the shrinking of doctrine

I have just begun to read another book by David Wells (not the pitcher). His books are dense and I’m finding the tone of this one rather jaded, but the insights into the evangelical world strike me as very true.

Wells delineates three groups within the evangelical movement – the traditional evangelical (J.I. Packer, John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones), the marketets (think Willow Creek), and the emergents (think Rob Bell). I’m not going to summarize the chapter or write a review, but do want to think about one of the weaknesses Well’s points out in the evangelical movement.

Wells demonstrates that post-war evangelicalism found it’s unity in the affirmation of two central doctrines: the authority of inspired Scripture and the centrality and necessity of Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross. Beyond this, there was latitude and tolerance for diverse opinions regarding eschatology, ecclesiology, the sacraments, etc. However, Well’s points out that “the toleration of diversity slowly became an indifference toward much of the fabric of belief that makes up the Christian faith”

Eventually, the capacity to think theologically began to shrink and pastors were expected to be CEO types and not theologian/shepherd types. Furthermore, Well’s contends that the “weakening process did not stop at the periphery. It has entered the central core”. I think anyone who has read much from the emerging folk would agree – the authority of Scripture is downplayed and the necessity of the substitutionary atonement (or of any atonement at all) is questioned.

I remember getting in a somewhat heated conversation with a staff member at another church about the need to teach doctrine. I had proposes doing a small group series on key tenants of the faith. The response from this staff member was shocking – ‘why would small groups want to study things as irrelevant to their life as the Trinity’.

Churches have felt compelled to be non-theological and have treated doctrine as though it were a family secret to be hidden rather than glorious truths to be treasured. This has been done in the name or reaching the lost, thinking the lost weren’t looking for doctrines at all. However, a study by Rainer points that 90% of formerly churched people who return to the church said that preaching was very important to them and 88% said they were looking for doctrine in the preaching.

Bottom line, the evangelical church drifted away, intentionally, from the truths that have defined them since the reformation to reach the lost. Even if it had worked, it would have been counterproductive for a Christianity emptied of content is no Christianity at all. But it hasn’t even worked. Not really. Oh we have more people in the church, but fewer that are actually biblical Christians – and isn’t that the point. The goal isn’t filling the seats and coffers but ‘teaching them to observe everything I have commanded.’

Well’s also points to something remarkable. In many circles, if you continued to ‘do church’ the old fashioned way, you were criticized for not caring about the lost. You were made to feel guilty for not doing everything in your power to reach them, including altering the very fabric of the Christian message. Hence, the title of his book is very appropriate, The Courage to be Protestant. Since most of the nation would consider itself Protestant, one wouldn’t think it would be that courageous a position, but to be true to the name and true to the Bible requires conviction and courage.

May God give us the cohones.

3 thoughts on “the shrinking of doctrine

  1. Hmmm, this could reveal my lackluster knowledge of church history …
    but is it the assumption behind Wells’ book that the Reformation is the pinnacle of church history? Or, I guess phrased another way, that the Reformation was the best thing that happened to Christianity?

  2. Hmmm back at ya. I’m not sure – there’s nothing in this book that indicates that, though it is book five or six in a series and I’ve only read one of the others. He certainly is reformed, but doesn’t seem to venerate Calvin of Luther.

    Actually, at one point when he is considering what labels could possibly replace ‘evangelical’ (since it’s a very imprecise word now a days) he says something like, ‘first I’m a Christian, then a biblical Christian, then a historic biblical Christian and then a reformational biblical Christian’, or something like that. In other words, reformed isn’t his main identifying mark.

    I think he would say the principles of the reformation are essential and that the recovery of these biblical principles marks a high point in the church, though he also shows respect for the early church, the Puritans and the early evangelicals.

    Don’t know if that answers the question or not, but it’s the best I got at this point in my reading.

  3. Ah, okay. Yep, that answers my question! Thanks. I actually have another one of Wells’ books but haven’t read it … maybe I should!

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