Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology – Part 1

Over the past few months, as I have written about various issues arising in evangelicalism at large, and at Harvest Bible Chapel in particular, I have repeatedly come across comments that are disturbing on a number of levels.  Take, for instance, this recent comment by a man identifying himself as “Bob”:

“You over complicate and analyze things. Its fine if you are into theology, and have your own views, but the Bible is no text book, and I don’t believe that Christianity is as complicated as you make it. Its a relationship with Christ that matters.”

While I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Bob’s convictions, or even those of others who have offered similar comments both in public and in private, I do find myself growing increasingly concerned.  And it is for this reason that I am beginning a new series on David F. Wells magisterial text entitled No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?  Eager to jump right in, Wells pulls no punches and begins with a stark, sobering assessment:

“I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.  Many taking the plunge seem to imagine that they are simply following a path to success, but the effects of this great change in the evangelical soul are evident in every incoming class in the seminaries, in most publications, in the great majority of churches, and in most of their pastors.  It is a change so large and so encompassing that those who dissent from what is happening are easily dismissed as individuals who cannot get along, who want to scruple over what is inconsequential, who are not loyal, and who are, in any case, quite irrelevant.”[1]

Having first encountered this text over a decade ago, I was stunned to see these words when I re-opened the book to start this series.  What Wells was diagnosing in 1993 seems all the more relevant in the here and now, nearly 20 years down the road.  Indeed, with the rise of the mega-church movement, the celebration of the celebrity pastor, the decrease in biblical literacy and the move towards statistically-backed efficacy, pragmatism and attractionally-based ministry models, one has to wonder whether Os Guinness has it right when he comments on the back of Wells’s book:

“Wells’s trenchant analysis is a devastating CAT scan of American evangelicalism.  Unless it is responded to as well as read, the diagnosis might as well be a postmortem, for evangelicalism has no future if this condition is not remedied.”

What do you think?  Are you encouraged by the state of the modern evangelical movement?  Or do you find yourself agreeing with Guinness?


[1] Wells, David.  No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?  (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), 4.
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25 Responses to Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology – Part 1

  1. Jake the Bishop says:

    Thanks for posting this. David Wells has become one of my favorite authors. His observations on modern evangelicalism is really sobering!

    • Totally agree, Jake. Wells is the exactly the kind of theologian the church needs today. Whether you agree with everything he says or not (and for the record, I do not), he is clear, articulate, accessible and yet intellectually rigorous at the same time. Don’t know if you have read this particular book or not, but if you haven’t, you should pick up a copy and read along as I discuss it. I think you’d bring a lot to the conversation.

  2. Deb says:

    I agree with your thinking. My husband and I read “The Truth War” “Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception” by John MacArthur published by Thomas Nelson 2007. We are in an age of no absolute truth – yet as Christians, we are to know, pursue and express the absolute truth of God’s Word. Our theology is worth fighting for and protecting. Please keep this topic going, because much is at stake.

  3. Jeff C. says:

    If we do a case study of what was Christian literature 150 years ago, we would find books that dealt with eschatology, doctrines on the church, penal substitutionary atonement, etc.–these were the bestsellers of their time.

    With the rise of the moral majority, the modernist movement and pop culture, we spent too much time writing about fleeting things instead of eternal truths. Christians got bogged down, fought the wrong battles and pandered to the culture. This is now showing in how those in the pews perceive the bible.

    I’m not surprised at “Bob’s” response. Pastors have reduced the bible to a guidebook for daily living because they were taught this either by their pastor or their small group. Their pastor is ignorant of the bible as well as their congregants. It’s the blind leading the blind. Now no one can see.

    • Jeff … I think the thing I fear the most is the closing comment about a “relationship” with Jesus. While I understand what he is saying, I think we, as evangelicals, are moving dangerously close to a place where we reduce Christianity to something more akin to a folk religion than it is to historical orthodoxy. The experiential nature of the Christian life, while absolutely authentic, still must be rooted in the theology of the Word. And I think that commitment is slowly slipping away.

      Thanks for stopping by and continuing to comment. I look forward to hearing more from you as the series progresses.

