Ancient—Future Faith by Robert E. Webber
The thesis of Webber’s book, well represented by the title, is “you can best think about the future of the faith after you have gone back to the classical tradition” (p. 7). Webber does not want to reinvent the Christian faith, he just wants to “carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning” (p. 17). Six stages of church history are identified: ancient (classical) (100-600), medieval (600-1500), Reformation (1500-1750), modern (1750-1980), and postmodern (1980- ). The current postmodern era is, in a sense, a return to an ancient stage, which Webber sees as the most pure 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” (p. 16).
As can be seen, Webber does not begin the stages of church history with the apostolic era of the first century. He does not dismiss this era, calling it in another place “primitive Christianity” (p. 13), and seeing it as foundational (although this is a dirty word to Webber and postmoderns) to the formation of the church. It is to the “classical” period of the second to the seventh century that he turns for his “ancient” faith, not to the apostolic era.
Here is how Webber reasons: The Apostles were indeed the foundation of the church and gave to the church first the oral, then the written, New Testament Scriptures which were inspired by God. But it was the responsibility of the ancient church to summarize “the general doctrines of the faith in creedal form” (the “rule of faith”) (p. 28). In order to ensure the accuracy and authority of the creeds, the early church Fathers and councils were inspired as well. “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” (p. 177). So, “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…” (p. 177). Therefore, the solas approach to the faith is in error, “Scripture, tradition, and authority are not three distinct subjects, but the…authority of apostolic interpretation” (p. 186). Since Scripture, tradition and the church have equal authority, we are not surprised to find the final words in Ancient-Future Faith to be these, “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 truth” (p. 201). Webber is in essence calling for a return to Rome’s understanding of inspiration and authority, if not a complete return to Roman Catholicism.
An interesting feature, one found often in other writers within the emergent church movement, is the idea that there are three early creeds (Apostles, Nicene and Chalcedon) containing virtually all the doctrine that the church can embrace with certainty. All other confessions and statements of faith are to be held with tentativeness and even hesitancy (pp. 184, 193-195, 200). This poses a great problem, for the creeds dealt with only a narrow aspect of theology and do not address highly important issues including soteriology (as Webber admits) (p. 193). Since the creeds did not make an authoritative statement on how one becomes a Christian, this would be one of those doctrines in which we cannot know with certainty. While this allows for Webber’s brand of ecumenical Christianity, the trade off is the idea that Scripture cannot show us with certainty the way to God.
While the above is the most serious concern with Ancient-Future Faith, there are plenty of other disturbing elements as well.
• A Christus Victor approach to the work of Christ which misunderstands Christ’s purpose in coming, the present power of Satan and justification (pp. 43, 50-53, 59-60).
• Is highly ecumenical throughout (see especially chapter 10).
• Elevates ancient Christian worship and practices above the teachings of the New Testament (pp. 104-106, 141-149, 151, 157-163).
• Promotes Roman Catholic mystics, mysticism and Richard Foster (pp. 121, 128, 131, 135-137).
• Leaves hanging the vital question that if only the church has the authority to interpret Scripture, which church now has that authority (see pp. 195-201)? It would seem that Webber is hoping that the postmodern church will so dismiss all doctrinal distinctives, except for the creeds, that there will be a massive reunification of the church. At that point, the united church will be in a position to formulate more universal creeds which could be accepted with certainty by the Christian community. Under this scenario it is easy to see that it is the church which actually has authority, not the Scriptures.