Who Owns Evangelicalism?
In the opening pages of David Wells' forthcoming book No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), he tells us about one of his students in his beginning theology class. The seminarian confesses to him sheepishly that he had wondered whether it was a wise use of his money to invest in such a course that would be irrelevant to his pastoral work in the church. "That was the day I decided I had to write this book," declares Wells (p.4).Whereas the study of theology has been relegated to the academy, Wells begins with the assumption that the knowledge of God foremostly should be the concern of the Church. For it is this knowledge of the greatness of God which engenders love and sustains faithfulness. But in the pages which follow, Wells establishes how evangelicals have lost the capacity to think theologically in our modern world precisely because we have yielded to the spirit of modernity by retreating from the truths that the historic Church has proclaimed.
I am not able to summarize the breadth of this analysis here, and so I shall focus on two facets of his argument: the relationship between pluralism and privatization, and the psychologizing of the Christian faith.
In his chapter "World Cliche Culture," Wells examines the processes of modernization and secularization and the subsequent milieu these forces have created: "It is axiomatic that secularism strips life of the divine, but it is important to see that it does so by relocating the divine in that part of life which is private" (p.79). In fact, while surveys show that a large percentage of the population believes in God and the authority of the Scriptures, these beliefs are rarely educed in the public square.
In following chapters Wells examines the rise of criticism and philosophical inquiry in biblical scholarship and the subsequent demise of theology in the evangelical Church. Throughout the book he draws a parallel between the waning days of liberal Protestantism earlier this century and the current flux of evangelicalism. The credo of liberal Protestants was "Life, not doctrine!" and it is this very bifurcation to which evangelicals have succumbed. Says Wells, "While these items of [doctrinal] belief are professed, they are increasingly being removed from the center of evangelical life where they defined what life was, and they are now being relegated to the periphery where their power to define what evangelic, life should be is lost . . . It is evangelical practice rather than evangelical profession that reveals the change" (108).
Conversely, the author argues convincingly that the apostles proclaimed unswervingly the doctrines of the faith—and indeed anchored their identity in this transcendent hope— in a similar pluralistic climate. "We today are far closer in religious temper to apostolic times than any period since the Reformation.... It is, therefore, hard to imagine a more specious argument than the one advanced along many fronts today . . . that the contemporary experience of religious pluralism is the reason that the apostolic formulation of faith can no longer be held!" (104).
The psychologizing of Christianity has also undermined our need to wrestle with the biblical truths that shaped the historic faith. Wells documents this subjective turn with numerous examples in which the concern for truth has been replaced by the fascination with self. The claims he makes are very serious, and it is unfortunately difficult to communicate the portent and extent of his analysis in such an article.
The author writes, "Where the self circumscribes the significance of the Christian faith, good and evil arc reduced to a sense of well-being or its absence, God's place in the world is reduced to the domain of private consciousness, his external acts of redemption are trimmed to fit the experience of personal salvation, his providence in the world diminishes to whatever is necessary to ensure one's having a good day, his Word becomes intuition, and conviction fades into evanescent opinion. Theology becomes therapy, and all the telltale symptoms of the therapeutic model of faith surface" (p.183).
While the book is a bold indictment of evangelicalism's subjugation to modernity, the passionate concern for the reformation of the Church and the purity of Christ's Gospel fuels Wells's work. We should consider this message: "Evangelicals seem to be at the zenith of their influence. Influence, however, is not simply a matter of numbers. It is necessarily bound up with an appropriate relationship with truth and character, both of which are eroded in every accommodation made to modernity. It is the inextinguishable knowledge of being owned by the transcendent God that forms character, and his ownership challenges that of every other contender, including that of the modern world. This is the issue: Who owns evangelicalism." (p.136).—