What Evangelicalism Needs
No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?
By David F. Wells
Review Author: Gary Mar
Is evangelicalism in the midst of an identity crisis? How are we “second-generation, post-fundamentalist” evangelicals to live? Is evangelicalism in need of reformation?
When rethinking one’s identity, it is good to begin with family roots. The four solas are the roots of the Reformation family tree from which evangelicalism branches. Luther proclaimed the authority of Scripture (sola scriptura), and that salvation is by God’s grace (sola gratia) through faith (sola fide) in the saving work of Christ (solus Christus).
Now imagine Luther returning to protest our postmodern “Babylonian Captivity” (Rev. 3:1). What theses would he nail to the door of contemporary evangelicalism? Luther would see feminist and liberationist theologians attacking the church for its talk of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” wanting to replace it with the more inclusive “Womb of Being, Liberator, and Nurturer.” Luther would see a Crystal Cathedral where the word “sin” is banished and it is preached that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was really teaching us “Be (Happy) Attitudes.” Luther would also see media evangelists trafficking in multi-millions of dollars, promising worldly prosperity and financial freedom — “Have a need? Plant a seed!”
David Wells, in No Place for Truth, concludes: “we need reformation rather than revival. The habits of the modern world, now so ubiquitous in the evangelical world, need to be put to death, not given new life.” How did we get to this place?
Modernity’s habits of mind have infiltrated evangelicalism. With the loss of belief in objective truth, theology loses its vision of a transcendent God who calls us to repentance, regardless of our self-image. And “without a vision of God as Other, different from and standing over against the modern world, there is no compelling reason to think thoughts about the world that are not essentially modern.” The sad fact is that many religious consumers are looking for what the “self” movement is selling, but in evangelical dress.
In an incisive chapter, “The New Disablers,” Wells discusses the professionalization of the pastorate. In America, status is conferred by professional standing, hence, in the 1970s the D. Min. degree was conceived. Middle-class professionals could now be served by professional pastors with marketable competence in such areas as denominational politics, psychological counseling, and church growth. Professionalization accentuates the differences between pastor and congregation in the same way it accentuates the difference between doctors and patients, lawyers and clients. Wells exposes the dilemma: “We allow our pastors to be rendered sterile through their yearning for professionalization and then bid them to be fruitful in their work.”
Donald Bloesch’s A Theology of Word and Spirit, the first of seven volumes in systematic evangelical theology, is a masterful reflection on the nature of scriptural authority and method. Bloesch rejects theological liberalism, which denies the authority of Scripture, as well as the “narrow biblicism” of fundamentalism.
The issue of inclusive language, according to Bloesch, is not ultimately about male chauvinism, but about the authority of Scripture: Is Scripture God’s revealed Word or merely our words about God? The reason we call God “Father” and not the “Womb of Being” is because God has chosen to reveal Himself as Father. God the Father is not a projection of our desire for a father; fatherhood is named after Him (Eph. 3:14). As Luther warned: “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not professing Christ….”
Seeking to defend the Bible against liberalism under the banner of “inerrancy,” fundamentalists reduced theology to summarizing all biblical truths as propositions. This “propositionalism,” based on a misplaced pride in Enlightenment rationalism, led to internal divisiveness, intellectual arrogance, and social irrelevance. Theology is “not simply propositional truth but a living, dynamic truth that takes the form of propositions, but also other forms, for example, symbolic acts or prayerful entreaty.”
According to Stanley Grenz’s Revisioning Evangelical Theology, the heart of evangelicalism is spirituality. Unfortunately, evangelicals have come to view spirituality through the eyes of modernity: “Piety among evangelicals has tended to be highly individualistic….”
What Luther meant by the priesthood of all believers was not radical individualism (Judg. 17:6), but that the effective proclamation of the Gospel evokes faith and sustains a fellowship of believers, each of whom is a priest to his brothers and sisters (1 Pet. 2:9). The integrating motif of evangelicalism is the Kingdom of God, but this motif is empty without a vision of Christian community. Grenz quotes Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: “We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them.”
As the culture wars have made clear, evangelicals have far more in common with Catholics than with secularists and neo-pagans, who will continue to visit unprecedented attacks upon us, from pornographic images in the media defacing the holy state of chastity before marriage and fidelity in marriage to the politically correct death of millions of preborn babies created in the image of God. We evangelicals and Catholics dispute over whether “this is my body” (1 Cor. 11:24) is to be taken symbolically or transubstantially, whether “salvation” means justification (Rom. 3:28) or also includes sanctification (Rom. 5:9-10), whether “works” means the futility of “works of the flesh” (Gal. 3:3) or the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). But these differences are relatively minor in comparison with the beliefs that unite us — belief in a supernatural, personal, trinitarian God, in the humanity and deity of Christ, His virgin birth, His substitutionary atonement for sin, His bodily resurrection, and His second coming, and in salvation by grace through faith to do good works (Eph. 2:8-9).
More important than common beliefs is our unity in Christ. Jesus, in His high priestly prayer, asked for unity: “I in them, and You in Me; that they may be brought to complete unity, and that the world may know that You have sent Me and love them as You have loved Me” (Jn. 17:23).
Perhaps Luther, then, would urge as a first step, not reformation or revival or revisioning but repentance: “Let us act with humility, cast ourselves at one another’s feet, join hands with each other, and help one another. For here we battle not against pope or emperor, but against the devil, and do you imagine that he is asleep?”
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