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No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology
by David F. Wells
Eerdmans, 318 pages, $24

.99 One of the common oddities of our time is the invocation of statistics to provide comfort and consolation to the religious believer. To be sure, numbers offer an almost irresistible temptation in this regard: over against an overwhelming sense that secularism has succeeded in taking over the definition of the public square, believers are able to counter with statistics showing their own numerical superiority. Take, for example, the statistics released on May 17, 1993 in Chicago by Father Andrew Greeley at the annual meeting of the International Social Survey Program, a worldwide consortium of social scientists. In presenting the results of a survey of at least 1,000 people in each of twelve countries, he said: “It is too early to write an obituary notice for religion. God didn’t die; not even under socialism.” In fact, for Father Greeley the news gets even better than that. Not only did religion not die, in some places it is positively thriving: “In some countries, most notably Ireland and the United States, religious devotion may be higher than it has ever been in human history.” Comforting, perhaps, but I still wonder; for statistics often end up being equally serviceable to liberals and conservatives alike in the spectrum of church opinion: they are easily bent, in other words, according to people’s prior convictions and predilections. It is no secret, for example, that Andrew Greeley is a liberal Catholic (though by no means an automatic one: his critique of catechetical professionals and the peace-and-justice wing of the Catholic Church is well known), and so he often publishes surveys about the sexual behavior and opinions of American Catholics, or discourses learnedly about the prevalence of sexual abuse among priests, and so on, generally (though not always) with an anti-hierarchical bent. Still, when it comes to the tendentious use of statistics, liberals are hardly alone. Christians on the more conservative end of the spectrum can also be seen dragging around the security blanket of Trends and Surveys. One of the most telling examples of this is Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (1972), a tour de force of sociological argumentation, a book that roughly did for evangelicalism by means of sociology what C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity did for it through apologetics. Are you curious to know why Liberal Christianity is a disaster and why only Gospel-based churches are thriving? Well, Kelly has the answer: the conservative churches know what they believe, they make no bones about it, and they are morally demanding and unaccommodating to the Zeitgeist . What could be simpler? What more soothing to the anxious soul assaulted by the relentlessly secular vulgarites of popular culture? Thus, soon after Kelly, other Evangelicals picked up the gauntlet, and a veritable cottage industry was born. Scholars like George Marsden and Nathan O. Hatch provided the details, reassuring the conservative faithful that their rejection of Liberal Protestantism was the right way to go. The latest product of this industry comes from Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, the very title of whose recent book The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy (reviewed in First Things , June/July 1993) pretty much tips its hand. Here statistics are marshalled around such essentially economic metaphors as “market share,” “subscribers,” “outreach programs,” etc. The authors’ relentlessly free-market analysis might strike some Christians, even conservative ones, as a bit too much, rather as if David Stockman had signed on as unpaid advisor to St. Paul. But the cause, after all, is a good one: to reassure the faithful. “Not secularization but Christianization,” avers the First Things reviewer in summarizing the book, “is the primary religious fact of American life.” It is hard not to wonder what Pascal, say, or Kierkegaard would think of all this”not to mention Jesus (“When the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith in this sinful and wicked generation?”). One is not many pages into any one of these demographic celebrations before being reminded of Jesus’ admonition:

“The kingdom of God does not admit of observation, nor will there be anyone to say, ‘Look, there it is!’ or ‘No, it’s over there!’ “ . . . Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man and will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look, it is there!’ or ‘Look, it is here!’ Do not go running after them . . . . As it was in Noah’s day, so will it also be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating and drinking, marrying and getting married, up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all . . . . I tell you, on that night, two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” The disciples spoke up and said, “Where, Lord?” He replied, “Where there is a corpse, there too will the vultures gather.” (Luke 17:20–37)
