In No Place for Truth, David Wells demonstrates how the last two centuries, and especially the last fifty years, have witnessed the evacuation of theology in evangelical churches. He attributes the cause of this theological decline to a number of factors, but two in particular: modernity (with its denial of biblical authority and its elevation of individual autonomy) and modernization (with its increase in technology, urbanization, cliché cultures).
Wells shows the pernicious effect that modernity and modernization have had on the church, and how evangelicals (like the liberals before them) have opted for life over doctrine, and as a result have lost both. His book is a clarion call to return to the Scriptures and to care once again about sound doctrine. Though, this book is short on solutions, it rightly diagnoses so many problems in the church, and causes pastors and churches alike to reconsider what they are doing, or better, what they are believing.
Wells book is full of quotes and insights. Here are a number on the (diminishing) importance of theology among evangelicals. (In trying to get a handle on his thesis, I typed a number of these quotes. Here’s a selection, the rest can be found in this PDF).
“Let us not think . . . that we really have a choice between having a theology and not having one. We all have our theologies . . . The question at issue, then, is not whether we will have a theology but whether it will be a good or bad one, whether we will become conscious of our thinking processes or not, and, more particularly, whether we will learn to bring all of our thoughts into obedience to Christ or not.” (3)
“A culture for whom God is no longer present believes everything. . . . When we believe nothing, we open the doors to believing anything.” (9)
“Technology per se does not assault the gospel, but a technological society will find the gospel irrelevant.” (11)
“There is no Christian faith in the absence of “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:9), “sound instruction” (1 Tim 6:3), or the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).” (103)
Citing Henry Steele Commager, “‘During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, religion prospered while theology went slowly bankrupt.’ . . . From the 1950s to the 1980s, religion has consistently prospered at the expense of theology. . . . Among the educated young, however, there has also been an erosion in the cognitive content of the faith.” (110)
Speaking about Leadership Journal: “Between 1980 and 1988, 80 percent of the journal’s material was devoted to the personal crises, perplexities, and challenges encountered by the clergy, and 13 percent of the material was concerned with techniques for managing the church.” (113)
“As the nostrums of the therapeutic age supplant confession, and as preaching is psychologized, the meaning of Christian faith becomes privatized.” (101).
“The great sin in Fundamentalism is to compromise; the great sin in evangelicalism is to be narrow [in context = doctrinaire].” (129)
“Evangelicals no less than the Liberals before them whom they have berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of ‘life.’” (131)
“The older role of the pastor as broker of truth has been eclipsed by the newer managerial functions.” (233)
“We laugh at those who think theology is important, and then are shocked to find in our midst the superficial and unbelieving.” (247)
“In the absence of theology, the life of the Church becomes hollow, yet this hollowness is so little different from that of the modern life that it seems almost normal.” (295)
Admittedly, Wells book was written twenty-two years ago and so some of his data is old and some of his arguments may need updating. But overall, as this week’s debacle with World Vision has shown, theology cannot be taken lightly. What we believe matters, and in any increasingly hostile and pluralistic society, knowing what we believe and why is going to become more and more important.
Perhaps the reversal of World Vision shows that there is a core to evangelical belief. I pray that is true. But I also know that the whole debate arose this week because of an on-going weakness in the makeup of evangelicalism. It is with joy that I celebrate World Vision’s final decision, but I pray that it will serve as yet another wake up call for evangelicals to take theology seriously. Sound doctrine is absolutely necessary for the gospel to remain the power of God unto salvation.
On that note, No Place for Truth is key reading material. It reveals the fault-lines of evangelicalism, the streams that have polluted our waters, and it puts us back on a path to the truth and the role that theology plays in the life of the church.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss