[Book Review] The Courage to Be Protestant

David F. Wells. The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017. Pp. xiv + 218. $22.00.

In The Courage to Be Protestant, David F. Wells exposes the postmodern project as built upon the shifting sand of the autonomous self. He issues a clarion call for the evangelical church to stand against (certainly not upon) this foundation and instead build its house upon the only lasting foundation: the rock of the revelation of God in Scripture. This would require the church to recover the doctrines of the Reformation, which, far from being irrelevant, concretely answer the postmodern problem. Wells further observes that the emergence of the autonomous self paralleled a perceived cosmological change: man no longer viewed himself as existing in a moral world in which he found an objective reference and standard outside of himself, but in a psychological or therapeutic world in which subjectivity reigns and the self is liberated from all external constraints, whether God, the past, or religious authority. The evangelical movement has not remained unaffected by the spirit of the age, but has in many ways submitted itself to its dictates under the false guise of relevancy and reaching the culture.

So what is the church to do? “It is time for us to recover our lost universe. What we need to do is to think, once again, with an entirely different set of connections. The connections are not primarily in reference to self, but to God. The connections that have to be reforged in the moral world we actually inhabit rather than the artificial world of appearances we have manufactured. It is about making connections into the world of reality that endures rather than the one that does not” (134). Herein is the comfort of the true gospel: no matter how disillusioned the world becomes in its therapeutic world and no matter how forceful the world pushes the autonomous self, it will always be, at bottom, a fantasy that will never correspond with reality. Man cannot refashion after his own imaginings the world God has created. The church must call postmoderns back to reality, to turn from self to God in faith and repentance. This is nothing less than the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

In the opening chapter, Wells surveys the history of the evangelical movement from the end of the Second World War to the present. The major weakness that has eroded evangelicalism over the span of seven generations has been “the decline in the role that biblical doctrine once played” (3). This decline, he argues, arose from a “diminished interest in the Word of God in the life of the church” (4). This is evident not so much in the forthright rejection of the Word, but deafness to its call not to be conformed to this world. The Word came to be heard not as challenging, but as “endorsing our way of life today, our cultural expectations, and our priorities” (4). Scripture was smuggled out of the moral world and into the new psychological world so that Christianity became “increasingly reduced to private, internal, therapeutic experience” (15). Consequently, the doctrinal foundation of postwar evangelicalism—which had agreed upon the essentials of the authority of inspired Scripture and the centrality and necessity of Christ’s substitutionary atonement—was compromised and soon crumbled. Out of the debris arose new experiments in how to “do church,” such as the marketing movement made infamous by Willow Creek that capitulated to consumerist modernity and the subsequent emergent movement that sought to recover the personal and relational dimensions in a postmodern form that elevated experience at the expense of objective doctrinal truth. Both were built upon sand and their collapse was inevitable. “Once the truth of Scripture lost its hold on the practice of evangelical faith, that faith lost its direction in the culture” (19). Wells calls the church away from the binding authority of culture (sola cultura) to that of the Word of God (sola Scriptura).

Wells concludes the chapter by noting the parallel between the needed repairs today and what Protestant Reformers faced five hundred years ago. He begins with four differences. First, Luther inhabited a religious world, while today secularism has expelled religion from the public sphere and confined it to private life. Second, in the sixteenth century the reality of sin, which belongs to a moral world, was not in dispute as it is in today’s psychological world. In the past there was right and wrong, but today “we are comfortable or not, psychologically healthy or not, dysfunctional or not, but we are never sinners” (25). Third, the concept of salvation has migrated out of the religious world and into the therapeutic world. “It is no longer about right standing with God. Now it is about right standing with ourselves. And that is all it is about. It is about self-fulfillment, self-esteem, self-realization, and self-expression” (25). Fourth, Luther was able to identify his enemy as the power and teaching of the Catholic Church, but today the enemy is illusive and amorphous. The factors that shape the present culture are constantly changing: massive urbanization that creates anonymous cities, globalization that spawns profound relativism, capitalism that encourages a consumer mentality, technology that expands our natural powers but evacuates God from the world, and rationalization that idealizes human techniques.

