The Future Lies in the Past
Last spring, something was stirring under the white steeple of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
A motley group of young and clean-cut, goateed and pierced, white-haired and bespectacled filled the center's Barrows Auditorium. They joined their voices to sing of "the saints who nobly fought of old" and "mystic communion with those whose rest is won." A speaker walked an attentive crowd through prayers from the 5th-century Gelasian Sacramentary, recommending its forms as templates for worship in today's Protestant churches. Another speaker highlighted the pastoral strengths of the medieval fourfold hermeneutic. Yet another gleefully passed on the news that Liberty University had observed the liturgical season of Lent. The t-wordthat old Protestant nemesis, traditionechoed through the halls.
Just what was going on in this veritable shrine to pragmatic evangelistic methods and no-nonsense, back-to-the-Bible Protestant conservatism? Had Catholics taken over?
No, this was the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference, whose theme was "The Ancient Faith for the Church's Future." Here, the words spoken 15 years ago by Drew University theologian and CT senior editor Thomas Oden rang true: "The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching. It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had been nearly forgotten, of hugging a lost child."
The conference's Call for Papers likewise rejoiced: "One of the most promising developments among evangelical Protestants is the recent 'discovery' of the rich biblical, spiritual, and theological treasures to be found within the early church." In particular, it said, evangelicals are beginning to "reach back behind the European Enlightenment for patterns and models of how to faithfully read Scripture, worship, and engage a religiously diverse culture."
Baylor University's D. H. Williams, author of Evangelicals and Tradition, testified at the conference to the recent upsurge of evangelical interest in patristics (the study of the church fathers in the first seven centuries of the church): "Who would have thought, a decade ago, that one of the most vibrant and serious fields of Christian study at the beginning of the 21st century would be the ancient church fathers? There has been an opening of new avenues, especially among free-church Protestants, by the almost overnight popularity of bishops and monks, martyrs and apologists, philosophers and historians who first fashioned a Christian culture 1,500 years ago."
This conference was certainly not the first of its kind; in fact, many evangelicals had been looking to the early church for guidance for years. But in some ways, the conference represented a coming of age for a worship renewal movement begun some 30 years before.
Surge Into the Past
If only the man behind the conference, the elder statesman of "ancient-future faith," could have been there to watch the excitement of young and old conferees alike. But Robert Webber of Northern Seminary (and formerly of Wheaton) could not be present. He was in the late stages of cancer. His chair at the conference banquet table was vacant, as colleagues stood to honor his influence on them personally and on the whole church. Weeks after the conference, evangelical Christianity lost its premier ambassador for reengagement with history.
In 1978, Webber had begun his groundbreaking Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity by throwing down the gauntlet: "My argument is that the era of the early church (A.D. 100500), and particularly the second century, contains insights which evangelicals need to recover." Twenty-five years later, he could rejoice in the pages of his Younger Evangelicals that they "want to immerse themselves in the past and form a culture that is connected to the past, a culture that remembers its tradition as it moves into the future." Webber observedwith what we now know was not mere wishful thinkingthat evangelicals had entered the new millennium by surging into the past.