Ancient-Future Faith, Its Beliefs

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(August 2008 – Volume 14, Issue 8) 

In his most recent book Finding Our Way Again, The Return of the Ancient Practices, Brian McLaren, the most recognizable name in the emergent church movement, signals a shift, or at least a new emphasis within emergent, toward ancient practices of earlier periods of church history. As usual, McLaren believes the church has lost its way due to its refusal to follow God’s leading. The church has become “proud and unteachable” but fortunately a few “humble and teachable” people (guess who?) are pointing out the right path:[1] “When the community of faith realizes it has lost its way, it begins looking forward by looking back…It looks to its ancient practices to help it reset its future course.”[2]

This means that the church, in order to find its way again, must look to and adopt the early church (not New Testament church) traditions and rituals, especially the “seven ancient practices” of fasting, pilgrimage, common daily prayers, a weekly day of rest, annual holy days and seasons, tithing and sacred meal, as they find fulfillment in the ‘threefold way’ of purgation, illumination, and union with God.”[3] What seems to have precipitated this renewed interest in ancient practices and mysticism is recognition that the emergent movement is in need of roots. McLaren writes, “More and more of us feel, more and more intensely, the need for a fresh creative alternative—a fourth alternative, something beyond militarist scientific secularism, pushy religious fundamentalism, and mushy amorphous spirituality.”[4] I assume by these hateful remarks McLaren means that the emergent church, having already rejected modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism must now move beyond an “amorphous spirituality” and put down some anchors. These anchors are sinking into the soil of ancient spiritual practices.[5]

Finding Our Way Again is actually the introductory volume in a series of eight titles published by Thomas Nelson and edited by Phyllis Tickle. The other seven works will each develop one of the seven ancient practices deemed important for the emerging church. It would seem that this series of books marks the official marriage of the Ancient-Future Faith movement with the emergent movement. These two have been seen flirting in various places but it seems the union has been consummated.

So far we have looked at the origins, leaders, basic ideas and practices of the Ancient-Future Faith paradigm; we need to press on now to an examination of the underlying beliefs within the movement. What will be documented is that this system, claiming evangelical roots, is by-and-large in line with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy doctrine.

An Enlightenment Backlash

As with most emergent church related material the Enlightenment is framed as the great evil of modern times, and postmodernity as the welcomed rescuer from Enlightenment thought. Then, even though the true evangelical church has always opposed many Enlightenment teachings, it is then painted as the stooge of the Enlightenment. Robert Webber provides one of the clearest presentations,

This Enlightenment paradigm produced three convictions shared equally by Christians and non-Christians: foundationalism, structuralism, and the notion of metanarrative. Foundationalism is “the philosophical theological conviction that there are beliefs or experiences that are in themselves beyond doubt and upon which systems of belief and understanding can therefore be constructed with certainty.” Structuralism is the belief that societies construct texts to make meaning out of life and that the meaning which is in the text can be commonly agreed upon by its interpreters through the use of reason. The metanarrative consists of the stories of the text. These stories make sense out of life by providing an interpretation of the world from its beginning to its end.[6]

While this is not the place to carry on a philosophical debate with Enlightenment theory and influence, suffice it to say that postmodern Christianity (emergent and A-F) reject all three convictions. Of course evangelicalism also rejected the secularized form of these convictions as well. For example, evangelicals did not accept the idea that truth can be found with certainty through reason alone and, therefore always subjected reason to the revelation of Scripture. But evangelicals have believed that the revelation of God (the Word) could be understood through reason and proper interpretative tools (hermeneutics) resulting in foundational truth. This is rejected by the postmodern church which would say that (at least most) truth cannot be known with certainty, and therefore the views of evangelicals of the past, shaped as they claim by the Enlightenment, do not relate to the postmodern culture. Webber asks, “Where do we go to find a Christianity that speaks meaningfully to a postmodern world?” His answer, “The classical tradition [2nd–7thcenturies] appears to be the most productive… Therefore, our challenge is not to reinvent Christianity, but to restore and then adapt classical Christianity to the postmodern cultural situation.”[7]

Rule of Faith

Webber does not break completely from the Enlightenment himself, believing that the metanarrative of Christianity is the correct one[8] however limited. And many within Ancient-Future would accept a level of certainty as found in the so-called “rule of faith.” The “rule” “was regarded as a summary of the most important features of the Christian faith, a framework for the essential truths confessed by those who stood in the tradition of apostolic teachings.”[9] The problem lies in determining the content of the “rule of faith.” According to Webber various rules of faith began popping up in early church history in attempts to define Christian teachings in light of various heresies such as Gnosticism. “Eventually, the rule of faith became universally summarized in the Apostles’ Creed,”[10] which is “the end-product of the gradual development of Western creeds… Today’s version dates from the sixth or seventh century.”[11]

