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Courageous Protestantism? Some Reflections on David Wells’s Analysis of the Contemporary Church: A Review Article

Carl Trueman


For nearly two decades, David Wells, the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has been subjecting American church life, particularly white, evangelical church life, to rigorous, if not merciless, scrutiny. In four deep tomes he has argued that, for all of the superficial signs of health among American evangelical churches—crudely considered, their impressive size, financial resources, and political influence, compared to the lack of these for evangelicals elsewhere in the world—there is a deep, dark sickness at the heart of the American evangelical church which indicates a deep spiritual crisis which is even now bearing evil fruit.[1] The books are an interesting tetralogy, bound together not only by a pervasive tone of pessimism but also by common enemies (American pragmatism, the mega-church) and by a common solution (classic Protestant orthodoxy and church life). Now, Wells has summed up and extended his critique in a single volume, The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).[2] I say "extended" because, in addition to providing an excellent summary of the argument of earlier volumes, he now includes some critique of the recently arrived "emergent/ing" churches in his critique. His thesis (with which I am in basic agreement) is that, broadly speaking, these represent the latest example of American secular values expressed in a Christian idiom. As mega-churches represented the greed and big-is-best mentality of the eighties, so the emergents represent, among other things, the consumerist pick-and-choose mentality regarding truth, the past, etc.

In this essay, I want, first of all, to offer a summary of David's basic arguments, and then to lay out some lines of reflection and critique. The latter should not be taken as any sign of disagreement with the fundamentals of his case or his scholarship: I am in essential agreement with the first and somewhat in awe of the latter. Nevertheless, I believe that it is possible his books will be read by some in the Protestant orthodox community as a confirmation of their (our) essential correctness; and I want to argue that, in fact, many of his criticisms apply as painfully to those who pay lip-service to all that David holds dear. We confessional types are no more immune to the wider cultural waters in which we swim than the mega-church people and the emergents.

The Argument of The Courage to be Protestant

David's book is divided into seven chapters. In the first, "The Lay of the Evangelical Land," he outlines the three basic types of Christian with whom he is going to engage: classic evangelicals; marketers; and emergents. All three come in for relevant criticism. Not surprisingly, David criticizes the marketers and the emergents most vigorously. The former is an attempt to repackage classic evangelicalism in a way that is appealing and entertaining. Their strategies are rooted in polls, focus groups, and giving the people what they want, and they inevitably abandon the hard things—the doctrines, the imperatives—to make Christianity more palatable.[3] The latter are virtually impossible to define in terms of doctrine, so broad is the collection of beliefs they represent. They see the essence of Christianity more in terms of what I would call aesthetic qualities—as seen, for example, in their preference for the language of "conversations" and "openness." The idea is to be on an exciting journey, but never actually to arrive.[4] As for classic evangelicalism, David correctly identifies two weaknesses in the movement, particularly as it developed in post-World War II America: its increasing doctrinal minimalism, a requirement of its basic existence as a coalition movement; and its marginalizing of the church in favor of parachurch entities, a factor closely connected to the first weakness.[5]

Much of the remainder of the book is a detailed dissection of these three movements in terms of the salient lines of critique laid out in the first chapter. It is probably a fair assumption that most readers of Ordained Servant will find themselves in deep sympathy with most or all of what he has to say. He attacks mega-churches for what we might describe as the triumph of marketing techniques, a means of growing, and of seeing growth, in primarily numeric terms. Underlying this, of course, is what we might call a Pelagian view of human nature—though it is worth remembering that Pelagianism in the early church was a movement rooted in strict self-denial, and was originally a protest against what it saw as the potential moral laxity of Augustine's teachings. In essence, it was a countercultural movement. Mega-church Pelagianism today is, ironically, not a cultural protest movement but an expression of the dominant free market culture through a vaguely Christian idiom. In other words, it just goes with the flow.

