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 …

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2 Responses to Webber: The Divine Embrace 3

  1. me says:

    Richard, Thank you for sharing this; it’s good. I haven’t read any Behr yet, other than snippits like this. He is very hopeful about postmodernism. I am not so sure- the evangelical version of postmodernism seems to be a bit off course. But, if postmodernism leads to essentially an un-modernism, I think – and hope – that Behr is right.

  2. You might enjoy The Mystery of Christ by Fr. John Behr. An excerpt which is very relevant:

    “It is sometimes said that for antiquity truth is what is, for enlightened modernity it is what it was, and for postmodernity it is that which will have been. The historicizing approach of modernity places the truth of Jesus Christ firmly in the past — how he was born and what he did and said — and subjects his truth to our criteria of historicity, which are ultimately no more than a matter of what we find plausible… For antiquity, on the other hand, the truth of Christ is eternal, or better, timeless: the crucified and risen Lord is the one of whom scripture has always spoken. Yet, as the disciples come to recognize him, as the subject of scripture and in the breaking of bread, he disappears from their sight (Lk 24.31). The Christ of Christian faith, revealed concretely in and through the apostolic proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord in accordance with scripture, is an eschatalogical figure, the Coming One… As we leave behind modernity’s fascination with the past, it is possible that we are once again in a position to recognize the eschatalogical Lord… [T]he indeterminacy celebrated by post-modernism, locating the “event” always in the future, is given concrete content in Christian theology, by anchoring its account in the crucial moment of the Passion.

    […] The historical approach of modernity has resulted in the discipline of theology becoming increasingly fragmented. Students of scripture, historical theology, and systematic theology have each pursued their own disciplines, in ways that make them increasingly unable to dialogue with each other, so that it is difficult to see them as belonging to the same pursuit: the study of scripture has, until recently, been dominated by the presuppositions of a historical-critical method — looking for the original text, its context and redaction, and its interpretation (in terms of what it meant rather than what it means); the study of the Fathers has focused on the development of doctrine that is already supposedly known, treating patristic exegesis as if it were a distinct subject, and is increasingly turning to any subject other than theology, becoming the study of Late Antiquity rather than Patristics; and systematic theology — working with the results of earlier studies in historical theology, overlooking the exegetical dimension of patristic theology, and looking askance at modern scriptural scholarship — has become burdened by the momentum of its own discourse to become increasingly self-reflexive, concerned with its own methodology. The reappropriation of a premodern perspective in a cautious postmodern fashion… might point a way out of the quandary in which theology has found itself in recent centuries, and forward to a space in which we can appreciate again the integrity and unity of the discipline of theology, and see anew its vision.” (pp17-9)

    Food for thought, anyway.


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