Robert Webber (1933-2007) was a professor at Wheaton College for about 30 years and taught at Northern Seminary in Chicago the last seven years of his life.
He is one of the fathers of the contemplative movement and a very influential voice in the emerging church. In his book Common Roots (1978) he argued that the early church era of A.D. 100-500 has “insights which evangelicals need to recover.” Those “insights” include monastic “contemplative spirituality.”
Webber continued this line of thinking in Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church (1985), Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (1999), Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (2002), and The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (2006).
Webber promoted a very broad ecumenism:
“Paradigm thinking sets us free to affirm the whole church in all its previous manifestations. ...This search for a common heritage allows for the emergence of a new understanding of unity and diversity. ... So while we are all Christians, some of us are Roman Catholic Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Reformation Christians, twentieth-century Christians, or some other form of modern or postmodern Christians” (Ancient-Future Faith, pp. 16, 17).
“A goal for evangelicals in the postmodern world is to accept diversity as a historical reality, but to seek unity in the midst of it. This perspective will allow us to see Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches as various forms of the one true church...” (Ancient-Future Faith, p. 85).
“We evangelicals need to turn our backs on the old separatist model” (Ancient-Future Faith, p. 86).
“Today evangelicals and Catholics are enjoying spiritual camaraderie that was nonexistent a few years ago. ... Evangelicals in a postmodern world will increasingly feel at home with Catholics, Orthodox, and other Protestant bodies...” (Ancient-Future Faith, p. 87).
“... evangelicals need to go beyond talk about the unity of the church to experience it through an attitude of acceptance of the whole church and an entrance into dialogue with the Orthodox, Catholic, and other Protestant bodies” (Ancient-Future Faith, p. 89).
Before he died Webber organized “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future,” an effort to challenge evangelicals “to strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of EASTERN ORTHODOXY, ROMAN CATHOLICISM, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings.”
To arrive at this radical ecumenical position, Webber traveled far from his roots. In the books Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail and The Divine Embrace he described the move away from a strict biblicist position.
Webber grew up in a fundamental Baptist home. His father, who was born in 1900, was involved in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and was a separatist. He left the liberal American Baptist Convention and joined the Conservative Baptists. Webber’s parents were missionaries in Africa for the first seven years of his life. The family moved back to the States when one of their children became seriously ill and the father pastored the Montgomeryville Baptist Church, located about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After high school Webber attended Bob Jones University.
Describing his childhood he says:
“I went to Christian schools and palled around with Christian friends from my youth group. The boundaries of home, church, and school were very tight” (The Divine Embrace, p. 150).
“I was the kid who couldn’t go to the movies, the kid who had to keep Sunday as a holy day (no sports), the kid who had to watch everything I did and said. But I wasn’t just a preacher’s kid. I was also a fundamentalist Baptist. From an early age, it was thoroughly ingrained within me that I was both a fundamentalist and a Baptist. Being Christian wasn’t enough. ... Catholics were pagan. Episcopalianism was a social club. Lutherans had departed from the faith. Presbyterians were formalistic. And Pentecostals were off-center” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 13).
“One central conviction of my parents was that our fundamentalist way was the only faith that stood in continuity with the New Testament. All other viewpoints were distorted at best and some, especially Roman Catholicism, contained no connection with New Testament Christianity whatsoever” (The Divine Embrace, p. 199).
What he was taught about Rome was true. How did he get from there to the point where he considered the Roman Catholic Church a genuine church and the Protestant Reformation “a tragedy”? He describes the steps in his books.
Lack of Clarity about Personal Salvation
One thing that is missing in the biographical account of his youth is a biblical testimony of salvation. Never does he give a biblical, life-changing testimony of being born again and walking with Christ in sweet fellowship through faith in God’s Word. The closest he comes is a description of an event that occurred when he was 13. His father talked to him about the need to be baptized. He did not seek out baptism because he had experienced a born again conversion; rather, his father talked him into it.
“I remember going out on the back porch that night, looking up into the stars, and asking myself whether or not I really believed, whether or not I was willing to take up my cross and follow after Christ. The prospect of my own baptism caused me to choose Christ again in a more intense way, to determine once more to follow him” (pp. 45, 46).
