Wednesday, September 28, 2011

LHP Review: Robert E. Webber



Webber, Robert E. Foreward by David Neff. Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Worship. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, 2009. 286 Pages. Paper. $18.99. (LHP)


Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism fro a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999. 240 Pages. Paper. $22.00. (LHP)


Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. 219 Pages. Paper. $14.99. (LHP)


Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004. 201 Pages. Paper. $18.00. (L)


Webber, Robert E. Foreword by John D. Witvliet. Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God's Narrative. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. 191 Pages. Paper. $14.99. (L)



God has a story. Worship does God's story.


There is a crisis of worship today. The problem goes beyond matters of style--it is a crisis of content and of form. Worship in churches today is too often dead and dry, or busy and self-involved. Robert Webber attributes these problems to a loss of vision of God and of God's narrative in past, present, and future history. 


As he examines worship practices of Old Testament Israel and the early church, Webber uncovers ancient principles and practices that can reinvigorate our worship today and into the future.


The final volume in Webber's acclaimed Ancient-Future series, Ancient-Future Worship is the culmination of a lifetime of study and reflection on Christian worship. Here is an urgent call to recover a vigorous, God-glorifying, transformative worship through the enactment and proclamation of God's glorious story. The road to the future, argues Webber, runs through the past.


Robert E. Webber (1933-2007) was, at the time of his death, Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and served as the president of the Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. His many books include Ancient-Future Faith and The Younger Evangelicals. (publisher's website).

I was first introduced to Webber through Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. In many ways, I felt like an evangelical on the Wittenberg trail due to the practices of my college church that diverged from my LCMS upbringing. I also appreciated his Prymer.

First, a critique. I will always object that the Lutheran theology of the Sacrament of the Altar is called "consubstantiation" (148). Webber's explanation on that page is closer to the actual Lutheran position than he may have wished to admit. Further development in this explanation is needed by this book's readers and Webber's devoted students. I pray Lutherans will have part in that discussion.

The Appendix is the author's document A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future (179ff).

  1. On the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative (The term "rules" is to law-focused.)
  2. On the Church, the Continuation of God's Narrative (I appreciate his use of the terms "catholicity" and "apostolicity.")
  3. On the Church's Theological Reflection on God's Narrative (He proposes unity in "the tradition that has been believed everywhere, always and by all.")
  4. On the Church's Worship as Telling and Enacting God's Narrative (I would re-word how he describes a focus on God's work over our work.)
  5. On Spiritual Formation in the Church as Embodiment of God's Narrative (This would be a good place to talk about making disciples of all nations by means of baptizing and by means of teaching.)
  6. On the Church's Embodied Life in the World (This is often called "vocation.")

What I have always appreciated about the books of Robert Webber is the fact that he expects his readers to think, reflect, and interact with his ideas. They may or may not come to his same conclusions. The Introduction explains how he intends readers to read this book (23). His summary of major worship trends in history is concise, understandable, and worthy of discussion (86), especially by Christians who know of little Christian history beyond their own life experience.

The more I read of Ancient-Future Worship, the more I became convinced that Webber was on to something big. And, in my opinion, Biblically faithful confessional church bodies (like the LCMS) that preserve the Western heritage of Divine Service and the Daily Office through use and catechesis are living examples of what Webber advocates.

Read Ancient-Future Worship. Buy copies to study at Winkel conferences. In the new year, QBR will post a review of this and other books in the Ancient-Future series.

This is that promised review of other books in the Ancient-Future series.

I re-read Ancient-Future Worship as preparation. It was a chance to reflect on the strengths of Webber's books as an Ancient-Future set. 



As I noted in a review of Who Gets to Narrate the World? (, Webber's work is still very relevant and helpful. We are dealing with a worldview crisis, if you will. 

Christianity faces challenges from secularism, Islam, and also from those within the faith that have led us down a path of being "of the world" but not really "in the world." It is as if Christians set up their own ghetto with cultural elements that mimic the world and often lose their original substance.

Isn't it more than time to go back to our Christian roots? Webber thought so in 1978.

The new Zondervan edition of Common Roots has the subtitle, The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith. It could also be seen as a framework of what Webber would later write in the Ancient-Future series for Baker. Common Roots became the later book Ancient-Future Faith when Webber started to revise it for a new generation and ended up writing an entirely new book.

