by David F. Wells; 1993, 318 pp. Eerdmans, $24.99
Reviewed by Thomas Ascol
Wells' main thesis is that evangelicals have lost their center and are in danger of losing their very identity because of the subtle yet deadly ravages of modernity. Beginning in the late 19th century, the humanistic forces which had been unleashed during the Enlightenment began coming home to roost in American culture. In the process man replaced God at the center of life and the "noble values" of the Judeo-Christian world view have all been supplanted by relativism.
The spirit of modernity has insinuated itself deeply into the lives of modern evangelicals. Just as with the liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the effects have been devastating to churches. Unlike that earlier movement, which evangelicals readily identified and stood against, modernity has come into our churches largely undetected. One of its chief impacts has been the devaluation of truth within the evangelical ranks.
It is not that truth has been dismissed completely. Rather, it has been removed from its place of central importance and pushed to the borderlands of relevance. Confessions of faith are still nominally affirmed, but the truth which is confessed no longer forms the character and conduct of evangelicals. Nor is it expected to.
This development has consigned theology almost exclusively to the realm of academia. Thus a tremendous gulf has emerged between the academy and the church and between theologians and ministers. Wells addresses this development in a chapter entitled, "Things Fall Apart." In it he contends that the definition of theology has drastically changed because of its restriction to the academy. Today it is often regarded as simply another academic discipline like history or physics "in which the practitioner of learning ought to have no personal involvement" (98).
This is far different from the earlier Protestant (and particularly Puritan) understanding that the work of theology must include a confessional element, reflection on that confession, and the cultivation of virtues that arise out of these. Obviously, this cannot be performed by a detached practitioner in the sterile confines of an ivory tower. Theology, as well as theologians, must be restored to the church.
The chapter on ministers ("The New Disablers&") clearly demonstrates how management and therapeutic models have replaced the view of the minister as truth-broker. Consequently, the ministry is now regarded as a profession rather than a calling. And because this profession focuses primarily on the techniques of ministry it has little place for theology. This is demonstrated by the changes that have occurred in seminary education:
The issue is that theology once pervaded everything that was taught, but now it no longer does; theology was once considered essential to the doing of ministry, but now it no longer is; seminaries were once determined by that theology, but now they no longer are. Now, the great preponderance of faculty, even in evangelical seminaries, think little of theology, work little with it, and shrug off its importance in their own field (243).Wells paints a very bleak picture of evangelical life and prospects. Because of the loss of truth, it is dying from the inside out. The machinery is bigger and more impressive than ever before. But the heart and mind have deteriorated. He is not hopeless, however, because he believes in the possibility of reformation and revival.
The greatest weakness of this book is the lack of program for such a reform. He has done a masterful job of diagnosis but left the task prescription to a future book, the publication of which I look forward to with great anticipation.
The value of this book is that it clearly and incisively exposes the deep distress of contemporary evangelicalism. If he is correct in his analysis, and I am absolutely convinced that he is, then David Wells has done us a tremendous service by sounding the alarm for American evangelicals. May our Lord give us the grace and humility to heed it and return to a Christ honoring love for and devotion to His truth.