The Holy Spirit seems to be working new convictions –based on ancient ideas about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit – into the younger evangelical generation. My generation was attracted to the details of mastering a theological system and often thought in either/or terms about what was true and false. I was trained by evangelicals who were drawn to the details of theological debate while they were (often) passive about social concerns like peace, war and justice. My generation of evangelicals gave us the Moral Majority and a host of culture warrior Christian spokesmen. (They were mostly “males” so I use the word “men” here intentionally!) My formal training was shaped by science, philosophy, and communication theories. We built churches that were attractional and shaped by programs that fed (not always intentionally) our consumerism. The new generation is geared toward change and dynamic ways of expression. (These are generalizations, I admit, but they are helpful when understood correctly.)
Well over a decade now my late friend Robert E. Webber wrote, “The kind of Christianity that attracts the new generation of Christians and will speak effectively to a postmodern world is one that emphasizes primary truths and authentic embodiment” (Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999, 27). I share Bob’s view and believe the last fourteen years, since his words were published, have underscored his point even more clearly.
It is for this reason that I believe we need to go back, way back, to the ancient faith and early church, if we are to shape the future. This is what Bob Webber meant by the “ancient-future faith.”
Paul Lakeland, in Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age, asks: “What kind of Christianity is needed for the future?” In approaching the contentious issue of the atonement I do so with Lakeland, and of course Webber’s, questions in the forefront of my mind. Lakeland concludes:
Theologies of redemption . . . offered only to the human race, and not something integral to the entire universe . . . are inadequate. Those that focus on the individual are positively harmful. Christologies that imagine Christ as less than cosmic are merely parochial. Theologies of the church that stop at the political, still more so those that remain ecclesiocentric, fail because they cannot conceptualize Christian discipleship in the service of a sick planet. Eschatologies that imagine that the spiritual can have a reality aside from the material are simply naive (quoted by Webber, 27).
Webber believes that Lakeland was correct. He further believed that classical Christianity can speak to a more holistic and integrated view of life if we rediscover the fathers of the early church who carefully worked out their theology in the context of “mystery religions, polytheism, gnosticism, cults such as Manichaeism, and the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism” (27).
Last week a reader challenged my privileging of the early church theologians, and their writing, in a response to my posts on the death of Christ. I went back to Webber’s formative volume, Ancient-Future Faith, and found his response to this type of statement immensely helpful: