"Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World" and "The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World" by Robert Webber

Greg Gilbert
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jul/Aug 2005

The postmodern shift taking place in today's intellectual and spiritual world has presented evangelicals with a formidable challenge. However we describe postmodernism's characteristics, we must be honest in recognizing that something really is happening. The prevailing worldview of Western society is changing, and evangelicals face an inescapable imperative to think seriously about how the church should address this new worldview.

In 1999, Robert Webber published a book entitled Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Besides intending his book to be a sort of primer for postmodernists on the Christian faith, Webber also hopes to encourage evangelical thinkers to "carefully and cautiously seek to interface historic Christian truths into the dawning of a new era" (Faith, 14). He calls on the church to reembrace what he calls the "classical Christian faith"-by which he means not Scripture, but the Christus Victor theology taught by the early church fathers.

Three years after Ancient-Future Faith, Webber published another book titled The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. Here, he introduces us to "a new group of leaders who are shaping the future" of Evangelicalism. If Ancient-Future Faith is Webber's intellectual manifesto, The Younger Evangelicals is a practical directory of how these ideas are being applied in real churches.

I believe Webber has made some critical missteps in his books, but there is also much that I find quite exciting, ideas and concepts that seem to me to resonate with the Bible's own model for church life. In fact, if Webber is right about what postmodernists value, then those churches that most faithfully conform to the biblical model will actually be the most attractive to a postmodern world.

Three major ideas, for example, show up in almost every chapter of both Ancient-Future Faith and Younger Evangelicals-community, history, and narrative. The postmodern generation places great value on a living, breathing community of people who truly relate to one another, Webber argues (Younger, 118). The church, he says, should be "a revolutionary society of people … a new order, a new humanity which has the power to be an explosive force in society" (Faith, 81). Second, Webber calls the church to reestablish itself in Christian history, especially the "classical faith" of the early fathers. I have reservations about his emphasis on the fathers, which I will address shortly, but all in all, the emphasis on church history must be a good thing. Third, Webber observes that narrative is a powerful medium of communication in the postmodern world. The case for Christianity, he says, will be most compellingly made by telling the story of the Bible in all its richness and life (Younger, 84), so Christian worship services should be the place where "the story of the work of Christ is proclaimed and enacted" (Faith, 105). For any Christian familiar with the grand, breathtaking vistas of the Bible's storyline, this is surely an insight to be eagerly embraced! If ever there has been a compelling, life-altering story to be told, it is the Bible's, and Christians should rejoice at the opportunity postmodernism presents to share that story with an unbelieving world.

Having said that, however, I believe Webber has made some significant errors in articulating his vision of evangelical Christianity. For example, he embraces the postmodern agenda of rejecting propositional truth, a position that makes no sense with an evangelical gospel. In fact, Webber himself writes, "The framework of the message is that God created the world; that the world fell away from God in the disobedience of the first Adam; that God rescued the world through Jesus Christ …" (Faith, 46). One wonders how he can write such a sentence while denying the importance of propositional truth. Of course, the gospel is more than propositions, but it cannot be proclaimed without propositions.

Webber's emphasis on the church fathers is excessive. If the goal is to return to the "classical Christian faith," why stop with the church fathers? Why not return to the source of it all, the Bible? After all, for all the good and useful things the fathers taught, they also made some egregious errors. The Christus Victor motif, for example, is simply not sufficient. Certainly the Bible affirms Christ's victory over sin and death, but he won that victory by dying as a substitutionary sacrifice for his people. Though that truth lies at the very heart of the gospel, it is one Webber seems hesitant to embrace. Substitutionary, sacrificial atonement is almost entirely neglected in his books, and where it is mentioned, it is only to lament the "modern" tendency toward a "cross-centered evangelism" (Faith, 144).

Finally, Webber believes the Bible itself needs to be decentralized. He writes: "I sometimes say to my students, 'You would think the Bible became incarnate, was crucified, and rose again for our salvation'" (Faith, 189). He doesn't mean to demean the Bible by saying that, he adds, but only to put it in its "proper place." He dismisses the doctrine of inerrancy, for it makes the Bible "purely objective" and allows no room for a "subjective side" (Younger, 98). Moreover, he argues that Scripture is only one part of the authoritative tradition handed down to us from the apostles. The Bible is authoritative, he argues, but so are the rule of faith, the ecumenical creeds, and even to some degree the primitive Christian hymns, doxologies, and benedictions (Faith, 181). Scripture's testimony, however, is that it alone is the inspired Word of God, and to relegate it to being merely one authoritative tradition among many is much too great a surrender to the postmodern worldview.

There are certainly some exciting trends identified in Webber's books. In some ways, postmodern culture even seems to be moving in a direction that is more in line with biblical truth. So far as it is, Christians ought to welcome the shift. But there are also aspects of postmodernism that should not be embraced, but rather resisted-the rejection of propositional truth, the denial of Scripture's inerrancy, and the decentralizing of the Bible. At the end of the day, Christians ought to build their churches and live their lives according to the Bible's instruction-being glad when postmodern culture resonates with them, but faithful to the Bible anyway when it does not.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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