By T. A. McMahon
From The Berean Call
Published on February 28, 2008
Here's an idea. Let's go back through historical church eras and glean from such time periods those issues deemed to be of value in the development of the Christian faith. Let's review the first-century church, the church between A.D. 100 and 600, then consider the medieval era (A.D. 700 to 1500), followed by the Reformation period (A.D. 1500 and later), and so on. To be effective in this endeavor, it's important to have a good understanding of the cultural context in which the Christians of each era practiced their faith. In addition, we'll need to study the Church Fathers and gain the insights they provided. Why? Well, those who are promoting this "re-presenting the past" believe that today's Christianity will greatly benefit as it "re-invents itself" in order to effectively bring the message of the gospel to the postmodern world. If you think this may not be a good idea, you could be labeled a "traditionalist," one whose faith and practice is inflexible and out of touch with our rapidly changing culture-and church.
That's the view that Christianity Today (CT) has of what's going on in evangelical Christianity. In introducing its February 2008 feature article with a cover-page declaration, "Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church: How evangelicals started looking backward to move forward," CT senior managing editor Mark Galli writes:
You might say a number of CT editors have a vested interest in this issue's cover story. David Neff, Ted Olsen, Tim Morgan, and I have been doing the ancient-future thing for many years, at Episcopal and/or Anglican parishes. And if this were not enough immersion in the topic, in his spare time, David Neff heads up the Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient Evangelical Future, founded by the father of the ancient-future movement.
Acknowledging the magazine's inherent (and historic) bias, Galli notes that "the ancient church has captivated the evangelical imagination for some time [yet] it hasn't been until recently that it's become an accepted fixture of the evangelical landscape. And this is for the good " (emphasis added). That, of course, is Galli's opinion and, sadly, a growing multitude of influential Christian leaders agree.
Robert E. Webber, who died last year, is certainly the "father of the ancient-future movement," and his many books have provided encouragement and content for leaders of Emerging Church fellowships. As a Wheaton College professor for three decades, he also played a significant part in influencing that evangelical institution's capitulation to ecumenism, particularly its support of Roman Catholicism (see TBC 6/02, 7/02 by T.A. on ECT at Wheaton).
Webber wrote in his book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, "Currently, Western society is in a transition from the modern world to a postmodern world... shifting us toward the affirmation of new values...resulting in a whole new culture and rais[ing] new questions about the way a biblical Christianity is to be understood and communicated."1 The solution for Christianity to be viable in this cultural transition, Webber contends, is to "recover the universally accepted framework of faith that originated with the apostles, was developed by the [Church] Fathers, and has been handed down by the church in its liturgical and theological traditions."2
This Church Fathers' "framework of faith," along with "its liturgical and theological traditions" is found primarily, according to Webber, in the era of "Classic Christianity," between A.D. 100 and 600. And it was to that church age that most of the speakers at the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference on "The Ancient Faith for the Church's Future" sang their praises. CT describes what took place at the Billy Graham Center in the Cliff Barrows Auditorium, including taking the audience through prayers from the Gelasian Sacramentary (also known as the Book of Sacraments of the Church of Rome), a fifth-century book of Catholic liturgy containing the priest's instructions for celebrating the Eucharist and recommending them for worship in today's Protestant churches. One speaker promoted the Catholic "medieval fourfold hermeneutic," which emphasizes the nonliteral interpretation of the Bible, and another "gleefully passed on the news" to this highly receptive crowd "that Liberty University had observed the liturgical season of Lent."
The writer of the article then asks, "Had Catholics taken over?" in this former bastion of conservative evangelicalism. His answer is NO! This Wheaton College conference was simply evangelicals looking to the past for "rich biblical, spiritual, and theological treasures to be found within the early church" as supplied by the early Church Fathers.3
Are evangelicals truly paying attention to the Church Fathers? University professor D. H. Williams, author of Evangelicals and Tradition, substantiated "the recent upsurge of evangelical interest in patristics (the study of the Church Fathers): '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...[created] 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.'"4
Although these developments may seem shockingly new to some and seem to have sprung up overnight, Christianity Today gives some preparatory background (see also "Evangelical Mysticism?" TBC 2/08). The article quotes Robert Webber from his then controversial 1978 book Common Roots: "My argument is that the era of the early church (A.D. 100-500), and particularly the second century, contains insights which evangelicals need to recover." CT notes that 25 years later Webber rejoiced in his book Younger Evangelicals that they [emergent fellowships] "want to immerse themselves in the past and form a culture that is connected to the past...."
Nearly a decade earlier than Common Roots, a number of Campus Crusade leaders went on their own "recovery" of ancient liturgies, specifically from Eastern Orthodoxy. Peter Gillquist, Jack Sparks, Jon Braun, and others left Campus Crusade to form what was a forerunner of today's ancient-future-emergent movement. They turned to the writings of the early Church Fathers "to practice a more liturgical form of worship than in their previous evangelical background."5 They called their movement the New Covenant Apostolic Order and, later, the Evangelical Orthodox Church.
In 1978, Quaker and CT advisory editor Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline. His book, which introduced Catholic and occult meditative techniques to evangelicals, sold more than a million copies and was selected by Christianity Today as one of the top ten books of the 20th century. Foster later formed Renovare, an organization dedicated to teaching spiritual formation through the mystical beliefs and practices of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Desert Fathers. Eugene Peterson (CT editor), author of the very popular paraphrased Bible, The Message, was the New Testament editor of the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible.
