In its very essence the Christian faith is unblinkingly realist (pace Ockham and his heirs), not nominalist. If such were not the case, St. Paul would not have had much to say on Mars Hill. He certainly would not have made such bold assertions about the unknown God who can really and truly be known. (And speaking of Mars Hill, did Paul’s truth prove to have the “power”—was it immediately effective—to speak to a premodern Athens? The results of his sermon suggest otherwise.) The New Testament simply assumes that objective, absolute, and knowable truth is real. The Fathers, the Medieval Scholastics, and even the Reformers do the same. I’m sure that Robert Webber does, too, and yet his fairly accepting attitude towards postmodernism and his aforementioned utilitarian streak lead me to suspect that he may not be entirely comfortable with Christian realism (what the Evangelical Francis Schaeffer used to refer to as “the true truth”). He does assert that the Christian “metanarrative” is true, and that we cannot negotiate this claim in a postmodern context; but true-blue postmodernists are not very likely to allow this one exception to their dogmatic perception of reality.
One must insist here, too, that those verities that postmodernism most stridently denies (the knowability of absolutes, the authority of language, a universal and normative “metanarrative” such as the gospel professes itself to be, the subject/object distinction) are not simply products of Enlightenment “modernism.” Rather, they are “the permanent things,” deriving from the eternal and authoritative Logos of God, who, through his incarnation, has definitively revealed to us the true God. Such a revelation has nothing whatsoever to do with the mind-numbingly dull nonsense foisted on us by “postmodernist thinkers.” The latter is little more than a radical distrust of God’s good gift of human reason. It is, quite possibly, the natural end result of modernism itself, the sort of sheer nihilism foreseen by Nietzsche. Postmodernism is something we Christians would all do well to leave alone just as surely as Brer Rabbit would have been well advised to leave the Tar-Baby alone. Despite Webber’s belief in its promising qualities, it is instead something to be corrected when it appears in our churches for the simple reason that postmodernism is fundamentally at odds with the “classical Tradition.”
There are other concerns with Webber’s book as well. To note one in particular, it is not at all certain how well he grasps the complexities involved in the Tradition’s development. For instance, to choose but one among many, what is one to make of such a statement as this: “Once the canon of Scripture had been declared, the church began its search for an authoritative interpretation”? (p. 176). In reality, of course, there was never any such concerted “search,” and the developing Tradition and canon were always inseparable. One can perceive this naiveté literally illustrated occasionally in Webber’s diagrams and comparative “tables,” which appear throughout the book. One such “table,” called “Spirituality in the Paradigms of History,” places side by side the alleged characteristics of the spirituality of five periods of Church history (“Ancient,” “Medieval,” “Reformation,” “Modern,” “Postmodern”) (p. 138). Under “Ancient” Webber lists: “Baptismal spirituality, Eucharistic spirituality, Liturgical spirituality, Spirituality of the hours.” In the next category, “Medieval,” he lists: “lectio divina, Monastics, pilgrimages, Feasts and fasts, Veneration of the saints, Inner and outer discipleship.” Without exception, all those items he lists as peculiarly “Medieval” could just as properly be listed under “Ancient,” since they can all be found flourishing within the first five centuries of Christian history. He might have added to the “Ancient” category, without fear of contradiction, prayers for the dead, Marian devotion, sacerdotal priesthood, veneration of relics, and doing penance. This unearths the largest potential stumbling block for a historically informed Evangelical audience: the “paradigm” he wishes to recover for the postmodern church—the “Ancient”—is replete with elements from which most “Romophobic” Evangelicals would recoil in horror. The point I wish to make here is simply that Webber seems oblivious to this fact.
Such caveats aside, though, there are some fine moments in Ancient-Future Faith. The stress on Christus Victor theology is valuable, and he is absolutely right that it is effective among “the new generation of Christians.” All in all, this is a book that points in the right direction (the Fathers), though the earlier Common Roots was the better book. This reviewer cannot help but think that Ancient-Future Faith is marred in a way that its predecessor was blessedly not, because it seeks seriously to engage such a faddish and foolish philosophical thing as postmodernism—a clumsy, flightless bird that will, one expects, go the way of the dodo and “God-is-dead” theology.
The new book by D. H. Williams, an ordained Baptist minister and professor of patristics and historical theology at Loyola University in Chicago, is quite possibly a truer successor to Webber’s earlier work. Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants is a well-written, no-nonsense tract addressed to “Free Church” Evangelicals (those Christians whose various origins are found in the nonmagisterial part of the Protestant Reformation, such as Hutterites, Mennonites, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Pentecostals, etc.). Williams clearly states his purpose at the outset and throughout, for example, when he writes: “The Tradition of the Christian faith is that fundamental Christian identity for every believer no matter which of the traditions—Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox—he or she may profess” (p. 9). The Tradition to which he refers is that of the Fathers of the first five centuries or so. “Thus,” he says early on, “I will argue that the church’s Tradition sits in indispensable relation—historically and theologically—to the Christian use of Scripture and to the development of doctrine and spirituality” (p. 6). “One ought not to have to leave the Free Church,” he maintains, “in order to embrace the norms of the ancient Christian Tradition” (p. 31). (One might well argue with Williams on this last point, as I certainly would; but right or wrong, it provides the raison d’être for his book.)