The truth is, things are not well with evangelical Christianity, the Dean Kelley school of sociology notwithstanding. True, in contrast to the mainline liberal denominations, Evangelicals might seem healthy enough, but they have serious illnesses of their own with which to contend. It is, of course, much too late to hear from Kierkegaard or Pascal, but at least we have among us David F. Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Cornwall Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. His latest book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology ?, is a searing indictment of evangelical Christianity from within, one just as withering as Pascal’s critique of the Jesuitical and Gallican Church of his time or Kierkegaard’s jeremiad against his own Danish Lutheran Church. Let me state at the outset that I am a Roman Catholic. Obviously, anything I have to say about evangelicalism will take on a different coloration from that of the observations of someone within the fold. For one thing, criticisms from within can for obvious reasons always afford to be harsher than those from the outside. In any case, I certainly bear evangelicalism no ill will; on the contrary, I respect its professed desire to let Christ rule unreservedly in His Church, and I affirm with it the perennial authority of the Bible for Church life and doctrine. Moreover, the afflictions of evangelicalism also deeply affect Roman Catholicism in America. Now clearly, evangelical Christianity is not dead. By the same token, the facile optimism of the sociological apologists is, to put it mildly, highly questionable. For what they gloss over, at least with respect to the American scene, is the question of what people mean when they report their opinions to the pollsters. The great merit of David F. Wells’ book is that he refuses to flinch from this crucial question. Indeed, he goes further, tracing certain flaws unique to the American character to the influence of Protestant evangelicalism throughout American history:
The attraction of evangelical faith, then, has been very intimately tied up with this reshaping of the American character. Evangelicals have always insisted that Christ is a person who can and should be known personally; he is not simply an item on a creed to which assent should be given. But from this point they have drawn conclusions that become increasingly injurious. They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience. Testimonies have become indispensable items in the evangelistic fare. [But] testifying to having experienced Christ personally is peculiarly seductive in the modern context, because it opens up to view an inner experience that responds to the hunger of the “other-directed” individual but often sacrifices its objective truth value in doing so. The question it poses to the outside is not whether Christ is objectively real but simply whether the experience is appealing, whether it seems to have worked, whether having it will bring one inside the group and give one connections to others.
Whatever else Protestantism may be said to have been protesting against, it surely focused prominently on the elitism of the medieval ecclesiastical polity, whereby Christian life was rigidly divided into a life of the commandments (for the laity) and an optional but more demanding (and therefore more meritorious) life of the evangelical “councils,” only the latter of which gave one access to the authority structures of the Church. Over against this medieval hegemony, the Reformers posited a universally available Bible, access to whose message was given by faith”a faith, moreover, that was theoretically available to all and that put everyone on the same level before God. But access is not the same thing as admission, and the question was left unresolved as to whether this reported faith was the right faith in. This is the old distinction between fides qua (the act of faith) and fides quae (the content of what one believes), and it has always been the snag that has threatened to unravel the fabric of Protestant theology. The Bible, of course, is conceded to be the norm that determines right content, but that book is so protean and various that it soon became a norm determined more by fides qua than fides quae, with Calvin, for example, stressing the continued validity of Old Testament law while Mennonites insisted on the abolition of the old law by the Sermon on the Mount. American political culture, as we know, is a unique blend of Enlightenment political theory and populist Protestantism. But such an intersection of political and religious populism is precisely the danger for evangelicalism, as Wells points out:
Common access to truth is understood to mean common possession of truth. If everyone’s intuitions about God and life stand on the same plane, it is assumed that they are all equally valid, equally true, and equally useful. At the very least, it has become awkward to suggest that the intuitions someone has found to be valid, true, and useful might be nothing of the kind. After all, one does not question the propriety of extending the vote to all, and it seems quite as arrogant and offensive to question extending a presumption of common insight to all. Furthermore, just as politicians hold office only by consent of the sovereign electorate, so Church leaders should fulfill their responsibilities within the limits of popularly held ideas . . . . The best pollster now makes the best leader, for all ideas must find their sanction, even their legitimacy, in the audience, and who knows the audience better than a pollster?
Here he pinpoints the fatal flaw in all statistical studies of religious matters that go beyond the mere reporting of their data to advocating policy positions”whether conventionally “liberal” or “conservative””based on that data.
The fundamental requirement of the Christian leader is not a knowledge of where the stream of popular opinion is flowing but a knowledge of where the stream of God’s truth lies . . . . Only a genuine leader has such vision. Those who do not, those who are the servants merely of popular opinion, seldom amount to more than the blind leaders of the blind that Jesus castigated. How so? It is because, in the modern context at least, popular opinion frequently carries within itself the corruptions of popular culture.
Here lies the real issue: the degradation of popular culture under the onslaught of a new civilization of mass media. Populist churches in the nineteenth century were one thing, but in the twentieth they are quite another. This is because, as Wells points out, a new culture has inexorably been replacing the old. Unlike the Enlightenment, this new culture is the product not of the intentions of thinkers and philosophers”what Wells calls “modernism””but of the transformations wreaked by technical innovation”what he calls “modernization”:
This was a time in which ideas counted. In Our Time they do not. What shapes the modern world [are] not powerful minds but powerful forces, not philosophy but urbanization, capitalism, and technology. As the older quest for truth has collapsed, intellectual life has increasingly become little more than a gloss on the processes of modernization. Intellectuals merely serve as mirrors, reflecting what is taking place in society.
The historical contrast is particularly vivid if one takes as an example the evangelical doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” This doctrine requires that the focus of the preaching of the Word be to each individual heart, which alone must make the decision for faith. But without a coherent view of what that faith must be a faith in, preaching easily slips into the mode of either moralizing or entertaining. In any case, when in the 1880s Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel prize-winner, visited America, he noted that the sermons he heard typically did “not contain theology but morality . . . . They do not develop the mind, though they are entertaining.” But in the new technologically driven civilization, the notion of “entertainment” has altered radically. Wells discusses a report in the Wall Street Journal of December 11, 1990, titled “Preaching a Gospel of Acquisition: A Showy Sect Prospers.” The piece is an account of the Phoenix First Assembly Church, situated on seventy-two acres of choice country-club-type property. The church currently boasts an attendance of around 10,000 people each Sunday, up from only 200 in 1979.
[The] reporter who visited it described the minister’s plans to build a replica of Jerusalem nearby, “with camels and everything,” as well as an amphitheater with “prayer gardens and caves.” It is a church of drama. The preacher punctuates his sermons with eye-catching and heart-stopping antics such as his personal flight to heaven on invisible wires . . . and his incorporation of a “rented elephant, kangaroo, and zebra” in a Christmas service. Other churches have gone to similar lengths . . . .
As Kant explained to us, there is no behavior without a cause, and this shameless show-biz vulgarity could never have found a roost in American Protestantism without prior cause. Perhaps the most successfully realized aspect of Wells’ book is his diagnosis of the causes behind such “marketing strategies” for the Gospel. (Indeed, his diagnosis is much more successful than his prognosis, about which, more later.) Indeed, he proves to be a brilliant diagnostician. His prose is direct and honest, and it gains its moral force from the clarity of his vision. What he sees is a kind of Faustian bargain between the prosperity that technology brings and the atomization of the self that comes in its wake: “The values that often accompany Western plenty . . . have become the acid that is eating at the Western soul. The hand that gives so generously in the material realm also takes away devastatingly in the spiritual.” This general reality has a direct impact on the Christian congregation, and especially on the Christian minister.
Professional demeanor weighs more heavily than does theological ability . . . . The most desired clerical quality is an “open, affirming” style and that which is the most abhorred is a style marked by “legalism” in matters of truth and ethics, a style that excludes the participation of others, or is domineering. The open and affirming minister relates warmly to others, affirming them even in stressful situations . . . .
