An Interview with David Wells

An Interview with David Wells

On the eve of the publication of his latest book, The Courage to be Protestant (Eerdmans, 2008), Derek Thomas asked him some questions about the reasons that lay behind its publication.

DT: Congratulations David on the publication of your latest book!  How is this related to the tetralogy (or is it quodrilogy?) of volumes which began with No Place for Truth and ended with Above All Earthly Powers?

DW: Thank you!  All authors know that every book, like every baby, is born amidst both pain and joy!  This one was no different!  I set out to provide a simple summary of the four previous books--the two you missed were "losing Our Virtue" and "God in the Wasteland."  But soon I encountered a problem.  How was I going to compress the 1,100 pages of the previous books into 200 or 250?  There isn't a lot of fat in these earlier books!  So, I ended up reconceptualizing all of this material around the five major themes with which I have been preoccupied: truth, God, self, Christ, and the church.  On the Church , I have said far less in the previous books than on the other themes so in this new book I have expanded on that and tried to bring everything up to date.  And there are no footnotes!  What I have wanted to do is to talk about these themes in a way that is more widely and easily accessible to people.

DT: The word "Protestant": it's a little daring, isn't it, to use this word on the cover of a book in 2008? Aren't you frightened that folk will think a piece of sectarianism? Why do think it important to use this term today?

DW:  Yes, I have been bold in using the word "Protestant" and I agree that some people will instantly recoil in horror from what they imagine will be a narrow, carping, contentious volume in the sectarian mode.  However, if they can bring themselves to read it, they will soon find that there is nothing sectarian about it.  What I am focused upon are the theological truths captured in the five "sola's" and I make the argument that today it takes courage to live by these truths, not only because they are considered offensive in the postmodern context but, equally, because they often have no greater welcome in the evangelical world.  

This does raise the question as to what the relation is between the biblical truth summed up in the five "sola's" and the broadly evangelical world.  Unfortunately, the word "evangelical" is now much diminished in the public mind because it has been much debauched by too many evangelical leaders and emptied of serious significance by many who, nevertheless, claim to be born again.  So, that does also raise a question as to what people like myself should be called.  I think of myself as an historic Christian, who holds the biblical truth that came to such powerful expression in the Reformation but who also wishes to engage the contemporary world with that truth.

DT:  Most Christians (evangelicals, at any rate) are indifferent to doctrine, you suggest. You further suggest that evangelicals are at the mercy of the culture around them. Can you explain what you mean by that?

DW: It is really quite simple.  Our culture is now in a postmodern mood.  There is much that could be said about why this is, how it came about, and what its prospects are.  But, leaving aside these larger questions, we can say that it has, despite its denials, produced a worldview--that is, a view of the world--which is relativistic.  That is, each person's view of his or her world is considered normative for that person but there can be no overarching truths normative for everyone in all places, times, and cultures.  Without overarching truths, there is no doctrine and Christian faith simply dissolves into what is therapeutically helpful to each person.  That, I believe, marks the end of biblical faith.

DT: You talk a little about "marketers" and "emergents" in your book. Who are they? And what are they doing?

DW: Marketers speaks to that segment of the evangelical world which followed Bill Hybels in the 1970s in crafting Christian faith as a product to be pitched to consumers looking for something that would be helpful, or enjoyable, in their lives.  It was a disastrous experiment and it is now imploding following the research that Hybels himself commissioned which showed that this approach was not producing disciples.  Was anyone who has had an eye on the Scriptures shocked by the findings?  I think not.

Emergents, as it were, emerged in the 1990's both as a reaction to the marketers who had emptied out Christian faith by capitulating to the consumer ethos of the day but also as a reaction to the older, classical evangelicalism with its supposed arrogance in thinking that it had the truth.  Emergents are much more modest (read: relativistic) about truth, unwilling to be judgmental (read: not willing to condemn homosexuality), and more concerned with social issues (read: not willing to embrace all of the N.T. eschatology).

Both marketers and emergents, however, trolling in the same cultural waters.  They, too, have their versions of how to be spiritual but not religious.  It is the attack on, or emasculation of, the "religious" dimension in calssical Christian belief that is taking them both back into the old Protestant liberalism.  Cutting edge, huh?!  Let us remember that Christianity is not just deeds, as the Liberals claimed, but also creeds, not just life, as they said, but also doctrine.

DT: As you have spent the last decade and more analyzing the evangelical sub-culture, are you more encouraged than you were, or less? Is there something of a prophet in you as far predicting where we will go from here?

DW:  I am more encouraged than I have been in the last two decades!  Many people find it very hard to see where developments are leading.  The chickens, as it were, are all up in the air and flying everywhere at the same time, but when they begin to roost, the situation begins to clarify itself.  We are at that stage now.  The alternatives to classical Protestant orthodoxy which, along the way could be presented as so fresh, so cutting edge, so culturally savvy are now seen to empty and even fraudulent.  More and more people see how embarrassing our situation has become and, I think, especially among those who are younger, there is a yearning to find a faith which is solid, substantial, and which is on the same moral scale as the enemies which we face every day in our postmodern world.  That, I think, is a tremendously encouraging development!
DT: Thank you!

Dr. David Wells is an Alliance Council Member and the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.