Monday, February 02, 2015

Old Book Review of New Book on Old Heresy/Modern Evangelicalism

No Place For the Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? David F. Wells, Eerdmans  1993, 318 pp.

[This is an old  “well yeah, but” affair. While we didn't read No Place for the Truth until 1999, it is still getting quite a bit of notice in some circles. Suffice it to say in our opinion, it didn’t quite live up to its reputation then or now. The following are the lightly edited and unpublished comments to  another venue in ‘99.]

Sociology or Systematic Theology?
If the back of No Place For the Truth tells us that Wells is the Andrew Mutch Professor of Historical and Systematic - Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. South Hamilton, Massachusetts, the larger presbyterian and reformed world which has given the book so much acclaim, has been conned well. There is not much, if any, historical or systematic theology in it. Rather Mr. Wells implicitly dismisses even the possibility that the roots of present day problems in evangelical  theology have anything to do with historical or systematic theology at all, much less that of days gone by. Some how we remain unconvinced of his thesis that in the main, sociological  reasons led to the demise of present day evangelical theology.

While Mr. Wells correctly deplores the social science mentality and methodology that has supposedly eviscerated contemporary evangelical theology, by the same token and despite his insights, No Place for the Truth is shot through with the same. He tells us confidently that "Once confession is lost, reflection is cut loose to find new pastures. Once it has lost its discipline in the Word of God, it finds its subject matter anywhere along a line that runs from Eastern spirituality to radical politics to feminist ideology to environmental concerns (p.101, it. add.)." 

Well yeah, but  this is subsequent to Chapter VI on the ministry, entitled "The New Disablers," where Wells refers to the minister, six times in terms of either "his or hers" (pp. 221, 232, 251, 256) or "he or she" (pp. 234, 247).  As they say, somebody's slip is showing. If that in the quest for contemporary practicality "the ministry has becoming a profession (p.112}," ie. timeservers and hirelings; those who say what men want them to say and not what they need to hear, we would agree with Wells. But we would only add, to the detriment of our interpersonal skills,  "Physician,  heal herself himself thyself."

Further, we are persuaded that Mr. Wells would do well to pay more attention to what he mentions in passing, "the passing of the earlier era of Calvinistic spirituality and the subsequent ascendancy of the pietism that accompanied the Second Great Awakening also had the effect of undercutting the place of theology (p.110)." Earlier, Wells has told us that,
This Second Great Awakening ushered in the New Age of Protestantism. . .The second half of the nineteenth century, by contrast, saw the emergence of a pervasive Arminianism. . . Achieving a perfect embodiment in Charles Finney, this revivalistic Arminianism eventually stifled, if not supplanted, the older form of Reformation thinking, and it has continued to flow through our own century, losing depth as it has gained breadth, finally spilling out over most of contemporary evangelicalism.
But this is, of course, a story far broader in its scope than the one we are presently following, for here in New England there was a stubborn resistance to new ways of doctrinal reasoning. . . (pp. 31,32)."
Now New England may for a time have resisted, but modern American evangelical theology, if it is not arminian now, was before it became the anti-theology that Mr. Wells finds it now to be.

In other words, Satan can not cast out Satan. Man or creature oriented theology, ie. arminianism, much less the experience oriented theology of revivalism, opened the door in principle to the further selling out of that theology to other created creatures of time, technology and pragmatic materialistic relativistic industrial modernity.

Modernity is a Creature
Again, time and technology are created, they are creatures and if arminianism is a man centered or creature centered theology, what kind of antidote can it provide to the threat of modernity? Wells may lament the death of evangelical theology, but what else can he expect? "As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind bloweth over it, and it is gone: and the place thereof shall know it no more." We do not deny the spirit of the modern age is powerful, but the question still is, can, much less, has, religious humanism aka arminianism  ever effectively stopped the mouth of and silenced secular humanistic modernity?

This while others have written on modernity and noted that its changes are serious and far reaching. Postman in Technopoly believes that in modernity, technology is a god for whom mere possibility, automatically becomes a necessary (moral) good. It is not that the cart is before the horse, but that the cart - the tool or technology - is in the driver's seat. Carlson in From Cottage to Work Station talks about how in the modern world, the home has been divorced from the workplace and all the problems this poses.

Still the Reformation was what brought about a flowering of the natural sciences, indirectly, if not directly. Without the Reformation, without the forward looking eschatology and orderly world view of Christianity, the West would have stagnated culturally and technologically as did the Arabs and the Chinese. The rise of modern science, technology, capitalism, industrialism etc. all have their roots in part in  the Reformation.

But not only is the abuse of technology no argument per se against its proper use, the Christianity of the Reformation at first was not arminian. Free will was denied across the board.  Again, Mr. Wells does not even  informally condemn arminianism other than mention in passing that it "ushering in a New Age of Protestantism (p.31). This is a faint witness indeed, if not an altogether failed, one.

No Place For the Historic Creeds and Confessions of the Church
Wells tells us that, "In the past, the doing of theology (sic) encompassed three essential aspects in both the Church and the academy: (1) a confessional element, (2) reflection on this confession, and (3) the cultivation of a set of virtues that are grounded in the first two elements (p.98)." Even further: "Confession, in this understanding, is what the Church believes. It is what crystallizes into doctrine. And to be more specific, churches with roots in the protestant Reformation confess the truth that God has given to the Church through the inspired Word of God." He continues in the footnote to say: 
"What I am referring to here as a "confessional" element is what Stephen Sykes calls

""the great public doctrinal  inheritance of the Christian tradition" whether this is expressed through the historic creeds and confessions of the church or understood more informally. It is what has been the starting point for all Protestant theology that was conscious of its genesis in the Reformation. (p.99, it. add.)."
Formally speaking, it is generally understood among competent and self conscious systematic and historical theologians that not only are the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity pre eminent, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the historic creeds and confessions of the Protestant Reformation, they also categorically deny arminianism.

