Robert Eugene Webber (1933–2007) was an American “theologian” who was influential in the Convergence Movement. Webber authored the book, The Younger Evangelicals. According to the cover, it was an introduction to “a new group of leaders who are shaping the future of a movement.” The younger Evangelicals have incorporated into Evangelicalism much of Postmodern thinking. Like most Evangelicals who have capitulated to Postmodern thought, such as Brian McLaren, Stanley J. Grenz, et al., Webber’s book presents an author with a woeful deficiency of philosophical and theological thinking, and a dearth of historical knowledge.
In his chapter titled “Theology: From Propositionalism to Narrative,” these deficiencies become quite evident. After a brief report on a personal experience, Webber begins,
During the modern period the primacy of reason gave rise to arguments for or against the existence of God. Both believers and nonbelievers followed the rules of evidence to arrive at statements to support or deny the propositional statement, “God is.”Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 84.
Both believers and nonbelievers thought they had good reason to believe or disbelieve this proposition. Those who believed were convinced that they knew something about God through God’s revelation of himself which they could interpret with the use of reason. Those who did not believer were quite confident that their knowledge of the origin and working of the world was based on reason and science. Consequently, the believer and the unbeliever were at a standstill. Both thought they had good reason to believe or not to believe.
In the twenty-first-century world, the attitude toward the use of reason has shifted rather significantly. The new attitude, born out of cultural shifts, is that the use of reason and science to prove or disprove a fact is questionable. This conclusion is no argument for irrationalism. It points rather to the postmodern conclusion that we deal with “interpreted facts.” The believer looks at creation and speaks of God as the Creator. That’s an “interpreted fact.” The nonbeliever looks at creation and assumes the world derived from chance. That, too, is an “interpreted fact.”
It seems to be typical of postmodern, evangelical authors not to be familiar either with history or philosophy. Such is evident in the above quote. Webber says that it was the primacy of reason in the modern period that gave rise to arguments for or against the existence God. It would not take much effort to read early and Medieval Christian authors to discover that arguments for the existence of God have been proposed for rational debate since the beginning of the Christian era. In fact, Paul proposed a rational argument for the existence of God in Romans:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (Rom. 1:18–23).
For every argument for God’s existence proposed by believers, there were unbelievers proposing counter arguments against God’s existence. This was not something that arose in the modern period. It is certainly true, however, that such arguments and counter arguments involved reason, since that is what God gave us to enable us to think, however incompetently by some. That someone believes something that is in fact not the case is not the fault of reason but of the reasoner. That 5/4ths of people have trouble with fractions is not the fault of mathematics. One must wonder if Webber thinks he has good reasons for his characterizations, or mischaracterizations, of reason.
Webber presents reasons for why he believes that, “In the twenty-first-century world, the attitude toward the use of reason has shifted rather significantly.” He reasons that this new attitude, “born out of cultural shifts,” has proposed that “the use of reason and science to prove or disprove a fact is questionable.” If someone is going to question reason, one wonders what faculty one might use to enact this question; reason, perhaps? Webber believes that “the use of reason and science to prove or disprove a fact is questionable,” and he reasons that the conclusion is “no argument for irrationalism.” So, Webber reasons that to use his reason to question reason is not unreasonable? For Webber, apparently not, and he believes he has a good reason: “It points rather to the postmodern conclusion that we deal with ‘interpreted facts.’ The believer looks at creation and speaks of God as the Creator. That’s an ‘interpreted fact.’” Of course one must ask, “Is it an ‘interpreted fact’ that we deal with interpreted facts?” Self-defeating statements are characteristic of postmodern thinking.
Webber goes on the conclude, “Thus in the postmodern world, both believers and nonbelievers are people of faith. One has faith in the story of the Bible; the other has faith in the story of reason, science, some other religion, or the god of his or her own making. The case for the Christian faith is no longer reason against reason but faith against faith in opposing stories” (Webber, 84). Without the use of reason, how is one to adjudicate between faiths?
