Book Review

"No Place for Truth" by David F. Wells

J. Ligon Duncan III
David F. Wells
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

David Wells's No Place for Truth may have been the most important book about Evangelicalism published in the 1990s. For instance, reading it influenced James Montgomery Boice and played a part in the formation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and later the signers of the Cambridge Declaration (1996). In No Place for Truth, Wells expresses deep concern over the increasing theological void in evangelical churches. By that he means not simply that evangelical laypeople and clergy are not as well-read theologically as their forebears, but that there is a growing attitude of disdain for theology, an impatience with rigorous and robust theological thinking, and a corresponding loss of knowledge of and concern for historic, biblical, confessional doctrine. These things are seen as irrelevant to life and ministry. He believes that there is an audience condition in Evangelicalism that almost prevents the very possibility of taking theology seriously or doing it right.

Wells says that he "has watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy." This change, he says, is evident not only in seminaries but also in publications, churches, and pastors:

It is a change so large and so encompassing that those who dissent from what is happening are easily dismissed as individuals who cannot get along, who want to scruple over what is inconsequential, who are not loyal, and who are, in any case, quite irrelevant.

Provocatively, however, Wells suggests "those who are most relevant to this world are those who are judged most irrelevant."

Wells's book is about how the audience (the evangelical audience, in particular), and the condition of the audience (their mindset) affects the possibility of actually doing theology, thinking theologically, or speaking theologically to them. Wells is well aware that many of the current approaches to theology are wrongheaded, and thus to blame for some of the disinterest of the church, but he wants to take his criticism in a different direction. Wells argues that, "Theology is a knowledge that belongs first and foremost to the people of God and…the proper and primary audience for theology is therefore the Church, not the learned guild."

The purpose of theology, then, is not primarily to participate in high-powered academic conversation but to nurture the people of God. So, the theologian's proper audience is the community of faith, since theologians profess to teach a knowledge received by faith and sustained by faith. Nevertheless, Wells suggests that we must not blame the loss of theology on professional theologians; rather we must look at the Church herself. Wells argues that rather than to professionals and methods, he looks for the recovery of the place of theology in "a reformation in the way that Christian people go about their business of being Christian in the midst of the extraordinary changes that modernity has wrought in our world."

Wells states the thesis of his book 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 connections between these worlds is now severed, and they are even breaking down within themselves. For instance, scholars in the field of biblical studies often attack the idea of systematic theology today, and pastors often minister with minimal theological knowledge (or even an antitheological spirit). Wells says, in effect, if we lose the ability to think like Christians about the world, then there ceases to be a reason to do theology in the pulpit or classroom (it's like writing books for people who can't read).

This situation in the church is a reflection of a broader theme in our culture. One effect of modernization has been to break the unity of human learning into highly segregated specializations. Rational absolutes have been, by and large, abandoned. The effect of secularization has been to marginalize God, making the absolute and transcendent irrelevant to daily life. The net result of this force in the church has been the triumph of diversity over unity. That is, our world, even our religious world, has become fragmented. And the evangelical churches, too, have experienced the effects of "modernity." Theological unity has been lost. We have no "center" in Evangelicalism anymore.

In this cultural context, with all the fragmentation of knowledge, one might expect people in our society to believe less and less, but in fact now they believe more and more. Indeed, we'll believe almost anything. The same goes for Christian circles.

In contrast, Wells calls himself a believer in the truth and disbeliever in the fabric of modern life. However, he says, evangelicals are believers in modernity. They are "antimodern only across a narrow front" whereas he is antimodern across the entire front. In other words, it is only when the culture directly and obviously challenges Christianity that evangelicals oppose it, and except in those instances evangelicals tend to view the culture as neutral, or even indeed a useful vehicle for conveying Christian truth. However, culture is not neutral; it is laden with values and hidden influences. Because evangelicals believe in the innocence of modern culture, they cannot believe in historic Protestant orthodoxy. Because Wells believes in historic Protestant orthodoxy he cannot believe in modernity.

Wells suggests that Evangelicalism is hampered by a pervasive worldliness and is seeking to liberate itself from historic Protestant orthodoxy. It has sometimes done so in the name of sola Scriptura or semper reformanda. However, it has not become more faithful to Scripture, but less. There is "less interest in the truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks."

Wells says his central purpose is to explore why theology is disappearing. He is interested in the recovery of a theology in the churches, characterized by a passion for truth and an embrace of historic confessional Protestant orthodoxy. 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, and the break between Evangelicalism and the historic confessional orthodoxy of the past is to some extent the result of the churches being unwittingly influenced by modernity.

Wells's thesis still packs a punch in our day and age when so many think that they have moved beyond the constraints of modernity (to postmodernism).

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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