David F. Wells, the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is one prolific writer. For some forty years he has addressed some of the thorniest subjects in theology with a sincere pastoral heart for the church. Wells could well be considered the one Christian writer who over the past 20 years best articulates the pulse of evangelicalism in this world. Whether or not one agrees with Wells, one thing is for sure, he will make you think.
The current book under review, The Courage to Be Protestant, is a volume which builds on four previous books by Wells: No Place for Truth (1993); God in the Wasteland (1994); Losing Our Virtue (1999); and Above All Earthly Pow’rs (2005). In No Place for Truth Wells provides a keen study of evangelicalism in the 1990’s. Then in God in the Wasteland the author rightly portrays the church within the “wasteland” of Western culture as having lost its sense of God’s holiness and sovereignty. Wells issues a call for real change. Five years later in Losing Our Virtue Wells continues his cultural analysis of the late 20th century by explaining how the church has been shaped by an immoral culture. More recently Wells penned All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World in which he rightly mourns for the church’s loss of the sense of the transcendent glory of God. Instead, the church has become too much like the post-modern culture in which it is planted.
Well’s, rightly says of our culture today, “The constant cultural bombardment of individualism, in the absence of a robust theology, meant that faith that had rightly been understood as personal now easily became faith that was individualistic, self-focused, and consumer oriented.” Today we have the emergence of the Emergents. Well’s says that the Emergents are “doctrinal minimalists”. He says further, “They are ecclesiastical free spirits who flit around a much small doctrinal center…”
Well’s divides The Courage to Be Protestant into seven chapters. Chapter one, “The Lay of The Evangelical Land,” Well’s breaks the evangelical world into three constituencies: Classical Evangelicals, Marketers, and Emergents. The later two groups are, historically speaking, new. In chapter two, entitled “Christianity for Sale,” Well’s rightly accuses much of the modern church of marketing the gospel. The church today exists only to give the “customer” what he wants! In chapters three through seven Well’s touches on five key concepts which modern day Christianity has corrupted: Chapter Three: “Truth,” Chapter Four: “God,” Chapter Five: “Self,” Chapter Six: “Christ,” and Chapter Seven: “Church.” Well’s explains that while our American culture is very “spiritual”—it is, however, a truthless spirituality. God, in this culture, has been “privatized.” Truth is sacrificed on the altar of what the consumer wants. Bible preaching has fallen on hard times since the average postmodern person distrust what comes through anyone else and therefore the “self” is the sole arbiter of truth. Well’s describes how this culture has made God an “inside God” and not an “outside God”. He no longer is the transcendent and glorious Creator but very personalized to every individual’s own concoction. He rightly says of today’s culture, “What is sacred is within and indistinguishable from the self.” “Self” is really the object of one’s pursuit, not God. “Christ’s” work on the cross is really of no consequence to today’s postmodern. He wants what he wants and not what God has provided in the finished work of Christ. Since “faith” has been much privatized, the local church has little significance. Why join or participate in a local church?
In this reviewer’s opinion, The Courage to Be Protestant is mandatory reading for anyone interested in obtaining a clearer understanding of today’s American spiritual culture. Knowing our cultural mindset, as Well’s has articulated it, will enable us to deal more effectively with people in the 21st century.
Reviewed by David J. Georgeff, Missionary/Pastor with Biblical Ministries Worldwide
A revised edition of The Courage to Be Protestant was published in 2017. In the preface, Wells tells his readers why he has updated his book:
In this, its second life, there are some other changes. One entire chapter has been eliminated and half of another. At the same time, some fresh material has been added. Why make these changes?
In the original edition of The Courage to Be Protestant, I drew a map of the evangelical world and made the argument that evangelicalism was made up of three large constituencies. Two of these–the church marketers and the emergents–were relatively new and, as I saw it, they were “transitional movements.” I added that with their blasé attitude toward the biblical doctrine–what had been at the heart of the earlier, more classical form of evangelicalism–they were moving, “however unwittingly, toward a more liberalized Christianity.”
Much has happened since I wrote these words even though this was less than a decade ago. The emergents have evaporated and their incipient liberalism has come out into the open. The marketers have morphed into the attractional church. Attitudes have changed, too. A little chastening has set in about the earlier and more brazen attempts at marketing Christian faith. Not only so, but the cultural environment has changed, too. It is becoming rather more hostile to traditional Protestant belief. So, with all of this in mind, I decided to eliminate the earlier focus on marketers and emergents. I have still given space to them, but all I have tried to do here is to put them in their recent, historical context.
We are now on the cusp of many changes, in our world and in evangelical faith, and we need to be looking ahead. But, in this book, I am also looking behind and keeping in mind what happened in the Reformation. The aim is to make at least a few connections between then and now. (p. xiv)