Webber: The Divine Embrace 3

The primary difference between the Reformation and the modern period of history is that the Reformation looked backward to regain the source of ancient church while the modern era, shaped by an anti-historical attitude, looked forward.

As Webber explains in Chapter 3 of The Divine Embrace, the Reformers considered the Roman Church from about 1300 to 1500 to have been a departure from the original faith (and, as I’ve said before, Luther referred to earlier popes for authority in arguing his position to the then current Catholic Church). Luther and other reformers keyed on 2 central issues: the inability of man to choose God, and God’s initiative to become joined to humanity. This focus parallels the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis – the real participation of man in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, “God becomes one of us so that we may become one with God.”

However, Webber points out that the reformers were still a part of a scholastic kind of theology that went back to Aquinas and Augustine. Contemplation and Participation, the earlier focuses, were replaced by the concepts of justification and sanctification. This, Webber explains,

set up what was to become a severe problem in the modern era – the separation of spirituality from a relational, lived theology to a spirituality rooted in a forensic justification … This turning eventually meant that justification became the focus of an intellectual spirituality and sanctification was turned toward a preoccupation with experience.”

Amen. Following the Reformation (from 1500 to about 1750) came the Enlightenment. Where the Bible was the authority during the Reformation years, science and reason became the authority during the Enlightenment. “Thinking,” says Webber, “was based on a distinction between the object and the subject.” The world, including the Bible and spirituality, became something to be studied and analyzed. Furthermore, the modern world became “preoccupied with facts.” Anything that did not fall within the realm of objective fact was opinion, including religion.

As a result, theologians started applying rules of reason and science to the Bible and theology, and apologetics was born. This was a total break from Reformationist thinking, as

The Reformers did not seek to prove Scripture. They simply spoke out of a Scriptural worldview. For them, the story of God did not need to be proven; it simply needed to be proclaimed.

Spirituality – the living out of our faith – changed as well. Where the Reformers saw justification and sanctification within the context of union with God, modern Christians began to see justification as something objective, resulting in our right standing before God. In essence, the incarnational understanding of Christianity was lost, and therefore sanctification became a works-oriented endeavor.

I’ll stop here, and pick up next time with the end of Chapter 3 where Webber discusses the Romantic movement – the antithetical reaction to modernism – and its impact on spirituality.

As I read through Webber’s discussion of modernism, it occurred to me that we are, in a sense, still prisoners of modernism. It is almost impossible for us to conceive of a non-modern concept. Even post-modernism – as much as some would like to deny it – is rooted firmly in modernism.  Many years ago, I remember having a missionary from Hong Kong come and speak to my Sunday School class (I was probably in Jr. High). I was upset at her comments – that we in American will never be able to understand the Bible as well as the kids in Hong Kong because we in the West have stopped thinking like the people who wrote the Bible. However, through the years I have seen that she was very right. This was true of me, even though I was raised in a Lutheran church, being taught from Luther’s pre-modern catechism. It’s funny how our modern thinking changes the way we interpret concepts.

The adventure continues …

The Divine Embrace 2: heresy vs. spirituality

Webber, as I mentioned in part 1 of this series, defines spirituality as “a lived theology.” That is, Biblical spirituality is based on the core teachings of the Church, as expressed in the earliest creeds. The early heresies, such as Gnosticism and Arianism not only challenged theological ideas, but challenged those areas that directly impacted how we are to live. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds specifically affirmed the Incarnation, the “God joined with man” concept that is essential to any understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Early Church theology, as does Orthodox theology today (and a similar concept in Lutheranism) is that of Theosis, or man becoming God (essentially, “Christ-like,” rather than equal to God). It is the principal of God becoming man that makes it possible for man to become joined to God.

Furthermore, this spirituality is solely at God’s initiative. The Pelagian heresy taught that man could achieve holiness through his own will. It was Augustine who argued that “a man’s free choice avails only to lead him to sin.” Pelagianism was rejected at the Council of Carthage in AD 407, which agreed that “our spirituality is not accomplished by our initiative but by God, who became incarnate…” It is only Jesus who can unite us to God.

Early Christian spirituality, says Webber, was a theological spirituality; that is, the theology was not meant to be merely believed, it was meant to be lived. The concept of the Trinity, for example, is essentially relational or communal; therefore, there can be no such thing as an individualistic spirituality. He quotes Philip Sheldrake as saying,

The incarnation is more than a defense of the reality … of the human nature of Jesus Christ. It is a governing principle of Christian living; of God’s way of relating to creation and our way of response.

