Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Above All Earthly Pow'rs" by David Wells

David F. Wells, Above all Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006. 339 pages with index. Hardback: $25. [Originally published in Denver Journal.]

David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has gifted his readers with sustained theological critique of contemporary culture for over a decade. The previous books in this series, No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), and Losing our Virtue (1998), astutely assessed the loss of theological gravity in contemporary culture by investigating its historical, cultural, philosophical, and theological sources. If I could choose one phrase to summarize his critique in these books, it would be this from God in the Wasteland: “God rests inconsequentially on the church.” That is, the great and awe-inspiring reality of God’s truth, holiness, and power have been eclipsed by the tools and sensibilities of the contemporary world.

Wells’ work is exceptional in its interdisciplinary prowess. A trained theologian of Reformed convictions, Wells reaches deep into history, sociology, philosophy, literature, and cognate disciplines to carefully develop his perspectives, which are offered with a serious pastoral concern.

This is essentially a work of Christology, hence the subtitle: “Christ in a postmodern world.” But in order to present a biblical view of Christ to the contemporary world, one must know something of the structure of that world (see 1 Chronicles 12:32). So, Wells takes up the daunting task of assessing both postmodernity (a set of emerging social conditions) and postmodernism (a cluster of philosophies). To those who have read fairly deeply on the subject of postmodernism, much of what Wells articulates may not be new. Much of it has been said elsewhere. However, he writes so well and documents his claims so deeply that even those well-read in the area will benefit from his analysis. In many cases, the first books to treat new topics are not typically the best. Wells, who does not publish at a frantic pace (as do many evangelical authors who write on postmodernism), has been cogitating on this material for many years. This adds considerable gravity and sobriety to his words. Moreover, this book builds on the solid foundation of the previous three books in the series (and without very much overlap.)

Wells wonders what the evangelical world has to offer a world traumatized by the barbarism of the September 11, 2001, attacks. He laments in his introduction that the evangelical church lacks “a spiritual gravitas, one which could match the depth of horrendous evil and address issues of such seriousness. Evangelicalism, now much absorbed by the arts and tricks of marketing, is simply not very serious anymore” (4). And serious it should become. Above all Earthy Pow’rs, which derives its title—and the alternative spelling of “powers”—from Martin Luther’s famous line in “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” is a valiant attempt to inject Christological seriousness back into the evangelical mind and heart. To those not familiar with this hymn, I will cite a few of the verses that Wells himself quotes.
That word above all earthly pow’rs,No thanks to them abideth.The Spirit and the gifts are oursThru him who with us sideth.

These verses underscore the transcendence of God and the necessity of the church to depend on a transcendent God for its faithfulness. This is precisely what Wells believes is becoming lost in evangelicalism today. But the book is no harangue. To make his point, Wells elucidates the defining features of the postmodern world: how it emerged, what it is, and how Christians should respond to it.

Since one must understand the modern in order to understand the post-modern, Wells devotes one rich chapter to this task, “Miracles of Modern Splendor,” in which he explains the hubristic development of humanistic optimism and material abundance (and materialism) in the West. The following chapter addresses “Postmodern Rebellion,” in which the optimism of the modern period gives way to cultural and intellectual exhaustion, such that many despair of having a unified and meaningful worldview at all. My only concern with this chapter is that Wells argues that natural theology is illegitimate since it “must assume that there is some truth lodged within human experience from which inference can be made which lead into a saving knowledge of God” and thus it “seriously vitiates the necessity for and the role of the biblical gospel” (p. 82). This construal of the project of natural theology follows Barth. But natural theology is better understood as the venture of constructing rational arguments for the existence of God based on nature or conscience. Natural theology appeals to the data of general revelation (which is known to sinners) as a source for building logical arguments (whether ontological, design, moral, or cosmological), the conclusion of which is that the universe does not explain itself, but requires an Author. When successful, the deliverances of natural theology are in no sense salvific, but rather give philosophical support for theism as objectively true. Upon this foundation, apologetics can build the rest of its case for the biblical worldview, including the gospel. (For a treatment of the philosophical revival of natural theology, see James Sennett and Douglas Groothuis, editors, In Defense of Natural Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005]. See also Douglas Groothuis, “Theistic Proofs” in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, eds. C. Campbell Jack, Gavin J. McGrath [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 698-703.)

Arguments for the objective existence of God are, in fact, extremely salutary for those immersed in the subjectivities and irrationalities of postmodern spirituality, which Wells covers in the chapter “Migrations, the Banquet of Religions and Pastiche Spirituality.” This is a deft analysis of postmodern spirituality, which is pluralistic, subjective, pragmatic, and untethered to any eternal verities. Diverse spiritualities are greeted as preferences or options available to spiritual consumers, not as incompatible truth claims that contend for the total allegiance of their followers. In the postmodern world, Christianity itself is readily forced on to this Procrustean bed.

