PALEO-ORTHODOXY. This term, at its broadest, refers to a general movement among evangelicals, especially young conservative evangelicals, toward recovery of early-church teaching and practice. For some, this means conversion to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or the less dramatic move to Anglicanism. But for many, this simply means a desire to structure one’s religious life to be more in accord with the Fathers of the Church and classical Christian teaching. The self-consciously Paleo-Orthodox movement, associated especially with Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, seeks to reincorporate the richness of the Christian tradition while remaining firmly Evangelical. Though it is only one among many diverse movements within postmodern Evangelicalism, Paleo-Orthodoxy’s proponents believe it may point the way to the future of Evangelicalism.
I could not fix a definite denominational label to myself, but “Paleo-Orthodox” makes a passable filler term, indicating as it does a serious interest in Classical Christianity. That said, I have never hitherto read something from a consciously Paleo-Orthodox author. I have usually gone directly to the Church Fathers, or sometimes to members of those traditions which hold them most dear (Catholics and Orthodox). What I have read directly or mediately has been concerned with the Fathers as such, or the continuing theological tradition. However, Paleo-Orthodoxy as a movement is about more than looking back; it is about finding a way for classical Christianity to influence who we are today, as evangelicals.
Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World purports to be a kind of Paleo-Orthodox primer. The late author Robert Webber, a Wheaton professor of theology, was one of the more outstanding figures in the Paleo-Orthodox movement. He was born Baptist and studied in Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran seminaries, eventually settling in the Episcopal Church but working across denominations. Webber was particularly interested in worship ancient and modern, and today has the ecumenical Institute for Worship Studies in Florida, of which he was first president, named after him. He died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer. Ancient-Future Faith, published in 1999, is one of four books in the “Ancient-Future” series.
At first, the book frustrated me. The writing is choppy, the generalizations annoying, and there are other problems I will detail below. But it was mainly the approach that threw me off. I had expected something along the lines of a book that delves into Early Christianity and explains its continuing relevance for Evangelicals. But Ancient-Future Faith fits that description only loosely; instead, I found myself reading a highly pragmatic justification for recovering broadly Patristic doctrines and practices in a postmodern world.
It was when I belatedly realized I shouldn’t be looking for deep theology that I began to appreciate the usefulness of the book. It is a book that preaches primarily on the practice of the faith in the life of the churches. Its optimal audience would be ministers and church leaders who wish to integrate new techniques to reach their congregations. It is not really a guide to the ancient faith, so much as a manual on how to deal with postmodern challenges using elements of the ancient faith.
Therefore I offer a recommendation, with caveats. There are much better books on the early Church, but Ancient-Future Faith, I think, has the potential to reach today’s Evangelicals through a different door than a book written by one with stronger theological commitments to the Fathers. Webber is openly and staunchly Protestant, and perhaps the first such Protestant whom I have read at length on the Fathers.1 His pragmatism may also be a point in his favor for those who are less interested in complex theological and historical conversations and more interested in their practical implications. Webber justifies his approach in the Appendix, which I might almost recommend reading first, as it describes many of the presuppositions of his book.
Webber postulates five periods or paradigms of western Christendom: Ancient, Medieval, Reformation, Modern, and Postmodern. He suggests that civilization is shifting from a modern paradigm (represented by individualism and confidence in rational analysis) into postmodernity (which is oriented toward community and symbol). Moreover, he explains that the same cultural values that were in place in the ancient world are again becoming prominent with postmodernity. Hence, in order to deal with postmodernity, we ought to go back to the Church Fathers and let them give us direction, or we condemn ourselves to irrelevance. This argument is elegantly simple and concisely stated, allowing for a selective ressourcement that does not have to compromise theological development or Protestant autonomy and distinctiveness.
In a few places Webber makes explicit theological recommendations that may trouble some Evangelicals, notably with the atonement. Webber does not explicitly dismiss other theories of the atonement–he only refers to them in passing (both “sacrificial” and “moral”) as “incomplete”–but Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor appears on his top ten book recommendations at the back, and it is clear he favors this framework as the early church theory, and one we need to hear more of.
