This is the first part of our team book review & forum based on The Courage To Be Protestant by David F. Wells. (series index here) It was written by Robert E. Sagers, a Ph.D student at Southern Seminary (and M.Div alumnus) who writes at the Henry Institute Rapid Fire blog.
“It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant.” So begins David Wells’s latest work on the contemporary state of evangelicalism, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. “To live by the truths of historic Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today’s context.” And thus the stage is set for the first chapter of The Courage to Be Protestant, “The Lay of the Evangelical Land.”
Wells contends that the evangelical movement, which he traces in the contemporary era to such leaders, theologians, and institutions that emerged following World War II, has begun to fragment into three distinct groups: truth-tellers, marketers, and emergents. The latter two groups in particular, Wells asserts, are well on their way to the kind of liberalism against which the evangelical movement reacted in the first place. How did this happen? First, there is a general apathy amongst evangelicals today toward serious doctrinal reflection and discussion, and second, in the last two or three decades evangelicals have become enslaved to culture in a way that many churches are built upon sola cultura rather than sola Scriptura.
The truth-tellers (think Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, and Francis Schaeffer), or classical evangelicals, originally coalesced around two core doctrines of the Christian faith, the authority of the inerrant Bible and the penal substitutionary death of Christ. However, the vision of the original leaders of this movement soon faded, and Wells believes that those who are responsible for this fading threaten to undermine and undo the great gains made by evangelicalism as a whole. The original movement was not without its faults, Wells contends—among them the fact that nonessential doctrines were put on the backburner, and that the movement soon became almost entirely parachurch, both in terms of organization and attitude—and the marketers and emergents, Wells argues, have emerged out of these weaknesses.
Church marketers (think Bill Hybels and Rick Warren) have sought to apply business strategies from the corporate world to best package the gospel and the church to a specific consumer market. Doctrine, it seemed, got in the way of this marketing, and was soon discarded. However, people have often become bored with this shallow, superficial faith, much to the chagrin of the church marketers. And then comes this scathing indictment:
“Frankly, there is no judgment more to be feared than this: you are now passé. That weighs more heavily even than words coming from the great white throne at the end of time. Imagine that! Passé.”
The emergents (think Rob Bell or Brian McLaren), on the other hand, “would be straining the definition of ‘evangelical’ to the breaking point if its leaders were not themselves distancing their world from evangelicalism.” Emergents, doctrinal minimalists in conversation with like-minded postmodernists, have a similar attitude toward evangelical faith and practice as that found in older Protestant liberalism, Wells contends.
Wells concludes the chapter by declaring that that the word “evangelical” may have to be retired, as it has “outlived its usefulness.” In the rest of the book, in which Wells promises to dive into many of the issues mentioned in much more detail, Wells identifies himself as critiquing contemporary evangelicalism from the vantage point of one who is “a biblical Christian first and foremost, as in continuity with Christians across the ages who have believed the same truth and followed the same Lord,” and as one who affirms the five solas of the Reformation. This kind of historic Protestantism, Wells asserts, will take courage, but it is the only thing that offers any real hope for today’s postmodern world.
Throughout this chapter—indeed, throughout all of his scholarship—Wells pulls no punches. No unnecessary adherence to the quintessential virtue of our contemporary postmodern culture—niceness—will be found in the pages of The Courage to Be Protestant. But could David Wells be characterized as grumpy? He certainly seems so to some. However, in a world and culture where tolerance often wins the day, a little bit of honesty—some may even call it grumpiness—can go a very long way in terms of discernment and clarification of the issues at hand.
For instance, a careful observer of those Wells tags as marketers can note the way that some of these said marketers consistently allude to the practices of the corporate world, at times even seeming to bemoan the fact that churches don’t operate more like corporations, with pastors serving as the CEO.
Or, for example, perhaps Wells is correct when he alludes to the “reincarnation of the Willow Creek mind-set” present among the emergents? It seems that in reacting against some of the baby-boomer, church-as-mall, give-the-people-what-they-want ethos of the seeker-sensitive marketers, the emerging church movement has devoted so much time and energy (not to mention countless blog posts) fighting against this “enemy” that is has, in a very real sense, become him. After all, consumerism comes in many forms; the gospel can be marketed in many ways; all one has to do is to find the right consumer, the right market. And one can note how many church conferences today feature such speakers as Rob Bell and Andy Stanley, or Rick Warren and Bill Hybels on the one hand, with Donald Miller and Erwin McManus on the other or more recently, Bill Hybels, Dan Kimball, and Brian McLaren.
The word “evangelical” is at present notoriously difficult to define. To break down the movement into three clearly defined constituencies may be oversimplifying the matter just a bit. Nevertheless, Wells has set the stage for an excellent work. Some may call it grumpy; others may call it clear, and true. Regardless, Wells’s work—and his proposed solutions to the issues he critiques—cannot be ignored.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- What does it mean to be an “evangelical”? Is this a word best defined politically, sociologically, theologically?
- What do you think about Wells’s breakdown of the contemporary evangelical movement into three groups—truth-tellers, marketers, and emergents? Is there any overlap between the three? Are there any other groups that you would add to this list?
- What do you think of Wells’s proposed solution to the current evangelical quagmire—to be not less Protestant, but more, and this courageously so?