No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?
By David F. Wells
: William B. Eerdmans
Reviewed by Dr. Richard Mayhue
4.2 (Fall 1993) : 241-243
David Wells, the Andrew Mutch Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, supplies an incisive analysis of evangelicalism in 1990's. Many would consider Wells an alarmist; this reviewer commends him for his courageous realism. Wells pulls no punches and withholds no commentary for the sake of winning friends and influencing people. This provocative work will excite the reader regardless of his perspective. The author demonstrates keen historical insight rarely encountered in analyses of religious movements.
His thorough introduction charting the course of the study evidences the excellence of the whole book. He illustrates the heart of the issue with a classroom vignette that apparently occurred early in his theology-teaching career. A student approached him and asked, "Was it right to spend so much money on a course of study that was so irrelevant to my desire to minister to people in the church?"
The question of that theology student, according to Wells, is the question evangelicalism asks today. He writes, "I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy. Many taking the plunge seem to imagine that they are simply following a path to success, but the effects of this great change in the evangelical soul are evident in every incoming class in the seminaries, in most publications, in the great majority of churches, and in most of their pastors. It is a change so large and so encompassing that those who dissent from what is happening are easily dismissed as individuals who cannot get along, who want to scruple over what is inconsequential, who are not loyal, and who are, in any case, quite irrelevant."
To set the record straight, he defines theology in its broadest sense as "the cogent articulation of the knowledge of God." He asserts that the place of theology is in the church, on the lips of preachers, and in the lives of the saints. In the introduction, he prepares the reader to deal with such ideas as modernity, post-modernity, secularization, privatization, consumerism, and culturalization.
Wells writes, "My central purpose is to explore why it is that theology is disappearing. . . . It is not theology alone in which I am interested, but theology that is driven by a passion for truth. And it is not evangelicalism alone in which I am interested, but evangelicalism as the contemporary vehicle for articulating the historical protestant orthodoxy." He pursues that purpose in two major sections of the book. In the first (chaps. 1-2), he analyzes the history and culture of the United States as a background for past influences on current experience. He argues that secularism is restructuring Christian ministry.
In part two (chaps. 3-8), he assesses the current time. He notes, "The disappearance of theology from the life of the church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today but, oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world -in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational." In chap. 4, "Self-piety," he treats the lineage of anemic evangelicalism that, according to Wells, finds its roots in Harry Emerson Fosdick, was carried forward by Norman Vincent Peale, and is now popularized by Robert Schuller. Also, he discusses the psychologizing of Christianity.
His brief but cogent discussion of Christian leadership (214-17) is worth the price of the book. He pleads strongly for leaders who will lead in place of leaders who research the direction of their charge and then jump in front to give the appearance of leadership.
Chapter 6, "The New Disablers," is worth more than the price of this volume. These few pages (218-57) contain the clearest analysis of the current crisis among pastors that this reviewer has read. He discerns two models of pastoral ministry that are vying for recognition by seminarians and pastors -(1) the biblical model and (2) the modern professional model. This is must reading for anyone in ministry. It helps explain the turmoil and the less than enthusiastic response to biblical ministry that currently prevails. He elaborates on the privatization of Christianity, the psychologizing of the church, and the professionalization of the pastor, and then on how all of them have brought a debilitating impact on "evangelicalism."
Wells' last two chapters point the church back to God, His character, and His revelation. The concluding chapter summarizes his ideas and looks ahead to a solution. Though the author does not provide a full-blown remedy for the abandonment of presuppositional theology that characterizes evangelicalism today, he does recognize that criticism alone will not bring positive change. He plans another book that will build on this analysis and call for a new reformation and the recovery of biblical dissent against intrusive modernity in the church and the seduction of evangelicalism by a man-centered theology.
We commend David Wells for his forthright historical analysis and profound evaluation of evangelicalism. He suggests that such "untouchable" entities as Christianity Today, Leadership, Christian publishers, the church growth movement, seminaries, and pastors who are more interested in being professional than being a prophet for God, have all contributed to the decline of evangelical impact. Wells, better than most, has addressed the question, "Why is evangelicalism larger than ever today but having a dramatically reduced influence on both the church and society?"
In this reviewer's opinion,No Place For Truth is mandatory reading for anyone interested in evangelicalism's future. Every Christian could profit from this superlative diagnosis of an anemic Christianity that sometimes is more American than Christian and which has seemingly lost its biblical/theological reference point in God and the Scriptures.