Williams’s line of argument with his Free Church readers is straightforward. He makes the sound case that it is simply wrongheaded to assert “an ahistorical jump from the apostles to the sixteenth century,” which, he says, “typifies most of the theology and biblical exegesis done by evangelicals.” “How can any church today claim a connection with the apostolic era, “he asks, “when it has remained ignorant of and often rejected in practice the church age which followed the apostles and which was the critical period for the very formation of the New Testament, for the propounding of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity, for the confessions of redemption and eternal hope—in short, for the development of what it is to think and live as an orthodox Christian?” (p. 27). He accuses Free Church Evangelicals of wanting it both ways: for example, of wanting to dismiss the patristic era as the formation of apostate Romanism while maintaining a “tacit but universal acceptance of the Nicene and post-Nicene” Christology. His thesis, succinctly put, is this:
What Williams has done here is throw down the gauntlet. He has directly challenged the common Protestant conception of Sola Scriptura, and he has done it with an open appeal to the Church’s Tradition.
Williams knows full well that he is courting conflict with his Free Church readers in suggesting that Scripture and Tradition are complementary and not intrinsically opposed. He is at pains to educate his confreres about the history and development of Christian Tradition, seeking to do so in a way that will make the most sense to Free Church thinkers. What he provides along these lines is a helpful and insightful overview. He is also very good when detailing the “tradition” of the Free Church itself, most importantly in telling how it has come to misinterpret the Constantinian patristic writers as those who intentionally paved the way for the worst features of the (dreaded) Medieval/Renaissance papacy. He explains the Anabaptist and Free Church notion of “the fall of the church,” a diversely fabricated “counter-church history” that inverts the Catholic version of church history (and the Orthodox version, for that matter). This Anabaptist revisionist history could even go so far as to praise the heretics Donatus and Arius; and in its much later American incarnation in J. M. Carroll’s The Trail of Blood Following the Christians Down Through the Centuries, Baptists were able to see themselves as the latest heirs of an ancient, persecuted line of “true believers” in succession from the apostolic Church—and persecuted, of course, by the apostate Constantinian-Papal “church” (pp. 112–113).
One interesting detail that Williams provides is how one unfortunate Catholic myth helped pave the way for the later Protestant myth of the church’s “fall” with the Emperor Constantine. The Donation of Constantine, a literary forgery of the eighth century, found its way into Roman canon law. It told the spurious tale of how Constantine in the fourth century had allegedly come to bestow on Pope Sylvester “a number of comprehensive ecclesiastical and political rights,” including “supreme authority over all churches in the world” (p. 109). Accepted as true by many early Protestants, as well as Catholics, this sad and unnecessary hoax simply exacerbated the Protestant suspicion that the Catholic Church’s corruption was really of terrible, pandemic proportions, an evil condition far older than the sixteenth century and even to be found already malignantly at work in the early Fathers themselves. Williams shows how this “fall” myth is now regarded as near “orthodoxy” by many, if not most, Free Church Protestants—so much so that it is often simply assumed to be fact even by some of these churches’ sharpest theological minds.
The book, however, is not without its difficulties. As with Webber, Williams sets himself up for the justifiable Evangelical criticism that, in embracing so warmly and fully the patristic era, he must inevitably embrace all those things that go with it (veneration of Mary and the saints, doing penance, sacerdotalism, prayers for the dead, etc.)—things that the Reformation, both magisterial and radical, rejected in the most vehement terms. Also, as with Webber, Williams passes over this difficulty with barely a glance. I suspect, though, that Williams could address himself plausibly to such objections. I, for one, wish he had.
Another related difficulty, if it is a difficulty at all and not just a shame, is that one doubts that there will be a great deal of openness to his challenges among Evangelicals. His book deserves better, because it is a good book with a good argument.
As a Roman Catholic myself, I could not always agree with this or that aspect of Williams’s thesis, but I found myself more often than not in heartfelt sympathy with this very fine “Tract for the Times.” One hopes to see more of this Evangelical ressourcement, for both Webber and Williams are correct in seeing that it is in a full recovery of the Fathers of the Church that the common ground between all Christians will be found.
1. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
2. Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
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“Evangelical Ressourcement” first appeared in the April 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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