The insights of the early church hold vast potential for strengthening the community life and ministry of the contemporary church. Robert Webber sounded this theme in his original 1978 edition of Common Roots. Over the past thirty years, this book has been recognized as Webber's seminal work, providing a foundation for the ancient-future faith movement. Here is Webber's original clarion call, presented with an extensive foreword by David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine and executive director of the Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient-Evangelical Future. The book will promote new conversations about ancient-future faith and its relationship to modern evangelicalism.Webber examines evangelicalism through the lens of the early church (AD 100–500). He searches for the roots of evangelical Christianity, then challenges contemporary evangelical beliefs and practices that are out of harmony with historic Christianity. These ancient patterns, Webber contends, contain wisdom evangelicals must recover for worship, theology, mission, and spirituality. Chapters highlight a problem, investigate an ancient belief or practice, and suggest an agenda for today.This knowledgeable perspective on ancient-future faith is perfect for both seasoned scholars and a new generation of evangelical Christians. (publisher's website)

Webber proposes to recover historic Christianity in five areas:

  • The Church, its nature
  • Worship, meaning and form
  • Theology, confessional
  • Mission
  • Spirituality, devotional response (33)

I rejoice where these elements have been retained. I hear in Webber's critique of the Protestant Reformers (248) a more pointed critique of the Reformed than the Lutheran tradition.

Chapter 5 was the heart of the book for me. Man-centered worship is a temptation in every age, whether it comes from an overemphasis on the head or the heart (103). I've found that if you get Jesus wrong, you get forgiveness wrong. If you get forgiveness wrong, you get the sacraments wrong. And if you get the sacraments wrong, you have to come up with something to deliver the forgiveness Jesus won on Calvary. Webber notes the significant "content" problem in today's worship (117).

Chapter 5 leads into Chapter 6's discussion of the form of worship. The author calls for

  1. The restitution of the historic shape of worship
  2. The restitution of the Lord's Supper as a source of spiritual nourishment
  3. The restoration of the Christian concept of time, especially as it relates to the restitution of the church year (125)

Webber's proposals come from his experience with both non-liturgical and liturgical church bodies. I would offer that our church body, The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, has maintained all three, plus a proper view of Christ, Scripture, and the servant use of tradition (cf. 156)

Webber calls for a Christian maturity. I second that motion. Let's return to the Word, common Christian roots, and embrace our historical Christian heritage, being less bound to "every wind of doctrine" and every "Christian" fad.

Since we've already covered Ancient-Future Worship as a way of introducing Webber's work, consider the introduction to the whole AF series:

How do you deliver the authentic faith and great wisdom of the past into the new cultural situation of the twenty-first century? The way into the future is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past.

Each book in the 4-volume Robert Webber Ancient-Future Collection presents an issue related to faith and practice from a particular point of view—namely, that of drawing wisdom from the past and translating insights from historic Christianity into the present and future life of the church, its faith, worship, ministry, and spirituality. These books speak to the longing to discover the roots of the faith in the biblical and classical tradition of the church.

Webber's goal is maintain continuity with historic Christianity as the church moves forward. In each volume, Webber draws from the entire history of the church together—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and from Reformers and evangelicals, such as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. Webber weaves insights from these traditions with the challenges of the present in order to help readers understand how deeply committed Christians have sought to think and live the faith in other times and places.

Students, professors, pastors, and laypeople concerned with the church's effective response to a postmodern world will benefit from these volumes. Informative tables and extensive bibliographies enhance each book's educational value. (Publisher's website)

These four books are now available for purchase for use on LOGOS! See

Robert Webber was not afraid to talk about the content of the Christian faith. He was adept at facing us up to our Lord and what He says about His person and work in His Word.

In a world marked by relativism, individualism, pluralism, and the transition from a modern to a postmodern worldview, evangelical Christians must find ways to re-present the historic faith.


In his provocative work, Ancient-Future Faith, Robert E. Webber contends that present-day evangelicalism is a product of modernity. Allegiance to modernity, he argues, must be relinquished to free evangelicals to become more consistently historic. Empowerment to function in our changing culture will be found by adapting the classical tradition to our postmodern time. Webber demonstrates the implications in the key areas of church, worship, spirituality, evangelism, nurture, and mission.

Webber writes, "The fundamental concern of Ancient-Future Faith is to find points of contact between classical Christianity and postmodern thought. Classical Christianity was shaped in a pagan and relativistic society much like our own. Classical Christianity was not an accommodation to paganism but an alternative practice of life. Christians in a postmodern world will succeed, not by watering down the faith, but by being a counter cultural community that invites people to be shaped by the story of Israel and Jesus."

