This is the fourth 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 Todd Young, a student at Southern Seminary who writes at Experiencing Reformation.
Have you heard someone say they are trying to find their center? This is quite common in modern spirituality. Wells begins chapter four of The Courage to be Protestant by asking, “Why has life lost its center?”
Foundationally, Wells argues that life has not lost its center, only that we have lost our ability to appreciate the one who is the center of the universe. We are unable to see God as he truly is and this impacts our view of life. We are unable to properly evaluate the seriousness of sin when we fail to understand it in relationship to a holy God. Thus, sin is reckoned as merely rule-breaking and takes a back seat to what our society considers “evil.” Wells argues that pride-the heart of sinfulness-is the ultimate explanation for the postmodern loss of center.
“The center has not been lost. It has only been lost to our view. And that is because our disposition, the orientation of our nature from birth, leads us inexorably to replace God with our own selves, to substitute our interests for his, and to redefine life around its new substitute center in ourselves.”
Interestingly, Wells also answers the question, “Why has life lost its center?” with an examination of postmodern writers’ evaluation of the problem. He points out the impacts of Darwin, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and the Enlightenment on the common worldview that typically relied heavily on God’s providence. With a biblical worldview in shambles, postmodern thought rebelled against the rationalistic and objective Enlightenment worldview to one of its own creation. Truth had been conquered and enslaved to human preference and whim. Postmoderns placed themselves in the place of God as their center. Wells argues that all of life becomes disconnected and random when we have no objective center. “In the absence of a compelling external authority that enables us to draw the line confidently between right and wrong, true and false, we are left to fumble about with only our feelings to guide us.” Wells summarizes:
“The passion of believing, of believing in the greatness and goodness of God, is therefore replaced in the (post)modern world by the blank stare, the ironic posture. In its postmodern incarnation, this attitude says it is not chic to care anymore, except of course about ourselves.”
This evaluation leaves the church with the task of centering itself again upon a biblical conception of God. Wells recognizes the biblical nature of the characteristics of God that many people focus on, like his nearness, love, and comfort, yet, he argues, we misunderstand God’s immanence (nearness). Once again, those influenced by postmodern culture take the aspects of God they understand, desire, and cherish, yet they disregard aspects of God that indicate his transcendence and otherness. Wells contrasts these ideas by labeling the first “the inside God” and the second the “outside God.” In describing God in this way, he emphasizes the need for us to understand God as Most High and Most Holy, as well as our “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). We should see God as both Father and Almighty!
Wells concludes with five important truths about God’s transcendence: 1) because God is Most Holy, there is such a thing as moral law. Thus we can objectively discern between right and wrong. 2) Because God is transcendent, there is sin. Because God is holy, our sin makes us culpable before him. 3) Because God is holy, there is a cross. “What we see at the cross is the white-hot revelation of the character of God, of his love providing the price that his holiness requires.” 4) Because God is “other,” we have hope that we will triumph over evil in the end. God is not just a kind, amiable, approachable, harmless God, but he will bring about justice in the world at the right time. 5) Because God is high and holy, we are obligated to undertake serious study of his revelation-the Bible. If God is holy, and we are not, because our fallen nature, then we must learn holiness by means of his written revelation. And this is the very thing many churches are distancing themselves from!
“If we could see more clearly God in the full blaze of his burning purity, we would not be on easy terms with all the sins that now infect our souls and breed easy compromises with the spirit of the postmodern age.”
This summary took more words than I had hoped, but I wanted to summarize this chapter clearly. I hope I have! I found Wells’ arguments to be tight and convincing. His analysis of the impact of various historical movements like Darwinism and the Enlightenment helped me to understand the postmodern worldview better. I appreciate his desire to show that postmodern writers were identifying precisely the same loss of center that the Bible calls The Fall. Most importantly, however, Wells brings us to the heart of the gospel by introducing us to an Almighty and Holy King who has befriended sinners. We cannot understand the gospel rightly without understanding God’s holiness.
Questions for Discussion:
- How do we communicate effectively this message of God’s transcendence and otherness to our churches?
- How can we help people see the importance of maintaining a biblical worldview?
- How do we evaluate accurately the extent of postmodern influence on individuals in our congregations? Furthermore, how do we counter this influence in ways that are loving and kind and compassionate?
- What practical suggestions would you give a church member seeking to grow in holiness? (This one is a slow-pitch softball for many of you-remember, practical for a typical church member!)