When it comes to emergents, David (correctly, in my view) sees the connection between these and the mega-church advocates as lying in the impact of modernity, particularly in its consumerist aspects, on their respective agendas. While mega-churches see Christianity as a commodity to be marketed, so emergents see Christians as eclectic consumers who can pick and choose those bits of truth, tradition, etc., that they like. Interestingly enough, David heads up the chapter entitled "Truth" with a quotation from Marx's Communist Manifesto, "All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned." This was written, of course, in the heat of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, but yet is a remarkably prescient description of the impact of consumerism—or, perhaps better, capitalism—on the values and ideological structures of society. While David's own analysis might well be regarded as very conservative in many respects, harking back to an earlier, better age, it has potent similarities with the neo-Marxist critique of postmodernism offered by writers such as Perry Anderson, Frederic Jameson, and, especially, Terry Eagleton. These writers have argued that much of postmodern relativism is a function of the underlying consumerist culture in which we now live. Truth has become, if you like, a product; and one buys that which one likes and leaves on the shelf that which one finds less attractive.

Along the way, David offers some healthy debunking of much of the philosophy of language that undergirds, or at least provides the pretext for, the rejection of traditional notions of truth and that has been rather naively absorbed by the vanguard of the emergent movement as basic. This verbiage, which marks so much postmodern theory, is, as Mark Thompson has elsewhere argued, predicated on the fundamentally unbiblical premise that language is essentially opaque, obscure, elusive, and manipulative. On the contrary, while human beings can and do use language to be opaque, obscure, elusive, and manipulative, that is a problem of sinfulness, not something which is inherent in language itself. Herein, one might say, is one of the problems with emergentism: not that it is too critical of the culture, but that it is not critical enough. Postmodern philosophy tells us this about language (in an apparently clear and non-manipulative manner!) so it must be true, and all that the Bible and church have ever opined on this issue must be set under this critical axiom.[6] It reminds me of a recent encounter with someone who claimed my classes at Westminster had taught him how to be critical of culture; yet, when this same person heard a presenter on National Public Radio make a claim about Westminster, his first instinct was to believe the presenter and attack the seminary for incompetence. Criticism which only ever critiques the tradition is no real criticism at all; rather, it is merely an idiom for cultural compliance.

One of the frustrations that some have voiced about David's work over the years is that its all sounds like so much bad news; what about positive proposals? Well, in this volume David does offer a positive vision. Theologically, he argues for a message built around the five solas of the Reformation, emphasizing Gods' holiness and sovereignty, the uniqueness of Christ's person and work, and justification by grace through faith. Practically, his vision is built around the three marks of the church as articulated in later Reformed confessional documents such as the Westminster Standards: the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline.

Critical Reflections

One of David's strong points is that, though primarily a systematic theologian, he is too good a historian to indulge in some of the ahistorical doctrinal abstractions which too often afflict the discipline. He knows that beliefs, behavior, and social and economic conditions are intimately connected. That is what makes his analysis so satisfying: it is not just that he offers some version of the "the church is in a bad way because of sin" argument. Such an argument, undoubtedly and indisputably true as it is, of course, is by itself of but very limited usefulness, somewhat akin to saying that the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11 because of gravity. Universal causes only take us so far in understanding the nature of particular actions and events. Thus, everything happens because of providence; and bad things happen because of sin. So much for the general rules; a more useful and probing question is how and why did this bad thing happen at this particular juncture of time in this particular place and in this specific way? Answering that question is the task of the historian or the cultural analyst, and that kind of question yields far more useful results. Thus, David not only tells us what we know—that the church is in trouble because of sin; he also provides contextual specifics that allow us to gain greater insight into the specific manifestations and ramifications of particular sinful phenomena in the contemporary church world.

