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Review: “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail”

Robert Webber’s book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, is a book of testimonies: chiefly Webber’s own, but backed up by subsidiary testimonies from various other people, purporting to explain why some evangelicals have become Anglicans.

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The criticisms that Webber makes are powerful and cogent to churches that are non-Reformed.  No doubt they could also apply to some nominally Reformed churches: but the plea for a God-centred worship and a proper sacramental conception (from which he departs by allowing too many sacraments) is one that should not only be echoed by the Reformed, but actually experienced among them.  His rejection of system because God is a maverick who will not be contained could indicate two things: one, that his system was inadequate; two, that his system was adequate and incorrectly apprehended.  If a system is based on divine truth God will not be boxed up in it, for two reasons.  In the first place, because it has made an accurate transcription of at least the edges of His ways; secondly, because it will have explicitly allowed for the freedom of God.  His identification and affirmation of the different kinds of spirituality (conversion, dos and don’ts, believing the right thing, ethical and experience) is helpful:there are different emphases in spirituality, and we need a full-orbed spirituality.  I believe he is wrong, however, in his analysis of a spirituality of experience, and also in his location of that spirituality as the one which comprehends all others.  As Lloyd-Jones remarked long since, if Christianity is only an experience then we have no answer at all to the cults.  This infringes already on the presuppositional objections to Webber’s position, of which there are three.

Most importantly, experience is made the grand arbiter.  There is nothing to describe how we are to understand or interpret our experiences.  He does not like a proof-texting Christianity, yet he is comforted because the early church viewed things the way he does.  Now what is this but to proof-text the early church?  Proof-texting is objectionable when it is done badly, or when it reduces the Bible to a polemical textbook.  Without a certain degree of proof-texting, however, not only do we have no doctrine or standards, we have no method with which to understand our experience.  This reveals itself in his emphasis on how the Episcopal church works for him and some others, but is by no means the only thing that works.

This leads into the next consideration, which is the centrality of human need, human wants, and human feelings in his whole approach.  He was dissatisfied with this or that.  Well: dissatisfaction is no doubt unpleasant; but a malcontent can be dissatisfied with what is perfectly wholesome.  I do not accuse Webber of being a malcontent: but dissatisfaction by itself is not an indication of the sufficiency or insufficiency of any given thing.  The dissatisfaction must again be evaluated.  Furthermore, arguing for a God-centred worship from a man-centred dissatisfaction may indeed be the right approach: but it can only be shown to be the right approach on the basis of Scripture.  Without the teaching of Scripture of our having been created to worship God, we would laugh our dissatisfaction with not being God-centred as another manifestation of man-centredness.  What is more focussed on my preferences than acting as my dissatisfaction dictates?

Finally, given its approach, the book is of course very weak.  It would not, perhaps, be effectively refuted by a work in a similar vein describing a person’s pilgrimage from Canterbury to Winona Lake  –but it could offer little to counter such a pilgrimage.

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