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Monday, June 19, 2017

"The Courage to be Protestant" (David F. Wells)

TITLE: The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today's World
AUTHOR: David F. Wells
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017, (240 pages).

The year 2017 is a milestone year for the Protestant movement. Since that momentous 95 theses nailed at the doors of Wittenburg, there has been unprecedented offshoots of Protestantism. Many modern denominations, independents, and non-denominational expressions had their roots in Luther's Reformation. Whether one is an Anglican, Baptist, Congregationalist, Evangelical-Free, Methodist, etc, it is important to remember the reasons for the 14th Century reformation movement. One of the main challenges to the Church is the impact of culture, something that the author David Wells constantly warns us about. He asserts that the agenda of the Church must always come from the Word of God. Unfortunately, the danger for the modern Church is that they had allowed culture to dictate the agenda. He calls it "sola cultura." He writes:
"In the rhythms of marketing, and the pandering to generational tastes, this agenda is often being lost. The agenda, in fact, is coming from the culture, from its consumers, from the world. In these churches it is sola cultura, not sola Scriptura. Unless evangelicals recover their confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture and their willingness as a result to be different from their culture, their claim that Scripture alone is authoritative will remain empty, and their character will soon be lost."

Like the first edition, this book focuses on (and updates) the three cultural targets of the "sola cultura" influence: classic evangelicals; the Church marketers; and the emergents. He urges us to look beyond the superficial layers of numbers, popularity, and mass structures, and examine the presence of truth. Being relevant could very well mean the suppression of truth in favour of the hip and the popular. Wells declares that "evangelical faith in all of its diversity of forms" had struck the iceberg of cultural deception. Traditional institutions are losing their influence. The visions of the original founders are fading. The great movements of the past are not only losing their luster, they are increasingly fragmented. For all the well-intentioned people wanting to sustain the great structures, they had fallen victim to using "sola cultura" as the motive of sustenance and growth. They started to run the Church like a business, which opens them to a host of worldly philosophies and commercial marketing, all focused on success as the key goal. The crux of it all is that it has fallen into the trap of individualism manifested in a spiritual mask. Like the experience of Willow Creek Community Church, numerical growth is not proportional to spiritual maturity. Wells points to a loosening of social morals and links that to a decline in Church attendance in the West. Even the missional movement are not exempt from his critiques, that it is also part and parcel of "sola cultura," that unless something changes, the Church will go out of business. We need to focus on the need for truth and not be distracted by the bells and whistles of relevance. In the haste to make the Church more acceptable to culture and society at large, the mission has been downgraded. With the focus on deeds more than creeds, the Church has lost her original identity. Wells even labels "Christianity Today" as an example of one that is "less steadfast." The Church is an "endangered species." The Emergents hold promise at first but are slowly diluting their doctrines; diminishing their focus on God; and preferring creative forms over plain truth. It ends up becoming one of two extreme expressions: psychological benefits or disconnected intellectual engagement. That is why he calls the current Church as an "evangelical Humpty Dumpty" who had fallen and are broken. He reminds readers to examine once again the following questions: "What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, Scripture understood as God’s binding address, or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity? Will the church dare to be distinctive? Is it willing to be different?"

I find his four contrasts between the 16th Century Reformation and the Church in 21st Century very thought-provoking. First, when Martin Luther launched the Reformation, the world was a religious one compared to our contemporary secular one. This is important because the contexts often help us understand the state of religious beliefs. The second observation is spot on. Our contemporary world are no longer as sensitive to the reality of sin. In fact, the culture we are in tends to rebel against any moral stand. Third, people then were more concerned about salvation, while there is general indifference among modern public regarding salvation. Some would even challenge the need to have salvation. From a secular standpoint, salvation is irrelevant because there is no belief in any life after life. Fourth, Luther knew his main opponent is the Roman Catholic Church, and he was able to target at this institution, even though he was just one man. In contrast, our modern world is fragmented and this is made worse with the Church becoming weaker each day. With this key idea of how "sola cultura" is corrupting the Church, Wells goes on a detailed critique of the five major domains of influence. On Truth, he warns us about the challenges of relativity and the postmodern mindset that is threatening to bankrupt the Church. Instead of standing up for the truth, Christians have generally allowed half-truths and falsehood to grow up like weeds.Like Luther, we must arm ourselves with courage to stand up for the truth. We need to learn how to think biblically about God and not feed on the worldly definitions of how we should see God. We need a biblical view of self. Individualism does not cut it. In fact, the pursuit of rights for everyone has given rise to godless humanism. On and on, Wells makes his case that we need to take courage and not fear offending the world. I appreciate the chapter on Church, which highlights the need to keep Christ, Church, and our faith together. Let the Church not behave like some 'para' church. She must re-discover her identity. The idea of a "Churchless Christianity" is unbiblical. Wells calls for churches to return to a focus on the Word of God; for doctrine; preaching; sacraments; spiritual disciplines; all of which are practices to return to God.

My first thought is that Wells is placing himself into a "Christ against Culture" paradigm. In order to strengthen his argument against 'sola cultura,' he has not given sufficient attention to the merits of the Church growth movement; the emergent churches; and the modern Church adaptations to a new world. It would be unwise to abandon the practices of these modern Church expressions totally without considering the good that they have already done. The warnings given by Wells are real. What needs to follow is a wise adjustment based on biblical courage. Given that our present evangelical world is fragmented already, it is quite impossible to have a single strategy to bring them together. The general direction may be similar, but the methods may need to be adapted for different churches and different environment. Thus, the courage to BE Protestant must also be supplemented by the courage to know what to change and what NOT to change.

This book is essentially a summary of four books previously written by the author. Not only is this book updated with new thoughts and additional themes, this second edition is also published in conjunction with the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

David Wells is Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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