Revisiting David Wells: God in the Wasteland
Posted On January 19, 2018
Earlier this week, Reformation Bible College held its 2018 Winter Conference, A Place for Truth. This article encapsulates the main points from the conference session by Dr. Keith Mathison.
In 1993, David Wells published No Place for Truth, a book that attempted to offer “an explanation of the cultural factors that have diminished the place and importance of theology in the church.” He demonstrated that the church has compromised with the world’s late-modern values. This has led to a situation in which God has become inconsequential – not only in the culture but in the church as well. As Wells explained in the sequel, God in the Wasteland, “The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.” (p. 30). His second volume was an attempt to emphasize the need for the church to have a biblical doctrine of God.
It cannot be said loudly or often enough that there is no Christian doctrine more significant than the doctrine of God. The very goal of theology (theos + logos; God + word) is the true knowledge of God. Every other subject of theology is related to and dependent upon the doctrine of God. No other biblical doctrine is meaningful apart from God. Every biblical doctrine is related to every other but not in the same way. If we are mistaken in our understanding of the millennium, for example, it is an important error, but it doesn’t necessarily change our basic understanding of the Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the atonement. On the other hand, if we are mistaken in our doctrine of God, it necessarily and significantly impacts our basic understanding of every other doctrine in the Bible.
Sadly, the history of the people of God has a been a history of the making of golden calves (cf. Exodus 32). The doctrine of God was distorted in the early church by Trinitarian and Christological heresies. In the 16th century, the doctrine of God was distorted by the Socinians who denied the omnipresence, foreknowledge, and immutability of God and who also denied the deity of Christ in their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Enlightenment led to further distortions in the doctrine of God given that thinkers of this age made human reason the ultimate standard. Anti-trinitarianism and deism spread in churches that capitulated to the spirit of the age. A religion was created in which, as Richard Niebuhr put it, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
In the 20th century, we encountered another alternative to the classical theistic doctrine of God with the rise of Process Theology, a doctrine based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. According to process theologians, God and the world exist in mutual interdependence. This means that like the world, God too changes. He is better described as “Becoming” rather than “Being.” God is ontologically defined by His relationships with His creatures and is influenced by those relationships. God must be understood as in relation and thus in process. He is not omnipotent, and is certainly not immutable, according to this view.
Process Theology as defined by traditional process theologians has not been formally embraced by evangelical theologians, but one group did attempt to find a middle ground between classical theism and process thought. Open theists deny God’s omniscience because they believe that God’s knowledge of the future depends on the choices we make. God simply cannot know what free creatures will do. According to Open Theists, this is not a denial of omniscience because omniscience means that God knows everything that can be known. The future cannot be known, so God’s inability to know the future does not contradict His omniscience.
One would think that in conservative evangelical and Reformed circles, such denials and redefinitions of biblical doctrines would not be a concern. However, we too have allowed aberrations in the doctrine of God to seep into our churches, seminaries, and textbooks. In the Summer of 2017, James Dolezal published a book explaining what was happening in conservative theological circles. Because he named names, his book has caused some controversy. Those called out in this book are also denying and redefining various aspects of the biblical doctrine of God. They have not yet embraced process theology or open theism, but they are using language that, fifty years ago, was used only by process theologians. This is not open theism, but it is unlatched theism. The door has been unlocked and is standing ajar.
The only solution is for our churches, seminaries, and other institutions to re-acquaint themselves with classical biblical theism. We’ve forgotten the old paths and this must change. You cannot recognize a wolf in sheep’s clothing if you don’t know what either a wolf or a sheep look like.
I believe one of the best summaries of the classic (biblical) doctrine of God is found in chapter 2 of the WCF. If we confess this doctrine, it is necessary that we understand what it is that we are confessing. We need to understand the meaning the terms used, and we need to understand why they were included in our confessions. We also need to understand the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. Many of the current false doctrines concerning the Person of Christ can be traced back to a complete failure to understand the theological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. If we do not make the effort to understand the meaning of our confessions and the biblical underpinnings of them, we should not be surprised to find heretical and heterodox doctrines circulating within our churches.
When we understand the biblical doctrine of God and we begin to grasp that God is not only the objective standard of truth, but that He is truth; that God is not only the objective standard of goodness, but that He is good; that God is not only the objective standard of beauty, but that He is beautiful, we will begin to see the implications of the biblical doctrine of God for the world, the church, and ourselves as Christians.
We live in a world that wallows in the false, the evil, and the ugly. Our culture and the individuals immersed in it do this because they have rejected the one foundation of goodness, truth, and beauty. They have rejected God and replaced him with an idol of their own mind. Christians breathe this cultural air, and when they are not on guard against it or fall in love with it, they bring falsehood, wickedness, and ugliness into the church. We find, false doctrine in the church. We find sexual immorality in the church. We find ugliness in the church. Why? Because, as David Wells, explained, God is inconsequential to us. We allow the world, rather than God, to shape our minds and hearts.
If any of this is to change, Christians must understand that God is true. He is good. He is beautiful. And He is the objective foundation of the true, the good, and the beautiful. God is truth, and is the source of all truth (1 John 5:20). His word is truth (John 17:17). He is the objective standard, and thus there is such thing as objective truth. He has revealed Himself truly (although not exhaustively) to us, and it is our duty to maintain this truth. God is also good in and of Himself, and He is the absolute good and the standard of all created goodness (Psalm 25:8). God is not good because He conforms to some external ethical standard. He is the ethical standard. The moral law is grounded in His very Being because His very being is goodness itself.
What about beauty? Aquinas defined beauty as “what is seen with pleasure.” God is beautiful because goodness and truth are beautiful, and “seeing” Him is the highest possible pleasure. In Psalm 27:4, we read, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” And Zechariah 9:17 tells us, “how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!”
Because we are fallen, we do always judge beauty rightly. We tend to treat beauty as something completely subjective. However, if God is beauty, then there must be something objective about beauty. That is a starting point. We know that God is beautiful. We also know that God judges everything rightly. We know, therefore, that whatever He looks upon with pleasure is beautiful. If we do not recognize God’s beauty, if we are drawn to Him by His beauty, we cannot hope to have any correct assessment of created beauty. When we begin to recognize the beauty of God, we will begin to recognize that which is beautiful in His world. Because of the Fall, we do not always judge rightly, so we must continually pray that God will conform our loves to His loves, our desires to His desires.
True theology, true knowledge of God, is intimately tied to love for God and neighbor, and to the praise of God. Let us seek the true knowledge of God and forsake all false and distorted doctrines of God. These are idols that cannot save.
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.