  4. Ryan M. Mahoney says:

    Sounds like a good book. I suspect the roots of Evangelicalism has much to do with it. Being shaped in the backwoods by circuit preachers (ill-trained) of the 2nd Great Awakening, moving from tent camp meeting to tent camp meeting, and preaching toward the simplest common denominator for a “decision” for Christ left a long lasting legacy on American Christianity. Your comment about American Evangelicalism becoming a “folk” religion is spot on. To top it off, as Americans we are deeply ignorant of the past, so we have no sense of who we are or who we should be.

  5. HBC attendee but not follower of James MacDonald says:

    Thanks for your posting. I am greatly convicted…really, I am. I was beginning to water down my knowledge of Christ for the sake of feeling peace while attending HBC. Just this past week, I was compelled to approach the guest pastor and tell him his message was a bit askew but I stopped myself knowing it wouldn’t make any impact. My thinking was, ‘why bother since he won’t listen.’ That is wrong thinking. I see souls being saved at HBC but the theology is bent to serve a purpose of protecting the ‘golden goose’.
    I have a BOOK to read plus David Wells book.

    • Out of curiosity, may I inquire as to how long you have been attending Harvest? I only ask because I can remember a time when someone at Harvest would not have made the comments you just made. There was a time when Harvest talked openly about a “quality” of discipleship over and against a “quantity” of disciples. And to that end, they pulled very few punches in terms of preaching sound doctrine. Do you remember those days? Or is that before your time?

      • HBC attendee but not follower of James MacDonald says:

        we’ve been at HBC for quite some time and have seen the changes;(2001-to present) and have left twice looking for another church. We come back because our kids have had godly small group leaders (at HBC) which they need during these formative years and have made christian friendships they depend on since they attend public schools. As things have changed, we spoke to the Elders (since one can’t really speak with the top leadership) to no avail. We’ve seen godly pastors leave, brothers/sisters in Christ leave. We can’t be in HBC small groups anymore because the spiritual insight/growth is always attributed to the lead pastor’s wisdom instead of to Christ. Yes, there is worship of the pastor and not of God. If there is quality discipleship at HBC we wouldn’t know now since we have become ‘a la carte’ christians’. We worship Christ at Harvest but are in small groups at other churches where the people aren’t into pastor worship (unfortunately the pulpit is lacking in these other churches). Our kids continue in their HBC youth groups and once they are college age, we’re likely to leave HBC.

        • Interesting. You are now the second person I have spoken with recently who has left the church, only to return because of their children’s affection for the youth ministry. Perhaps that says a lot about the people volunteering in the youth programs at Harvest.

          As for becoming an “a la carte Christian” because “the pulpit is lacking in these other churches,” all I can offer you is my empathy. For I, too, remember how hard it was to find a “good” church with sound preaching when we left Harvest.

          On a more positive note, we seem to have actually found a great new church home where the pastor has a keen mind paired with an honest, shepherd’s heart. And while the church isn’t perfect, his character is going a long way towards shaping and molding it. So take heart. Good churches do exist, even if they don’t always meet all of our expectations/desires.

          • HBC attendee but not follower of James MacDonald says:

            Scott, I truly appreciate your blog. I’m not as theologically knowledgeable as most of those who post here. My experiences at HBC started out with joy having found a church where the Bible is taught, Christ is exalted and people were coming to faith. It was the first time we ‘sensed’ God’s Presence in corporate worship and we were all grateful for HBC. In time, we saw JM’s personality, character and gave him grace knowing he is a sinner like the rest of us yet knowing he would be held to a higher accountability according to Hebrews 13:17; at least we thought we understood that particular verse. During a couple of the sermons in past years we were so propelled by the Holy Spirit to speak out when scripture was taken out of context. That was when JM allowed the layperson to approach him, so we did. He admitted his mistake, corrected in the next service but by then hundreds had heard the earlier sermon and I’m sure many were misled. Then JM’s lifestyle became so unlike a humble servant, our unsaved family members found it a stumbling block and wouldn’t listen to us sharing our faith because they saw HBC as another ‘cult’ where money was given to a Pastor for him to live opulently. We were greatly discouraged that JM’s lifestyle choice offended our unsaved friends/family. We tried to trust that his money was not from our tithing and gifting but have no way to prove it to unbelievers.
            Anyway, our kids are almost done with high school and we’ll be moving on. Your blog has given us ‘feet’ again and this time we won’t be returning to HBC. The leadership there is protecting a man who is no longer solely for God. May God humble him soon!
            If it’s permissible to ask, may we know your new church home?