A substantial appendix explores the development of authority in the early church, an important issue for evangelicals in a society that shares many features with the Roman world of early Christians. (publisher's website)


Webber is wise to show the challenges the Church faces in our day. Christ is the center (Chapter 7), of course. Webber proposes to be clear in how we present Christ and the Gospel, speaking Biblical truth in a way that postmoderns can understand. 


The author also calls for a recognition of the catholicity of the Church (Chapter 10), our connection with what has been believed everywhere and at all times about God, Christ, and salvation from the Word alone. Yes, it is not only possible but common for other Christians with a truly Evangelical faith in Christ to be more catholic (small-c traditional definition of the term) than Roman Catholics!




Webber's Ancient Future Evangelism is an introduction to catechesis, a return to a fundamental and comprehensive presentation of the content of the Christian faith for the sake of an informed and Biblically-knowledgeable Christian Church, brought to faith in Christ by the work of God the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Evangelicals should know the evangel, the Gospel, well, and it should be our primary message, not the law.


How can evangelism produce not only converts but also disciples who grow in faith and become active members of the church?

In Ancient-Future Evangelism, Robert Webber presents a model of evangelism and discipleship firmly rooted in Scripture, attested to in the history of the church, and authentic to the postmodern world in which we live.

Webber surveys evangelism throughout the centuries, tracing the development of the ancient process of Christian formation. He translates that process for the twenty-first century, presenting four stages—conversion, discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian vocation—that can easily be adapted to various church traditions. He also suggests three practical rites of passage to accompany this "ancient-future" practice of making disciples.

Webber then underscores how the four-fold process of faith formation is interwoven with three theological themes: Christ as victor over evil, the church as witness to God's salvation, and worship as a witness to God's mission accomplished in Jesus. (publisher's website)

My main disagreement with Webber here would be on a theology of baptismal regeneration. I do not envy the task he had of writing a book that would appeal to Evangelicals who differ on the doctrines of conversion and baptism (who, how). He does navigate dangerous waters rather well in promoting his four-fold stage approach to spiritual formation. I probably will take a look at his catechetical materials if I ever have a chance, but there is little chance I would replace Lutheran materials with his.


Ancient-Future Evangelism will long serve the Evangelical Christians that are his intended audience.






Discover ancient rhythms for a new spiritual awakening!

God's people have always celebrated his work by retelling the stories of his mighty deeds of salvation. In a time when the church's memory sometimes seems short, many are rediscovering the value of using the Christian year to pattern our celebrations around the essential truths of the faith.

In Ancient-Future Time, Robert Webber draws from this church tradition by introducing and exploring biblical themes and liturgical traditions for each season of the Christian calendar. Helpful charts, prayers, reflection questions, and resource lists are provided for those planning church worship or seeking old, yet new, paths to spiritual growth through a deeper understanding of the Christian year. (publisher's website)

This is where I'd start.


If I were a typical American Evangelical pastor that just discovered the richness of Christian tradition (before my lifetime), I would start by introducing the historic Christian Church Year to my congregation. We would follow Jesus through His life and grow in His teachings during the long "green" season. Teaching first, I would use the general outline of the Church Year as a start, add a lectionary of some kind the second year, and add traditions (back in) gradually as good pastoral care would permit. Liturgical changes would be next. I would work toward a recovery of the historic Divine Service of the West, with the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament. Non-communion Sundays would transition to Matins/Morning Prayer and Vespers/Evening Prayer. I am a Lutheran pastor, so I don't have to recover these elements. I do appreciate the pastoral care, patience, and tact that it takes to retain what Webber advocates.

The Church Year and historic liturgy give a natural place for faith to thrive, faith formed by the Spirit through the Word, where the Lord gathers to Himself a people.



I have a growing appreciation for the work and legacy of Robert E. Webber. 


He was a prodigal of sorts. He critically examined his own Christian tradition for the sake of the Gospel. He returned to the heritage of Christendom and a Christ-centered, Gospel-focused, and Biblically-faithful catholicity. He was an evangelical Christian that rediscovered the richness of Gospel in Churchly, Biblical traditions, the Gospel enacted in structures of worship, time, and catechesis. 


Webber remains a guide through his written work and an influence through his students and readers. His is a voice calling in the wilderness of unbelief and unfaithfulness, secularism and religious rivals, and cultural compromise and thin theology: prepare the way for the Lord!




Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.


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