At the heart of Wells's analysis is his correct identification of consumerism as perhaps the most powerful drive underlying some of the most unfortunate trends in current ecclesiastical practice. Here is just one of the many paragraphs in the book which makes this point with pungency:

The seeker-sensitive are adapting their product to a spiritual market that believes it can have spiritual comfort with very little truth. The emergents are adapting their product to a spiritual market that is younger, postmodern, and leery about truth. But in both cases we see this strange anomaly. Here are those who think of themselves as being biblical, as being the children of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus and the apostles, embracing an alternative spirituality in order either to be successful or to be culturally cutting-edge.[7]

A number of comments are in order here. As noted above, David is correct in identifying the consumer/market forces which underlie the mega-church and emergent agendas and bind these two apparently antithetical movements together. But there is a sense in which David's critique itself is somewhat muted because (I suspect) of its cultural context. Consumerism, along with its cognates, is a term bandied around (and I am as guilty as anyone here) in Christian circles and presented, generally speaking, as a very bad thing; but consumerism is itself a function of the wider phenomenon of capitalism. Now, if one were to substitute consumerism with capitalism throughout the book, the argument would remain a cogent and powerful one; in fact, the critique would arguably be even more powerful because it would reveal to us the full power of the forces at play in the transformation of church life here. Consumerism is not some accidental, aberrant by-product of the West; it is the epiphenomenon of capitalism, a system within which we must all today live, move, and have our being, given the complete lack at this moment in time of any really viable alternatives for economic and social organization. Communism has failed; as did medieval feudalism, as will feudalism's modern-day relative, Muslim fundamentalism, Taliban style. To use the term consumerism potentially blinds us to the real, all-consuming (pardon the pun) power of the rip tide within which we swim. Of course, as soon as one uses the word capitalism, one is going to be suspected of incipient Marxism; but one does not have to be a Marxist to acknowledge the powerful impact that capitalism and the free market have on all aspects of life, from the cost of living to the way we think.

We can now push this a little further: if it is not consumerism but capitalism that is the driving force behind so much of the unfortunate nonsense that makes its way into the church's life, we are surely forced to see the situation as more ambiguous and more complex. For a start, we have to acknowledge that the very forces which David (correctly) identifies as so damaging have also brought tremendous good. After all, who of us wants to go back to an era without all of those gadgets and devices which make life so tolerable? Or abandon the freedom of the democratic system which goes hand-in-hand with the freedom of the market? At the simplest, most self-serving level, I prefer to mark student papers that are typed on word processors, not scrawled in undecipherable hieroglyphics; at a higher level, I like living in a world where I have access to antibiotics, printed books, fine wines, the potential of peacefully removing failed political leaders, etc. None of these are essential to human life; but I consider them to be gifts of God's common grace that allow me to enjoy being alive. I think that living at a time such as this, when there are so many things which enhance the overall quality of life, of which previous generations knew nothing, is a good thing. And I do not think that my access to these things is separable from the capitalist system within which I live. Consumerism is thus not an entirely bad thing; nor can I easily extricate myself from the consumerist mindset, given that its values are deeply embedded in the whole of life, both for good and for evil.

This should also surely influence how we look at the past. There is a sense in this book (and in the tetralogy as a whole) that, underlying David's take on the past is a certain nostalgia. For example, he refers to the fact that, in times past, people's sense of value was rooted in factors outside of the self, specifically in terms of its own gratification. Thus, work, family, community provided the focus of life, whereas now it is leisure activities and personal well-being/entertainment which stand at the center of each person's universe.[8] I have no argument with this, but I do want to point out that the balance sheet of present to past is perhaps more complicated than it might seem.

Take my late grandparents, for instance: in many ways, they epitomized the world whose disappearance David laments. They worked in order to provide for their families, they found their fulfillment in putting bread on the table and shoes on their children's feet, their lives were centered on others, not on themselves. On paper, their world sounds just like the world David admires. Yet there was a dark side to that world: my grandparents worked long, back-breaking hours for little pay; yes, they put bread on the table and shoes on their children's feet, but they were never more than a week away from financial ruin and a month or two away from total destitution; they did not find their fulfillment in leisure activities because, quite frankly, they had too little time, too little money, and too little energy after long hours of labor to engage in such; and it is questionable whether they found too much value in their work in itself—granddad worked in a factory, grandma scrubbed floors. Their work was a means to an end: survival. Needless to say, none of their children made it to college; only with my own generation did that become a possibility.

