Ancient-Future Spirituality Not Biblical

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by Roger Oakland

In the emerging culture, darkness represents spirituality. We see this in Buddhist temples, as well as Catholic and Orthodox churches. Darkness communicates that something serious is happening.1–Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church (foreword by Rick Warren)

On October 12, 1998 in Glorieta, New Mexico, over 500 young leaders came together in what was called The National Reevaluation Forum. The objective was to train and listen to “leaders of the new millennium’s emerging church.”2 A Young Leaders Network article on the event described it as a time to “discuss everything from restoring arts in the church” to dialoguing about “worship, the use of story and the mystical, and the experiential aspects of faith.”3 Plenary speakers included Stanley Grenz, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Sally Morgenthaler. According to the article, Sweet told the group: “The primary challenge in this Postmodern transition is navigational tools.”4

Over the years, since that 1998 meeting in New Mexico, the emerging church has defined many of these “navigational tools,” and has implemented them within the structure of emerging worship. The late Robert Webber is recognized by many as one of the foremost authorities on worship renewal. He regularly conducted workshops for almost every major denomination in North America through the Institute of Worship Studies, which he founded in 1995.

Before his appointment to his position at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Webber taught at Wheaton College for 32 years as Professor of Theology. He authored over forty books and was also a regular contributor to numerous magazines and newspapers including Worship Leader.

I first came across Webber’s views when I read an article he had written titled “Wanted: Ancient Future Talent.” In that article, Webber stated:

I am personally most gratified to see the shift toward a recovery of the ancient. While many good choruses have been produced over the past forty years, the rejection of the sources of hymnody and worship by the contemporary church has resulted in a faith that is an inch deep.5

Webber listed a number of things he believed were necessary for “talented workers” to become a successful part of this new movement. Some of these he listed are:

* Rediscovering how God acts through the sacred signs of water, bread and wine, oil and laying on of hands.

* Rediscovering the central nature of the table of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper, breaking of bread, communion and Eucharist.

* Rediscovering congregational spirituality through the Christian celebration in Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.6

Unfortunately, Webber’s hope to return to “the ancient” was not limited to reintroducing the great hymns of the past. In fact, many of the practices he included in this call to “ancient-future worship talent” cannot be found in the Bible.

Like his emerging church colleagues, Robert Webber was convinced that Christianity needs to be revised for this new century. But in order to go ahead, we must go back (thus the term ancient-future) to the mystics and learn from them. While he acknowledged the Bible is an important book for the Christian faith, he also believed that it needed to be supplemented by the teachings of spiritual mystics from the past. He wrote:

The primary source of spiritual reading is the Bible. But we now recognize that in our love of Scripture we dare not avoid the mystics and the activists. Exposure to the great devotional literature of the church is essential. More and more people are turning to the great work of the mystics. Richard Foster has called us to recover Augustine’s Confessions, Bernard of Clairvaux’s The Steps of Humility, [etc.].7

Webber’s list of recommended books written by mystics includes: Thomas a Kempis, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton and numerous others.8 You may not be familiar with all these names, but they all have something in common–they are Catholic mystics. Webber made the following statement about them:

To immerse ourselves in these great works is to allow our vision to be expanded by a great treasure of spirituality.9

Webber was enamored by the writings of Catholic mystics, and he admonished his readers to embrace them as well:

The value of all these books as well as many not mentioned are 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.10

This statement by Webber is quite strong: without the teachings of these former mystics, our spiritual lives will suffer. Webber explained that those willing to adhere to these ancient-future teachers do not have to leave their own religious tradition. He said:

A goal for evangelicals in the postmodern world is to accept diversity as a historical reality, but to seek unity in the midst of it. This perspective will allow us to see Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches as various forms of the one true church–all based on apostolic teaching and authority, finding common ground in the faith expressed by classical Christianity.11 …

Going back to the past to find experiences that will attract the postmodern generation is one goal of the emerging church movement. However, a serious question needs to be asked at this point. Why only go back to the Middle Ages, the turn of the first millennium, or the third century? Wouldn’t this open the door for some devious doctrines that may have crept into the church? Why not just stay with Scripture in order to remain in the truth?

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (II Timothy 3:16)

Those convinced that great spiritual insight can be gleaned from church fathers and mystics often overlook such definitive, God-inspired instruction. The Bible is stable and eternal; thus the truths penned in it centuries ago are still relevant today. I propose it isn’t biblical truths that emergents say we need to go hunting for in previous historical periods, but rather unscriptural methods, rituals, and mystical experiences to be gathered and brought into the present time.

Vintage spirituality proponents have an apologetic for those who question leaving scriptural doctrine behind for post-New Testament extra-biblical revelation. Robert Webber wrote:

I once believed that the church became apostate at the close of the first century and hadn’t emerged again until the Reformation. I jokingly say to my students, “We Protestants act as though Pentecost occurred October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenburg church.” This attitude results in a negative view of the early church fathers and Christianity prior to the Reformation. The fact is that God’s church has existed from the Pentecost described in Acts. We belong to the whole church and need, for our own spiritual health, to affirm every part of it.12

Webber recognized some are suspicious about taking instruction from the church fathers, especially when the church fathers are the fathers of the Catholic Church. In order to answer this concern, he wrote:

Because evangelicals fear that a respect for early church fathers will turn them into Roman Catholics, a distinction needs to be made between catholic and Roman Catholic. The early Fathers are catholic in the sense that they defined the classical Christian tradition for the whole church. This is a tradition, as I have been presenting, common to every branch of the church. Roman Catholicism, as such, is a tradition that has added to the common tradition. I believe in the common tradition and share that tradition with my Catholic brothers and sisters. But I do not believe in some of the added traditions of the Romanization of the church in the medieval era.13

Webber, like many emergent leaders, was trying to differentiate between Roman Catholic and catholic (as a universal body). However, the Roman Catholic Church does not make this distinction because they claim an apostolic succession of papacy (popes) beginning with the apostle Peter. Therefore, all of Catholicism is Roman Catholicism. Some in the emerging church do not show an attachment to the authority of the papacy but embrace the practices and early history of the Catholic Church as described above by Webber. But many Protestants who began by attaching themselves to the history, teachings, and practices of the early Catholic Church have now taken the natural next step of becoming Roman Catholic. (For more on this, see chapter 5, Faith Undone.)

1. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church, p. 136.
2. “The National Reevaluation Forum: The Story of the Gathering” (Youth Leader Networks – NEXT Special Edition, 1999), pp. 1-2.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Robert Webber, “Wanted: Ancient-Future Talent” (Worship Leader, May/June 2005), p. 10.
6. Ibid.
7. Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), p. 135.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., p. 85.
12. Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, op. cit., pp. 88-89.
13. Ibid., p. 89.

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