  6. stauron3n1 says:

    It would seem that in some quarters of Evagelicalism, the thoughtful study of Scripture, doctrine and practice are now regarded as altogether too controversial and disunifying and doesn’t fit in well with the modern evangelical perceived preference for “bullet points” projected on a giant power point screen.

    If the metric of success of any particular church is simply to increase in numbers, then introducing complex doctrinal concepts will likely be regarded as a polarizing element that will appeal to some, but drive others away. This is hardly consistent with the “marketing” strategies promulgated by many “seeker sensitive” and other varieties of “mega churches” that depend [at least] in part on a developing primarily homogenous audience.

    In one sense, Bob is correct; the essence of Christianity is relational, but the questions answered by “theology” are relationship with whom, under what conditions, and to what end? If we can’t expend the time or effort to learn the details about God and His Christ and His plan for reconciling the world to Himself, then we are in practice saying that learning about God isn’t relevant or important to having a relationship with him.

    It is a metaphor often repeated in American pulpits, that the first step in teaching U.S. treasury agents to identify counterfeit currency is to make them thoroughly and meticulously familiar with the minutest details of real currency. The point of the metaphor being, that if we are to discern truth from error (heresy) we must first become serious students of the doctrines that define our practice.

    I for one can see no obvious way, that we as evangelicals can avoid descending headlong into serious error of doctrine and practice if we can’t be troubled with serious teaching and learning the truth as expressed in Scripture.
    While “theology” might not be every believer’s “cup of tea” it should and must be every believer’s “meat and potatoes” if we expect to grow into maturity in Christ.

    • When I hear people make comments regarding personal relationships vs. theology, I often default to the metaphor of marriage. For me to truly love my wife – to be in relationship with her – I have to know her and understand her. Otherwise, my “relationship” is nothing more than an self-created illusion with a fantasy figure I have created in my own mind. True relationship requires actual knowledge of the individual in question.

      One of the greatest moments I’ve ever had in the church came when I started a young adult ministry. On our very first night, I introduced our subject by asking this question: “What do you think of when you think of the God of the Old Testament?” After a few moments of silence, a young man spoke up and said this: “I don’t really care for him. I’m in love with Jesus. But honestly, I don’t know if I even love Jesus. I may just be in love with the Jesus I have created in my own mind.” It was a brilliantly candid comment that really set the tone for our study, and I have never forgotten it.

      Thanks for checking in, friend.

  7. Pingback: The Loss of Theology and the Death of Reading Scripture « Christus Victor

  8. CC says:

    Great and needed topic. While reading the comments on another blog, one person said, “We need more empathy. Empathy is much more important than Theology.” I was astounded! I guess that kind of thinking is more typical than I had realized.

  9. Chris Cartney says:

    Could it be that there is a direct correlation to the lack of sunday school programs?

  10. In wrath remember mercy says:

    Scott, I just read this article and notice that you have categorized it under “Harvest Bible Chapel” and make reference to the church in the first paragraph. Wells’ book of course is spot-on, and James MacDonald has in fact commended it and echoed its message from the pulpit on several occasions over the years. For whatever other criticisms or sincere concerns you or others may have of Harvest Bible Chapel, it both baffles and disturbs me that you would argue that this church is an example of this trend away from truth in evangelical churches—when the truth of the matter is actually the polar opposite. I have attended HBC weekly since 1992, and have seen absolutely no slippage in unapologetic, bold faithfulness to the biblical text… not from the pulpit, not in small groups or classes, not on the radio. Faithful biblical proclamation has in fact has been the glory and strength of James MacDonald’s teaching ministry—HBC and Walk in the Word herald God’s Word without the cultural compromise of “seeker sensitivity” and continue even on this current Vertical Church tour to give a clarion call for other churches to do likewise. I cannot help but think that for you to imply otherwise here is a disturbing misrepresentation.

    • Scott Bryant says:

      Please see MacDonald’s wholely insufficient comments related to the Trinity and his softened comments surrounding Prosperity Gospel preaching as examples of the severely weakened teaching/theology coming out of Harvest these days. Even many of his comments on church unity reflect poor theology at this point.

    • Ryan M. Mahoney says:

      “In Wrath,”

      I hear what you are saying, and I understand, from a certain perspective, what you are saying. I have been listening to his sermons since 1990 up through a few years ago. I have not heard a heresy advocated from the pulpit, or other venue. Nevertheless, allow me to take a different angle.