This is a works orientation to salvation. A determination to follow Christ is not the same as acknowledging one’s utter sinfulness and surrendering oneself into His care and trusting Him exclusively as one’s Saviour.
Webber argued that salvation does not have to be a dramatic conversion experience and he admitted that he didn’t have such an experience. He said that repentance “can have a dramatic beginning or can come as a result of a process over time” (The Divine Embrace, p. 149). He saw salvation is a sacramental process that begins at baptism, and this is one reason why he left the Baptist church and joined the Episcopalian and was perfectly comfortable with Roman Catholicism.
Webber described many experiences he had with his students, but he doesn’t give any examples of counseling them about personal salvation. Consider something that happened to him in 1968, during his first year of teaching at Wheaton College. As Webber was giving proofs for the existence of God, a student raised his hand and said that he didn’t believe that God exists and that the proofs didn’t mean anything to him (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 27). When Webber asked the class if anyone else agreed, “several other hands slipped into the air.” What is even more amazing than the fact that several Bible college students were atheists or agnostics was Webber’s response. He asked them what they wanted him to teach and allowed them to guide him in a “search for a more profound and deeper meaning in life” by “tuning into the questions of meaning asked by the artists of our generation.” Pathetically, he even says, “I can’t say we came to adequate conclusions” (p. 28).
What he did not do is question these students’ salvation and try to lead them to Christ, which should have been the very first thing he did.
Once-for-all personal regeneration is absolutely foundational to “experiencing God,” but it is glaring in its absence in Webber’s writings. What we have instead is an emphasis on sacramental terminology.
“... the sacrament ... is a means through which Christ encounters us savingly” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, pp. 50, 51).
“He who saved me at the cross continues to extend his salvation to me through the simple and concrete signs of bread and wine” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 51).
“In the Eucharist I feel both saved again and compelled to live in the Eucharistic way. Both justification and sanctification are communicated to me” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 84).
“Baptism is the spiritual rite of conscious and intentional union with Jesus ... and reception of the Holy Spirit ...” (The Divine Embrace, p. 67).
“When baptism is enacted in faith, the spirit of God performs, ascribes, and accomplishes the very meaning of baptism--a forgiveness of our old identity is made real, and a new identity with Jesus is actualized” (The Divine Embrace, p. 152).
Webber even warns that it is possible to “overstress conversion.” He describes how that in 1983 Jon Braun of the Evangelical Orthodox Church spoke to Webber’s class at Wheaton about his pilgrimage into Orthodoxy.
“He was speaking about his upbringing in a Christian home and the fact that as a young person he had always believed but had had no dramatic experience of salvation. His parents, anxious for him to have a dramatic conversion experience, began to push him toward a decision. ‘This,’ he said soberly, ‘actually pushed me out of the church and made me think for a temporary period of time that I was an unbeliever.’ He then went on to say that placing too much emphasis on a dateable experience of salvation can be dangerous if we do not take into account that many who grow up in Christian homes grow into faith without such an experience” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 76).
Jesus said that salvation is something you are supernaturally born into, not something you grow into. Webber should have encouraged parents who want their children to have a clear new birth experience, but instead he casts aspersion on such a thing and even says that it might be dangerous. To say that “I have always believed” is an unscriptural testimony. You might not know the exact date, but you certainly should know when and where it happened and how that it clearly changed your life (2 Corinthians 5:17). You should be able to testify how that you acknowledged your sin against God and repented of it and put your faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the gospel, and called upon Him for salvation (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Romans 10:12-13; Acts 20:21). That is the only type of “conversion” that is described in the New Testament.
Webber says that “a dramatic experience of the saving reality of Christ is not to be denied or minimized” (p. 76), but he does deny and minimize it by indicating that there are other ways of salvation such as growing into faith and sacramentalism and by confusing justification with sanctification.
Lack of clarity about personal salvation is a foundational error of the emerging church.
Rejection of Separatism
Webber’s first step to ecumenism was in rejecting the biblical doctrine of separation. He describes how that at Bob Jones University he heard the accusation that “Billy Graham is the greatest tool of the devil in the twentieth century” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 70). They warned that Graham was flirting with modernism and compromising the gospel through cooperative evangelism, which is absolutely true, but Webber rejected that argument in his heart.