Now although Wells clearly looks askance at this development, probably not many congregations would find this profile in the least embarrassing. The point is that a sociologist can easily describe the role of the minister, but what about his vocation ? “Basically,” Wells tells us, “[religious] consumers are looking for the sort of thing the self movement is offering; they just want it in evangelical dress.” The result for the clergyman is that he is “cast loose upon high seas””“a genuinely God-centered ministry is almost certain to collide head-on with the self-absorption and anthropocentric focus” that has become commonplace in so many evangelical churches. The pathologies currently afflicting Christian clergyman are nowadays all too familiar, from degrading, though very real, tales of sexual abuse all the way to frivolous lawsuits for “malpractice” (including doctrinal malpractice!) by disgruntled lay people. It is almost as if modernization had become a whirlpool pulling into its vortex anyone who visibly stands up for the Gospel. But, as Wells so clearly sees, the problems afflicting the clergy are only the same problems that beset the Church at large; the professional anxieties that undermine effective ministry are but the symptoms and indications of the dilemma of being a Christian at all in the modern world:
Precisely because modernization has created an external world in which unbelief seems normal, it has at the same time created a world in which Christian faith is alien. It is the inability to resist this oddness that is now working its havoc on the Christian mind. The Christian mind in the midst of modernity is like the proverbial frog in the pot beneath which a fire has been kindled. Because the water temperature rises slowly, the frog remains unaware of the danger until it is too late. In the same way, the Church often seems to be blithely unaware of the peril that now surrounds it.
One indication of this, alongside the professional woes of the Christian clergy, is the marginalization of theology in the life of the Church. Indeed, the author begins the book by reciting his experiences of lecturing about theology in a seminary and getting only looks of utter bafflement by way of response from his students. It was in fact out of that experience that he came to write this book: “I have watched with growing disenchantment as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.” Wells’ portrait of the current theological scene is certainly grim, but one feature that makes it refreshing is his refusal to indulge in the usual conservative lament of blaming it all on the academy. The real problem with theology is the lack of appetite for it not just in the academy but in the churches themselves.
Many of the scholarly disciplines, such as Old and New Testament study, that once fed into theology now assail it in the interests of asserting their own independence; many of those whose task it is to broker the truth of God to the people of God in the churches have now so redefined the pastoral task that theology has become an embarrassing encumbrance or a matter of which they have little knowledge, and many in the church have now turned in upon themselves and substituted for the knowledge of God a search for the knowledge of self.
Not that the responsibility of the academy for this dismal state of affairs is to be scanted or excused. But in the marginalizing of theology, Wells shrewdly spots an implicit alliance between the churches and the academy. The universities are, after all, workshops of ideas, and in that sense their linkage with the Enlightenment is natural if not inevitable.
What makes the disappearance of confession in academic circles almost inevitable, barring an occasional episode of rebellion such as that mounted by Karl Barth and his allies, is that there is now an insurmountable coalition between the Enlightenment idea that it is the subject who defines reality and the universities that are now structured not only to make this idea normative but also to make its orthodox alternative unacceptable.
The Liberal churches, for their part, were directly influenced by modernism, and were thus explicit in their insistence on separating scientific study of the Bible from systematic theology. But for the evangelical churches, having fallen victim to modernization, the outcome is the same:
The disappearance of theology, in both Church and academy, is itself one of the fruits of modernization and . . . it has little to do with the way that theology is being constructed per se. Furthermore, the unraveling of the ties between contemporary evangelicalism and historic orthodoxy is not the result of a deliberate strategy but is rather one of the effects of modernity that evangelicals have unconsciously accepted.
The unhappy result of this has been a debilitating reinforcement between church and academy: whatever attenuated appetite for theology there may yet be left in the churches is fed by a flood of books coming out of the universities that are by and large based on explicit Enlightenment assumptions that then go on to reinforce the modernizing tendencies at work in all the churches. Wells is particularly bleak in his description of how deeply embedded this dynamic is. According to his analysis, it would seem that none of the theology being done in the academy can in any way be regarded as useful to the churches. Perhaps his analysis is overdrawn, but it is best to hear him out:
[There is] a niche in the American academy for religion provided that it is empirically examined. It establishes the legitimacy of looking at religion through the eyes of psychology, anthropology, or sociology. But this narrows the means of access to religion to the structures of the self, the tribe, or society, and this necessarily establishes twin biases”a bias in favor of the sort of classical Liberalism that Schleiermacher argued for (which seeks disclosure of God within human experience) and a bias against classical orthodoxy (which builds on revelation, the ultimate source of which is outside human experience). The university opens its arms to those theologians who can successfully disguise themselves as psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists looking for divine reality within the structures of the self or society, but it is a good deal less hospitable to those who find it hard, if not impossible, to see these mediating structures as themselves the vehicles of revelation and who look instead to Scripture as a confessional source that does not merely mirror human consciousness but is the means of transcendent disclosure . . . . In the absence of both confession and an overt commitment to a devout practice, an already ailing theology is doomed to die.
Of course, he observes later,
appearances suggest quite the contrary: Evangelicals seem to be at the zenith of their influence. Influence, however, is . . . necessarily bound up with an appropriate relationship with truth and character, both of which are eroded in every accommodation that is made to modernity. It is the inextinguishable knowledge of being owned by the transcendent God that forms character, and His ownership challenges that of every other contender, including that of the modern world.
Despite the author’s resolutely anti-sociological approach, however, he is willing to hear out the optimists who boast of the vast growth of evangelically minded people on their own terms, but he then goes on to ask them some rather embarrassing questions on those very terms :
The vast growth in evangelically minded people in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s should by now have revolutionized American culture. With a third of American adults now claiming to have experienced spiritual rebirth, a powerful countercurrent of morality growing out of a powerful and alternative worldview should have been unleashed in factories, offices, and board rooms, in the media, universities, and professions, from one end of the country to the other . . . . But as it turns out, all of this swelling of the evangelical ranks has passed unnoticed in the culture. It has simply been absorbed and tamed. Aside from Jerry Falwell’s aborted attempt from the political right in the 1980s to roll back the earlier victories scored by the left, especially during the 1960s, the presence of evangelicals in American culture has barely caused a ripple.
So his thesis, too, is testable, after a fashion; but it is a thesis animated first and above all by a moral vision, the same vision, I think, that moved the prophet Hosea to say: “There is no faithfulness in the land, no love, no acknowledgement of God. There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” (Hosea 4:1–2) For Wells there could hardly be imagined a world more hungry for the Gospel than ours: “Our drug-infested, crime-ridden inner cities have become miniature workshops in which we can see how the inherent instability of our social order can easily lead to complete disorder.” And yet this is exactly what the evangelical churches are not providing:
Here is a corner of the religious world that has learned from the social scientists how to grow itself, that is sprouting huge mega-churches that look like shopping malls for the religious, that can count in its own society the moneyed and powerful, and yet it causes not so much as a ripple . . . . Thus it is that both American culture and American evangelicalism have come to share the same fate, both basking in the same stunning, outward success while stricken by a painful vacuity, an emptiness in their respective centers . . . . As a result, in the one there are no moral absolutes, and in the other there is no theology.