There are also substantial similarities. First, there is no confidence that Scripture is sufficient in and of itself to direct and sustain the Christian life. The Catholic Church supplemented Scripture with tradition and a magisterium, while postmoderns look to “psychology, cultural savvy, and business techniques to do the same kind of thing for us” (29). Second, while the Catholic church reduced the effect of sin to a sickness and postmoderns have gone further in rejecting any and all moral absolutes, neither conforms to Scripture, which teaches that man is dead in his sins. “[T]hen as now, dead people had to be given life. … God’s grace accomplished this transition then, and the same grace is accomplishing it today” (31). Third, the sufficiency of the death and resurrection of Christ had to be recovered in the Reformation as it does today. For neither Rome nor postmoderns can say with the apostle Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

In chapter 2, Wells excavates the foundation of postmodernity: the autonomous self. This is the wholly free self severed from the outside world and loosed from all external constraints. It is embodied in the person who “rejects all orthodoxies on principle, and for whom the sole purpose in life is realizing the full potential of their individual sense. All morality, mystery, and meaning are to be found in the self, not in God” (35). One problem with this is that “in the absence of what is [objectively] true, all that remains are power and manipulation” (64).

Chapter 3 explores two contrasting ways of thinking about God. “The one comes from Scripture and the other comes from our culture” (67). All people have an internal sense that God exists and a moral sense written on the fabric of their nature. For this reason, they are always in need of a center. We cannot change the center, but we can lose the “ability to see it, to recognize it, to bow before it, to reorder our lives in light of it, to do what we should do as people who live in the presence of this center, this Other, this triune, holy-loving God of the Bible” (69). In his sin, man as sought all of these things around a different center: the self. Yet the self has not thrived as the center. In fact, the consequence of this humanism has been the disintegration of the self. Why? “The self that has been made to bear the weight of being the center of all reality, the source of all our meaning, mystery, and morality, inevitably becomes empty and fragile. When God dies to us, we die to ourselves” (84).

In addition, the constantly changing postmodern culture demands a constantly changing self—it is perpetually uprooted and homeless. Postmodern man remakes and projects himself a million times over as he seeks to answer the question, Who am I? “This question lies behind the many answers that we hear in contemporary anthropologies today: ‘I am my genes,’ ‘I am my past,’ ‘I am my sexual orientation,’ ‘I am my body,’ ‘I am what I do,’ ‘I am what I have,’ ‘I am what I know,’ and many others likes these. The emptiness of the self is signaled in every one of these identifications” (86). The way forward is to recover a Reformed worldview that believes in what Wells refers to as the “outside God.” Evangelicalism has fashioned faith in terms of the “inside God” who aids man in his private life in terms of self-realization and self-esteem. The church must find again the outside God who has revealed himself in Scripture and tells man who he is as made in his image. This “will reach into our lives, wrench them around, lift our vision, fill our hearts, makes us courageous for what is right, and over time leave behind its beautiful residue of Christ-like character” (103).

In chapter 4 Wells argues that “what has made the psychological developments that have come into bloom in the self movement so powerful is that they have coincided with some deep cultural shifts that are outside the self. Indeed, the self movement has been the internal counterpart to the external changes that were happening as the world modernized. “Our internal life, with its disconnects, loss of roots, moral ambivalence, and psychological confusion, is really just a mirror of the external world we inhabit with all its change, anonymity, ruthless competition, and loss of transcendence” (111). The transition from a moral world to a psychological world has brought about four fundamental changes, which together tell the story of the emergence of the autonomous self.

