Robert Webber's Ancient-Future Legacy
Dr. Robert Webber said, "Evangelicals will do well to affirm a Christianity that has a deep kinship with the faith of the early church. … The challenge for us is to return to the Christian tradition." Last week this well-known theologian and early-church advocate died of pancreatic cancer at age 73. During his life, Dr. Webber revived evangelicals' interest in the early church through his Ancient-Future book series and his many years of teaching at Wheaton College and, more recently, Northern Seminary. Most recently, he organized "A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future" urging evangelicals "to strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings."
In tribute to Dr. Webber, this week's Christian History & Biography newsletter contains excerpts from a few of his books and statements from those who knew him or were influenced by him.
Looking backward, moving forward
"Classical Christianity was shaped in a pagan and relativistic society much like our own. Classical Christianity was not an accommodation to paganism but an alternative practice of life. Christians in a postmodern world will succeed, not by watering down the faith, but by being a countercultural community that invites people to be shaped by the story of Israel and Jesus.
"We now live in a transitional time in which the modern worldview of the Enlightenment is crumbling and a new worldview is beginning to take shape. Some leaders will insist on preserving the Christian faith in its modern form; others will run headlong into the sweeping changes that accommodate Christianity to postmodern forms; and a third group will carefully and cautiously seek to interface historic Christian truths in the dawning of a new era.
"My argument has been that evangelicals will do well to affirm a Christianity that has a deep kinship with the faith of the early church. … For here is a faith that, like a tapestry, weaves everything in and out of the main thread—Christ. … Here, I believe, is a faith for our time, a faith that finds in the ancient Christian tradition a power to speak to the postmodern world."
—From Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker: 1999)
"The concern of this writing is to go back to the earliest convictions of Christian spirituality. Why go back? Because the Roman culture in which Christianity first emerged is very similar to the culture of today's world. It was a culture of political unrest, a world of numerous religious options, a time of moral confusion and poverty. The religions of the day made no demands on believing, behaving, or belonging. In this context the Christian message was not presented as one more spirituality among the spiritualities but as Alan Kreider points out, Christians proclaimed, "We believe, we behave, we belong." One would think that the clarity of union with God in the context of the plurality of religions would doom it to failure. But it was that very union with God—lived out in belief, behavior, and belonging—that resulted in the rapid spread of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire."
—From The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Baker, 2006)
"How do you deliver the authentic faith and great wisdom of the past into the new cultural situation of the twenty-first century? The way into the future, I argue, is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past. These three matters—roots, connection, and authenticity in a changing world—will help us to maintain continuity with historic Christianity as the church moves forward."
—From Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year (Baker, 2004)
A teacher's impact
"Bob Webber pointed many evangelicals to the church fathers. But for Bob, reading the early Christian writers was not an end in itself. It was about equipping today's Christians for their encounter with a pagan society."
—David Neff, executive editor of Christian History & Biography and editor of Christianity Today
"Bob Webber never led a large organization, but he will stand as one of the most influential leaders of evangelicals in our time. Attend any emerging-church conference today, and you'll find that much of the discussion started 30 years earlier in Bob Webber's classroom. He made two great contributions:
1. He broadened our sense of church history. For many evangelicals, church history consisted of not much more than The Book of Acts, the apostle John on the Isle of Patmos, a loooong gap, and then the small-groups movement. Bob got evangelicals to read about and care about the diverse and glorious history of the church, especially its first five centuries.
2. He broadened our approach to church worship. Some evangelical church services offered little more than special music and an evangelistic sermon. Bob opened the minds and hearts of many leaders to see that worship gathers the people of God around Word and Table, that it is and can be far more rich than we had imagined.
"In college I took two of Bob's classes, and like all his students I enjoyed his charismatic lectures. More important, I changed—and a changed life is the only worthy measure of a great teacher. The fact that I was brought to faith through a Youth for Christ club in my high school and today am ordained in the Anglican Church of Rwanda (a set of circumstances that even I find bizarre) must in large part be attributed to the life-shaping influence of Bob Webber."
—Kevin Miller, Vice President of Resources, Christianity Today International, and a senior editor of Christian History & Biography
"I took Dr. Webber's historical theology class during my sophomore year at Wheaton College and it was one of my favorite classes. Right now I am pursuing a Ph.D in historical theology with an emphasis in Patristics and early Christian history, and I would say that the origins of this interest began in Dr. Webber's class. In other words, I owe much of the inspiration behind what I am doing right now to Dr. Webber."
—Jason Scully, graduate student at Marquette University
"I first encountered Robert Webber four years ago when his former student, Jason Scully, shared with me the book Ancient-Future Faith. I took Dr. Webber's book, and in true evangelical Christian fashion, read, analyzed, and discussed the work with two Christian friends. In Ancient-Future Faith, Webber introduced us to the early church and its worship practices and argued that, in our postmodern age, the time is ripe to revive the Classical Christian way. although we tried to read the book methodically, internally we were excited and captivated as Webber pulled back the curtains to reveal our Christian heritage. It wasn't long before we found ourselves among the traditional Anglicans in our community, basking in the beautiful liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer.
"Since then my interest in church history, and more particularly the ancient church, has deepened. For me personally, it was Dr. Webber's book (and my Russian husband) that sparked a journey that has led to my most recent step—I joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. I suspect that I am not the only one who, after reading Dr. Webber's rich descriptions of liturgical worship and the early church, began the pilgrimage to discover the roots of our Christian heritage."
—Rebecca Golossanov, assistant editor of Christian History & Biography
"Knowing Bob Webber for the past 20 years and coming to count him as a dear and loyal friend is a personal treasure for me. Bob's passion for the glory of God in the worship of the Church has been a shining light for many in the evangelical world and his careful description of the roots of Christian worship has provided the bridge that many of us have walked to experience the Great Tradition of Classical Christianity. Thanks to Bob's life and ministry many now will not so much miss him but find fellowship with him in the Glorious Church Triumphant."
—Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth, Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Warrenville, Illinois
Read more about Robert Webber at Christianity Today: Robert E. Webber, Theologian of 'Ancient-Future' Faith, Dies at 73.
Copyright © 2007 Christian History & Biography, or the author. Click for reprint information.