Robert Webber, a man who I firmly believe history will define as one of the most significant theological voices of our time, passed from this earth on April 27, 2008. With Webber’s death, our world in general and the Christian faith in particular lost something it sorely needs: a prophetic voice of purpose and clarity.
For those unfamiliar with Webber and his work, let me offer first a brief quotation from his influential work, The Divine Embrace, followed by a bit of biographical information. I begin with Webber’s words because, like any author, his writing paints a more realistic portrait than the dry narrative of my own pen ever can.
“The texts of the Christian faith tell us no matter how hard we try, there is nothing we can do to restore our union with God. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God became a man and lived in our skin, so to speak, to accomplish once again the union between God and man that was lost by Adam. The ancient fathers speak of God restoring our spiritual union with him by his own ‘two hands’ – Jesus and God’s life-giving Spirit. So spirituality is not a self-generated achievement but a gift given to us by God. This gift sets us free to see life in a new way and to live life as God intended, in union with the purposes of the Creator and Redeemer of the world…..Spirituality has been wrenched from its origins in the story of God and set adrift to become just about anything. In this free-float state, spirituality has been more influenced by culture than by God’s vision. Current spirituality, having asserted its independence from God’s vision for the world, is expressed more as “a journey into self” than a “journey into God.” Nevertheless, union with God does have to do with self, not as in the narcissistic self but as the challenge to be the new self – re-created to be all that God intends us to be in our restored nature and new state of being. For when God lives in us and we in him, we lose ourselves through a surrender of ourselves to the purposes of God. We become transformed selves.”
No quotation, no matter how extended, can completely capture the essence of the mind and heart of a writer, especially a theologian. Still, the above cited passage does give us at least a glimpse of the message Webber, like the prophets of old, was trying to get across. And, like the prophets of old, Webber was often criticized, especially by those who felt the sting of his words. Regardless, this contemporary prophetic voice called out to the church, his Israel, to return to the grand story of God and assume its rightful role as the incarnational hands and feet of Christ on earth.
Webber grew up in the faith as a son of a Baptist minister. He completed his undergraduate work at Bob Jones University and went on to garner a divinity degree at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in 1959 and a masters degree in theology from Covenant Theological Seminary in 1960. Webber earned his doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1968 and immediately accepted his first teaching position at Wheaton College. It became immediately apparent that Webber was cut from a different mold than most professors of religion. Some of his former students recall that, rather than having them read the standard soporific texts, he had them analyzing contemporary writers like Francis Schaeffer and even existential writers. Moreover, he preferred his students to sit in circles on the floor rather than in rows of desks.
Webber eventually migrated to Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois and he was still professor of ministry there when he died last April. He also maintained a professorial post at Wheaton, and was president of the Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 1985 Webber served notice that his writing and his theology were also avante garde. With the publication of his near-autobiographical book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church, he managed to blow sand up the nose of many Evangelical leaders. To say many were irritated is a vast understatement. In the book Webber describes his gradual migration from his fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs to a more Anglican worldview.
As his career progressed, Webber became increasingly interested in the worship aspect of the Christian faith and he developed several intriguing ideas about the role of worship in the faith walk of Christians. He went on to found the Institute of Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida and this school remains the only institute in the country to focus exclusively on worship education.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Webber saw the drift in western spirituality that has resulted in much spiritual shallowness and confusion. For Webber, God’s story of restoration was central to understanding and applying Christianity to life. Webber believed that God approached humankind with a two-fold strategy, utilizing story and mystical union. God’s story was the unfolding of his plan and purpose for the world. In order to restore man to the state which Adam had forfeited, God engaged in mystical union by becoming a flesh-encased human being.
Central, then, to the outworking of the Christian walk of faith, is the individual’s response to what God has done through story and mystical union. For Webber, humanity’s response should involve contemplation and participation. We study, reflect on – we contemplate – just what God’s story is and, further, we then choose whether or not to participate in this grand drama. If we choose to become Christians by participating in the story, this participation is essentially our true act of worship. In a very real sense, for Webber, worship was a life well-lived in context of God’s unfolding story of redemption.
The passing of Robert Webber is a loss to the Body of Christ. Few teachers have been able to present very profound truths in ways that are easy for the majority of us to understand. Further, Webber’s call for our return to the essential ground of our faith and especially the creeds of the ancient church will be sorely missed. It is my hope and prayer that someone will pick up where Webber left off. We, as the church universal, sorely need the continuation of this vital message.
In closing, let me also say that Robert Webber has had a major impact on my own worldview. I can think of few writers that I admire more, not just for his writing, but especially his thought. I hesitate to think what spiritual road I may have wandered down had God not loved me enough to put Webber’s books into my life. I never had the opportunity to meet Robert Webber or hear him teach in person. I am regretful that I failed to do so. Even so, Robert Webber, through his writing, was in every sense a mentor to me. I have read his books, re-read them, and have been through some of them as many as six times. His book The Divine Embrace was one of the few books that I can say without any reservation was life-changing for me.
Thank you, Robert Webber. Thank you, indeed.
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved