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12 February, 2007 / theexpositor

No Place for Truth

From Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi in their Understanding the Times series,comes this message addressing the book by David Wells, No Place for Truth. It is available in transcript and mp3 formats.

In understanding the times, we will think together critically and biblically and Christianly about important cultural and practical issues for today’s Christian. We’ll introduce you to some of the major issues in the church and the world, and family and………… [tape interruption]……and to live and think as a Christian. Tonight’s Understanding the Times is about David Wells’ well-known book, No Place for Truth. 

       David Wells’ No Place for Truth may have been the most important book about evangelicalism published in the 1990’s. For instance, reading it led Dr. James Montgomery Boice to draft The Cambridge Declaration and form The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  In Wells’ book, he expresses deep concern over the increasing theological void in evangelical churches. By that he means not simply that evangelical lay people and clergy are not as well-read theologically as their forebears, but that there is a growing attitude of disdain for theology, an impatience with rigorous and robust theological thinking, and a corresponding loss of the knowledge of and concern for historic biblical and confessional doctrine.  These things are seen as irrelevant to life and ministry.

       Wells believes that there is an audience condition in evangelicalism that almost prevents the very possibility of taking theology seriously, or doing it right.  Wells says that he has watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into an astounding illiteracy.  This charge, he says, is evident not only in seminaries, but also in publications, churches, and pastors. It is a change so large and so encompassing that those who dissent from what is happening are easily dismissed as individuals who just can’t get along, or want to scruple over what is inconsequential, or who are not loyal, or who are in any case quite irrelevant.

       Provocatively, however, Wells suggests that those who are most relevant to this world are those who are judged most irrelevant.  Wells’ book is about how the audience, the evangelical audience in particular, and the condition of that audience (their mindset) affects the possibility of actually “doing” theology…thinking theologically, or speaking theologically to them.

       Wells argues that theology is a knowledge that first and foremost belongs to the people of God, and the proper and primary audience for theology is therefore the church, not the learned guild.  The purpose of theology, then, is not primarily to participate in high-powered academic conversation, but to nurture the people of God. So the theologian’s proper audience is the community of faith, since theologians profess to teach a knowledge received by faith and sustained by faith.

       Wells argues that, rather than to professionals and methods, he looks for the recovery of the place of theology in a reformation in the way that Christian people go about their business of being Christian in the midst of the extraordinary changes that Modernity has wrought in our world. Wells states his thesis in his book this way:  he says that theology happens in three places, or three worlds: the academy, the church, and middle-men—the academy (referring to schools, universities, seminaries, books, journals); the church; and then the middle-men (the academics and pastors who transfer the teachings from the academy to the church). But he says that the connection between these three worlds is now severed, and it is even breaking down within themselves.  Wells says in effect that if we lose the ability to think like Christians about the world, then there ceases to be a reason to “do” theology in the pulpit or a classroom.  It’s like writing books for people who cannot read.

       He says that this situation in the church is a reflection of a broader theme in our culture.  One effect of modernization has been to break the unity of human learning into highly segregated specializations, so rational absolutes by and large have been abandoned. The effect of secularization has been to marginalize God, making the absolute and transcendent irrelevant to daily life. The net result of this force in the church has been the triumph of diversity over unity; that is, our world, even our religious world, has become fragmented.

       And the evangelical churches, too, have experienced these effects of Modernity.  In this cultural context, with all the fragmentation of knowledge you might expect people in our society to believe less and less; but, surprisingly, Wells says, in fact they believe more and more.  In fact, they’ll believe almost anything.  And the same goes for the Christian churches.

       In contrast, Wells calls himself a believer in the truth, and a disbeliever in the fabric of modern life, whereas, he says, evangelicals are believers in Modernity. They are anti-modern only across a narrow front, whereas he is anti-modern across the entire front.  In other words, it is only when culture directly and obviously challenges Christianity that most evangelicals oppose it, and except in those instances evangelicals tend to view the culture as neutral, or even as a useful vehicle for conveying Christian truth. 

       However, culture is not neutral.  It is laden with values and hidden influences.  Because evangelicals believe in the innocence of modern culture they cannot believe in historic Protestant orthodoxy.  But because Wells believes in historic Protestant orthodoxy, he cannot believe in Modernity.  Wells suggests that evangelicalism is hampered by a pervasive worldliness, and is seeking to liberate itself from historic Christian orthodoxy, even when it does so in the name of biblical fidelity, or always reforming.  Nevertheless, he says, it has not become more faithful to Scripture, but less.

       Wells says there is less interest in the truth, less seriousness, less depth, less capacity to speak the word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what our generation already thinks.  Wells says his central purpose in this book is to explore why theology is disappearing.  He is interested in the recovering of a theology that has a passion for truth, and which also articulates a historic Christian orthodoxy. 

       We’ll explore these themes in the weeks to come.