Dr. David Wells is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He also serves as Special Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning. He is an ordained Congregational minister. In 1966 he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree from London University, England, in 1967 a Master of Theology in church history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and in 1969 the Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from the University of Manchester in England. He was appointed a research fellow at Yale Divinity School from 1973 to 1974. Dr. Wells has authored or edited fifteen books. He is the author of: Revolution in Rome (1972), The Search for Salvation (1978), The Prophetic Theology of George Tyrrell (1981), The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Incarnation (1984), No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (1993), God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994), and Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998). He edited Toward a Theology of the Future (1971), The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing (1975), Christian Faith and Practice in the Modern World: Theology from an Evangelical Point of View (1988), and The Gospel in the Modern World (1991). Dr. Wells was general editor and part author of Eerdmans Handbook to Christianity in America (1983), Reformed Theology in America: A History of its Modern Development (1985), God the Evangelist: How the Holy Spirit Brings Men and Women to Faith (1987), and Turning to God: Biblical Conversion in the Modern World (1989). Numerous dictionary articles, essays, and book reviews have issued from his pen as well.
We don’t always know where the line lies between Christ and culture, because that line has been cross so frequently and so deliberately that it has almost disappeared. Our tendency has been to make Christ into a figure and person we are most comfortable with. The fundamental question is not how he fits into our world, but how we fit into his. It is not how we want to see him but how he is in himself. I want to try to frame a big picture of Christ in a postmodern context with broad strokes.
Today there are really two families of spirituality that in fact are in conflict with one another in our contemporary context. Some may say, “Isn’t that too large a generalization?” You may have a point; nevertheless, I think you can make the argument that there are two families. One family of spirituality is the historical Christian spirituality which begins with the top, focusing on God; the other begins below and tries to access God or the sacred for their own benefit. Right here is the crux or the heart of the conflict between Christ and our postmodern culture.
Engagement used to be at a different point when the Enlightenment was dominant. There is still pockets of secularism where the Enlightenment ideology is dominant. Before us is the emergence of spiritualities come out from below, coming out from the self, seeking out to make connections with something bigger. I want to sketch out these two families.
First, I want to begin with the spirituality that is from below. 8 out of 10 Americans say that they are spiritual. 60% say that their spirituality is really important to them. This is true all throughout the West, and even in disbelieving Europe. We are awash of spiritualities of every conceivable kind. In America, 6 out of 10 people say that in life’s crises, they depend on the power within. They are thinking about the natural connection with the sacred. More than half say that the only truth is the truth of private experience, in contrast with the external truth in Scripture. That is why many say they are spiritual and not religious – religious meaning accepting doctrines that someone else has determined, rules that someone else has devised, or institutions such as church where expectations fall upon them. I believe that this spirituality which is emerging all throughout the West is the major competitor of Christianity.
This spirituality has suddenly arisen by who we are in creation, because modern life is very harsh and difficult, and because we are losing our categories for understanding life. We are made in the image of God. Sinners we are, yet we are made in his image to serve him. The restlessness of the human heart disconnected, cut loose from knowing God, is what primarily, fundamentally lies behind these spiritualities. The heart is yearning for something else. Today is the best of times and the worst of times. We have everything before us, yet we have nothing in us. We have so much, yet we have so little. It is the having the so little that fuels the search for something spiritual. People don’t understand our experience in the modern world. We tend to look at all the benefits, yet there are great costs. We are not tied to place; we are migrants. We move from place to place, job to job, church to church. Half of America has no secure connection to family because family is divided by divorce. Americans today have no connection to anything that lasts. The disappearance of permanence and loneliness is the modern plague. They are living in a world that is indifferent to the things they are experiencing themselves. This is why the “self movement” has taken root in America. It is speaking in its own way to the emptiness, loneliness, and wounds that people actually feel.
In America today, only 17% define sin in relation to God. The vast majority are not understanding sin in relationship to God. Inevitably, they are trivializing the notion of sin. Yet sin has great gravity and seriousness, and to not understand sin is to misunderstand God, misunderstand ourselves, and the world in which we live. The bottom line is that we have lost our categories of processing life. It is as natural as it is mistaken for us to think that as people yearning for something spiritual that we can come to God or to the sacred on our own terms in our own way, for it is completely ridiculous to think that he might be alienated from God because of his wrath as we are alienated because of our sin. Thus we become spiritual in our own terms.
We are shoppers, and we are out to get the products that we need. And we come to God because we want something, and we think we can get it as easy as shopping in the mall, like a swipe of the credit card. There are evangelicals in their droves who are marching down the road, marketing Christ as a therapeutic product as if the analogy holds of shopping and believing the gospel. Of course the analogy does not hold! In the mall, I am sovereign; before God, he is sovereign; in the mall, I buy things for my own use; before God, I am bought for his own service; in the mall, I don’t commit myself to the product I buy; before God, I commit myself, yield my sovereignty, and repent of the ways in which I use my freedom as rebellion. This is becoming the most serious competitor to biblical Christianity.
The second spirituality is that which comes from above. Not yearning or hurting people reaching out for something for themselves, but God reaching down to us in his love, not because we are lovable or that we reached out to him, but loving us even as sinners who are as unresponsive to him as a dead body to the mortician. Yes, and God still loves us, and loves us freely. What the NT does is frame this gospel message eschatologically.
We encounter this in the synoptics in “the kingdom of God”; we encounter this in John’s gospel in “above” and “below”; in Paul’s gospel in “this age” and “the age to come.” Three angles in what is essentially the same thing. The kingdom of God reveals the sovereign initial of God’s rule in the lives of people which is going to last into eternity. We can inherit it, enter it, work in it, but it is God’s gift and his to take away. This kingdom and rule is God reaching down, breaking into life, not perfecting what you and I already started but in terms of salvation creating afresh and anew something in the human spirit that wasn’t there before. What was there before was death, but when the rule of God breaks into a person, what is there is life. This is enforced in John’s gospel with the “above” and below” emphasis. They who are of the earth speak in an earthly way.
In the contemporary spiritualities, people talk because there is no one who as spoken. In Christian spirituality, we listen because the Living God has spoken to us in His Word and His Son. It is all about Christ to the exclusion of all contemporary spiritualities. It is not about the sinner. God will not be had on the sinners terms. God is had only on his own terms, and that is of Christ and His grace. This is a glorious message of freedom, because now finally we have been released from all our striving which ended up empty.
The world is full of wonders, but they pale into insignificance compared to the wonders of the grace of God. All words fall short of it. It is in truth as Paul says “an inexpressible gift.” We all stand amazed because it is all “from above” – which is to say – it is all of grace. This grace is a sweet word of God’s redemptive word. This is the message of Christ.
As Christians in a postmodern age, it is imperative that we know what the great threats to Christianity are, where they come from, how they manifest, and how to deal with them. Dr. Wells points that the greatest competition to historic Christian spirituality is the spirituality which comes from below. This spirituality is manifested in the managerial, therapeutic, and market-driven spirituality in service to the self, the center. We hear a lot of talk about spirituality among those who do not know Christ, yet the only spirituality which answers the restless hearts of rebellious sinners is that which comes from Jesus Christ and His Word to sinners – the gospel of saving grace.