The Apostles’ Creed, in its general summary of Christian thought, is limited in scope however, so between A.D. 300 and 600 the universal church formulated two other ecumenical creeds to explain what it believed. These were the Nicene Creed (began at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but actually formulated at the Council of Constantinople in 381), and the Chalcedonian Creed in 451. Between these three creeds a number of doctrines were established as orthodox, including the deity of the Son (Nicene), the Trinity (Nicene), and the two natures of Christ (Chalcedonian). According to the A-F understanding, other confessions and statements of faith have been developed over the years that express the belief of particular groups or denominations, but none of these carries the weight of the three ecumenical creeds. As a result A-F thinkers believe the church can be certain of the doctrines expressed in the creeds but must be willing to compromise on all other points of theology. Webber writes, “We need to recognize that confessions do not meet the criteria of universality, antiquity, and consensus… Their value is not for the whole church, but for a part of the church… These confessions are all secondary to the creeds and are not binding upon the whole church.”[12]

Unfortunately for Webber’s view, even the three “ecumenical” creeds have not received “universality and consensus.” According to church historian Tony Lane, the Apostles’ Creed “has always enjoyed wide acceptance in the West… [But] it has never been in general use in the Eastern Church, though it is treated with respect.”[13] Concerning the Chalcedonian Creed Lane writes, “The emperor intended this document to cement unity with the Eastern Church. Its effect was more like dynamite than cement. Egypt and other areas have never accepted Chalcedon to this day.”[14] The Nicene Creed has been the most ecumenical of the creeds, still the East and West have one important difference; “In the East the belief was and is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. In the West, however, the belief grew that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.”[15] While this might seem a matter of little importance to us today, it would be a major factor in 1054 bringing about the Great Schism which became the final dividing point between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church.

So much for A-F’s belief in the “universality and consensus” of the ecumenical creeds. The fact is that even these creeds have never been given a universal consensus by the whole church. The finger is often pointed at the Protestant church for its lack of unity and many doctrinal distinctions, but Rome and Orthodoxy have to be hypocritical to do so. Webber is either a bit naïve or perhaps ill-informed when he writes, “I sense that evangelicals in the postmodern world need to affirm what the church has always believed, everywhere and by all, and give great authority to the common tradition and less weight to the theology of a particular tradition.”[16] (emphasis mine)

Non-creedal Doctrines.

In the A-F system what is to be done with other important doctrines that fall outside the boundaries of the three ecumenical creeds? In essence they are nonbinding and unimportant and therefore open to compromise. Take the crucial doctrine of salvation. After all, what could be more crucial than one’s eternal destiny? Yet concerning soteriology no universal creed has been written and therefore how one becomes a Christian is up for grabs. Webber writes,

Although the entire church is united in its belief that all are sinners and that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection procure salvation, there exists a number of explanations about our sinful nature and the means of receiving the benefits of Christ’s death.[17]

No wonder Brian McLaren states, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be ‘saved’? When I read the Bible, I don’t see it meaning, ‘I’m going to heaven after I die.’… None of us has arrived at orthodoxy.”[18]

This does not mean that A-F has no concept of a gospel. As is predictable A-F reaches back to the “ancient” church, rather than Scripture, for a gospel message. Webber writes, “Evangelism in the early church was associated with the victory of Christ over evil and the establishment of the kingdom of God.”[19] He then turns to a third century ritual in which an individual is taken through a number of stages, lasting up to three years and leading to baptism and entrance into the church.[20] What is most instructive is that this tradition is not taught or found in the New Testament, but some 300 years later. It is typical of A-F to reach back to the traditions of men rather than the inspired text of Scripture. This takes us to A-F’s understanding of the Bible.

Scripture

Webber writes, “A new feature of evangelicals in the postmodern world is the growing awareness that the Bible, which takes us to Christ, belongs to the church. The church preceded Scripture in time.”[21] As can be seen the A-F movement rejects the sola Scriptura position of the Reformers and adopts Rome’s view in regard to authority. The church presides over Scripture – finally authority rests in the church.

How this actually works out is more involved. Which church, for example, has the final word, Rome, Orthodox, Lutherans, etc.? Webber never really answers this, but seems to be looking toward Rome. And what role do tradition and pronouncement of the Church Fathers and the ancient councils play? Webber’s response to this question is most interesting,

Any writing of a Father of the church, or any council or assembly of the church that stood in the apostolic tradition, was an extension of the principle of inspiration. Therefore, while the apostles were the original authority of inspiration, a writing of Augustine or another Father of the church, or a creed or council that extended or expounded an idea in keeping with apostolic teaching enjoyed a kind of apostolic authority. Because the church was viewed as the one true interpreter of the faith, the authority of the church grew greater and greater through time… Finally, the church established a magisterium for the proper interpretation of truth and positioned the pope as the true spokesperson of truth.[22]

