No Place for Complacency
During the last 15 years, David Wells has cried out like a voice in the wilderness against the ills of modern evangelicalism. His latest book, The Courage to Be Protestant, conveys the essence of his argument in four preceding books: No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1998), and Above All Earthly Pow'rs (2005). Wells, the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, spoke with CT editor at large Collin Hansen about "truth-lovers, marketers, and Emergents in the postmodern world."
Why does it take courage to be a Protestant today?
It takes no courage simply to sign up as a Protestant. But Protestantism at its best has been defined by its understanding of biblical truth, and it is that truth that is at odds with both postmodern assumptions and with the operating assumptions of many in evangelical churches. This is a defining moment. The day is long past when anyone can safely go with the evangelical flow. However, swimming upstream is not easy.
Many voices today say evangelicals don't need renewed focus on orthodoxy. They say these beliefs haven't always led to godly behavior, so we should focus on orthopraxy. So why should we still try to get our doctrine right?
Of course orthodoxy can be dead! No one simply professing orthodox beliefs as the Pharisees did is, on that account, saved from the corruptions of their own hearts. But nor are the pragmatists who now dominate the evangelical world and who, however unknowingly, are substituting "acting" for "being." The problem with business know-how and therapeutic savvy, served up at the core of Christian faith, is that so much of it is saturated with cultural assumptions that do not pass biblical muster. Getting our doctrine right means taking into our minds the truth God has given us in his Word so that we might live godly lives by also being culturally savvy.
You argue that liberty on nonessentials has led evangelicals to devalue certain important matters (church government, baptism, eschatology, etc.). Does it necessarily follow that evangelical cooperation will sideline important doctrines?
No, it does not. I still think we need to cooperate with each other but to do so around a commonly held core of truth. What has happened is that the capacity to think about life in biblical terms has begun to disintegrate. That then meant that in this great evangelical coalition are those who doff their hats to the authority of Scripture but really see little relevance for that truth in "doing church" in our contemporary world. The results are now everywhere to be seen in our churches. George Barna's polling numbers make dismal reading. It is not so much that particular doctrines have lost their saliency. Rather, it is the capacity to think about ourselves, our churches, and our world in biblical ways that has been slowly disintegrating.
Surveying the lay of the evangelical land, you write that the term evangelical may need to be abandoned. Indeed, the term loses relevance when some claim the name but do not hold to traditional evangelical doctrines such as justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and the full authority of divinely inspired Scripture. But how could evangelicals avoid this problem, short of submitting to a central authority who determines who's in and who's out? Won't we have the same problem with any other term?
Coalitions are not held together by anything other than their common goals. In the evangelical case, those goals have arisen from their commonly held biblical beliefs. If those break down, or if they lose their weight and saliency, goals cease to be common and the coalition begins to divide. That is what is happening today.