Ancient-Future Faith Or Do All Roads Lead to Rome

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(June 2008 – Volume 14, Issue 6) 

Rumors are starting to circulate that the emergent church movement is running out of steam. After making the biggest splash and the most noise of anything in the Christian community for many years it appears to be approaching exhaustion. Some like Rob Bell and Erwin McManus who are clearly in the “emergent conversation” have denied their involvement. And people seem a bit tired of hearing about postmodernism, its rejection of universal truth and its promotion of relativism. After all, how long can people live questioning the obvious and denying reality? These things play out nicely in philosophy class and in college coffee shops, but have serious limitations in the real world. Maybe it is time for the emergent ship to leave the dock and make way for the next fad.

But before we begin to make funeral arrangements for the emergent church it might be well to notice that it has not died; it is just morphing. Emergent has largely been a backlash against the seeker-sensitive movement with its slick programs, high-octane entertainment and superficial worship. The postmodern generation wants something more authentic, something with substance, even something that is other-worldly. Where the seeker-sensitive movement attempted to make the church look like the world, emergent youth want a sense of the sacred. Where the seekers wanted to offer everything the world offered in purified form, the emergents want unique experiences the world does not have. Where the seekers repudiated church history and behaved as if the church was born yesterday, the emergents want not only a link to the past but a return to the past. These elements have always been present in emergent but are just now rising to the top of the conversation. It is not enough to complain about the modern church or to brush aside all truth-claims as relative. Roots of some kind must anchor the movement if it is to last. What is it that will give this conversation a fixed point of reference and at the same time launch it into the next stage? It appears to be what some call “ancient-future faith.”

Origins and Leaders

The themes found in ancient-future faith have always been part of emergent but are taking on additional weight as the movement matures. The term seems to have been coined by the late Robert Webber, professor at Wheaton College and Northern Seminary. Webber authored a number of works that are foundational to emergent philosophy including his 1999 Ancient-Future Faith, Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Christianity Today calls Webber the “Father of the ancient-future movement” and mentions the Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient Evangelical Future which he founded.[1] Chris Armstrong says the movement “exploded in a 24-month period in 1977-1978, which saw the publication of Richard Foster’s bestselling Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth and Robert Webber’s Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity.”[2] Armstrong documents other evangelical leaders during this same time period coming to similar conclusions including Bethel College and Seminary president Carl Lundquist, Campus Crusade leader Peter Gillquist, Drew University’s Tom Oden, theologians Donald Bloesch and Thomas Howard. The latter two were instrumental, along with Robert Webber, in penning The Chicago Call: An Appeal to Evangelicals, whose prologue declared evangelicals’ “pressing need to reflect upon the substance of the biblical and historic faith and to recover the fullness of this heritage.”[3] In 1982 Christianity Today’s sister publication Christian History (now Christian History & Biography) began to encourage interest in church history and works of the church fathers (in itself a good thing). In 1988 Renovare was founded by Richard Foster to introduce Roman Catholic mystics to Protestants and advance a mystical approach in evangelicalism.

We will explore the content of Ancient-Future (A-F) later, but for now it would be helpful to know that a wide range of evangelicals now identify with A-F. In the February 2008 issue of Christianity Today several of its editors, including Mark Galli, David Neff, Ted Olson and Tim Morgan, have expressed their involvement with the movement. Anyone who has read CT in recent years is not surprised to find its editors in sympathy with emergent related views. Now they have clearly staked out their position.

Virtually all those involved with any aspect of the emergent conversation, as well as a growing number of more mainstream evangelical leaders, are embracing A-F practices and ideas. One internet ministry, Lighthouse Trails (http://www.lighthousetrails.com/) is dedicated to bringing to the awareness of Christians the vast number of evangelical leaders who are immersed or at least dabbling in mysticism, of which A-F adherents embrace.

Stages

As we attempt to understand A-F we will start with the stages of church history through which Webber believes the church has traveled. This is important for Webber informs us that “you can best think about the future of the faith after you have gone back to the classical tradition.”[4] In other words, he is not trying to reinvent Christianity; he just wants to “carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.”[5] With this in mind Webber looks back and sees six stages of church history: primitive (the first century) ancient (or classical) (100-600), medieval (600-1500), Reformation (1500-1750), modern (1750-1980), and postmodern (1980-present).[6] In Webber’s view this final stage (postmodern) is a return to the second stage (ancient/classical) which he sees as the purest form of Christianity. He writes, “It may be said broadly that the story of Christianity moves from a focus on mystery in the classical period, to institution in the medieval era, to individualism in the Reformation era, to reason in the modern era, and now, in the postmodern era, back to mystery.”[7]