As might be expected placing final authority in the pope did not set well with everyone and paved the way for the Reformation in which the Reformers rejected the authority of the pope and the Roman Church and placed it in Scripture alone. Webber reacts to this, “The Reformers pulled Scripture away from the church, separated it from tradition, and set it over against popes and councils, and made it stand on its own.”[23]

Webber summarizes well the A-F position, “The postmodern challenge to authority is best met, not by returning to sola scriptura, nor by the modern evangelical defense of the Bible, but by returning to the origins of authority in the Christian faith. The church possesses, interprets, guards, and hands down the truth.[24]

Mysticism

As with other streams within the emergent movement there is a keen interest in mysticism. Webber highly recommends reading the so-called “spiritual classics” that Richard Foster has introduced to the Protestant church. This includes mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, George Fox, William Law, and Thomas Merton. Webber concludes, “The value of all these books is indispensable to spirituality. Those who neglect these works do so to their harm, and those who read them do so for their inspiration and spiritual growth.”[25]

McLaren devotes three chapters in his book Finding Our Way Out to the “threefold way” of purgation, illumination and union, which is common to all forms of mysticism, Christian or otherwise. However, McLaren does not describe the “threefold way” as his mentors and the ancient mystics (such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila) do. He either does not understand his subject (highly unlikely) or he is using his winsome pen to make these approaches much more attractive than they normally would be to many people. But he definitely promotes contemplation (a mystical form or prayer), lectio divina (a mystical form of Scripture reading), and the daily office (a ritualistic form of prayer).[26]

The ancient mystics, to whom the movement looks, were not afraid to state their case. For example, in his famous work Dark Night of the Soul, St John of the Cross informs his reader that the first stage of the “ Three-fold Way,” that of purgation, is a stage in which the senses, affections and intellect are all purged or killed. He writes,

When, therefore, the four passions of the soul – which are joy, grief, hope and fear – are calmed through continual mortification; when the natural desires have been lulled to sleep… by means of habitual times of aridity; and when the harmony of the senses and the interior faculties causes a suspension of labour and a cessation from the work of meditation… these enemies cannot obstruct this spiritual liberty…[27]

The purpose behind the deadening of our senses is in order that they will not hinder the way of the spirit; “The reason for this is that the soul is now becoming alien and remote from common sense and knowledge of things, in order that, being annihilated in this respect it may be informed with the Divine.”[28]

Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle concurs, “The person who does most is he who thinks least and desires to do least.”[29] This is because the whole goal of mysticism is to experience something in a super-rational way. Teresa writes, “It is quite a common experience in such cases for the understanding to be less apt for meditation. I think the reason must be that the whole aim of meditation is to seek God, and once He is found, and the soul grows accustomed to seeking Him again by means of the will, it has no desire to fatigue itself with intellectual labour.”[30]

The goal of mysticism is to purge the senses and intellect in order to be filled up with a nonsensical form of illumination which leads to an unexplainable experience of ecstasy which culminates in union with God. The “three-fold way” is never taught in Scripture but is a vital component of A-F and the emerging church.

Conclusion

Although A-F is a move back toward Rome, rather than a move back toward Scripture, Chris Armstrong,associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary, assures us that it is none other than the Lord who is leading this parade,

That more and more evangelicals have set out upon it is reason for hope for the future of gospel Christianity. That they are receiving good guidance on this road from wise teachers is reason to believe that Christ is guiding the process. And that they are meeting and learning from fellow Christians in the other two great confessions, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, is reason to rejoice in the power of love.[31]

 


[1] Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again, ( Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008), pp. 150-151. (It should be noted that the edition of Finding Our Way Again cited in this paper was a prepublication edition and page numbers may be subject to change in the final published edition).

[2] Ibid. p. 160.

[3] Ibid., p. 162.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 19.

[6] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), p. 19.

[7] Ibid., p. 24.

[8] Ibid., p. 95.

[9] Ibid., p. 176.

[10] Ibid., p. 184.

[11] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought ( Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), pp 62-63.

[12] Webber., p. 194.

[13] Tony Lane, p. 63.

[14] Ibid., p. 62.

[15] Ibid., p. 41 (emphasis his).

[16] Webber, p. 200 (emphasis mine).

[17] Ibid., p. 193.

[18] Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique”, Christianity Today, November, 2004, p. 38.

[19] Webber, p. 146.

[20] Ibid., pp. 147-149.

[21] Ibid., pp. 189.

[22] Ibid., p. 177.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 201

[25] Ibid., p. 135.

[26] McLaren, Finding Our Way Again, pp. 179-180.

[27] St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul , translated and edited by E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, 1990), p. 87.

[28] Ibid., p. 123.

[29] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, translated by E. Allison Peers ( New York: Image Books, 1989), p. 88.

[30] Ibid., p. 173

[31] Chris Armstrong, “The Future Lies in the Past,” Christianity Today, February 2008, p. 29.

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