By Sydney Nichole Thomas, Assistant Editor of Anglican Way,
John Jay Fellow ‘13 and managing editor of Front Porch Republic
In the last issue, I briefly noted the sociologist Peter Berger’s influential typology of liberal theology, which he describes in his 1979 work, The Heretical Imperative. Berger proposes that theological responses to the modern situation can be characterized as being of three types: deductive, inductive, and reductive.Deductive theology tends to reassert the authority of religious tradition in the face of modern secularity. Inductive theology, by contrast, turns to human experience as the ground of all religious affirmations. At the far left of Berger’s typology is reductive theology, which translates the religious tradition into terms acceptable to modern secularity.
Today I particularly wish to focus on reductive theology as expressed by one of its late Anglican proponents. Berger posits in The Heretical Imperative and in his earlier book, Rumour of Angels (1969), that modernity brings about an adversary relationship between the Christian religion and the dominant secularity of society. The reductive mind responds to this changed situation by seeking to translate the essential message of Christianity into modern terms. Berger proffers as an example the work of the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who interpreted in existential terms what he believed to be the essential Gospel message. Bultmann crafted a theology without reference to heaven and hell, the resurrection, or the second coming, because he was sure that no man surrounded by modern scientific advancements could hold these incredible claims, an “ancient mythology,” as he called it. Yet Bultmann believed that God’s word to man was hidden within the Biblical mythology, and must be released through the process of demythologization, a method of interpretation for the modern church. In such a fashion, Berger writes, the reductive theologian perceives the faith tradition as no longer affirmable “except by way of a comprehensive translation into the categories of modern consciousness.”
Six years after Berger set forth his typology, the Anglican theologian Dr. Robert E. Webber wrote the well-known Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985), in which he described his conversion from Baptist roots to the Episcopal Church. Webber became a Wheaton professor and authored over 40 books on Anglicanism, proposing throughout his work a synthesis of ancient and contemporary Christian resources. His vision for this synthesis, an “ancient-future faith,” is developed in later works such as Ancient-Future Faith, Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Time, The Younger Evangelicals, and The Divine Embrace.Webber’s ancient-future faith is an example of what Peter Berger would call reductive, because it seeks to salvage Christianity by placing it within the contemporary pluralistic framework.
Let us consider Dr. Webber’s work from within Berger’s typology. The question that drives Webber’s project is, “Where do we go to find a Christianity that speaks meaningfully to a postmodern world?” In Ancient-Future Faith (1999), he explains his fundamental assumption that varying expressions of Christianity are determined by the culture into which they are born.
Throughout history Christians have always struggled to incarnate the faith in each particular culture. Consequently, a style of Christianity successful in one era changes as another era begins. Those who remain committed to the old style of faith subsequently freeze that style in the particular culture in which it originated. This process accounts for much of the diversity we have in the faith today and allows us to understand that the differences among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant groups are largely due to the cultural styles in which they have become embedded.
Webber is searching for a viable Christianity in today’s culture, relevant to the rising generation. He critiques “Enlightenment Christianity,” noting that an individualistic view of the self, propositions, rationalistic claims of certainty, and the like are increasingly unfashionable today. “The Christian faith incarnated into the modern culture, with its philosophical assumption of a mechanistic world understood through empirical methodology, is eroding,” he says. “The cultural revolutions are in the process of ushering us into a new era.” The new postmodern era emphasizes mystery, holism, narrative, and a subjective understanding of God. Such a generation is “more attracted to an inclusive view of the faith than an exclusive view, more concerned with unity than diversity, more open to a dynamic, growing faith than to a static fixed system, and more visual than verbal with a high level of tolerance and ambiguity.”
Having diagnosed the situation (though one could quarrel with such sweeping historical generalizations), Webber portrays post-modernity as a thoroughgoing improvement upon what preceded it. The shift, “instead of necessitating a new theology, makes the historic and traditional theology of the church relevant once again.” Interestingly, he perceives elements of ancient Christianity as increasingly attractive to a postmodern audience, citing the postmodern longing for mystery, experience of worship, and holistic spirituality. In this discussion it becomes clear that while Webber appeals to historic Christianity, he does so upon the grounds of its perceived cultural relevance and appeal, rather than its truth or reasonableness. Christianity must be palatable to today’s generation, a generation with a taste for old things, which is seeking a faith characterized by unity and openness. Webber believes that this relevance is essential to Christianity’s survival—mere “historical restitutionism” will not suffice.