It is vital to note that the starting point for A-F is not the apostolic era of the first century, nor the New Testament documents. A-F does not return directly to Scripture for its practices and beliefs; it returns to the ancient stage of the second through seventh centuries. It would be unfair to say that Webber dismisses the Apostolic age altogether, referring to it as “primitive Christianity.” However, to grasp the issues it is necessary to realize that A-F advocates begin from a different point of reference than many evangelicals. They do not argue that their views in the areas of mysticism and ritual are based on New Testament teaching or example, for they cannot. This does not deter them, however, for they are reaching back to what they consider the “rich” traditions and practices developed in the classical stage of church history. It is their contention that it was during this era that Christianity reached its zenith, and therefore for Christianity to regain its spiritual health it is essential to return to the ancient stage with its emphasis and observances. The argument that we should look to the New Testament for our ecclesiastical model falls on deaf ears among the A-F community, for they are convinced that the richest expression of the Christian faith is not found in the Bible but in the post-biblical early church. It is the desire of the A-F/emergent movement to mold the future church into the shape of the ancient church.

The wisdom of this attempt will be discussed later, but for now I want to mention some more recent phases of church history. Here we turn to modern evangelicalism of the last six decades. An article in Christianity Today summarizes Webber’s tri-fold breakdown of evangelicalism since 1950 as found in his book Younger Evangelicals. Webber sees the years between 1950 and 1975 as the era of “traditionals” who focused on doctrine or, as Webber complains, “being right.” “They poured their resources into Bible studies, Sunday school curricula, and apologetics materials.”[8] The traditionals were followed by the “pragmatics” who “‘do’ church growth, spawning the culturally engaged (and hugely successful) seeker-sensitive trend, with full-service megachurches and countless outreach programs.”[9] The pragmatics have been superseded by the “younger evangelicals” who “seek a Christianity that is ‘embodied’ and ‘authentic’ – distinctively Christian… The younger evangelicals seek a renewed encounter with a God beyond both doctrinal definitions and super-successful ministry program.”[10]

While elements of all three types of evangelicals can be found today, according to Webber and CT, it is the younger or emergent evangelical that dominates the 21st century and is the superior form of Christianity. Evangelicalism has finally grown up, having left behind the need for doctrinal correctness and outward success, and has evolved into the ancient faith of the early church. The church has returned full circle and this is for the best, so say the A-F people.

The Romans Road

But exactly where is A-F taking the church? All signs point to Rome, or at least the suburbs of Rome. This is evidenced not only in the adoption of Rome’s religious practices or in embracing Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dogma (both subjects we will cover in future papers), but also in the direct statements and actions of those leading the movement. For example, there has been the steady trickle of noted evangelical leaders who have openly converted to Rome or Orthodoxy. We think of Thomas Howard and Frank Schaffer of some years back. I recently viewed a television program in which Frank Schaffer (son of Francis Schaffer) said he grew up being taught that Roman Catholicism was the “whore of Babylon” but he now has seen the light and worships in an Orthodox church, has strong leanings toward Rome, and finds little good to say about the Reformed theology of his father or evangelicalism in general. More recently it has been the celebrated defection of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Francis Beckwith. Beckwith was willing to lay down his coveted position with ETS in order to join the Catholic Church. Indeed, some see no choice. John Henry Newman, of the old Oxford Movement (a mid-nineteenth century move toward Rome), stated, “To read deeply in history is to cease being Protestant.”[11] And “at least some evangelicals have concluded that … the only option left is to jump [the Protestant] ship.”[12]

Others do not want to go that far, but are open to a deeper ecumenicalism than in the past. Chris Armstrong, in his article for Christianity Today summarizes, “In short, the search for historic roots can and should lead not to conversion, but to a deepening ecumenical conversation, and a recognition by evangelicals that the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are fellow Christians with much to teach us.”[13] Apparently many agree with this sentiment. InterVarsity Press has released the Ancient Christian Commentary series to draw modern believers of all stripes back to the views of earlier church leaders; the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference chose as its theme “The Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future”; as mentioned earlier the editors of Christianity Today have come out as supporters of A-F; and even Liberty University observed the liturgical season of Lent; and Thomas Nelson is just now publishing a series of eight books on “The Ancient Practices,“ the first written by Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again, the Return of the Ancient Practices.”[14]

