Thursday, August 30, 2007

We live before a holy God

I believe David Wells, professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, is a modern-day Francis Schaeffer in his analysis of the modern evangelical church. Everyone should read "No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology".

I am preaching on Isaiah 6 this week on the occasion of our first worship service in the new sanctuary and have been re-reading Wells' comments on God's Holiness. Wells poses the question- "Is the Acknowledgement of God's Holiness Essential ?". Here are a few excerpts from Wells that are very helpful and accurate:

It is this holiness of God, then, without which the Cross of Christ is incomprehensible, that provides the light that exposes modernity's darkness for what it is. For modernity has emptied life of serious moral purpose. Indeed, it empties people of the capacity to see the world in moral terms, and this, in turn, closes their access to reality, for reality is fundamentally moral. God's holiness is fundamental to who he is and what he has done. And the key to it all has been the loss of God's otherness, not least in his holiness, beneath the forms of modern piety. Evangelicals turned from focusing on God's transcendence to focusing on his immanence [pervading all creation]-and then they took the further step of interpreting his immanence as friendliness with modernity.

The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy is now manifested everywhere in the evangelical world. It is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. What depth or meaning, P. T. Forsyth asked, can these terms have except in relation to the holiness of God? Divorced from the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern technique by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God, our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Divorced from the holiness of God, our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God's holiness, the Cross is the outworking and victory of God's holiness, and faith is the recognition of God's holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.

Unless the evangelical Church can recover the knowledge of what it means to live before a holy God, unless in its worship it can relearn humility, wonder, love, and praise, unless it can find again a moral purpose in the world that resonates with the holiness of God and that is accordingly deep and unyielding-unless the evangelical Church can do all of these things, theology will have no place in its life. But the reverse is also true. If the Church can begin to find a place for theology by refocusing itself on the centrality of God, if it can rest upon his sufficiency, if it can recover its moral fiber, then it will have something to say to a world now drowning in modernity. And there lies a great irony. Those who are most relevant to the modern world are those most irrelevant to the moral purpose of God, but those who are irrelevant in the world by virtue of their relevance to God actually have the most to say to the world. They are, in fact, the only ones who having anything to say to it. That is what Jesus declared, what the Church in its best moments has known, and what we, by the grace of God, can yet again discover.


Jim said...

I read the book right after it came out. While I think there was a lot to chew on, I thought it ultimately inadequate in both diagnosis and prescription.

As I recall (and it was some time ago), the prescription was to get back to 18th century, sermon-centered Protestant worship.

My reaction to this was: That can't be the remedy, since American churches HAD that at one point and, for some reason, chose to LEAVE it. (Don't get me wrong, I think solid, Bible-based sermons are incredibly important. It's just that that can't be the magic bullet, otherwise we wouldn't be where we are.)

More generally, I thought Well's cultural analysis about 100 years too late -- he articulates a criticism of modernity just as its collapsing under post-modernist pressures. His target seemed to me mainly to be the late 19th-century urbanization, and the intellectual movements associated with that era.

AJF said...

Obviously I disagree...

1. I don't think he is saying "Bible-Based" sermons are the lone remedy, but rather bible-based (i.e. expositional/doctrinally careful) sermons served as the starting point. Such preaching will give a well rounded view of ecclesiology, which includes the sacraments, of course. Also, and to the point of my post, worship has to reflect God's holiness,this has been largely lost. Such worship is a major part of Well's prescription.

2. Wells' argument is timeless, whetheer you call our current state "modernity", "postmodernity", or "post-postmodernity".

3. America did enjoy a period of bible-based preaching, but so what? That doesn't mean it will stay bible-based and faithful just because it once was. We are prone to wander. We've wandered far from that ideal, he's calling us back. He's right to do so.

William Perry Guilkey said...

Man that is great stuff! Anything I could say would be woefully inadequate. So often I tend to make nearly everything about "me" (including my posts to this blog). It's not. Nothing is. No commentary. No insights. Just hoping that I can be given eyes to see the absolute holiness and majesty of GOD. P.S. I rejoice with the congregation of Redeemer on getting to enjoy such a beautiful facility on Sunday.

Jim said...

I dunno, I guess I'm naturally suspicious of repristination arguments. That being said, I'm always in favor of expositional/doctrinally careful sermons.

As for the sacraments (which you include as something that Wells could encourage in expositional/doctrinally careful sermonas), while I read the book some twelve years ago, I still recall a line where Wells said that Roman Catholics priests (he may have mentioned Lutheran pastors as well, I don't recall) have it easy, because they can lean on the sacraments to usher the congregation into God's presence. Protestant pastors, in contrast, he argued (as I recall), have only the preached word as a means to move their congregations into God's presence.

Aside from what I took to be an odd criteria for worship -- in which human pastors moved their congregations into God's presence -- his theology was pointedly anti-sacramental.

Since I think it's Zwinglian practices that pretty much brought American evangelicalism to where it is today, I didn't rank Wells' book very highly.

But let me emphasize I have zero problem with long, substantive sermons. I just don't think that their absence is the key to what ails American evangelicalism.

AJF said...
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AJF said...

Very interesting perspective- that Zwinglianism practices got us to where we are today. I would suggest Arminian and Dispensationalism have had the biggest impact on where we are today in Evangelicalism.

I know for a fact Wells isn't anti-sacramental, though I can see why you might think so. He is anti-sacerdotalism- that which the RC church practices, but not anti-sacramental as the Reformed person understands. His book is written for a wider audience- indeed for Evangelicalism- I was just extrapolating from his strong emphasis on the Word and Doctrine that the sacraments would be an important part of the whole equation.

Having said all that, the comment I highlight in my post is right on. There he speaks more in general terms about the modern evang. church and it's lack of consideration of God's holiness. This is a stellar, relevant observation of today.

Jim said...

Yes, absolutely, regarding what Wells has to say regarding God's holiness. I agree that he's spot-on there.

Frontier Forest said...

Tony’s thoughts, and these deep comments went way over my head? Understanding the nature of who God is, and trying to comprehend the absolute Holiness of His character, is a concept I strive to live, but fail miserably. And that is His grace at work.