“We are able to communicate classical Christianity within a postmodern view of reality in such a way that its truth value remains consistent with the original,” Webber writes, supporting his claim with the assumption that classical Christianity was shaped in a secular and relativistic society much like our own. In Ancient-Future Faith, Webber argues that ancient and contemporary theologies share a mutual concern with unity and openness. “The early tradition of the faith dealt with basic issues,” he writes, and it “was concerned with unity, open and dynamic, mystical, relational, visual, and tangible.” In Ancient-Future Worship (2008), he instructs liturgically-minded readers, “Put yourself into the ancient mind-set that allows for narrative, mystery, and typology.” This “moves us away from our dependence on modern modes of thinking and corresponds more with a postmodern mind-set.”
First, is Webber correct in his assessment of ancient Christianity? His assessment is vague. Webber betrays a lack of critical distance from postmodern thought, never providing a historical basis for his sweeping claims that the first five centuries were marked by the categories of narrative and experience, by a “story-formed understanding of God’s work in history.” The historical record of Patristic debates makes it far more plausible that the early church was concerned, not with tolerance and ambiguity, but with right doctrine.
Webber has bargained away, in the mode of reductive theology, historical accuracy. Second, he has bargained away coherence. He takes the Patristics in a highly selective manner, focusing on what is useful to his argument, ignoring the whole of the patristic corpus central to the Anglican Reformation. Webber leaps over the Reformers. He exchanges the substitutionary atonement followed by the Reformers, for example, for Gustaf Aulen’s ‘Christus Victor’ theory.
But the picking and mixing does not stop with doctrine. In Ancient-Future Worship, Webber encourages Evangelicals to blend contemporary worship styles with elements from the Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Missal. Our aim in the twenty-first century is “to recast our worship toward the full narrative of God’s story.”By blending the Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Charismatic traditions, Webber celebrates the convergence of traditions as an ideal future synthesis. He clearly hopes to promote an imaginary, primitive form of Christianity through the convergence of these traditions, thereby denying respect to each one.
Most obviously, the Evangelical and Charismatic traditions understand justification as received through faith alone. The Roman Catholic teaching is distinct from that of the other two regarding the role of the priest and tradition. Charismatic teaching differs from Evangelical and Roman Catholic teachings on the gifts of the Spirit. Can all of this diversity be explained as reflecting a specific cultural context? Webber’s attempt at primitive purity is incoherent and a sop to modern pluralism which demands we avoid hard questions about the nature of that truth
which endures from generation to generation.
Translating Christianity into pluralistic categories may have short-lived gains, but the rendition is rough at best, and almost certainly distorts and diminishes the Christian teaching of all historic traditions rooted in the ancient Church.
 Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (New York: Anchor Books, 1980), 91.
 Certain aspects of Christianity are “incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past.” See Rudolf Karl Bultmann, “The New Testament and Mythology,” in The New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden, (USA: Fortress Press, 1984), 3.
 Berger, The Heretical Imperative, 89. Reductive theology in its most extreme forms becomes a secular theology such as most political, liberationist, black, and feminist theologies, which aim to translate biblical teaching into modern teaching and thereby to serve a fully secular, political agenda.
 In 2006, Webber also organized the “Call to an Ancient-Evangelical Future,” which challenges evangelicals to restore the primacy of the biblical narrative and explore ecumenical implications for the church.
 Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 13.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 27.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 22.
 Berger, The Heretical Imperative, 102.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 30.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 7, 27.
 Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 131.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 172.
 On this topic see Gavin Dunbar’s article, “The Victory of Christ and the Mystery of the Cross,” in Anglican Way 36, no. 1 (2013): 4–6.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 17. Also called the Three Streams movement, this convergence theory was articulated as early as the 1950s, notably in the 1984 essay, “Three Streams, One River,” by Richard Lovelace.
 Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 89. However, Lord Merlin Sudeley argues that if we made a complete and honest archaeological revival of primitive worship practices, they would seem strange and severe today. See “Would the Liturgy and Customs of the Early Church be Unpopular Today?” in Faith and Worship, (The Prayer Book Society UK, Easter 2013), 48.