Above All Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World
By David F. Wells
Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 253-255
For over a decade, David Wells, Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has provided the evangelical church (especially) with an informed theological critique of contemporary culture. The previous books in this series, No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), and Losing our Virtue (1998), mourned the loss of theological depth in contemporary culture by investigating its cultural, philosophical, and theological sources. One could sum up his critique by saying that the reality of God’s truth, holiness, and power has been eclipsed by the tools and methods of the contemporary world. In other words, the evangelical church has been guilty of “worldliness” in ways far deeper than the practices of what we wear and what we enjoy in entertainment. There is “something rotten in the Denmark,” and it has penetrated the so-called “Bible-believing” churches. The sad thing is that Christians oftentimes cannot see it until someone like Wells points it out.
Wells is a theologian of Reformed convictions, and he reaches deep into history, sociology, philosophy, literature, and other disciplines to develop his perspectives carefully. Also permeating his critique, similar to Francis Schaeffer, is a deep pastoral concern that manisfests itself in constructive criticisms of church practice.
This work claims a Christological orientation, hence the subtitle: “Christ in a Postmodern World.” To those who have read fairly deeply on the subject of postmodernism, much of what Wells articulates may not be new. He documents his claims so well, however, that even those experienced in that area will benefit from his analysis. In many cases, the first books to treat new topics are not typically the best. It is easy to see that Wells has been thinking about the subject for many years. Though this book builds on the foundation he laid in the previous three books in the series, not too much unnecessary repetition appears.
In his introduction he laments that the evangelical church lacks “a spiritual gravitas, one which could match the depth of horrendous evil and address issues of such seriousness. Evangelicalism, now much absorbed by the arts and tricks of marketing, is simply not very serious anymore” (4). Above All Earthy Pow’rs derives its title from Luther’s famous line in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and attempts to inject Christological seriousness back into the evangelical mind and heart. The hymn presents the transcendence of God and the necessity for the church to depend on a transcendent God for its faithfulness. That is precisely what Wells believes is becoming lost in evangelicalism today. To make his point, Wells elucidates the defining features of the postmodern world: how it emerged, what it is, and how Christians should respond to it.
To understand post-modernism, one must understand modernism. Wells devotes one chapter to this task, “Miracles of Modern Splendor,” in which he explains the arrogant optimism and rampant materialism in the West. The following chapter then addresses “Postmodern Rebellion,” in which the optimism of the modern period gives way to despairing of having a unified worldview at all.
Wells spends three chapters bringing a biblical Christology to bear on postmodern manifestations in philosophy, theology, and practical ecclesiology. He repeatedly makes clear that the church’s response to postmodernism must be rooted in objective truth, rooted in the Triune God who stands over all who are His creatures. He carefully explains how the gospel shatters human pride and proclaims that through Jesus Christ spiritual restoration is possible (see John 1:1-3, 14; 2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:5-11). The cosmic impact of the gospel, not just the inner spiritual changes, are brought to bear on life and thought in a most engaging manner.
In his past works, Wells has no t hesitated to name names, and in this book he is no different. His critique of individuals, however, is not slanderous, for he always grounds his criticisms in a rigorous theological evaluation of their views. His comments about influential writers like Grenz (73, 126, 228-29) and Pinnock (242- 51) illustrate his theological acumen.
The final chapter, “Megachurches, Paradigm Shifts, and The New Spirituality,” is one that fans of Wells will expect from his previous writings. He indicates how the megachurch and seeker-sensitive approaches to ministry actually appropriate the tools of postmodernity—principally marketing to consumer preferences—to the degree that theology becomes largely irrelevant. This is a theme he has stressed before, and he does not back off in this work. He illustrates how liberal churches have used megachurch growth models to increase their membership considerably, indicating that in all such instances people are most likely being drawn more by methodology than by theology. Wells lays the blame for much of this thinking on the “homogeneous unit principle” of missiologist Donald McGavran, who claimed that evangelism is most successful when people are not forced to cross any racial or economic barriers in order to come to Christ. The megachurch methodology has extended the principle to apply to generational barriers as well. Thus, churches target specific groups and tailor their services to fit specific preferences. The underlying assumption is that “the chief barrier to conversion is sociological and not theological” (289). By catering to certain preferences, and avoiding dislikes, so says the approach, people will more naturally com e to Christ.
True to his theological calling, Wells points out the essentially Pelagian thinking that underlies that approach; it assumes that people do not stumble at the gospel, but how it is presented and because it does not fit their cultural preferences. He searingly analyzes, “Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite creedal affirmations to the contrary, that in their disposition to God and his Word, postmoderns are neutral, that they can be seduced into making the purchase of faith even as they can into making any other kind of purchase” (299). The answer to this theological defection, W ells declares, is a return to revealed, objective truth: “What distinguishes the Church from this industry is truth. It is truth about God and about ourselves that displaces the consumer from his or her current perch of sovereignty in the Church and places God in the place where he should be” (303).
Occasionally this reviewer stops underlining important statements in a book, because he finds himself underlining nearly a whole page! Such is the case with this book. Wells has hit another home run. Whether or not his critique will overthrow the postmodern evangelical juggernaut depends, however, on how many recognize his worth and join his team! On the back cover, D. A. Carson writes, “Those who are serious about the gospel and about thoughtful cultural engagement will not want to miss this book.” To that the reviewer can only add a hearty “Amen.”