Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, No. 1

On August 25, Robert Webber and Phil Kenyon released a document called "A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future," through Christianity Today. The theological advisors included Hans Boersma, Howard Synder, Kevin Vanhoozer, and D. H. Williams. They are circulating it for signatures and expect around 600-800 to comply eventually.

There is a lot of what they say with which to be sympathetic. I affirm with them that each generation needs to "examine its faithfulness to God's revelation in Jesus Christ." And I affirm that by looking at the whole of Christian history, Christians today might find wisdom for living in this world under Christ's Lordship. Plus, as someone who recognizes the importance of narrative for embedding beliefs and practices into a coherent web of meaning, I can affirm their stress on narrative.

However, I do have questions about the document as well. For example, while I affirm the "primacy of the biblical narrative" in its big story (whether stated, as they do, as creation, incarnation, re-creation, or in a more "Reformed" way as creation, fall, redemption, consummation), I worry that the way this is stated could be placed in stark opposition to "propositions": "Today, we call evangelicals to turn away from modern theological metehods that reduce the gospel to mere propositions." Well, I don't know too many theologians who do theology merely by propositions, i.e. without paying attention to genre, context, narrative, etc.

But do the writers mean "merely" or do they really mean "primarily"? If the writers mean primarily, then I wonder how it is possible to do theology at all--anyone who has sloughed through Vanhoozer's Drama of Doctrine knows how "propositional" the entire book is. The opposition of narrative and proposition is not only not good, it is not possible, in my estimation. I worry that the writers may unwittingly suggest such.

Further, by stressing the "biblical narrative," the writers may unwittingly be flattening the multiplicity of genres and meanings generated by the individual biblical texts themselves. There is an overall "history of the work of redemption" (to use Jonathan Edwards' phrase) that the Bible relates, but that doesn't mean that the history merely shapes us by being told. There is also content in that narrative. As J. Gresham Machen put it, "Christ died" is a fact (or a part of the narrative, we would say), but "Christ died for us" is a doctrinal statement (or a proposition) that we cannot do without.

Another quibble I have with the document is how the writers place the problem of individualism on evangelical Protestantism: "individualistic evangelicalism has contributed to the current problems of churchless Christianity." Well, no doubt evangelicalism has to shoulder some of the blame and so can be said to have "contributed." But what about mainstream Protestantism? Did their overstress of the corporate nature of sin and salvation lead to the problems of churchless Christianity? I think that is an ironic consquence of the Social Gospel--the overstress on the corporate as actually fueled individualism, reasserted against that overstress. A biblical balance needs to be maintained between the individual and corporate relations.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the document is the historical claim in the third point: "we call for the church's reflection anchored in the Scriptures in continuity with the theological interpretation learned form the early fathers." While that sounds neat and sort of emergent-trendy, my question is this: which early fathers? Origen? Chrysostom? Augustine? Jerome? Ignatius? There were actually profound disagreements among the fathers on how texts should be read and what they should mean. Such an evaluation of the patristics--placed on the same level as the apostolic tradition, as D. H. Williams suggests in his books--ultimately (again) flattens out the historical record. It simply not that easy to find an authorative resource in the early church that will solve the problems of "theological interpretation."

The tradition(s) do need to be paid attention to--remember, I'm a church history prof. But I'm not nearly as sanguine as the authors of "A Call" to believe that a turn to the tradition bring the solution they seek: they believe the current problem is that "modern methods compartmentalize God's glory by analyzing its separate parts, while ignorning God's entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ." Well, one of the few works of epic history in the patristic period that would help in this regard is Augustine's City of God. And yet how many seminary curricula allow enough space to have students read that great work? Other patristics do not demonstrate such a grand vision--so how will reference to the Fathers solve the problem observed?

Again, the document as a whole is useful. There is a great deal to agree with here. Still, it seems that ours is an age of manifesto-writing and conference-attending; it seems that it may be more useful to focus our attentions on actually living the life of "cruciform holiness and commitment to God's mission in the world" to which the document actually calls us. That may make a greater impact in the world than all the manifestos and calls and blogs combined.

(HT: Fullness of Time)


Justin Donathan said...

Don't you think some of the problems you are cititng are simply a result of the fact that no one can say everything all the time. This document is meant to serve as a creedo. It doesn't say everything, and they make clear that it is a starting point for discussion, an agreement that we need to hash through these things with an eye to unity. And I agree that mainstream denominations have contributed to these problems but the document is intentionally self critical. It is a call from us, to us to address our faults and do what we can, not just point the finger.

Alex Tang said...


In view that an Ancient Evangelical Future (AEF) conference will be held in December, I will like to revisit some of your comments.

I agree fully with you that each generation of Christians need to rethink their belief system; we need to look at the whole of Christian history to better appreciate and understand our faith and traditions; and that the Christian meta-narrative is important to help us understand the content and context of our own narratives.

I also agree with you that the AEF Call is a vague document. I prefer the Chicago Call, 1977. However, I do see the Call written in present day context and the need to engage the emergent church.

Whether it is "mere" or "primary" prepositions, I would prefer "mere" as I have seen how theologians have reduced the gospel into prepositions and making it pure intellectualism rather than an intellectual/experiential process.

And whether evangelicalism should share the blame with other protestants for the influence of secular individualism in our faith is not an issue but a problem that need to be addressed. This is an acute problem because it has been exported to the East where I am (Malaysia).

I do not believe that Call is for us to embrace Roman Catholicism, Orthodox traditions or ancient church traditions. Neither is it withour prepositions ( as some critics has pointed out). This Call is for us to relook at the Church at the beginning of the 21st century and see how some spiritual practices from the past together with rational theological/biblical hermeneutics will help us to be a better Church.