Spirituality, then, is participating in the purposes of God in history, at the initiative of God.

Webber goes on in Chapter 2 to explain how Platonic Dualism began to distort the original concept of spirituality. Plato, as we know, saw the material world as inferior to the Ideal world, separating the physical from the spiritual. This way of thinking began to creep into the Church, causing a shift in contemplation from God as subject, to God as object. God was no longer the origin of our spirituality, the One who reached out to us, but spirituality became our way of reaching out to God. Spirituality shifted from being a gift of God’s grace to a striving after grace. That which was physical and normal to life became seen as evil, and only the spiritual was seen as good.

A second crucial shift in contemplation came in the late Medieval period, with the rise of mysticism. Where earlier contemplation was focused on the purposes of God (creating, incarnation and re-creating) of which we were the beneficiaries, now contemplation was focused on man’s experience, as he tried to grab hold of God. It was a shift of focus from God’s work toward us, to our work toward God. Furthermore, this shift caused a split between theology and spirituality, which now became a “spiritual discipline.” In man’s seeking after God, his relationship with God then started to take on a romantic aspect.

It is amazing for me to read Webber’s account and see these influences still at work in – and sometimes controlling – the church today. What really grabbed me was this comment by Webber:

… the language of spirituality moved from the “indescribable wonder of God” to the “wonderfully indescribable experience of God.” …spirituality expressed a movement away from “God’s story,” to “my story.” …

Consequently, participation in God shifted from life-affirming spirituality to a life-denying spirituality.

Webber’s correct, here, I believe. Of course, if you’ve read through this blog over the last couple of years, you’ll see that I’ve been on a similar track. But, Webber actually knows what he’s talking about, and he says things so much better than I can.

I have not done this chapter justice at all, but merely tried to pick out a few of the highlights, so you’ll be encouraged to buy the book, or at least begin to think about these things. Next time, we’ll move into Chapter 3, dealing with the Reformation to 1900. After than, he deals with Modernism in Chapter 4, and post-Modernism in Chapter 5. Then, he gets us back to the Good News. I can hardly wait.

Evangelical Modernism

Perhaps I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself here, as I’m taking topics discussed by Webber out of order; however, I was reading a blog post this morning that got me thinking along these lines, and it seemed fitting to comment while my thoughts were fresh (their shelf-life isn’t that long anymore). I am thinking out loud, for the most part, so take that into consideration as you read.

It seems to me that one of the major issues with the Evangelical church (“Evangelical” in this sense referring to post-reformation churches, even though Luther used the term to refer to his movement) is that it is completely and solidly rooted in Modernism. One of the most irritating qualities of Modernism is the almost essential arrogance that comes from the belief in progress; that is, that “new” is better than “old.” Evangelicalism seems to exhibit the same tendency to believe in theological “progress,” as well as the resulting sense of arrogance in how they deal with past theological positions. While many would argue, especially in the case of fundamentalists, that this is absurd, I think in the “big picture” it makes sense.

With Evangelicalism, there are some basic presumptions that may not be true. One such presumption is that it is an advancement to think of theology almost as a science, being able to break large concepts down into minute detail and argue over the fine points. This scientific approach has, as Webber points out, reduced theology to a set of facts or propositions which can – and must – be believed. This systematic approach appears to have a goal of eradicating any sort of mystery from theology, believing that we can reason our way through our faith. Our faith (as Webber also points out) can then conceivably be conveyed to others in a logical, reasoned way, what we think of a “apologetics.” Evangelicals reason their way to truth, whereas the reformers simply proclaimed it.

Years ago I had a friend who was a Greek Orthodox priest, born and raised in Greece. One day a few of us were dialogging on matters of faith, and another friend of mind tried to get Father Nick to explain the Orthodox position on some hot theolgical topic. I was intrigued so much by Father Nick’s response that I have never forgotten it. He was somewhat frustrated with the conversation, and merely said, “We don’t think that way.” When my friend couldn’t believe that the Orthodox Church had no position on Biblical inerrancy, he replied, “we’ve just never questioned it.” He went on to try to explain his frustration with the Western way of picking things apart into little pieces, and how he felt more in common with a Muslim raised in the East than with a Christian from the West, because of the extreme differences in worldview. Who is more correct? What’s your criteria for deciding?

The Church of the West, especially the Evangelical church, presupposes that the Modern approach to theology and spirituality is necessarily better than what came before, that our perspective has been able to identify errors of the past and better refine the issues. It’s progress. Now, I won’t dispute that some discoveries of earlier manuscripts have allowed for a bit of Biblical fine-tuning, however, these things have been fairly minor. However, I think I am correct when I say that people like Augustine and Martin Luther would consider most if not all of the Evangelical church to be heretical. Is it progress, or simply a 200-year deviation?

Another issue with the Evangelical church today, which is in part a result of that “progressive arrogance,” is its lack of knowledge – or even interest – of anything outside of Evangelicalism. Some have a very loose understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, and Calvin’s been updated to fit some modern Reformed theology, but very few have even a mediocre grasp of what I will call Liturgical Christianity – the Lutherans, Anglicans and Orthodox. Infant baptism, for example, is argued against by people who really have no clue as to its theological and anthropological basis. Consequently, the resulting discussion is meaningless from a pre-Evangelical point of view.

Part of the problem is that Evangelicalism is largely an experience-based religion, and most Evangelicals have never experienced – or felt it necessary to experience – anything else. They were raised or converted in Evangelical Churches, and were also born and raised (for the most part) into Modernism, or converted from liturgical churches into Evangelical churches as having a more “modern” theology (more on this in another post). There are no catechism or church history classes, the creeds are not taught, and it’s lucky if these people even know the Lord’s Prayer. There’s a big emphasis on “Bible,” but only as interpreted by their own pastor or group.

The result is a perpetuation of a movement which may, in fact, be heretical. (As I mentioned, it is, by pre-Evangelical thinking.) Those indoctrinated into Modernism and Evangelicalism may now be reacting with some incredulity at this comment; that would be the arrogance I mentioned, that sense of needing to be “right.” It’s okay, it’s natural. I know, as I experience it myself; but, I’m trying to get over it.

This was not, by the way, a summary of Webber, just some of my thoughts as I’m reading a variety of things. I will outline some of Webber’s thoughts in the next few days.

Webber: The Divine Embrace 1

The other evening I sat down to finish The Bourne Legacy (which I’ll be blogging on soon), but first started to page through the books I had just received from Amazon. I turned to Chapter 2 of Robert Webber’s The Divine Embrace, and was immediately hooked. Even though the hour was late – normally too late for serious reading – I just couldn’t put the book down. Jason Bourne will just have to hang on for another day or two…

Chapter 2 of Webber is entitled A Historical Perspective I (AD 30 – 1500), where he outlines the history of Christian thought concerning the topic of spirituality, which he defines as “a lived theology.” His concept of spirituality is essentially the concept that I have been working under for the past few years, that the type of God that we believe in (or, who we believe that God is) determines how we will live our lives. Conversely, I also believe that the way we live our lives reveals what we believe about God (our theology). Webber strongly makes the point that theology and spirituality cannot – or should not – be separated from each other. They key, rather, to understanding spirituality is in a “lived theology … found in God’s vision of creation, incarnation and re-creation.”

Webber shows how the development of the creeds were more than just theological statements (in the modern sense), they were affirmations of the Biblical spirituality that was under attack by various heresies. The Apostles Creed is the most basic and fundamental of the creeds, countered gnosticism, which taught a spirituality based on freeing the spirit from the bondage of the fallen, physical realm. The Apostle’s Creed very strongly affirms the incarnation, and was seen by the early Church as a guideline for the Christian life, not just belief.

It is interesting, reading through Webber, how certain elements of the heresies of the early church are still around, challenging a true Biblical spirituality. In fact, much (and perhaps post) of evangelicalism functions under some form of one or more of these early heresies, and absolutely functions under non-Biblical post-medieval philosophies. Over the past year I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with Evangelical theology and practice, as has been evident on this blog. As I’ve dug a bit more into the theological and philosophical history of the church, the Evangelical church seems to have less and less to offer. And, the post-modern, “emerging” church is in no better shape.

Webber, however, is doing something other than confirming what I’ve already been thinking, he’s pointed out some errors in my own thinking, that I thought I had already repaired. This is exciting… As I’ve just posted on skepticism and having our beliefs challenged, I am truly excited when I discover possible errors in my own thinking, and perhaps have an opportunity to correct those errors.

I’ll start posting a series on this book, outlining his main points and giving my own thoughts. As always, feel free to comment along the way.