All of this is not to create nostalgic sympathy for my family of yesteryear, but it is to point to the fact that nostalgia for the good old days is, generally speaking, the preserve of the middle class intelligentsia or of those who are in no danger of living in such a past. Whatever idyllic visions we may have of the past, there is another side to the story which is not so palatable. And then the pressing question comes: can we have the values without the brutal social context? That is something at least worth asking.

Indeed, we could pursue this last question a little and turn up the heat on nostalgia for the past even more: what about Victorian values, which I am sure many conservative Christians look back to as a good thing? We may admire the virtues of thrift, self-control, modesty, etc., which we typically associate with the phrase. But what of the other Victorian values? What about children forced to work as chimney-sweeps or in factories, the workhouses, the debtor's prisons, the absurdly harsh penalties for minor infringements of property rights? The general disregard for life—at least the life of the poor and the working classes—which marked these times? Of course, our times are no better: globalization means that the child sweatshops, etc., are generally speaking abroad, not at the end of our own streets. So our consumerist heaven is also built on oppression and exploitation; but that is not my point here. My point is that the past was not all sweetness and light, and that the package as a whole was problematic too.

To make the point crystal clear: can we pick and choose which bits of the past we like, and nostalgically mourn their loss and desire their return, while rejecting those bits we do not like? Are they separable in this way? The very system of capitalism which developed the tools for improving working conditions and gave my family the social mobility for me to go to a good college and find a job that does not involve back-breaking physical toil is the self-same system which has brought about the other social, cultural, and moral consequences which David rightly laments. On this level, his program is reminiscent of Mrs. Thatcher in the eighties: her genius was that she was able to persuade the electorate in Britain to believe that you could have free market economics that shattered traditional vested interests at a social and political level, and yet at the same time you could also maintain traditional moral and social values. History would seem to indicate that this is not the case and that advanced capitalism does transform the whole world, not simply the means of producing and exchanging goods; and that it does so in part by fostering the very thing which David identifies as such a problem but which also brings great benefits to humanity. David clearly acknowledges this at a principial level; but in practice, by talking about consumerism, rather than capitalism, he gives the impression that the unfortunate consequences we see all around us are the result of an aberrant mindset, rather than an essential part of the capitalist dynamic of Western, especially American, society. Is David himself guilty of a kind of eclectic consumption of the past akin to that with which he charges the emergents?

This then raises a further problem: if the cause of the transformation of Christian life and practice is not consumerism but the whole capitalist dynamic of our society, then the answer David gives—a return to what we might call traditional, confessional Protestantism—starts to look less promising, or at least more complicated. Do not misunderstand me here: I believe that the kind of traditional, confessional Protestantism for which David argues represents, in belief and practice, the most consistent kind of Christian belief and practice available. The problem is that even this can be subverted and transformed by such a powerful and comprehensive cultural force.

Think about it. Ideas are one thing; but social practices, about which David has much to say, are another, and these are frequently shared in common by those who represent a wide variety of different, even contradictory and mutually exclusive, beliefs. So much of what David criticizes in emergents and mega-churches is also alive and well within the more doctrinally refined circles of traditional, confessional Protestantism. Thus, when David talks about the pizzazz of the mega-church experience, my own mind is drawn to the vibrant world of Reformed conferences, with their celebrity speakers. When David notes the rise of the language of "rights" among today's generation (156–60), my mind is drawn to how often in confessional Protestant churches I have been treated (!) to lectures, for example, on the right to bear arms, the right to free speech, the rights of the individual over against the federal government, even the right not to have to be on the church's clean-up roster (!!). Whatever the merit of these discussions in themselves, radical individualism that focuses on rights is alive and well on the theological right as well as the political left and sits quite comfortably under preaching and teaching that, on paper at least, should be its very antithesis.

