With this publication, David Wells adds a fifth book to a collection of writings that began some years ago with a sabbatical research project exploring why evangelicals, broadly understood, don't do theology. While the former books focused on the interplay between Christ and culture, this book is the first to focus more on Christ’whom he sees as the answer to the questions raised in the other books. As I scanned the chapter headings and subheadings, I saw that the contents looked solid and worthy of time and attention. But I found that this book was less accessible to me. I like structure and overview, usually an area of strength for Wells, so that readers can see where they are headed. But the more I stared at the table of contents and flipped through the chapters to get a sense of the layout of the book, the more confused I became. As subsections of chapters, we have "God as Holy-love" (chapter 1), "God's Holy-love" (chapter 4), "God's Holy-love" (chapter 6) and "Holy-love" (chapter 9). The book seems to be variations on a theme.
Readers come to books with expectations. Wells has noted that many readers were disappointed with some of the earlier books for not offering solutions. Other readers, nevertheless, valued a clear statement of the problem. If I have a suggestion here, it is to come to the book with the right expectations. If I may indulge in a travel analogy, this is neither a gossipy travel log, nor a monograph on a subject that an author became interested in during travel. It's more like an annotated itinerary. It is an itinerary purged of the dross. It won't waste your time. But you will have to do your own traveling to discover why this route makes sense.
Wells's thesis is that God's holiness and love, being attributes of a unified being, are never found apart from each other and that they condition each other. The former argument is denied by religious liberals who wish to worship a God of love, relegating holiness and wrath to the Old Testament. So far so good, except that Wells intends to write about Christ and culture with the focus on Christ. Unfortunately, I think much of what he explores is focused on God, apart from Christ. As such, many of the points could be made, and likely have been made, by commentators such as Dennis Prager, who calls himself an "ethical monotheist." In other words, there is nothing specifically Christian about many of the insights in the book. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that is a problem.
There are also some unique perspectives that arise in his discussion of divine attributes. Wells lists some attributes under the headings of holiness and love, with righteousness, goodness, justice, jealousy, and wrath coming under the broader heading of "holiness," and mercy, compassion, kindness, and patience under the broader heading of "love." I found it interesting that Wells places "goodness" under holiness rather than love, implying that he sees goodness as an abstract moral term (other writers would use "goodness" as a term for benevolence). And holiness itself might be taken in a narrow way to mean moral holiness, while God's holiness is often of a broader sort.
God is set apart from us in many ways. He is transcendent. In any case, this discussion is breezed through. This is exactly the kind of place to slow down and tease things apart carefully, surveying where others have taken a different turn. Or at the very least, distinguish ways certain terms have been used. As a Lutheran, it was frustrating to me to read Wells's dismissal of Martin Luther at some key points. The first was Luther's discussion of God's wrath as his "strange" work and his love as his proper work (122). The argument seems to be that wrath is God's proper work as much as love, because judgment is part of his eternal character. And God's justice solves problems. Somehow I don't think this is sufficient to dismiss Luther. Luther is talking about God's love of his people. It is "strange" when he punishes them (as in Isaiah 28:21, from whence Luther derived this expression), and proper when he loves them. To cite the fact that it is proper for God to punish the enemies of his people doesn't prove that it is equally proper for him to punish his own people. Wells seems to read Luther in the abstract, as if the Reformer meant that God's love in general was proper, while any justice of God was strange. But more care could be taken to interpret the Reformer in context (though I don't have the space here to explain further).
Wells has a worthwhile point to make regarding God's "holy-love." God's love and his holiness are not to be separated, though modern theology tends to focus on either one attribute or the other. There is a real tension between these attributes that warrants discussion. Wells thinks he has found a solution to the tension in the hyphen. I don't. A distinction is not a separation, and two things found together don't make one thing.
In Lutheran terms, this seems to be a wrestling with the nature of law and gospel. Lutherans like to emphasize that both law and gospel are part of the word of God. We like to say that both are further rooted in the character of God. Even when we see them "simultaneously" in the same event, like the cross, they are to be distinguished. God's love is shown in that Christ died for us. God's moral holiness was involved. Had God not been holy, he could have just cleared the guilty without a sacrifice, but the debt of sin had to be paid. Still, many have seen this as an example where even in being perfectly fulfilled, the law was transcended. The law condemns the one who justifies the wicked. But God justifies the wicked after fulfilling the law for them. There is nothing in the law itself that hints of the gospel. The gospel is a surprise. Equalizing the attributes for the sake of systematic unity doesn't do justice to the text.
As I read the book, I discovered many worthwhile discussions, even where I disagreed. But I find myself removed from the book's stance on cultural problems in the church. As a churchman, I know what it is to look at these problems and wonder what we are to do. Anywhere you look, it seems there is no first move that makes sense. Wells closes the book by saying that when we are God-centered in our thoughts and God-fearing in our hearts, we become true citizens of heaven, and the church becomes an outpost of eternity in our world. Then the world sees God's glory anew. I can think of many biblical parallels to this language, and there is much to commend it. The idea that God must be the initiator is solid teaching. My own hope is that this is already happening, sometimes in small ways we don't see. Where Wells speaks of "seeing tomorrow" in his last chapter subheading, I would rather end with the vision of the book of Revelation where the New Jerusalem comes out of the sky from God. That was the vision God gave his church in the dark times, and it's what we need now in our day.