Webber is unable to follow his own beliefs, however: “Classical Christianity knew nothing of the concept of propositionalism as held by Christians after the Enlightenment. Classical Christianity interpreted the faith more as a story that swept from creation through the fall to the rescue by God through Jesus Christ and to the final outcome in the new heavens and the new earth” (Ibid.). He claims that we deal with ‘interpreted facts’ but he is unable to recognize that his statements about “Classical Christianity” are, by his own principles, only his interpretation of these “facts,” which, in fact, are not facts. Webber must never have actually read the writings of the proponents of Classical Christianity — Iraenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc. — all of whom presented propositional statements and arguments for and about God. Nor is he aware of the Classical Christian creeds that presented Christian doctrines as propositions to express Christian belief: The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, The Creed of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed, etc. In fact, Classical Christianity did not interpret the faith more as a story. Classical Christianity presented the faith as the truth proclaimed for belief. But truth is a quality predicated of propositions. All one needs to do to see this is actually read some of the writings of Classical Christianity.
Of course Webber would respond, “I said ‘propositionalism as held by Christians after the Enlightenment.’” One can only assume what he means by ‘propositionalism.’ Combined with his statements about reason and science he must mean the effort to express truth in terms of propositions rather than stories. It is curious that Webber presents his case in the form of propositions rather than stories. If Christians should focus on stories, why doesn’t Webber tell us a good story about propositionalism rather than give us his own propositions about the superiority of story? Apparently Webber is just as ignorant of the Enlightenment as of Classical Christianity. The expression of truth in propositions is not something that was developed by the Enlightenment. In fact, there was not only one “Enlightenment.” There were many conflicting and contradictory views proposed by many different proponents of many different enlightenments. There were many “enlightenment” thinkers who were not advocates of mechanism, particularly not when the notion of “machine” was used to define the nature of man. But those who wrote and taught and preached during the Enlightenment did not invent reason or “propositionalism.” This is simply how humans, at least some humans, discuss and propose and think about issues. It is characteristic of postmodern thinking to paint the Enlightenment as the source of everything against which to be “post-modern.” Such thinking serves only to justify the post in post-modernism.
Oh, but Webber does talk about some of the early church fathers:
The common hermeneutic of the early church fathers was to interpret the Bible through the story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation. This approach is found in second-century theologians Tertullian and Irenaeus; in the third-century work of Origen (with some fanciful aspects not accepted by the church); and in the work of fourth-century theologians such as Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Cyril of Alexandria.Ibid., 85.
But to which church fathers does he refer? Tertullian (160–220) was one of the two greatest early Christian apologists, the other being Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202). As Harold O. J. Brown puts it,
Irenaeus and Tertullian were really productive theologians. Their apologies mark the emergence of Christianity as an intellectual force in the Hellenistic world.Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 77.
As apologists they argued propositionally for the objective truth of Christianity. Tertullian became part of the group known as the Montanists, after the founder Montanus who believed in new revelations and was condemned by the Early Church as a heretic.
Concerning Origen (182–254), Brown says,
Origen is one of the most productive as well as imaginative intellectual figures in the history of Christianity; only a few, such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, can be compared to him.Ibid., 87–88.
It was not the case that Origen had “some fanciful aspects not accepted by the church” as Webber says. Origen believed in the preexistence of the soul and that everyone, including the Devil, would eventually be saved. In 400 AD, Origen was condemned as a heretic.
Athanasius (c. 296–373) stood against the Arians in defense of the deity of Christ. He did this with arguments in form of propositions.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the Cappadocian Fathers were,
The three brilliant leaders of philosophical Christian orthodoxy in the later 4th cent., namely St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (from his birthplace, where his father was bishop), and St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa. They were the chief influence which led to the final defeat of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople of 381.The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Cappadocian Fathers.”
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology refers the philosophical language used by the Cappadocian Fathers:
These three Cappadocian Fathers contributed significantly to the defense of Nicene theology during the 370s and 380s against the teaching of Eunomius of Cyzicus, a supporter of Arian theology. They effectively incorporated Greek philosophical language to defend the idea that God is three persons but one essence.Brian Matz, “Cappadocian Fathers,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 159.
