Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity

Written by Robert E. Webber Reviewed By Timothy P. Weber

According to many observers, American evangelicalism is currently experiencing a remarkable renaissance. For the past decade or so, evangelical enterprises have prospered; there is a new interest in the Holy Spirit; and many congregations have seen a marked increase in lay participation and enthusiasm. At the same time, however, evangelicals are dividing into warring camps over the nature of biblical inerrancy, the role of women in the church, the practice of charismatic gifts, the relationship between evangelism and social concern, and the degree to which believers should identify with the dominant culture. Consequently, in order to make the most of present opportunities, growing numbers of evangelicals see the need for a broadening and deepening of biblical and theological perspective.

One such evangelical is Robert E. Webber, Professor of Theology at Wheaton (Ill.) College. In Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity, he argues that before substantive renewal can occur, evangelicals must recognize how far they have strayed from the historic Christian tradition.

Where should evangelicals look to uncover their roots? For Webber, the early church (ad 100–500, but especially the second century) is crucial. Though the post-apostolic church was not perfect and must be judged by apostolic norms, it nevertheless contained ‘the earliest expressions of Christian theology and church practice which grew out of apostolic teaching’ (p. 8). By examining the emphases of the early church, then, modern evangelicals should discover new insights and alternatives for their own problems.

The author’s goal is apparent throughout: to force modern evangelicals to wrestle with what it means to be a Christian in the historic and catholic sense of the word. To demonstrate how much current evangelicals have capitulated to modernity, Webber explores five issues: conceptions of the church, worship, theology, mission, and spirituality. In each case, he presents the problem as he sees it, reviews the early church’s practice and perspective, and then suggests ways that evangelicals can become more ‘historically’ Christian.

For the most part, Webber’s observations and suggestions are provocative and pertinent. For example, by demonstrating early convictions about the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, the author easily exposes evangelicalism’s exclusivism, separation, and individualism. Similarly, the author contrasts the man-centredness and ‘show biz’ style in much of modern worship with the early stress on Word and sacrament in which mighty acts of God in creation and redemption were rehearsed and celebrated.

Webber also wants contemporary believers to recover the early churches’ balanced view of Christian mission: a theologically informed evangelism, an educational approach which cares as much about training disciples as it does transmitting data, and a holistic view of life which sees and then satisfies human needs.

In the area of spirituality, the author utilizes ancient practice to show that authentic devotion is never separated from the corporate life of the church and its mission in the world, and forcefully argues against evangelicalism’s overly sentimental, emotionalistic, and egocentric view of spirituality.

For most readers, however, the most controversial part of this study will be the section on theology. From Webber’s perspective, ‘the authoritative basis for Christian truth does not rest on a doctrine of verbal inerrancy, but apostolic tradition’ (p. 248). His basic argument is as follows: the authoritative source of all Christian truth is the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. Christ taught the apostles who in turn passed His teachings on to the believing community for safekeeping. Though originally oral, the apostolic witness was eventually committed to writing and became the New Testament. The early church valued the Christian Scriptures, then, because they had come from the apostles, not because they were verbally inerrant. The crucial issue in the canonization process was not whether the documents were inspired, but whether they were apostolic. (Inspiration was assumed in apostolicity, Weber seems to be claiming.)

From the beginning, Webber continues, the church was able to detect an authoritative substance within the apostolic tradition. This fundamental and essential core of Christian beliefs (as seen in the Apostles Creed, other early regula fidei, and the ecumenical creeds) is the foundation for all subsequent Christian theology. In addition to providing the basis for all human theological systems, this core also gave the early church a guide to the interpretation of Scripture (as in Tertullian and Irenaeus’ defense against the gnostics).

Webber believes that this insight into the nature of authority in the early church will help evangelicals resolve their current dispute over biblical inspiration. He is equally convinced that once evangelicals recognize that the central core of the apostolic tradition is the only authentic definition of Christian orthodoxy, they might not so easily condemn those who deviate from their own particular man-made systems (i.e., Reformed, Arminian, covenant, dispensational, etc.).

As provoking as this book is, it does not answer all questions. As Webber himself warns in the preface, the aim is perspectival and ‘broad strokes are sometimes taken at the expense of details’ (p. 8). As a result, the reader often feels that some of the author’s generalizations about the early church lack adequate support. To atone for this ‘once over lightly’ approach, Webber has helpfully provided ample suggestions for further reading. Similarly, many evangelical readers might be put off (unfortunately, I think) by Webber’s evangelical catholicity, as seen in his ‘high view’ of the sacraments and tradition.

All in all, however, Common Roots is a valuable contribution to the rising consciousness of American evangelicalism. Webber will force many evangelicals who are used to thinking of their religion in timeless terms to think ‘historically’ for the first time in their lives. The book challenges its readers to see the early church, as well as the Reformation and the nineteenth century, as part of the authentic evangelical tradition. It is a sign of hope that this kind of book has come out of American evangelicalism; it will be a mark of evangelical maturity if American evangelicals take it seriously. They should.

Timothy P. Weber

Denver Seminary