Clearly, the prognosis for a cure for this disease so grimly diagnosed will depend on how Christian leaders find a theology that is both faithful to the Christian message and provides an adequate response to these dilemmas. Here, I think, Wells falls short. For one thing, it is only toward the end of the book, in the penultimate chapter, “The Habits of God,” that the author even so much as hints at what his positive response would be. The first great problem is his over-reliance on the analogy between the pagan world that confronted the New Testament writers and the modern world facing the churches today. To begin with, he is far too sweeping in his (entirely pejorative) characterization of paganism: “The pagan failed to make a distinction between the natural and supernatural,” or, “It is obvious that the pagan mind had no moral categories superseding the relativities of daily life. Pagans made no appeal to moral absolutes.” This would certainly have come as news to Socrates, who was executed for daring to subsume the gods under moral norms. And Aristotle a relativist ? For that matter, the Bible doesn’t invoke the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” either”at least not in precisely those terms. It might be implicit, but if so, we must then concede the same possibility to paganism as well: paganism did after all know of revelations. The second flaw is his concomitantly too-sweeping characterization of a vaguely described “world of the Bible.” Just as in the pagan world we are to find only darkness, so are we to find in the Bible real judgments of right and wrong. Here we can finally walk with a “lamp unto [our] feet” to guide us unerringly into the paths of truth and right. Now though one would rightly expect Wells to be much more familiar with the Bible than he seems to be with classical texts and culture, he has nonetheless, in this much-too-brief chapter, finessed a number of issues”mostly by conveniently ignoring hard texts. Take, for example, an extreme argument offered, from the other side of the church spectrum, in a small book, The Bible Without Illusions , written by the Church of Ireland bishop and renowned patristic scholar R. P. C. Hanson and his brother (also an Anglican clergyman) A. T. Hanson. Now I happen to believe that their point is overdrawn, but it is still one that Wells ignores too quickly:
One often hears the demand made by ministers and laity alike, that those who are training for the ordained ministry should not be burdened with too much academic study of the Bible, but that the curriculum should include “the ability to apply the Scriptures to the needs of the world,” to quote a recent speaker. This sounds good. But on examination it turns out to be a remarkably simplistic suggestion. How does anyone apply the Scriptures to the needs of the world? Are we to teach our prospective clergy that at all cost they are not to suffer witches to live, that in view of the present distress it is better that nobody should marry, that there is no future life, that women must be kept out of public life and confined to church, creche and kitchen, that slaves should obey their masters, that the guilt of the death of Christ is attached to every succeeding generation of Jews since the crucifixion? We shall find all these views endorsed at various parts of the Scriptures.
The problem with the Hansons is that they push a valid point too far. Indeed, as with so many liberal theologians, they seem incapable of making distinctions”almost in the same way fundamentalists do, but in the opposite direction. Thus they go on in a manner unfortunately too common among Anglican theologians (and very much including some of their bishops) of pitching all doctrinal ballast overboard:
Are we to teach [seminarians] that God is pure, unqualified love, and also that he is angry with sinners, that Jesus propitiated God’s wrath so that he was able to forgive us, and also that God’s love takes the initiative and reaches us even while we are sinners, that Jesus apparently disavowed divinity in St. Mark’s Gospel and eagerly claimed it in St. John’s, that Matthew and Luke say that Jesus rejected the temptation to perform spectacular miracles in order to win disciples during his temptation in the wilderness, and that according to St. John’s Gospel a few weeks later he turned a large quantity of water into wine in order to oblige some friends at a wedding? All of these beliefs, at least implicitly, can be found in the New Testament.
Which is to say, that because we cannot accept the bit about witches, we cannot at the same time keep in our heads the idea of God’s love and wrath or that Jesus performed miracles on one occasion and not another. No doubt it is just such casual methods of throwing the entire text of the Bible into one vast basket and then calling it all into question that make evangelicals so suspicious of liberal theology”and of the scientific study of the Bible on which it justifies so many of its conclusions. Still, the Hansons are not without a point; at least they don’t flinch from the issue at hand:
How do we apply the Sermon on the Mount to the problem of nuclear weapons, the threat to the environment, drug-taking and the practice of abortion, and the prevalence of terrorism? To take one apparently simple subject only, that of divorce: In St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus absolutely rules out any form of divorce; in St. Matthew’s Gospel he allows an exception””except for the case of adultery.” Either therefore Jesus did not pronounce that marriage was indissoluble, because he permitted it to be ended in the case of adultery (whatever he meant by “adultery”) or the church at a very early period indeed permitted itself to modify his rigorous pronouncement by making an exception in the case of adultery. Which is correct? What conclusions are we to draw? What is the simple straightforward teaching upon this subject?
