Webber: The Divine Embrace 5 – Putting it together

Lately I’ve been writing about Robert Webber’s final book, The Divine Embrace, which has been really helpful in putting together the thoughts that I’ve already been having about the state of American Evangelicalism. It’s really been a breath of fresh air, and has allowed me to finally shake off some of the unhelpful evangelical baggage that I’ve carried around. I’m sometimes tempted to feel that I’ve wasted a lot of time trapped in evangelicalism, but I am quick to remind myself that I am merely continuing my “walk around the elephant” that is God. I am now finding myself full circle, as it were, older, wiser, and more solidly appreciative of my Lutheran roots. My adventures in evangelicalism have given me a perspective that few have, and I am appreciative of that perspective.

Granted, there are areas of evangelicalism that I have never dallied in. As I surf the theological weblogs, I am encountering many mindsets and belief systems that I am glad I haven’t been a part of. I have tasted, perhaps, the better portion of evangelical thought; I am finding that there are areas of the elephant that one shouldn’t dawdle around. Of late, I have been reading and to some extent participating in a theology blog entitled Parchment and Pen, which began discussing “who is emerging?” and drifted into discussions trying to determine who is or isn’t orthodox. A few minutes there should be enough to see why Webber’s analysis is so important.

Throughout the first few chapters of the book, Webber traces the history of the church and how various heresies and philosophies impacted the church’s concept of spirituality (and theology). Before I talk about the next chapter dealing with the Modern period (1900-2000), it would seem that a brief recap would be in order.

It is Webber’s premise that for the early church, spirituality was not separate from theology, which was focused on God’s business of creation, incarnation and re-creation. First, the early heresies:

  • Gnosticism – taught a dualistic deity, a “good god” and a “bad god,” as well as a dualistic view that the physical was bad, and the spiritual was good. Through esoteric knowledge, the human spirit could be set free from the confines of the physical.
  • Arianism – denied the incarnation of Jesus, saying that Jesus was not equal to God, but was created). As I understand it, this grew from a dualistic belief that God could not have become a physical man.
  • Pelagianism – a 4th Century heresy, teaching that man through his own will could live a sinless life, or add to his spiritual achievements by doing good works. Augustine refuted this by saying that man’s free will only leads him to sin.

Non-Christian philosophies which have impacted the church include:

  • Platonic Dualism – saw the material world as separate and inferior to the spiritual world. God moved from subject (who reached out to man) to object (someone for us to reach out to).
  • Mysticism – in the late medieval period, the focus of contemplation moved from the purposes of God to man’s experience. Spirituality became separated from theology and became a “discipline.”
  • Rationalism – borrowing from Descartes, human reason became authoritative. Thinking became based on the separation from subject (“I”) and object (“it”); in other words, everything was studied “objectively.” Knowledge became preoccupied with facts, considered value-free. Anything not “objective” – such as religion – became opinion, rather than fact. As a result, theology also became rationalistic, leading to apologetics and systematic theologies. Spirituality became “right belief.” Sanctification was separated from justification and became works-oriented.
  • Romanticism – a rejection of rationalism, romanticism called for an intuitive, inner experience and sought for a more holistic, organic approach to spirituality. Knowing was through the imagination, the senses and the human will. Pietism and revivalism focused on personal experience and a human-willed conversion and “holiness.” The focus on God’s will and Christ’s experience became replaced with a focus on man’s will and experience. Spirituality originated with the self.

Now that we see the evolution of Christian thought (due to the influence of these secular philosophies) from an emphasis on God’s work to an emphasis on our work combined with a complete split of mind and emotion, the church of the 20th and 21st Centuries begins to make a bit more sense. However, explaining it does not justify it.

Next, from Modern to Emerging.

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2 Responses to Webber: The Divine Embrace 5 – Putting it together

  1. Joshua says:

    Fascinating. I’ve not read Webber’ss book, but it is on my “to read” list now!

  2. Just wanted to let you know I have enjoyed this series, even if I haven’t commented regarding. I look forward to the finale!

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