Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future

Mark Husbands & Jeffrey Greeman eds. Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future. Downers Grove: IVP, 2008. 271pp., $21.86.

The later years of the twentieth century saw evangelical theology beginning to remember the importance of the church’s tradition and, in doing so, to engage in its own form of ressourcement theology (La nouvelle théologie). As Husbands contends,

[I]t is evident that if contemporary evangelical theology aspires to help the church engage the contemporary world in a faithful and persuasive fashion, it would do well to recover the best conversation partners is can find, even if this means reaching back a thousand years or more…Standing in the shadow of Lubac, we believe that Christianity cannot meet the challenges of modernity and postmodernity without returning to the tradition of the early church (p. 12).

In light of this trend, the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference sought to demonstrate the “viability and promise of engagement with the early church”, and the present volume contains the papers from that meeting.

Rationale and Attendant Challenges

The book is divided into four parts. Part one explores the underlying rationale and attendant challenges of an evangelical ressourcement theology. The essays by Christopher Hall and D.H. Williams are particularly good. Hall’s piece, the keynote address for the conference, argues that the bible must be read with the church fathers based on the substantial difference between the doctrine of sola scriptura and, what he considers, a common “yet confused” appeal to nuda Scriptura,“a view of the Bible in which no ecclesial context is thought to bear on the meaning of the text”. Aware that evangelicals are susceptible to an overly romantic reading of the church fathers, Williams provides some helpful balance (and greatly serves the volume as a whole) by offering some caution: “In order for the appropriation of the early fathers to become more than another trend among others within the history of evangelicalism, we must be aware not to create the early fathers in our own image” (p. 70).

Patristic Exegesis, Church Practices & Worship

The essays in part two consider the challenge and promise of patristic exegesis. Here, Michael Graves, Peter Liethart, and Nicholas Perrin each offer their own proposals and cautions. Many contemporary evangelicals, schooled in the Enlightenment methods of modern biblical scholarship, will find Leithart’s contentions particularly provocative. He argues that “Modern interpretation fragments the Scriptures as it scratches about for evidence of sources and symptoms” and “Modern Biblical scholarship, moreover, pries apart theological inquiry from religious devotion in an effort to conform biblical study to the standards of objective scientific pursuit” (p. 116).

The third section of the book focuses on the social ethics and practices of the early church. Christine Pohl gives her attention to the practice of hospitality, George Kalantzis to the Eucharist, and Alan Kreider to the quality of the church’s common life. Kreider’s essay, “They Alone Know the Right Way to Live”, is a welcome corrective (although not explicitly) of the proliferation of programs, seminars, and marketing on evangelism in the contemporary church scene. Citing the complete absence of missionaries and seeker-sensitive worship services, the church grew in its first centuries, argues Kreider, “because it was attractive. People were fascinated by it, drawn to it like a magnet” (p.170). The reasons for their attractiveness are worth considering: spiritual power, their ways of addressing common problems in society (such as abortion), and their common life as resident aliens.

Part four examines early Christianity in terms of its theology of worship. Noteworthy here is Paul Kim’s contribution, “Apetheiaand Atonement: The Christology of Cyril of Alexandria and the Contemporary Grammar of Salvation.” In light of the ongoing debate regarding the nature of the atonement and God’s capacity to suffer, Kim returns to patristic sources to demonstrate why the majority opinion on divine suffering is mistaken (eat your heart out D.B. Hart).

Ressourcement and the Emergent Church

Jason Byasse concludes the volume with an assessment of the Emergent movement that includes both some measured criticism and praise. Though measured, his appraisal of Doug Pagitt and Mark Driscoll is quite stinging, using both Pagitt and Driscoll as examples of what he finds to be a thoroughgoing sickness within the Emergent Movement: pride. On the other hand, Byasse finds much to commend itself within the movement. Specifically, its ability to recover “ancient resource[s] for a new day” and “its willingness to experiment liturgically and practically” is “Emergent’s genius” (p. 257).

Those interested in what prospects evangelical theology has in the new millennium should not overlook the growing ressourcement movement represented within this volume. It is because of trajectories such as this, in fact, that I am more hopeful than ever.

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