Evangelicals by and large don’t like to step into these waters because of the awkward issue of the authority and normativity of the Bible, its limpidity and immediacy for today. But face these issues they must, because they won’t go away. Let us grant for a moment Wells’ assumption, untenable though it be, that there is a direct parallel between the pagan and the modern worlds. Even so, this would in no way mean that we have to adopt Tertullian’s sneer, “What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian is by far in a minority among the Church Fathers on this point. All the other Fathers, with their doctrine of logos spermatikos and the praeparatio evangelica (with Socrates and Plato as the Hellenic “prophets”) took a much more nuanced view. One of the things, in fact, that makes Karl Barth so refreshing as an evangelical theologian is his refusal to indulge in that myopic habit common to many conservative Protestants of tacitly assuming orthodox theology died with Paul and only rose again with Luther’s Lectures on Galatians . Wells is of course right that there can be no healthy church life without a healthy interest in theology; but at the same time there can be no healthy theology without a solid grounding in the Fathers. At one point, Wells makes a remark almost in passing to the effect that “the earlier Liberalism was a far more serious enterprise theologically than evangelicalism typically is today.” The remark is telling, although, of course, it no longer holds true, since liberal theology has so completely unmoored itself from the Bible and fallen prey to an assortment of theological fads. But such figures as Ernst Troeltsch, Adolf von Harnack, and Rudolf Bultmann do live on in the memory, and it announces nothing startling or new to say that evangelicalism has no one remotely like these towering figures to do the work that Wells is asking for. Nor will such greatness be likely if the prescribed result of one’s scholarship is one of coming to the conclusion that the biblical world represents all of light and the classical world of paganism pure darkness. We need to be reminded once more by Karl Barth:
Much of the theology of the New Covenant is painted not in Israelite but in what are doubtless Greek shades of color, redeemed in the light of true love but fundamentally undisturbed . . . . The agape of the Christian would not be what it claims to be if it remains hidden to the transparency of Greek eros; when a person schooled in Hellenic culture encounters the Christian, he should feel a sense of solidarity to the very roots of his erotic being.
What Wells preaches, however, is not solidarity but dichotomy, and not just between the pagan world and a (mostly undefined) “world of the Bible,” but also between that biblical world and the world of modernity. Here, too, the contrasts are drawn too sharply. For example, in various passages Wells makes such avowals as: “I disbelieve in the modern world because I believe in God, in His truth, and in His Christ.” Or more startlingly: “I do not believe in modernity at all ” (emphasis added). This might be a proper declaration for a Shaker or Amish Protestant, but outside of such sectarian circles, how can sweeping statements like this be maintained? On one occasion, Wells does admit that modernization has brought benefits and blessings as well as addictions and corruptions and that he is willing to enjoy, in moderation, such blessings. But it was the opinion of no less a figure than Rudolf Bultmann, in perhaps his most famous statement, that one becomes a demythologizer by the very act of turning on the radio. Bultmann’s is no doubt another example of a too-sweeping statement; nevertheless he has a point. In short, Wells’ next book (which he promises will describe his positive program more fully) will need to be more nuanced in its constructive proposals than what we have here. On the other hand, it is worth repeating that sketchy as these proposals are, their author is on the right road. Perhaps most reassuring of all is his insistence on the Resurrection, most of all on the way its particularity calls into judgment all generalities, especially the all-time vague generality called “experience”:
The early Christians do not preach their experience of Christ; that would have been to promote a form of religion like any other form of religion. Rather, they preached the Christ of that experience. They preached not what was internally interesting but what was externally true. God had raised him from the dead, and this was a matter of history, not simply of internal perception. The bells that rang in celebration of God’s conquest over sin, death, and the devil also summoned every competing religious worldview into judgment.
Here Wells most closely approaches the voice of the Reformers at their most authentic. For whatever else the Reformers knew, they knew above all that only God is God. Nothing mere mortals can do will ever capture God; all they can do is accept God”should He deign to reveal himself. It is his stress on God’s objective holiness that makes Wells’ book so bracing. In fact, in his concentration on God’s inherent holiness, he even avoids getting overly involved in the distinction, dear to old Protestant-Catholic debates, between justification and sanctification, for they are both concepts that fundamentally refer to the ways of appropriating, on the human side, God’s own holiness. And that is what we”all of us, Catholics, Evangelicals, and everyone else in Christ’s church”should be concentrating on.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. , a frequent contributor to First Things , teaches in the Religious Studies Program at New York University.