The first shift is from virtues, which are objective norms in a moral world that are enduring for all people, in all places, and in all times, to values, which represent the moral talk of a relativistic world. The second shift is from character, which is good or bad, to personality, which is attractive, forceful, or magnetic. “Here was a move out of the older moral world, where internal moral intentions are important, to a different world. This is a psychological world. This often entails a shift from what is important in itselfto what is important only as it appears to others” (117). The third shift is from nature, which is something common to all human beings (e.g., the image of God), to self, which is unique to each individual. One effect of this was the rise in personal rights and the decline in personal responsibility. “As we left behind the moral world, as we entered the world of the individual self, rights proliferated and responsibilities disappeared. … Private choice has a privileged position, and anything that limits that choice is a violation of individual freedom. It becomes an act of self-violation, an assault, a mutilation. These personal rights are then often hitched up to the language of the civil rights movement” (128). The fourth and final shift is from guilt, which is what we are in a moral world before God on a vertical level, to shame, which is what we feel subjectively in a psychological world before other people on a horizontal level. Accordingly, salvation has to do with becoming (or feeling) entirely shameless. Sin is no longer a moral breach, but a disease or emotional deficit, and the self is believed to contain its own healing mechanisms. In light of these shifts, Wells argues that the church needs to recover the forgotten moral world. “We live in the postmodern world not just as postmoderns, consumed by the present age, but as those who are of eternity and whose eyes are on the ‘age to come.’ We live not simply as those born again, but as those who belong in God’s world, those who are learning to think their thoughts after him” (142).

In the fifth chapter, Wells observes that the West has brought upon itself a strange contradiction, which he labels the “American paradox.” On the one hand, it has “built an outward world of great magnificence.” On the other hand, this new world is “inhospitable to the human spirit.” He continues, “[I]n this world, this artificial world, we have all become psychological vagrants. We are the homeless. We have no place to stay” (145). It is this paradox that Wells credits for the rise of spirituality in the West, which he explores in this chapter along with its biblical alternative. Postmodern spirituality is “private, not public, individualistic, not absolute. It is about what I perceive, about what works for me, not about what anyone else should believe” (152). What is needed is a proper spirituality that this from above, not one that begins from below. “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” (145). The spirituality from “above” lives in a moral world, while the spirituality from “below” lives in a psychological world. The latter is “lethal to biblical Christianity. That is why the biggest enigma we face today is the fact that its chief enablers are evangelical churches, especially those who are seeker-sensitive or emergent who, for different reasons, are selling spirituality disconnected from biblical truth” (147). True spirituality in which heaven juts into the life of the believer, a life that is hidden with Christ in God, has been lost to the inner voice that is impotent and deceptive. “In the earthly kind of spirituality, we speak because there is no one who has spoken to us. … In the biblical spirituality, by contrast, there is address. We are summoned by the Word of God. We stand before the God of that Word. He speaks” (160–61).

Having begun the book with a brief historical survey of the evangelical movement, the final chapter is a wake-up call to return to its doctrinal roots in the Protestant Reformation. The church is irrelevant unless it stands against the culture and people find in it something different than businessmen and psychologists. “Churches that actually do influence the culture—here is the paradox—are those that distance themselves from it in their internal life. … If the church is to be truly successful, it must be unlike anything else we find in life” (191). Such a church will bear three marks: the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is practiced. Preaching, for one, must demonstrate the sufficiency of Scripture for God’s redemptive work and for our life in this world. The biblical text must be rightly divided and the people need to be addressed in their world and needs. “What we really need is a way to understand our lives. We need to understand how to live in God’s world on his terms. We need not only comfort but also a worldview. … It ought to be a preacher’s goal to be able, bit by bit, Sunday by Sunday, to show what it means to have God’s Word in this world” (199). In many ways this book will aid preachers to do just that.

This is a timely volume for our day in which objective truth has been eviscerated and all we have been left with are autonomous selves vying for power and control in a therapeutic world. May the church, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, be found faithful in carrying out its prophetic mission to the world, calling all people everywhere to repent and believe. May the church not be found shaking hands with the spirit of the age, but wrestling against it in the whole armor of God. The gates of hell shall not prevail. Semper reformanda.

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