But of all this Mr. Wells does not even informally whisper, and this despite all his rhetoric about the importance of "confession" and "theology." Plainly and simply put, to spell out the matter specifically and formally, the glaring, as well as damning, error of David Wells' No Place for the Truth is that it has no real place for the truths of Scripture that the historic creeds and confessions of the Protestant Reformation were known for. We do not want to see the forest of Lebanon for the trees, if not the brambles of modern day evangelical  arminianism.

In his final chapter on the reform of evangelicalism in which Wells calls for reformation, he speaks of those,
"who are unhappy solely with classical evangelical theology, and whatever their rhetoric, they are really interested in a different theology. They want to arrange the three components of any theology - confession, reflection and wisdom - in a different configuration, typically diminishing the function of the first... (p.289)."
To which we reply, 'Yea and thou art the man, David Wells.'

Free Will; Protestant, Papist or Pelagian?
All which brings us to Kevin Reed's Making Shipwreck of the Faith (Protestant Heritage, 1995), a review of the  Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement in 1994. Reed notes that not only Luther, but also Calvin and Knox, wrote full length treatises against free will (p.23 fn.21). As for the English Reformers, Bradford's letter in 1555 to Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer while all were in prison for the faith and were condemned as heretics and committed to the flames for the same shortly thereafter, is so to the point, much less poignant that we cannot pass over it. In it, Bradford refers to a small sect of professing Protestants,
Great evil is like to come hereafter to posterity, by these men. . . Christ's glory and grace is like to lose much light if your sheep be not somewhat holpen by them that love God, and are able to prove that all good is to be attributed only, and wholly to God's mercy and grace in Christ. . . The effects of salvation they (the freewillers) so mingle with the cause, that, if it be not seen to, more hurt will come by them, then ever came by the papists. . . In freewill they are plain papists; yea Pelagians. God is my witness that I write not this, but because I desire God's glory and the good of his people (The Writings of John Bradford, Parker Society, 1853,  II:170,1).
Now if the Reformation came about because Rome perverted the gospel and if even further the Reformers all to a man, whether on the Continent or in the British Isles, considered free will to be popery in principle, the title of Mr. Reed's book could be improved even further by the addition of the same, "Making Even Further ..."

If this is seen as too strident, too harsh a verdict on modern evangelicalism, we paraphrase Mr. Reed's closing comments in his book: "The issues which fostered the Protestant Reformation are not simply matters for academic debate. They are great and eternal matters respecting the way of our salvation and the proper worship of the God of our salvation"' Nothing less, and nothing more with no place left for the trite ersatz erasmian evangelical "truths" of either Mr. Wells or Rome. Perhaps this is all redundant for our  readers. Still the reformed truth is worthy of repetition. It is not enough to be "evangelical," if we consider evangelical to describe those who acknowledge the primacy of justification by faith alone in their theology.

Luther vs. Modern "Evangelicalism"
That is Harold O.J. Brown's opinion in Heresies (Baker, 1994, p.438) at least regarding how Luther used the term, but one only has to read J.I. Packer's "Historical and Theological Introduction" to the Luther's Bondage of the Will (Clarke, 1957), to realize that if saving faith in Christ, which justifies the sinner, is the work of the sinner's (albeit sinful) "free will", we are talking about a gospel of works righteousness and are lost before we even begin. (This not withstanding Packer’s defection/compromise with Rome in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together fiasco. Just as Abiathar stood with David against Absalom's rebellion, but later went out with Adonijah, so too J.I. Packer once stood for the truths of the Reformation in an earlier day.) He says, in the introduction to Luther:
'Justification by faith only' is a truth that needs interpretation. The principle of sola fide is not lightly understood till it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which it is left to man to fulfill? Is it part of God's gift of salvation, or is it man's own contribution to salvation? Is, our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man's utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all.      
 He goes on to say further that:
It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation ('because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers' thought). Arminianism was, indeed, in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favour of New Testament Judaism; for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other (it. add. p.59).
This used to define what evangelicalism meant by justification by faith alone. It no longer  does so for the evangelicalism of Evangelicals and Catholics together, much less, it might seem No Place for the Truth.

No Place For Romanism
Which is all to the point of the Aug.-Sept. 1999  Trinity Review  entitled "Protestant Pastors on the Road to Rome." It is a reprint of a 1996 article in the Roman Catholic magazine, Sursum Corda, which recounts the testimonies of a growing number of Protestants who were in presbyterian pastorates, before they ended up converts to the whore of Babylon  and followers of the AntiChrist. Granted, on their part, they seemed to have been swayed more by Rome's view of apostolic succession and the church's supposed authority to determine the canon of the New Testament, rather than the similarities between modern arminianism aka. evangelicalism and popery, but perhaps they were a little confused to begin with, not to mention that popish truth just might be stranger than protestant fiction.

For, according to the same article, once upon a time there was a Carmelite boy's school in Massachusetts, that came upon hard times and was put up for sale. Supposedly a Mr. Billy Graham bought it and turned it into a seminary. And the name of that seminary where the above gentlemen received their theological training? Why. Gordon-Conwell of course, the same theological institution that just happens to employ Mr. Wells. Which is to say, so much for evangelical arminian exorcisms. To his credit, Wells's earlier  Revolution in Rome (IVP,  1972)  dealing directly with Vatican 2 is a much more solid work. No Place For the Truth not so much, whatever its provocative and trendy speculations..