Cyril of Alexandria (378–444) was a prolific author writing commentaries on many books of the Bible. According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology,
In Cyril’s early episcopacy he was engaged in the Arian controversy. He strongly supported the Nicene Creed’s statement that the Son is “of the same substance” (homoousios) over against Eunomius, who maintained that the Son was unlike the Father.”David R. Maxwell, “Cyril of Alexandria,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 226.
Sounds pretty propositional to me!
Webber does not understand what a meta-narrative is. A meta-narrative is not necessarily a story in the way Webber presents it. It is an overarching discourse that is designed to explain reality. Lyotard explains:
Science is originally in conflict with narratives. By its own criteria, most of these turn out to be fables. But, insofar as it is not reduced to stating useful regularities and that it seeks the truth, it must legitimize its rules of the game. It is then that it holds a discourse of legitimation on its own statute, which was called philosophy. When this metadiscourse makes explicit use of this or that great narrative, such as the dialectic of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the reasonable or working subject, the development of wealth, we decide to call “modern” science which refers to it to legitimize itself.Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport Sur Le Savoir (Paris: Les Éditions De Minuit, 1979), ion Postmoderne, 7. “La science est d’origine en conflit avec les récits. À l’aune de ses propres critères, la plupart de ceux-ci se révèlent des fables. Mais, pour autant qu’elle ne se réduit pas à énoncer des régularités utiles et qu’elle cherche le vrai, elle se doit de légitimer ses règles de jeu. C’est alors qu’elle tient sur son propre statut un discours de légitimation, qui s’est appelé philosophie. Quand ce métadiscours recourt explicitement à tel ou tel grand récit, comme la dialectique de l’Esprit, l’herméneutique du sens, l’émancipation du sujet raisonnable ou travailleur, le développement de la richesse, on décide d’appeler « moderne » la science qui s’y réfère pour se légitimer.”
Lyotard specifically refers to this as a “metadiscourse” (métadiscours). Even this brief statement shows that a meta-narrative is not story telling. It is a propositional discourse designed to explain everything. Stuart Sim provides a helpful clarifying explanation of the notion of meta-narrative, or grand narrative:
Grand narrative Jean-Francois Lyotard described as grand narratives theories which claim to provide universal explanations and trade on the authority this gives them. An example would be Marxism, which processes all human history and social behaviour through its theory of dialectical materialism. According to dialectical materialism all human history has been the history of class struggle, and it denies the validity of all other explanations, laying sole claim to the truth. The ultimate goal of human history is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ where class struggle has been eliminated for the common good and individuals are no longer exploited. Most religions offer a similarly all-embracing explanation of human history to fit their particular schemes. Lyotard’s contention is that such schemes are implicitly authoritarian, and that by the late twentieth century they have lost all claim to authority over individual behaviour. It is part of living in a postmodern world that we no longer can rely on such grand narratives (or ‘metanarratives’), but must construct more tactically oriented ‘little narratives’ instead if we wish to stand up against authoritarianism. In Lyotard’s view, we have now seen through grand narratives and realized that their claims to authority are false and unsustainable.Stuart Sim, “Grand Narrative,” in The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, ed. Stuart Sim (London: Routledge, 2001), 261–62.
Webber has mistaken the term ‘narrative’ for story. A meta-narrative is not a story in the way Webber thinks. Sim’s example in the quote above is Marxism. Dialectical materialism is hardly a story. Dialectical materialism is an explanation and interpretation of the significance and goal of human history. It is not merely the story of humanity.
Even in Webber’s telling the “metanarrative” of the Bible Webber cannot refrain from making propositions:
Creation is an act of God bringing something into being out of nothing (ex nihilo). Once there was nothing. Now there is time, space, and history.Webber, 85.
Nowhere in the creation account is the expression “ex nihilo” used, not even in the Vulgate, nor is there any statement corresponding to the English phrase “out of nothing.” This is an inference from the text expressed by Webber in propositional form. Throughout his recounting of the Christian “metanarrative” Webber engages in repeated propositionalism. I wonder what happened to his story telling.