Above All Earthly Pow'rs

Ligon Duncan articles

Over a decade ago, David F. Wells, began a project to "explore the places of intersection between different aspects of the Christian confession and our (post)modern world" (Above All Earthly Pow'rs, hereafter AAEP, 12). The project began with his stellar volume No Place for Truth (hereafter NPFT) and concludes with the book that is the subject of this review: AAEP. Happily, I can report that Professor Wells, at the urging of many of us, is currently preparing a simplified summarization of the sustained argument of these four densely-packed tomes.

Wells' NPFT is a grand exploration of how modernity has impacted the evangelical church. In it he shows how both the church's ministry and audience have been wrought upon by modernity. Modernity has contributed to the fragmentation of human learning and consequent specialization in the theological academy where unitary knowledge and rational absolutes have been, by and large, discounted or abandoned. Modernization has worked upon the church's audience a mindset that is relativistic, pragmatic and therapeutic/narcissistic. The result has been the marginalization of God, making the absolute and transcendent seemingly irrelevant to daily life. This condition of the audience, in turn, affects the very possibility of the church's ministry actually doing theology, thinking theologically, or speaking theologically to them.

Wells states the thesis of NPFT this way: theology happens in three places or "worlds" - (1) the academy [schools, universities, seminaries, books, journals], (2) the Church, and (3) the "Middle men" [academics and pastors who transfer the teachings from 1 to 2], but the connection between these "worlds" is now severed, and they are even breaking down within themselves. Wells says, in effect, if our audience loses the ability to think like Christians about the world, then there ceases to be a reason to do theology in pulpit or classroom (it's like writing books for people who can't read).

Wells' central purpose in NPFT is to explore why theology is disappearing. He is interested in the recovery of a historic Protestant orthodoxy that has a passion for truth. Why has evangelicalism lost its passion for truth? Why has it lost contact with the past? In answering these questions, many attempts at explanation seem to diverge or conflict. Nevertheless, Wells believes that the disappearance of theology in both Church and academy is a fruit of modernity (rather than a deliberate strategy), which is in turn a worldview byproduct of modernization. So also he argues that the break between evangelicalism and the historic orthodoxy of the past is often unconscious.

Wells explores the weightlessness of God in the spheres of theology and ethics in God in the Wasteland and Losing Our Virtue, the second and third books of this four-volume set, and then takes stock of the influences of the postmodern outlook and religio-cultural diversity on evangelicalism today in AAEP.

Let me pause here and, at the serious risk of being charged with sycophancy, say that David F. Wells is one of the most eminent theologians in the English-speaking world today. His combination of theological brilliance and acute cultural analysis is rare, even at the highest levels of his profession. The circle of friends into whom the Lord has providentially placed Professor Wells constitutes a Who's Who of great evangelical leaders, preachers, thinkers, theologians and historians over the last half-century. A quick glance at the preface of the fourth volume of his decade-long reflection on evangelical theology and American culture will indicate Dr. Wells' extensive fellowship with, for instance, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Carl F.H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Os Guinness, George Marsden and Mark Noll. This has both prepared him to play the role of Jeremiah to the 21st century Protestant church in the West, and placed him in a uniquely strategic place for the observation and analysis of evangelicalism.

Wells' introduction to AAEP takes the reader back to the horrific events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and the traumatic suicide attacks on New York and Washington. He observes that in the wake of these attacks the category of evil returned to our national discourse. It should have been a death-knell for relativism, but it wasn't. Though the language of good and evil was deployed by the White House, and many others, to describe the stakes at play in this event and in our national response to it, nevertheless, Wells rightly notes that everyone from Stanley Fish to the National Education Association to the bishops of the United Methodist Church soon thereafter exerted their influence to dissuade America from thinking about the morality of this event in black-and-white categories. Why? Wells observes that in a culture strongly influenced by postmodern thought the category of evil is conceptually absent, and thus though the word "evil" featured as a descriptor of these horrific events most Americans had no framework to accommodate it. Wells even cites evidence that the events of September 11 actually contributed to the erosion of Americans' belief in the omnipotence of God and in moral absolutes.

