Book Review

"Ancient-Future Worship" by Robert E. Webber

William J. Nielsen
Robert E. Webber
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

"Worship does God's story," writes Robert Webber. Those four words are the rubric for the entire book published as the final volume of the Ancient-Future series. [Editorial note: Robert Webber died April 27, 2007, at age 73 from pancreatic cancer.] Written on the popular level, Webber argues for a return to the ancient paradigm for worship as the way forward. Ancient-Future Worship is a decent introduction to the liturgical world. The book is directed to evangelicals who are perhaps weary of over-programmed, growth-oriented church life. Its aim is to call Christians to a worship that "discloses the work of Jesus Christ"(97).

The book is divided into two parts, preceded by an introduction that serves as a summary to the book as a whole. Each chapter employs a reader-friendly layout, using headings and including summary sections at the conclusion of each chapter. The first part, "Rediscovering God's Story in Worship," seeks to inform the reader of the scriptural and historical basis for the four pillars of worship in Webber's paradigm. Worship is the reenactment of God's redemptive work in space and time, and in this sense worship does God's story. Worship also remembers the past and anticipates the future works of God in the present. Consequently, the fullness of worship encompasses the fullness of the biblical witness in both the Old and New Testaments.

The second part of the book deals primarily with the application of the rediscovery of Part One to the tripartite transforming worship of the Christian church (i.e., Word, Eucharist, and prayer). Webber explains that the role of the Word of God in worship is to transform participants by implicating them into the Divine Narrative in history. The Eucharist transforms worshippers as they participate in the presence of God. The section on prayer seeks to return the reader's paradigm toward public prayer. "The story of God," Webber writes, "is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God's story" (151).

In his conclusion, Webber informs the reader of the primary and secondary sources that have impacted him in his journey toward "Ancient-Future Worship." Church fathers such as Ignatius and Athanasius have composed the ancient component of Webber's sources, while his contemporary influences are almost exclusively Eastern Orthodox. Last, the appendix is a call to evangelicals to turn away from the modern and cultural trappings that "camouflage God's story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning."

The recapitulation of redemptive history is set forth as a core purpose of worship. As such, an emphasis on trinitarian worship comes to the fore. Redemptive history entails God's work in the Garden of Eden to Christ Jesus' Second Advent bringing Paradise with him. Consequently, worship is the convergence of the past and the future into the present, concentering divine transcendence and immanence.

There is iterative concern for the fullness of God's story being brought to bear upon Christian worship. Webber reflects on why congregants may struggle with liturgical worship: "One reason is because we tend to be New Testament Christians rather than Bible Christians" (67). To put it another way, embracing the entire Christian metanarrative in Sunday worship is an exercise of implicating oneself (participating) in God's story and shaping one's worldview for worshipping the Lord in the mundane.

Related to the Christian metanarrative in Scripture is a welcomed emphasis on the objective nature of worship. This objective worship is embodied not merely propositional, a corporate endeavor not a private enterprise-a weighty calling, not comfortable entertainment. "The primary focus of worship then and now is not me, the worshipper, but God, who redeems the world" (97).

This reader deeply appreciates the concern given to the worship of God in Ancient-Future Worship. Webber circumscribes the liturgical question of how form relates to content and provides constructive avenues for Christians concerned about historical worship to traverse.

While the discussion and interaction with the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church is fruitful, Webber's more or less exclusive commitment to the Eastern liturgy seems arbitrary and at times dismissive of the Western tradition, which ironically shares much of the same liturgical traditions. This is especially true in Western Rite Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics.

Evangelicals from a certain Reformed perspective more oriented to redemptive history may inadvertently feel a bit slighted. The emphasis on the Christian metanarrative has historically been central to theologians like John Calvin, Gerhardus Vos, and more recently in the field of worship, Hughes Oliphant Old.

Overall, Ancient-Future Worship is worth the read. Its irenic tone will engage the reader in a much needed conversation with the self, the contemporary culture, and the church as God's people have worshipped the incarnate-risen-and-exalted Christ throughout the centuries.

Friday, September 5th 2008

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

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