These developments are foundational to today's Emerging Church phenomenon and indicate that such roots will carry it well beyond its merely being a fad among today's evangelical youth. More recent support (noted in last month's TBC) is the change in attitude among evangelicals toward Roman Catholicism fostered by "Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," an endeavor of Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus (both CT editors) and the stunning success (thanks to evangelicals) of Mel Gibson's extremely Catholic The Passion of the Christ.
Is any of this "for the good," as Christianity Today declares?
Let's both reason from the Scriptures, and simply be reasonable (Isaiah 1:18). The Ancient-Future search to discover gems from "Classic Christianity" comes up short by a century -- the century in which the New Testament was written. The critical difference should be obvious. The writers of the New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit as they penned God's Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21, 22). What writings from A.D. 100 and later can claim such inspiration? None. But we're told that some were disciples of or lived at the time of the apostles. True, but proximity to the apostles is hardly a guarantee against heresy nor does it come close to inspiration. Furthermore, much of the first-century-written New Testament reproved and corrected errors that had already entered the church!
Remember the Apostle Paul's warning to the Ephesian elders, who were certainly closer to Paul than any of the so-called Church Fathers:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)
Again, why this attraction to the ancient Church Fathers? Could any of them say with Paul, "Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you" (Philippians 4:9)? We can trust his God-breathed words completely. On the other hand, it takes very little scrutiny of men like Origen, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and others, to see their flaws, let alone their heresies. For example, Origen taught that God would save everyone and that Mary was a perpetual virgin; Irenaeus believed that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus when consecrated, as did John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem; Athanasius taught salvation through baptism; Tertullian became a supporter of the Montanist heresies, and a promoter of a New Testament clergy class, as did his disciple Cyprian; Augustine was the principal architect of Catholic dogma that included his support of purgatory, baptismal regeneration, and infant baptism, mortal and venial sins, prayers to the dead, penance for sins, absolution from a priest, the sinlessness of Mary, the Apocrypha as Scripture, etc.
It's not that these men got everything wrong; some, on certain doctrines, upheld Scripture against the developing unbiblical dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, overall they are a heretical minefield. So why seek them out?
Worse yet are the Desert Fathers and the Catholic mystics. Anthony the Great, known as the father of Christian monasticism, is the most revered of the Desert Fathers. According to Athanasius, the devil fought Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he countered by becoming a hermit and isolating himself for years inside a tomb. He communicated with the outside world through a crevice that enabled him to receive food and to offer spiritual advice. Supposedly, the devil, upset by his holiness, would come and beat him unmercifully.
Later mystics were no less bizarre-or unbiblical. Benedictine nun Julian of Norwich, a favorite of evangelical mystic wannabes and "Christian" feminists, believed in universal salvation, that God was in all things, referred to God as "Father-Mother," and experienced intense visions of heaven and hell. Her most famous saying became a positive mental attitude mantra: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Like Anthony, she had herself walled off from society, living for 20 years in a cell attached to a church, where a small window provided access to food and a view of the church altar and of the Eucharist.
Could these hermits and mystics really interest evangelicals? Christianity Today says they do. Referring to "monastic evangelicals" and the "new monasticism," an insert in its cover article observes how "growing numbers of evangelicals" are "taking their newfound love affair with Christian tradition" beyond "books and talk" and are "now experimenting with advent candles [and] sampling [Catholic] practices associated with Lent...." CT credits Richard Foster's Devotional Classics as possibly fueling this latest trend, and it notes that Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and a number of emerging church writers have "been calling evangelicals to monastic models as a guide for the future."6
As a former Roman Catholic, I am staggered when I see who and what Christianity Today is blatantly promoting. Robert Webber, for example, writes in Signs and Wonders of an experience that changed his Protestant life. He received the Eucharist (allegedly the "actual body and blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine") while at a Catholic retreat center: "You might say I was surprised by joy!...I had never had an experience like that in my life....I had been in dialog with another worship tradition, and I was surely the richer for it"7 Thousands of steadfast biblical Christians were martyred for refusing that idolatrous and gospel-denying "worship tradition."
Campus Crusade leader-turned-Orthodox-priest Peter Gillquist explains the "mission" he and those who joined him are on: "Our desire is to make North America Orthodox!" As former conservative evangelicals, they believe that "if we [could] become Orthodox, then anyone in North America can!" Furthermore, due to their apologetics and evangelism training, "...we represent a strong force for Orthodox evangelization....And we know there are many others just like us who if given the time and persuasion will join the Orthodox ranks just as we have."8
Will this soon pass? No. It's all part of related agendas that are building the end-times apostate church (Revelation 13:8). Its tools are experientialism, subjectivism, mysticism, and dominionism, all of which aggressively and obstinately subvert the Word of God. They are intentionally (in some cases unwittingly) being used to work out Satan's primary scheme against God and mankind (Genesis 3:1: "Yea, hath God said...?") as they undermine His Truth. Is God doing anything about it? Yes. As evidenced by what's been presented here and so much more, He is sending "strong delusion" among those who have not a "love of the truth" (2 Thessalonians 2:10,11).
We desperately need to heed the words of Jesus in Revelation chapters 2-3 that give critical warnings to churches that profess to be His. To Laodicea, which very likely represents the last church age before His return, He declares,
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (Revelation 3:19-22)
1. Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 1999), 15.
2. Ibid., 17.
3. Mark Galli, "Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church," Christianity Today, February 2008, 23.
4. Ibid., 24.
6. Galli, Christianity, 28.
7. Robert Webber, Signs and Wonders (Nashville, TN:Star Song Publishing Group, 1992), 5.
8. Peter Gillquist, "Arrowhead Springs To Antioch:Odyssey To Orthodoxy," The Word, October 1987.
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