The movement probably owes as much to Richard Foster as anyone. When Foster wrote his bestselling Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth in 1977 it hit the evangelical community like a bombshell. Here was a card-carrying evangelical (although a Quaker) urging believers to return to the mystical teachings of ancient Roman Catholicism to unearth the “great treasures of spiritual reformation.” Foster introduced numerous mystics, most, but not all, from the monastic and Counter-Reformation periods, to modern evangelicals who had never heard of them. He then propounded that following the practices of these “spiritual masters of the past” was essential to spiritual development. Since that time Foster and his many followers have flooded the evangelical community with mystical practices which promise a deeper level of spiritual life than witnessed since the Reformation disastrously (in their opinion) convinced believers of the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Since that time the race has been on to return Protestants to the Mother Church. The distinctions that have been recognized between conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox churches since Luther and Calvin have been rapidly disappearing. The mood of the moment is not only that the three traditions can learn from each other but that they can be reunited. How so? Certainly not through returning to the Bible, since “doctrine divides.” But if we can put our doctrines on the back burner, seeing them as secondary issues at best, and return to the ancient practices and creeds, we can recognize our commonality in the ancient church. We will therefore be able to identify each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, despite insurmountable doctrinal differences. Unity between the major traditions will never be found as long as we adhere to our theological distinctives. But if we can lay these aside and unite over our experiences, common ancestors, and ecumenical creeds, we revitalize the Christian faith. It should be observed that most, if not all, of the moving is being done from the Protestant side not the Catholic/Orthodox side. This is because the A-F movement sees the Reformation as an unnecessary schism perpetrated by Protestants. Since it was the Protestants who split and went astray, it is necessary for them to come home. Of course some in the emergent conversation want to take this further and roll into community those of other religions as well. But that is another story.

Monasticism

Hand-in-hand with the A-F movement is a revival in traditional monastic and religious orders. What is most interesting is that this resurgence is not unique to Christianity or any particular branch of Christianity. A recent article in U.S. News and World Report documents Jewish, Islamic, Catholic and Protestant interest in more traditional and liturgical forms of worship, especially among young adults.[15] But an almost inexplicable aspect of all this is an attraction to monastic practices. The term “new monasticism” is becoming common on the internet and among emergent and mystical-oriented writers such as Richard Foster, Tony Jones and Brian McLaren. The winter 2007 issue of Christian History and Biography is devoted to the monasticism of sixth century monk St. Benedict and states, “No topic touches young evangelical students more than monasticism.”[16] Why would this be true? On the one hand the fragmented, success oriented, materialistic age is running out of gas for many. Something more is needed, something with depth, something beyond the superficial entertainment-oriented Christian tradition that many have grown up with. On the other hand there has been a whole line of books, (from the writings of Richard Foster, to Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, to Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book), to numerous promotions of lectio divina (a unique reading of Scripture that I will discuss later) and contemplative prayer, to the general rise of mysticism and the emergent church which has pushed these concepts into the minds of young people.

Between the combination of restlessness/disillusionment and the promise of better things in solitude, asceticism and a life of spiritual discipline, monasticism has a certain draw. To be sure this is a “new monasticism” with a 21st century twist. The origin of early Christian monasticism came in the fourth century following the legalization of Christianity. Until then martyrdom was “the ultimate test of devotion, [but at that point]… the Christian ascetic inherited the mantle of the martyr… [becoming sort of a living martyr]… Monks sought to live an angelic life on earth, neither marrying nor having children. By refusing to participate in the continual process of physically repopulating the earth, they recognized that Christ’s coming had initiated a new age and believed that their lives could help usher in his kingdom.”[17] Contemporary young people attracted to monasticism are not likely to abandon conventional life and live as hermits in caves or even monasteries. More likely they will continue to keep their jobs, live in standard dwellings with family or friends and carry out the normal activities of modern society. But they are yearning for some sense of serenity, quiet and simpler times, and therein lies the pull of monastic and ancient practices. But are these things the panacea they crave, and more importantly, are they biblical? We will take a closer look next time.

 


[1] Mark Galli, “Ancient-Future People,” Christianity Today, February 2008, p. 7.

[2] Chris Armstrong, “The Future Lies in the Past,” Christianity Today, February 2008, p. 24.

[3] Ibid., p. 22.

[4] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), p.7.

[5] Ibid., p. 17.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 16.

[8] Chris Armstrong, Christianity Today, p. 26.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As quoted by Chris Armstrong, p. 28.

[12] Chris Armstrong, p. 28

[13] Ibid., p. 29,

[14] See Ibid., pp. 23, 29.

[15] http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2007/12/13/a-return-to-tradition_print.htm.

[16] Jennifer Trafton, “Rediscovering Benedict,” Christian History and Biography, Issue 93, p. 6.

[17] Jennifer Hevelone-Harper, “Radical Christians,” Christian History and Biography, Issue 93, p. 7.

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