A week or so ago I posted comments about the impressive Roman Catholic funeral provided for the late Senator Edward Kennedy. In doing so I asked some questions raised by David F. Wells in his book The Courage to Be Protestant (Eerdmans). Both the funeral and the book raised critical truth issues. In this post I want to focus on the book.
David Wells believes that evangelicalism is “wounded and declining” in the West, especially in America. In making his case he says that “evangelicals have lost their spiritual status as outsiders to the culture, those who march to a different drummer and have the capacity to think about their world in ways that are completely different from what is taken as normative in it” (p. 170).
This is all the sadder because, as he points out, after the Second World War evangelicalism sprang up as a vital, thriving movement, and its spiritual energy gave birth to evangelical journals, para-church organizations, evangelical institutions, mega-churches, and new congregations aplenty. He identifies key leaders who led the movement, including Carl Henry, Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and others.
What happened, according to Wells, is that the movement took its leave of solid Christian doctrine as foundational to the whole enterprise. It became shaped more by culture than by revealed truth. In fact, he avers, “When all is said and done today, many evangelicals are indifferent to doctrine”. because many think it “is an impediment as we reach out to new generations” (p. 3). When he speaks of doctrine he means the great biblical teachings that sprang to life out of the Reformation of the 16th century.
He is clearly Reformational in his belief that “in Scripture alone is God’s authoritative truth found, in Christ alone is salvation found, it is by grace alone that we are saved, and this salvation is through faith alone. Only as each of these affirmations is made can we say that salvation from start to finish is to the glory of God alone” (p. 21). Those are the rallying cries of the Reformation.
Wells believes that, in its decline, evangelicalism today is dividing into three distinct constituencies: (1) those who hold to the classical orthodoxy of the earlier evangelicals; (2) the marketers, refashioning the way of “doing church” in order for their efforts to be “seeker sensitive”; and (3) the more recent emergents, whose impulses, he believes, will turn out to be a form of renewed liberalism.
The depth of the author’s conviction on these matters is reflected in the fact that his book is really a summary and repackaging of the content of four previous books. They are: No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993); God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994); Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998); and Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World (2005).
When we reflect on these titles we see what David Wells’ burden is. He believes that the Protestant church in the West (that is, North America and Europe) has been wrenched from its necessary moorings in serious Protestant/Reformational doctrine. It has thus come to seek shortcuts for doing the work of the church, substituted psychological for theological foundations, and embraced the culture rather than setting about to transform culture. The negative results both in doctrinal deviation and moral decline among believers are evident everywhere, he holds, and he backs this up with research.
As the above titles show, “truth” is a big issue for him and in chapter 3 of The Courage to Be Protestant he devotes 36 pages to the subject. He writes, “My conclusion is that absolute truth and morality are fast receding in society because their grounding in God as objective, as outside of ourself, as our transcendent point of reference, is disappearing (p. 61). He returns to the theme again and again.
By the time he has given his full analyses of modern life and the way modern life’s distortions have been taken into evangelical churches, one is ready for the final section of the book, which reviews the great Reformation doctrines that he believes must become standard fare in evangelical pulpits once again if the church is to turn the tide. His closing chapter on the church is particularly important in this regard as he reviews the marks of the church as formulated during the Reformation: the Word of God must be rightly preached, the sacraments must be rightly observed, and discipline must be restored as a function of the church. He deals with these marks clearly and compellingly.
I found the content of the book serious and engaging, though the organization sometimes was a little difficult to track. The outline given at the outset seemed more detailed than necessary, probably because this book was a restatement of the major emphases of the previous four books. Nevertheless, the issues the author raises are vital and they are raised in a prophetic way. For serious Christians who care about the decline and recovery of evangelicalism in the 21st century, the book is well worthwhile. In fact, if I were a pastor again The Courage to Be Protestant would both disturb and motivate me.