Wells says: "Without moral absolutes, the business of making moral judgments becomes impossible, although few seemed to see the anomaly that was at work: that those who take the position that judgments should not be rendered on behavior all are, often unbeknownst to themselves, also taking a moral position" (AAEP, 4). So, if September 11 was not a turning point, as so many have touted, what was it? According to Wells, September 11 brought into clearer focus three issues. First, America before and after 9-11 remains essentially unchanged, and morally and spiritually adrift, like other Western countries. Second, America's religious diversity and growing ethnic and religious complexity were highlighted (especially by the new awareness of Islam in our midst). Third, a lack of spiritual gravitas became evident in the response of evangelicalism - whose spokesman appeared to offer comfort to victims, but rarely a persuasive Christian framework of explanation of the events and counsel as to a proper Christian response.

In AAEP Wells argues that two developments are defining American culture in a significantly new way: (1) the emergence of the postmodern ethos and (2) a growing religious and spiritual diversity. We are witnessing, he says, the disintegration of the Enlightenment world and its replacement by the postmodern ethos, and the transformation of America into a truly multiethnic society and the most religiously diverse one in the world. These two realities press a vital issue upon evangelical Christianity. How is what evangelicalism believes, teaches and offers different from these alternative spiritualities now so prevalent in the religious marketplace of a multicultural America.

He says: "The arrival of old, non-Christian religions in America and the emergence of more recent spiritualities that are not religious, and often not institutionalized, are a new circumstance. This means that the relation of Christ to non-Christian religions, as well as to these personally constructed spiritualities, is no longer a matter of theorizing from a safe distance but rather a matter of daily encounter in neighborhoods, in schools, at work, at the gas station, and at the supermarket. And what will prove to be even more momentous in the evangelical world than its engagement with the other religions, I believe, will be whether it is able to distinguish what it has to offer from the emergence of these forms of spirituality. Therapeutic spiritualities which are nonreligious begin to look quite like evangelical spirituality which is therapeutic and non-doctrinal" (AAEP, 5).

By the way, this observation has (or should have) major implications for how evangelicals approach missions, evangelism and church extension in this new, global, multicultural society of ours. But that is another story for another day.

Throughout AAEP Wells shows two concerns. First, that some who remain committed to historic, biblical, Protestant orthodoxy will see no need for cultural analysis, attendance upon matters of context, or care in learning the language, categories and outlook of the culture - in order to engage it faithfully, missiologically and effectively. Second, that some in the name of contextualization cease to be effectively Christian in their message, ministry and method. That is why he says that "theology is not theology if it is not listening to God telling his own story in his own way" (AAEP, 7). Thus, Wells is critical of the kind of contextualized theology that is so concerned to speak to its context that the context debases the content of the Christian message. He is also critical, however, of the assumption that the Christian theologian need not to be concerned to understand his context and effectively speak to it.

Wells constructively addresses these concerns in AAEP in two ways. On the one hand, he subjects unfaithful contextualized theology to a withering critique, whether it is found in the academy or the churches. On the other, he provides positive examples of how to speak the truth, intelligibly and persuasively, into the postmodern milieu. Along the way, as he does so, he points to some good attempts at this effort, by some eminent theologians, that fall short at various points.

In chapters 1 and 2 Wells considers the postmodern world, and why modernity is in crisis. In chapter 3, he explores the background of America's growing religious diversity. In chapters 4, 5, and 6, he thinks through the project of addressing the message of Christ faithfully within this postmodern world he has just described. In chapter 7, Wells delivers his assize on evangelicalism's attempts at engaging postmodern culture. In chapter 8, he points the way forward and marks out some stumbling blocks. We'll begin working our way through AAEP in our next installment.

David Wells - Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005
Review by Ligon Duncan
Part I