To avoid this mutilation of the gospel, Wells spends the next three chapters—“Christ in a Spiritual World,” “Christ in a Meaningless World,” and “Christ in a Decentered World”—bringing the biblical Jesus to bear on postmodern realities. In so doing, Wells adroitly integrates social analysis, biblical studies, and theological resources. A short review cannot adequately summarize Wells’ Christological competence on these matters, but suffice to say that Wells demonstrates the pertinence of Christ to the lineaments of postmodern life with cogency and gravity. He repeatedly makes clear that the church’s encounter with postmodernism must be rooted in objective truth, a truth that is rooted in the Triune God himself and thus stands over against us as creatures. Wells’ critique also expands a key insight from Anders Nygren’s work, Agape and Eros (1953). Nygren argued that Christianity is centered on God’s revelation of love (agape) to humanity in Jesus Christ, a revelation without which human beings are helpless. On the other hand, “eros” spirituality works from the bottom up: humans find the divine essence within themselves and so within their grasp. There is no need for a transcendent disclosure for human liberation; what is needed is found within the immanent, within the self itself. Postmodern spirituality, Wells argues, is eros spirituality, in Nygren’s sense. It views human nature itself as a mediator of the sacred, as unfallen and basically good, and without need of an ultimate Authority beyond itself. (Although Wells does not cite it, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s recent work, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality [HarperSanFrancisco, 2005] exposits and defends this eros spirituality.) But the gospel, as Wells notes, shatters this pride and proclaims that only as “God reaches down” through Jesus Christ is spiritual restoration possible (see John 1:1-3, 14; Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthian 8:9).

The final chapter, “Megachurches, Paradigm Shifts, and The New Spirituality” might seem like old hat to some, since so many have weighed in on this topic; but given the rich social and theological analysis that precedes it, what Wells has to say is hardly redundant, although it is sure to be controversial. Wells claims that the megachurch and seeker-sensitive approaches to ministry uncritically appropriate the tools of postmodernity—principally marketing to consumer preferences—to the degree that theology becomes largely irrelevant. He observes that liberal and nonChristian religious assemblies have used megachurch growth models to increase their membership considerably, thus indicating that in all these instances people are most likely being drawn more by methodology than by theology. Wells identifies the roots of this methodology in the “homogeneous unit principle” of missiologist Donald McGavran, who claimed that evangelism is most successful when people are not forced to cross any racial or economic barriers in order to come to Christ. The megachurch methodology has extended this principle to apply to generational and educational barriers as well. Thus, these churches target specific groups and tailor their services to fit specific preferences. The underlying assumption is that “the chief barrier to conversion is sociological and not theological” (p. 289). By catering to certain preferences, and avoiding dislikes, people will naturally come to Christ.

One problem with this perspective, Wells objects, is that it is Pelagian; it assumes that people are not embarrassed by their own sin and scandalized by the Cross of Christ. Rather, non-Christians avoid the gospel because churches fail to fit their cultural sensibilities. Wells writes, “Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite creedal affirmations to the contrary, that in their disposition to God and his Word, postmoderns are neutral, that they can be seduced into making the purchase of faith even as they can into making any other kind of purchase” (299). The answer to this theological defection, Wells avers, is a return to revealed truth: “What distinguishes the Church from this [consumer satisfaction] industry is truth. It is truth about God and about ourselves that displaces the consumer from his or her current perch of sovereignty in the Church and places God in the place where he should be” (303).

One is tempted to quote further from this wise theologian and social critic; in fact, I underlined more of this book than any in recent memory. But instead of drawing out this review any further, I instead heartily recommend that the reader purchase and carefully consider the insights of Above All Earthly Pow’rs—and continue to sing the hymn from which the title is taken.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary


Jonathan Erdman said...


I agree with the general critique of our culture. But, what tends to irritate me is the implication that some of these general spiritual concerns for mankind are labeled as uniquely "postmodern" (whatever that is!).

For example, here is a quote...
Postmodern spirituality, Wells argues, is eros spirituality, in Nygren’s sense. It views human nature itself as a mediator of the sacred, as unfallen and basically good, and without need of an ultimate Authority beyond itself.

Doug, how does this differ, dramatically, from so-called Modern and rationalistic optimism? The above description is not a uniquely postmodern problem, it is a human problem. Kierkegaard rambled about similar things in reaction to Hegel and others who were definately not "postmodern." Does Wells wish we could go back to the good ole' days? As if there were no problems with bucking the Authority of God in Modern days?

