The Evangelical Dilemma

I offered a longer review of David’s book over at First Thoughts a few weeks ago so my overall appreciation of David’s analysis and argument should be evident.  Thus, here I want to offer a line of critique or, if not critique, at least a proposal as to what is further needed in order for David’s proposal to be realized.

When Paul faced the issue of how the faith was to be continued after his death, he offered two basic proposals in the Pastoral epistles: the church needed a form of sound words and it needed a structure.  We might say he saw a need for confessions and a related ecclesiology.  It seems to me that, since God in the Wasteland, David has done excellent work not simply in highlighting the importance of doctrine but also in underlining the fact that doctrinal theology has a certain irreducible complexity and can only be sustained in a stable form when there is a network of interconnected doctrines which shape and support each other.  Thus, there is a connection between one’s view of sin, one’s view of atonement and one’s view of ethics.   David’s call for a church that is theological and which takes seriously the need for finely-tooled doctrinal confession is thus a necessary one.

Yet here I see both a weakness in David’s argument and, indeed, a contradiction relative to his wider vision.   Finely-tooled and elaborate theological confessions require an appropriate community structure in which they can be maintained, taught, and applied by those with authority and competence to do so.   That is ecclesiology; that is why Paul wants overseers; yet ecclesiology is one area where David has not offered significant reflection in his work.   Lack of ecclesiology has to be one of the contributing factors to the atrophying of the classic Christianity which David laments.  It is not simply that the church has sold out to the pragmatic blandishments of consumerism, therapeutic anthropology, and sentimentalism.  It is also that the church did not take seriously the kind of structures which might have allowed it to cultivate a culture of resistance to these phenomena.

This points to the second issue: David’s championing of Lausanne style evangelicalism is laudable in many ways.  But the great juggernauts of the evangelical world, from international movements such as Lausanne to more localized bodies such as the Gospel Coalition, so often exhibit ecclesiastical, or quasi-ecclesiastical, ambition while yet seeking to build upon alliances drawn from groups which agree on very little beyond what we might call an evangelical minimum.   The result is that the major dynamic of the evangelical world, even the conservative evangelical world, is away from the kind of finely-tooled and elaborate theology which David so rightly desires to see.   One can have powerful parachurch coalitions setting the agenda with an inevitably unstable minimal doctrinal core; or one can have churches with elaborate confessions but comparatively little influence at the international or even national level.  But history, the logic of doctrinal confession, and indeed the thrust of Paul’s own teaching in the Pastoral Epistles, seems to indicate that one cannot have both.  That is the dilemma which faces the evangelical world and which I do not think David has satisfactorily answered.

David Wells' new book God in the Whirlwind is available for purchase from Reformed Resources.

Carl R. Trueman (Ph.D. University of Aberdeen) is the Paul Wooley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, PA. He also serves as regular co-host of the Mortification of Spin podcast. He lives in Oreland, a suburb of Philadelphia, with his wife, Catriona, and his two sons, John and Peter.

Carl Trueman