The amazing thing about capitalism is that it can turn anything into a commodity. It is a matter of form, not substance. The most amusing example of this is, surely, the fact that Marx's Communist Manifesto is now available in multiple editions in branches of Borders and Barnes & Noble. The archetypal anti-capitalist tract is now a best-selling commodity, making money for big corporations. If it can be done with Marx, then it can just as surely be done with Luther, Calvin, the Reformed Orthodox, and their modern-day successors.

One example of this is provided by Frank Schaeffer in Crazy for God, his controversial memoir about growing up as Francis Schaeffer's son. Here is how he compares his own father (of whom he is far from uncritical) in comparison with some other conservative, traditional evangelical leaders:

Dad had a unique reputation for an intellectual approach to the faith. And his well-deserved reputation for frugal ethical living, for not financially profiting from his ministry, for compassion, for openness, and intellectual integrity, was the opposite of the reputations of the new breed of evangelical leadership, with their perks, planes, and corner offices in gleaming new buildings, and superficial glib messages. Empire builders like Robertson, Dobson, and Falwell liked rubbing up against (or quoting) my father, for the same reason that popes liked to have photos taken with Mother Teresa.[9]

Perhaps few in the OPC will have much time for Falwell, let alone Robertson; my guess is that quite a few will have books by Dobson on their shelves. But no matter: the point is that conservative theology can go hand in hand with empire building, personality cults, and worldly conceptions of power—and these of the most dramatic kind. Confessional Reformed theology can itself be an idiom for the most dramatically secular aspirations. There are a number of celebrity Reformed ministries out there. I wonder what the cultural difference between some of these and, say, Joel Osteen is. Is it perhaps simply that Osteen and his kind are more honest about what their agenda is? Sound theology is never going to be enough if it is allied to the contemporary culture. Critique of that culture is not simply being anti-abortion or believing in and teaching the five solas of the Reformation. It involves seeing how even the best ideas and theology can be co-opted by the silent but deadly carbon monoxide of "the American way" in its most attractive and deeply ingrained form: health, wealth, influence, and the radical individualism upon which these notions float. To put it bluntly, the content of our theology needs to shape the form of the church's culture; but simply getting the theology right will not, in and of itself, produce this result.

This brings me to my final reflection. I applaud David's call for the reinstatement of church discipline as a central part of the church's testimony. As the Westminster Standards argue, discipline fulfils a manifold and vital purpose in the church: reclaiming sinners; deterring others; purging out the leaven; vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the gospel; and preventing the wrath of God (WCF 30.3). As such, it is clearly vital to healthy church life. The question for me, however, is this: what does this look like in an era of motor cars, multiple denominations, and a culture of radical individualism that is politically more alive and well in the middle class Republican ethos of conservative Protestant churches than in their equivalents in the inner city?

When Hester Prynne has the infamous scarlet letter in the novel of that title, discipline is an awesome and terrifying thing because she is trapped in a relatively tight-knit community with no anonymity and no way of escape. Discipline is enforceable because of the social conditions which apply. Today, any church that tries to discipline someone has to face the fact that, unless that person is immediately moved to repent, the likelihood is that, next Sunday, he will simply jump in his car and keep driving until he finds a church that will accept him. Then, during the week, nobody will care because we live in a world where there is significant privacy and anonymity. None of this is to say that I regard motor cars or privacy as wrong; it is simply that we need to realize these things have profound implications for the possibility of church discipline.