Every culture and generation buries the transcendent God in a rubble of worthless idols. Better philosophy or better doctrine or better theology gets an individual no closer to the person of Christ.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Wells draw out the distinctions nicely. Read the book.

Kevin Winters said...

In relation to the same quote Jonathan gave, what on earth can wells say to those so-called postmoderns like Levinas and Marion who most certainly cannot be described in these supposedly 'eros' terms? Or perhaps Kierkegaard, the Father of Existentialism, who has been drawn on by many so-called postmodernists, for whom God's authority trumped every reason, every attempt at man to 'prove' God's existence or the 'objective' validity of scripture?

It seems that Wells is under the same illusion that any postmodernist necessarily eschews authority, is inherently atheistic, and sees nothing correct about our human condition.

Douglas Groothuis said...

SK is no postmodernist! He was a realist, but a fideist of a sort. Wells deals with secular postmodernists mostly, who have the most influence. Marion and Levinas are extremely obscure.

Kevin Winters said...

Well, Derrida was a realist (see also here; deconstruction itself is meaningless without some form of realism), and Foucault was a realist, and, from my own familiarity with him, Heidegger was a realist (some interpret him as an idealist, but even they admit that they are in the minority). I would wager to say that Nietsche was a realist, from some of the recent work I've been reading. Therefore, at least two of the individuals that you have already said are 'postmodern,' and possibly four of them, were realists. Hence, I'm very skeptical of your claim.

Kevin Winters said...

Oh, and as for Marion and Levinas, there's a good reason for their obscurity (something shared by the later Heidegger): when you are trying to discuss that which is prior to every saying or proposition, it's hard to put it into words without destroying its essence. But I imagine that is for another time.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Difficult subjects can be written about clearly: consider the kalam cosmological argument as it is handled by Bill Craig or the argument from mind by JP Moreland or the ontological argument discussed by Stephen T. Davis.

Kevin Winters said...

Those are not quite similar cases: Craig and Moreland are both dealing in a world that explicitly claims that words capture (or describes) something's essence. But when the phenomena (or, perhaps, anti-phenomena) is pre-linguistic, how can you talk about it without thereby destroying its essence? If, as Plato claimed, the Good is 'beyond essence' (one of the prime sources of inspiration for Levinas), then how can we speak of it? That is the difficulty. It's not an issue of the difficult of the subject discussed, but the essence of the thing itself.

Beyond that, however, there are some very good secondary sources on Levinas' thought, primary among them being the work of Adriaan Peperzak. Colin Davis' introductory work is also quite good.

Douglas Groothuis said...

If you think (for some reason or no reason) that something is ineffable, then the only sensible thing to do is shut up, since nothing can be said about it.

Kevin Winters said...

Yes, but it must appear ineffable, so there must be something positive to it. Without it appearing in such a way, we could not know that it is ineffable, or at least beyond our full comprehension; without that appearing our attribution of ineffability could be arbitrary.

For Levinas and Heidegger, the ineffable appears in terms of the excess, or in that which does not appear in every appearing of a being as something (thus, it is 'nothing,' 'no-thing'). To use language that doesn't quite catch the phenomena (but is close enough for our purposes), a baseball bat could appear as something to use in a baseball game, but it can also appear as a piece of art (say for the Baseball Hall of Fame), or as a weapon to protect oneself against an intruder, or as a door stop, or as a hammer, or as a trophy, or any other possibly limitless ways.

For Levinas, God and people are the same: no matter how many propositions we can amass, no matter how many stories we can tell or how long we've known someone, there is an excess: they can still surprise us, there are still things we do not know, things that escape our current attributions. Yes, my wife is a woman, she is a student, she is a daughter, she is beautiful, she is impatient on occasion, she is loving, and on and on and on. Hence, she escapes full disclosure, she are literally transcendent--no matter how long I go on describing her, whether in terms of properties or narratives, there is always more that can be said.

If Heidegger is right in what I wrote above, then objects likewise are transcendent: it really is impossible to catalog all the ways that any given object can appear. This, incidentally, is also one of the driving points of deconstruction--any given text will of necessity leave things about, not because of mere ignorance, but due do the very excess that is being. It is because we love the 'thing itself' in all its excess/transcendence that we deconstruct texts that attempt to pigeonhole the thing into its theoretical constructs. It is not that such pigeonholing does not reveal some aspect of the being, as it truly does, but that any such revelation is essentially finite.

Of course, the above is meaningless without some form of realism, hence Heidegger(and Derrida) is a postmodern realist (if you wish to use those terms). If the above is correct, Heidegger), as one of the "secular postmodernists" who has had tremendous "influence," cannot be included in Wells' generalizations. This would also include Derrida.