His form of ecumenicism is likewise interesting but bound to run against the opinions of a large portion of his audience. Webber suggests that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions have each acquired cultural accretions based on the eras in which they took shape; these accretions are not necessarily bad (though some are–medieval equals bad most of the time in this book), but they can be barriers to unity. Christians of all varieties need to wake up to the reality of a broad Christianity and accept that they are but a part of it, while moving toward unity. His ecclesiology, of course, would be rejected by Catholics and Orthodox, as well as some Protestants; many of those Protestants who might agree with it, would be incensed at the implication that they ought to give up or relax their theological distinctives for the sake of unity. Thus his call for unity comes across as a little naive.
However, these issues are only a small portion of his presentation, and others are more likely to be effective. One of the most interesting sections to me, as the information was mostly new, was the description of how people were inducted into the early Church. Converts went through four stages: seeker, hearer, kneeler, and faithful. Seekers were those interested in becoming a Christian; they met with the elders and were solemnly warned the sacrifices and repentance the Christian life would entail. If they remained steadfast in their decision, they became hearers. Hearers were formally instructed or catechized in the faith; this usually lasted for three years. When they were deemed to be adequately instructed, at the beginning of Great Lent, they became kneelers. During Lent, kneelers worked through prayer and fasting to identify the sinful habits of their old selves and truly repent of them. Finally, when Easter came, they renounced the Devil, received baptism, and were served Communion for the first time, and thereafter they were counted among the faithful in full membership of the faith community.
I appreciated Webber’s subsequent suggestion that churches integrate education with the Christian calendar, allowing for an annual cycle and rhythm that assists believers to progress further and further in knowledge of the faith and in wisdom. This is a good example of the best aspect of Webber’s approach: a look at early church customs that results in practical recommendations for today.
Webber does his history in broad strokes, and several times I winced at an inappropriate or inaccurate generalization. He shares with other Evangelical authors a devotion to neat charts and diagrams, which describe vivid contrasts and fine distinctions with slightly eccentric terms such as “cognitariat” and “heterotopian.” These reinforce a sense of generalization, gross but perhaps pardonable. They also remind me a bit of the Christian worldview curriculum I was exposed to at Belhaven University. Again, Webber’s writing shows itself to be not a rigorous analysis, but a general call to Classical Christianity.
It would be unwise to compare Ancient-Future Faith too much to other books I have read on the subject. Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ is a more persuasive attempt (if admittedly less Evangelical) to reconnect with Patristic theology, and as far as sacramentalism, one of the most attractive aspects of the Early Church, Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation or Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World go much further. Perhaps this is merely due to a steady recent diet of Catholic and Orthodox commentators, but even after realizing his purpose, I do find Webber’s pragmatic approach to ressourcement still a bit off-putting and very non-Patristic. Actually, I do not in the least disagree with his thesis. I believe that Western culture is increasingly pagan in its attitudes, and a return to classical Christianity would greatly improve Christianity’s ability to communicate with it. But I am wary of arguments in these matters that start with the prevailing culture. I would also worry that a reader might come away thinking that going back to the early church means diminishing the role of Scripture in the life of the believer.
Despite Ancient-Future Faith‘s aspirations to being a “primer,” it is still not the book I’m looking for that binds together ancient and contemporary, presenting some of the breadth of the riches of Christianity in a fresh and accessible manner. Nevertheless, if I had to choose a book to introduce someone to the broad outlines of the Paleo-Orthodox project, this one at least hits the basics, and in a readable way. It sets out a path of limited ressourcement that will appeal to many Evangelicals as sensibly moderate, and for someone interested in ideas for invigorating church life with the great Christian tradition, this is a good place to stop, read, and ponder.
1. Hans Boersma, author of Heavenly Participation, is also Protestant, but of a Protestantism that is clearly trying to reconcile with Catholicism. Webber also has ecumenical sympathies, but whereas Boersma mourns the consequences of the Reformation and Modernism, Webber accepts major historical shifts and present divisions as healthy symptoms of adaptation and diversity.