Further, once again confessional, traditional theology is, in and of itself, no answer. Indeed, my observation of conservative churches would lead me to believe that they can often be worse offenders. The "Here I stand!" principle of Luther at Worms is taken by many conservative Christians to mean that their conscience is sovereign and that there is no need to acknowledge the authority of the church in any practical way at all. Allied to the strong currents of individualism within American culture, this can make conservatives among some of the most egregious offenders when it comes to church discipline, accountability to the church, etc. The problem of discipline is not something monopolized by the anonymous, casual mega-churches or by the eclectic and loosey-goosey theologians of the emergent churches. It is a function of modern society, with its cheap gas, its anonymity, its multiple denominations, its radical individualism, and its consumerist aesthetic; and the confessional Protestant world is just as capable of being a part of the problem as anything else. Indeed, it might be worse. There is nobody less likely to meet with the elders, in my experience, than the hardline confessionalist whose monopolistic possession of the truth, combined with an oh-so-sensitive conscience and a Luther complex, places him above the reach of ordinary church courts.


In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I find David's latest book (along with his others) to be a compelling analysis of the problems facing the church in the modern West, particularly America. The church has secularized to an impressive degree. Whether it is mega-church excess or emergent eclecticism, it is clear that both by and large provide religious idioms for the expression of deeply secular cultural concerns. I also find myself in full agreement with David that the answer to these problems has to be a return to the great solas of the Reformation, to a church practice built around word and sacrament, and to the practice of church discipline.

Given all this, my concern is two-fold. First, I fear that many in OPC type circles will read this book and have the reaction so ably exposed by Jesus Christ in one of his most devastating parables: "I thank you Lord that I am not like other men." It is easy to take pot-shots at Willow Creek and emergent excess, but the problems of American culture which they variously represent—cults of personality, worldly conceptions of success and power, standing on one's rights to the exclusion of everybody and everything else, radical individualism, eclecticism, iconoclastic views of the past—can sit very comfortably with  Reformed, confessional theology. Such theology can just as easily be turned into a commodity as anything else out there in the marketplace. That is, after all, the American way! We confessional conservatives too like our superstars, our celebrities, our glossy magazines, and our mega-conferences. With all of this to take into account, we need to realize that theology is not enough; that theology needs to challenge many of the things that are so dear to American culture that, spiritually speaking, they are virtually invisible to the naked eye.

Second, while agreeing wholeheartedly with David's call for a return to church discipline, I am very pessimistic about that happening for the reasons outlined above: ease of travel; multiplication of denominations; and arrogant, anti-authoritarian individualism and libertarianism that spill over from politics into church life. Discipline is a wonderful ideal. I am just not sure what it looks like in the contemporary world. And to the extent that we all, conservative Protestants and otherwise, are part of this wider culture, so we are impotent to resist its forces.

David is right: it is a time for a courageous Protestantism. But sadly such may be too little too late. Like the charge of the Light Brigade, a courageous Protestantism on the attack might find that it merely goes down in a spectacular, brave defeat rather than actually achieving any of its desired goals. The analysis in this book is superb; the proposal—a return to classic Protestantism—is sound. Yet, only a dramatic transformation not simply of church theology and practice but also of church culture and the hearts of individual members of the church will be able to effect any of this. It is hard to believe, but I suspect I am accusing David of being too optimistic, something which is rarely alleged against him. But, then again, there is hope: with God, all things are possible.


[1] No Place for Truth; or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Above all Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[2] The edition which I am using for this review article is actually that published in the UK by InterVarsity Press UK.

[3] Courage, 13-15.

[4] Courage, 15-18.

[5] Courage, 7-12.

[6] Courage, 77-80; for an excellent and informed defense of the perspicuity of scripture in light of modern linguistic theories, see Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (Leicester: I.V.P., 2006).

[7] Courage, 178.

[8] E.g. Courage, 136.

[9] Frank Schaeffer, Crazy for God: How I grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (Carroll and Graf: Cambridge, 2007), 297.

Carl Trueman is a licentiate in the OPC, serving as a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, April 2009.