He mislabels the call for separation from disobedient compromisers like Graham as “second degree separation.” In fact, it is not second degree but first! The Bible warns God’s people to “mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). That is exactly what Billy Graham has done throughout his ecumenical career. He has taught a generation of evangelicals to downplay doctrine and to fellowship with heretics, and that is directly contrary to the doctrine that we learned from the apostles. Paul exalted doctrine and taught us to be very strict about it (1 Timothy 1:3) and he condemned heretics in the boldest, plainest manner (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:16-18).
Rejection of a Pure Church
Another thing that occurred when Webber was at Bible College was his rejection of the doctrine of a pure church.
“Why, I wondered, were we always so busy defining the perimeters in which truth and a right relationship to God were accurately defined? Was it really possible, I wondered, to have a pure church? The more I thought about this the more I felt that to be truly pure was an impossibility. ... How can anyone except God himself be pure and uncontaminated from false belief, ethical error, and incomplete judgment? For me the so-called concept of the purity of the church was a strait-jacket that made me increasingly uncomfortable” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 71).
His question is answered plainly and simply in Scripture. Paul wrote to the church of Corinth and reproved and corrected them for their sins and errors. He urged them to be pure. He instructed them put the fornicator out of their midst (1 Corinthians 5) and to deal with the false teachers (2 Corinthians 11). Paul said:
“Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
It is God’s will that the churches be pure, and even though we don’t live up to this in a perfect manner in this present world, that must always be the goal. We are to continually purge out the old leaven.
The doctrine of a pure church is not a strait-jacket for those who love Christ and want to please Him. Christ addressed seven of the churches in Asia in Revelation 2-3 and He reproved them for their sin and errors and called upon them to repent. He warned that He would reject those that did not repent (Revelation 2:5). This is the standard for the entire church age. It is not the will of Christ that we ever grow complacent about sin and error in the churches.
The doctrine of a pure church is only a strait-jacket to those who want to be careless about doctrine for the sake of pursuing an ecumenical agenda.
Attending the Wrong Schools
Though he was raised in fundamental Baptist doctrine, Webber pursued theological graduate training in non-fundamentalist and non-Baptist schools (Reformed, Lutheran, Episcopal). This is a perfect recipe for going out of the right way. While attending Protestant seminaries he rejected the Baptist faith and became a Protestant. That is not a surprise!
And it was at these seminaries, as we shall see, that Webber was taught about ecumenism and sacramentalism.
It was at these seminaries, too, where he also learned to think and write and speak in a complicated, philosophical manner. He writes far over the head of the ordinary Christian. His books could not help the simple village people in Africa that his parents helped by preaching simple Bible truth. He has complicated the simplicity of the faith (2 Corinthians 11:3). He forgot that God has revealed His truth to babes (Mat. 11:25), that God has chosen to confound the wise of the world through the simple preaching of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:17-29).
Falling in Love with Calvin
First Webber fell in love with John Calvin.
“I was particularly attracted to John Calvin. ... At the Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia. I studied under Robert K. Rudolf, a master teacher and a walking encyclopedia of Calvinist theology. By his magnetic personality and his deep devotion to logically consistent truths I was soon drawn into the teaching of John Calvin” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 60).
Calvin came out of Rome, but he clung to many of Rome’s errors, including infant baptism, sacramentalism, the priesthood, church statism, and amillennialism. He did not understand properly the doctrine of salvation or the church or Bible prophecy, among others. Calvin did not have a personal testimony of salvation other than his infant baptism and he was an avowed enemy of Baptists. He imprisoned them and put them to death, burning one of them at the stake. Calvin’s allegorical interpretation of prophecy does away with the imminency of the return of Christ, which is a very important doctrine and has a great impact on Christian living.
To fall in love with Calvin is a definite step away from the simple New Testament Christian faith and church and a definite step toward Rome.
Studying the Church Fathers
Another stepping stone toward ecumenism was the study of the Church Fathers. Many of those who have converted to Rome have testified that the Church Fathers helped them in this venture. In reality, most of the so-called church fathers of the early centuries were tainted with heresies such as sacramentalism, sanctification through ascetism, infant baptism, sacerdotalism (priestcraft), hierarchicalism, inquisitionalism, and Mariolatry. They represent a gradual falling away from the apostolic faith and a preparation for the formation of the Roman Catholic Church. (See the article “Who Are the Church Fathers” at the Way of Life web site.)