      We can deny the content of our theology with our lack of attention to orthopraxis (right doing). If I claim with my mouth that Jesus is Lord, yet I am abusive to people and lie to hide my sin, then I am denying my orthodox statement with my lack of orthopraxis. We cannot, as many Christians have done post-Reformation, strongly divide orthodoxy from orthopraxis as our living is an outworking of our beliefs; put into other terms, our minds and hearts flow from the same personhood.

      Also, the practice of preaching is a theological exercise, and the way we preach is just as much a theological statement as an orthodox proposition put down on paper. When we handle the biblical text we must do our homework, discerning what the text is actually saying. This is no simple and easy task in many instances. We are to exegete the text, or we are to take meaning out of the text. The original message shapes us.

      The opposite of this process is eisegesis, or reading meaning into the text. It is a grave error to allow ourselves license to shape the text into the message we want to give. It is a denial of orthodoxy to use the biblical text to send the messages we want to send tot he people we want them sent to. Also, even if we are making an orthodox statement with the wrong text or are making an orthopraxis statement with the wrong text then we are doing an injustice to the text, we are teaching people a way of handling scripture that is dangerous and we effectually deny some of our orthodox beliefs.

      If in matters of orthopraxis we are overcome with egocentric thinking and we practice eisegesis, then no matter how orthodox our “results” we are denying them the power in our own lives.

    • Done with HBC! says:

      In wrath…
      You honestly haven’t heard JMac use and preach God’s Word incorrectly? Both my husband and I had attended HBC since the late 1990’s until recently and we heard several messages that were askew. I approached JMac twice during those years and there were brothers and sisters both in front of me and in line behind me who told him he was wrong in his preaching. He appeared to take our gentle rebuking in humility and he even had a CD of his corrected message for the 11:15 service sent to me!
      JMac is not infallible.
      What of the teaching from guest pastors at HBC? We couldn’t believe our ears when Steven Furtick gave his message. It sounded more like he was worshipping James MacDonald. And btw, Furtick does NOT preach of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
      oh, and what about Jeff Donaldson’s message of not questioning authority.
      Mr/Ms In Wrath… you are sorely deceived that HBC is still in line with the TRUTH. Wake up ‘In Wrath..’!!!

  11. Done with HBC! says:

    Hi Scott, I guess I’m going to have to re-borrow David Wells’ book from the library again 😦 I read the first chapter and unfortunately I couldn’t continue with chapter 2.Perhaps it’s beyond my mental capacity. The gist of the first chapter to me was Daniel 12:4b “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”
    Knowledge has increased to the point where it’s at everyone’s fingertips but people don’t even bother to know the Truth anymore; any truth! As an example, my 19yo told me that his contemporaries didn’t know who Neil Armstrong was and they were confusing him with Lance Armstrong and they didn’t care to know the difference!
    David Wells’ 1st chapter of No Place for Truth gave me a picture of how the times have changed and people don’t have permanence and they don’t care. Since his book impacted theologians, I’ve decided to return to reading Boice’s Foundations of the Christian Faith instead.
    All of this to say, our biblical illiteracy is evident in the pulpits and congregations but I think someone already mentioned that perhaps the way to counteract this is not necessarily to read books like David Wells’ but instead to have Sunday School where congregants can truly dig into God’s Word and not just be spoonfed from a deficient pulpit. Sunday school that is led by those of you who are well-versed in God’s Word.
    I am still very grateful for BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) where for more than 7 years I ate at God’s banquet table of His Word and grew in discernment to the point where I did confront JMac a couple of times to tell him he had taken passages out of context and misapplied them. This was awhile back when he was still willing to talk to the peons of his flock.
    We’ve left that flock and are searching for a new church home. So far we’ve been to a few local churches that are led by men who have either taken a few to no courses at Moody or Trinity and think that’s sufficient to lead congregants in the ways of God; to one group of people whose pastor is actually a professor at Moody but are so elitist they won’t tolerate those less knowledgeable in God’s Word as themselves – from one spectrum to the other. I feel like goldilocks! Enjoyed Irwin Lutzer’s message last Sunday but it is an ordeal for us to get into the city even if it was on a Sunday morning. But we are relieved to have officially left HBC.

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