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.
In this book you describe the evangelical shift from church to parachurch. How has this shift affected evangelical theology?
What I have argued is that churches, in their functioning, are becoming more and more "para," and in their appearance less and less identifiable as churches. All of this has been done out of the best of motives and with the aim of reaching Boomers, busters, and millennials. However, it has been done with such cultural naïveté, and with so little biblical substance, that only miniscule amounts of Christian faith are surviving.
Willow Creek Community Church recently announced plans to abandon some key tenets of its seeker-sensitive strategy. What is the theological significance of this development?
None. Bill Hybels has, I believe, the very best of motives, but he and his church are sailing rudderless in our cultural waters. Or, to change the image, he is like a CEO who shows up at the shareholders' meeting with very poor bottom-line results. So, what does he do? Instead of carrying out a serious diagnosis of what has gone wrong, he simply rolls out a new business plan that, unfortunately, has many of the same inherent weaknesses in it. The bottom line outcome will be no different five years, or ten years from now, from what it is today.
You decry the cultural captivity of market-driven and Emergent churches. In what ways has culture adversely affected classical evangelicalism's theology?
If the marketers and Emergents, in their different ways, have been rolling over to our culture, I see classical evangelicals as having failed, not so much in compromising with it, as in not engaging it. Biblical preaching and doctrinal thinking alike begin with the Bible but must then enter the worlds people actually inhabit. It is good to know what that biblical truth is; it is even better not to relegate that truth to our private, internal world but to take it into the public world, the world of our workplace, and television, and politics, and wherever we are engaged with others and live out faithfully what we know to be true there.
You suspect that the children of church "marketers" and Emergents will become "full-blown liberals." How do you counsel those leaders from each group who want no such thing?
I would counsel them not to be so naïve about the capacities of postmodern culture to remake all of us in its own image. I would further counsel them to think afresh about what apostolic Christianity looked like. At its heart was the apostolic teaching, which we now have in Scripture, which was the be "guarded," "taught," and passed on to the next generation. That is where the breakdown is happening.
You have written a number of jeremiads against evangelicals over the years. Looking back, which criticism has hit the bull's eye? Have subsequent events eased your concerns on any point?
I am greatly encouraged that I am no longer a lonely voice! I am finding more and more people, especially in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who are fed up with marketed faith, which they see as a massive sellout to consumerism, and with the Emergents, who are making such sorry capitulations to postmodern attitudes. I am seeing more and more people who are turning away from these trendy experiments because they want the real thing. They want a faith that is robust, real, tough, able to withstand the challenges of a modernized culture, and one that is on the same kind of scale as the giant problems that this world raises. They are often finding it in a renewed understanding of what, in fact, is historic Christian believing of a Reformational kind.
What is your next project?
I am working with a skilled Hollywood director to turn my last book into a film project with DVDs and study guides for the churches. I have been preoccupied for some time with trying to understand what has happened to evangelical faith in the modernized West. This book summarizes the five main themes about which I have been writing: truth, God, self, Christ, and church. I hope that we can now speak creatively and constructively to these issues.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large and the author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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See also "Positively Protestant | Let's uncover the original meaning of the word" by David Neff.
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