This is the sixth 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 Stephen Newell, associate pastor of Louisville Baptist Deaf Church and alumnus of Southern Seminary. He writes at The Silent Holocron.
In this sixth chapter of David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant, the author takes on the subject of “Christ.” Rather, I should say that Wells does not take on Christ proper; instead he takes on the concept of “Christ.” Specifically, Wells is in this chapter concerned with the difference between our modern concept of “Christ” and the Scriptural presentation of Christ.
There are two types of spirituality in life, according to Wells; one that begins above and moves down, and another that begins below and tries to move up or within. “One starts with God and reaches into sinful life whereas the other starts in human consciousness and tries to reach above to make connections in the divine. One is Christian and the other is pagan. There are the two fundamental spiritualities in the West today (p. 176).” Rather than being variations on a theme, as most modern people would view them; they are in Wells’ words stark alternatives. You and I might say polar opposites. This is because in the one from above, God reaches down in grace; whereas in the one from below, the sinner reaches up (or in) in self-sufficiency. This reveals that there are two very different worlds at play here, one moral and the other psychological. And this difference in reality is the underlying problem the church must face: will we approach Christ morally, that is, from a perspective outside of ourselves; or will we approach Christ psychologically, from the flawed and alienated perspective found within ourselves?
Wells flatly states that the latter approach is lethal to biblical Christianity. What bewilders him is that the church – the evangelical church – is the biggest proponent of this inward approach to Christ; specifically the seeker-sensitive and emergent churches. They are, he says, “selling spirituality disconnected from biblical truth (p. 178).”
Wells then embarks on a brief but in-depth examination of these two spiritualities. The spirituality from below, he writes, is characterized by a private search for meaning, a search for connection to something larger than the self; a self-constructed spirituality. This is because the private search yields information that comes directly from experience, rather than information that is mediated from another source. Since authority cannot be trusted, the postmodern might say, I cannot accept authority’s words as true unless my experience confirms it. My faith must be self-made.
The church has bitten the lure hook, line, and sinker. Instead of promoting a faith that is authoritative and normative, the church has promoted a faith that is as discardable as a choir robe. Underneath the robe are “the same old street clothes that have been there all along (p. 181).” Instead of calling people to cultivate a mindset that sees these robes as indispensable, the church has given in to the consumerist nature of the seeker and postmodern worldview. We must (this church says) appeal to a person’s needs, present ourselves in a way that their makes their experience relevant, promote a faith that encourages the journey they are taking.
The problem with this spirituality from below, Wells cautions, is that the seeker ends up controlling what is sought. Truth comes to us on our terms, when we want it, and only what we want to accept; much like the goods we buy in our malls and supermarkets. This makes doctrines of sin and divine sovereignty irrelevant and passé to the postmodern mind; they simply do not fit our consumer needs because they are offensive and unpalatable and therefore unnecessary to purchase. If it fits what we are talking about in our personal journey, only then is it worthy of purchase as “truth.” This, to Wells, means that postmodern worldviews are an exercise in utter meaninglessness.
The spirituality from above, in contrast, is from a completely different “universe” than the other. “It starts with the premise of the utter, incomparable holiness of God; we, in our spiritualities, start with our own self-perceptions and our own acceptability to the sacred (p. 192).” Christ began in a place where he was “above;” that is, holy. He came “below” into human life with all its sufferings and conflict; confronted and defeated sin, death and the devil; was raised from the dead; and returned “above” where he now reigns. Quite simply put, Christ comes from outside of human existence, enters our existence sovereingly and convincingly to save us from our self-centeredness, and then returns to the place from which he came, drawing our eyes, our perceptions, our worldviews to him. We can no longer live in this fallen, experiential spirituality if indeed that which is outside has come inside, changed the world, and returned to the true reality.
Indeed, Wells argues that with the coming of Christ, a “new age” has dawned. The old spirituality from below has been put to death and the true spirituality from above is now the only reality. To be sure, the old spirituality is in its death throes, and the intersection of this new age and the passing age is what Scripture terms “the last days,” or the coming of “the kingdom of God,” in which we now live. What an intriguing concept! This present age is dead! Yet to our perspective, it is very much alive. This distinction gets to the heart of the Christian message – we think our attempts to help ourselves to live will work, yet we are dead and can only assure our continued death. It takes an attempt from outside of ourselves if we are to have any hope of living. And the biblical Christ has done just that through his descent, death, and resurrection; and in this work he has established the reign of God. We ourselves cannot bring about this reign, only God can.
Wells closes with a word about hope. “Christian hope is not about wishing things will get better. It is not about hoping that emptiness will go away, meaning return, and life will be stripped of its uncertainties, aches and anxieties. Nor does it have anything to do with techniques for improving fallen human life, be those therapeutic, spiritual, or even religious. Hope has to do with the knowledge of ‘the age to come.’ The sin, death, and meaninglessness of the one age are being transformed by the righteousness, life, and meaning of the other (p. 206).”
I find myself deeply convicted by this chapter, and thus the reason for such a lengthy review. Much of evangelicalism today is focused on “needs-preaching.” That is, we tend to preach towards the “felt needs” of our people rather than focusing on Christ, which is what people actually do need. Or, if we preach on spiritual needs (such as our need to live lives of Christian service, giving, etc.), we preach about the individual benefit that comes from obeying these spiritual directives instead of our sole need to be redeemed by Christ, from which these things flow. Oftentimes during this chapter I perceived Wells writing directly to me, admonishing me to contend for a Scriptural faith rather than one concocted within myself or my church members. This is an important corrective for all of us – we must seek a spirituality that does not come from ourselves, “from below;” but rather one that comes from “above,” from the God of Scripture and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
Questions for Discussion
- How has the “personal, private experience of spirituality” prevalent today affected the way you present the Gospel?
- What must we do to bring spirituality out of the private, subjective realm and make it more public and normative?
- How can we confront postmodernism in our churches and in the world? That is, how can we show that Christ is not something we ourselves can create, but rather something that we must receive “from outside?”
- Can the modern church be restructured from an inward focus to an outward focus? That is, can we move the eyes of the church from “this present age” to “the kingdom of God,” relying on Scriptural truth instead of our preferences?
- On a personal level, have you allowed biblical truth to come to you on its own, or have you forced truth to come to you on your own terms? Have you become a “theological consumerist?” If so, will you repent of it today?