Webber said that he stopped looking back on church history in a “judgmental manner” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, pp. 61, 62). That was a great error, because the Bible says we are to “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21).
Attending an Ecumenical Prayer Fellowship
Another turning point in Webber’s life occurred in 1965 when he attended an ecumenical prayer community, invited by one of his seminary professors. Benedictine monks formed half of the group. Instead of obeying Romans 16:17 and 1 Corinthians 15:33 and many other Scriptures, Webber agreed to attend. He says, “As time went on my prejudices against the Roman Catholics began to fall by the wayside. I had encountered real people who were deeply committed to Christ and his church” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 64). Dedicated Roman Catholics are obviously real people who are committed to Christ, but what Christ? Rome teaches that the consecrated wafer is Christ. And they are obviously committed to the “church,” but not the church that we see in the Bible.
Over the course of the next two years Webber’s thinking completely changed (The Divine Embrace, pp. 199, 200).
In October 1972, he preached a sermon at Wheaton College entitled “The Tragedy of the Reformation.”
The Mystical Mass
Having become sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, he disobeyed God’s Word to separate from heresy and attended a Catholic Mass where he had a life-changing mystical experience. This occurred at a Catholic retreat center. He said he was “surprised by joy” and “never had an experience like that in my life” and “was surely the richer for it” (Signs and Wonders, 1992, p. 5). At another Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Wheaton, Webber said he experienced “something deeper than anything else I had been through” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 39).
The Mass is at the heart of Rome’s occultic mysticism, and many converts to and sympathizers with Rome have testified that the Mass had a part in breaking down their resistance.
Lou Ann Elwell, counselor of students at Wheaton College, is quoted by Webber as saying, “In the sacrament of the Eucharist I feel close to the Lord, almost like he’s saying, ‘I’m here’” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 43).
David DuPlessis, who was instrumental in breaking down the wall of separation between Pentecostals and Rome, described an experience he had during Mass at the Vatican. He said that his heart broke and he literally wept during the performance of the Mass at a session of the Second Vatican Council. By this mystical experience he was purged entirely from suspicion about Catholic doctrine and thereafter he could readily accept Catholic priests as brothers in Christ without any judgmentalism (A Man Called Mr. Pentecost, pp. 215, 216). It was certainly not the Spirit of Truth that met DuPlessis in the Mass and taught him not to judge doctrine and practice.
Webber developed a craving for sacramentalism. He says: “I felt a need for visible and tangible symbols that I could touch, feel, and experience with my senses. This need is met in the reality of Christ presented to me through the sacraments” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 15).
Instead of being satisfied with faith in God’s Word, Webber wanted signs and symbols. He wanted a physical experience. But the Bible says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Faith comes by God’s Word (Romans 10:17). It is the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Webber joined the Anglican Church, but some of his former students have followed the sacramental path he blazed all the way to Mother Rome.
Another thing that brought Webber into a radical ecumenical philosophy was his involvement with the Catholic contemplative practices, such as centering prayer and the Jesus Prayer. He recommends resting the chin on the chest and gazing at the area of the heart and repeating the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) “again and again.” He says, “I feel the presence of Christ through this prayer” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 83). Mysticism is an attempt to experience God, and it is never satisfied with a faith walk based on God’s Word. Further, Christ forbade repetitious prayers (Matthew 6:7-8). When we go beyond the Bible and get involved in practices that are forbidden in Scripture, the devil is always ready to meet us in his guise as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Anointing with Oil by a Charismatic Female Preacher
Another turning point for Webber was in 1974 when a charismatic Episcopal deaconess named Leanne Payne anointed him with oil and prayed over him and healed his memories. This occurred when he was deeply troubled over his future church affiliation.
“Starting in my pre-school years through high school, college, and seminary, we prayed through my spiritual journey, asking God for a sense of direction. I began to feel a sense of release from the past. To this day the effects of that prayer are still with me. For the confusion about my spiritual identity was laid to rest, and my feeling of being drawn into the Episcopal church was confirmed. ... For more than an hour Leanne prayed for me as I brought back to mind the wounds I had received by those who attempted to malign my faith pilgrimage and by those who sought to impede my journey into a wider, more inclusive sense of the Christian faith. After prayer, I felt free, even delivered” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, pp. 44, 45, 65).
Observe that he considered himself “wounded” by fundamentalist types who had tried to warn him about the ecumenical, sacramental direction he was going, and this Episcopal deaconess healed him of the “wounds” inflicted by those mean-spirited Biblicists. In fact, it was not wounds that they had given him but treasures. When someone cares enough to reprove us for sin and error, that is a great gift, but he rejected their kindnesses and sought healing from them through an occultic ritual that has no support in Scripture.
There is nothing like the “healing of memories” in the Bible. Christ and the apostles and prophets of the early churches taught nothing about this, and if it were as necessary as its proponents say it is, the Bible would not be silent about it.
Webber describes how that his ecumenical activities broadened his thinking and made him more tolerant and accepting of all the denominations.
Rejecting the Bible as the Sole Authority for Faith and Practice
Eventually Webber came to the place where he was no longer satisfied with the doctrine that the Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice. He was no longer satisfied with a faith walk with Christ based on Scripture. He wanted an experience that went beyond this. He had been led astray through ecumenism and sacramentalism and contemplative spirituality.
The following is a very frightful thing and is a warning for those who are tempted to flirt with ecumenism.
He said that in 1969 he was preparing a sermon for Wheaton College chapel. He decided on a two-part message. The first part would be an evaluation of contemporary culture, and the second would be the biblical answer. In the second part he wanted to answer the question, “What can we tell a world of despairing people?” (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, p. 28). His outline began with the fact that God created the world and that the world, therefore, is meaningful, that God made man in His own image, that man fell away from God, and that Christ came to redeem men from their sins. That is precisely the answer given in the first three chapters of the epistle of Romans, but suddenly Webber became dissatisfied with these foundational Bible truths.
As I continued to redefine the answers, I asked myself, ‘Webber, why don’t these answers do anything for you?’...
The next morning I dragged my tired and weary body, mind, and soul to my office. I sat there at my desk and looked at those yellow, legal-sized pages of notes. ... I said to myself, ‘Webber, you’ve got to be honest about those answers. You can’t preach that with integrity.’
I stretched my arm across the desk, picked up the sermon manuscript and separated the two parts of the sermon. ... Then, in a moment of conviction, I stood to my feet, grabbed the answer part of my sermon in both hands, and vigorously crumpled the papers. Raising my right hand and arm high above my head, I tossed those answers with all my power into the wastebasket. I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained. ... ‘God,’ I cried, ‘where are you? Show yourself to me. Let me know that you are.’ I was met by an awful silence. But it was not an empty silence. It was the silence of mystery--a silence that closed the door on my answers and broke the system in which I had enslaved God. I wept and I wept. ...
The next day I stood before the student body and delivered the first part of my sermon. Then I closed my notebook, looked at them directly, and told them what had happened to me. I told them that the answers don’t work, that what we need is not answers about God, but God himself. And I told them how God was more real to me in his silence than he had been in my textbook answers. My God was no longer the God you could put on the blackboard or the God that was contained in a textbook, but a maverick who breaks the boxes we build for him (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, pp. 28, 29, 30).
This is one of the saddest, most frightful testimonies I have ever read.
How unwise to say that what we need is not answers about God, but God himself. How can we possibly know God apart from the revelation He has given in Scripture? Anything beyond that is blind mysticism rather than biblical faith. We need sound doctrine based on the Bible, and we need a living walk with God through Christ based on that doctrine. Countless Bible believers have found deep satisfaction and a fruitful spirituality in this. To set the one against the other is heresy.
God has not revealed Himself in silence; He has revealed Himself in the Bible. And the Bible never exhorts us to try to experience God in silence. We are to meditate on His Word day and night (Psalm 1:3). We are to walk in fellowship with Him by praying without ceasing. Christ taught His disciples to pray by saying words, not by sitting in silence. In his epistles Paul described many of his prayers for an example to us, and they were always prayers of words. God is known by His own infallible revelation, and biblical faith is believing that revelation and knowing God through that revelation.
God is not contained in the Bible, but God is revealed in the Bible. God cannot be put on a blackboard, but God’s Word can be written on a blackboard and believed in the heart.
To accept the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice is not enslavement; it is freedom from deception. It is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
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