A Review Article on God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, by David F. Wells

This is Appendix I in The Bible Doctrine of Separation: A White Paper of the American Council of Christian Churches.

A Review Article on God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, by David F. Wells. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. 278 pp.

Today’s new evangelical movement began in 1948 with Dr. Harold Ockenga’s Fuller Seminary convocation address. Ten years into the new approach, Dr. Ockenga’s press release of December 8, 1957 made some bold claims.

Fundamentalism abdicated leadership and responsibility in the societal realm and thus became impotent to change society or to solve social problems. . . .The New Evangelicalism has changed its strategy from one of separation to one of infiltration. . . .The results have been phenomenal.14

Another two decades pass, and now as the president of GordonConwell Theological Seminary, Dr. Ockenga remembered his movement’s inauguration as a “ringing call for a repudiation of separatism and the summons to social involvement.”15 But the word, “phenomenal,” had fallen into disuse with the developments that necessitated the publication of The Battle for the Bible.16

Now with the first sixty years of the new evangelical legacy complete, Dr. David Wells reports on the continued progression of Ockenga’s call in God in the Wasteland. “Today, evangelicalism reverberates with worldliness. . . .it is robbing the church of its ability to take its bearings from God, who is centrally holy” (55). The book is a sequel to the author’s No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, a work published a year earlier with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts.17 Wells describes the relationship between these two publications.

[No Place for Truth] produced only half the picture I wanted to present . . . It offers an explanation of the cultural factors that have diminished the place and importance of theology in the church, but it offers no suggestions for a remedy of the problem. . . . Here I outline the first step that I believe needs to be taken to reverse the situation I described in the first book (ix).

Remarkably, Dr. Wells reassesses the movement so harshly criticized by the Father of New Evangelicalism. “Fundamentalist doctrine on these and related matters was to them as important socially as it was credally. . . . The great sin in Fundamentalism is to compromise; the great sin in evangelicalism is to be narrow.”18

Perspective – The World of Dreams

Yet David Wells is no fundamentalist polemicist. As the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the author writes as one who has served the Lord with a firsthand view of the results of the Ockenga vision.19

He formulates his assessment of the new evangelical landscape, in part, with the results of a poll he conducted at seven new evangelical seminaries. The survey sought to measure the “saliency of belief” among the seminarians at these institutions (ix). But these seminaries share only a part of the wasteland Dr. Wells finds himself in. He understands that the dream of new evangelicalism itself involved drowsiness in regard to important concerns. He regrets what occurred when “new” was added to “evangelical.” He cites the turning point that produced Ockenga’s optimism as the origin of trouble.

I believe that our effort to be both modern and Christian produces deep and perhaps insoluble problems. I believe that our efforts to be both modern and Christian . . . accounts [sic] for much of what has happened in evangelicalism in the years since the end of World War II, and it is to this topic that I now want to turn (16).

Writing of wasteland and fading dreams, Dr. Wells is a new evangelical addressing new evangelicals about new evangelicalism.

Problems – The Dreams Fade

Although the author purposes to provide solutions to the problem highlighted in his first book, God in the Wasteland begins with the end of the problem’s description. Dr. Wells’ diagnosis warns that the condition is critical. He describes new evangelicalism as ready to “buckle completely” (117), as standing “little chance of preserving historic Christian faith” (120), as “run aground in the shallow waters of modernity” (151), and as in danger of becoming “indistinguishable from New Age spirituality” (222)

In his first chapter, Dr. Wells demonstrates the inadequacy of modernity in society. He convincingly argues that the breadth of experience which communications technology has brought to mankind has robbed those experiences of their depth. While mankind gains the whole world, he loses his soul. Additionally, the quantity of communications sacrifices the quality of each communication. We live in a world of clichés, a world in which the average person must process two million advertisements by the age of sixty-five (15).

In the second chapter, Dr. Wells shows that the modern new evangelical church correlates positively with the defective modern world. Although Newsweek reported progress by declaring 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” Dr. Wells argues that this progress has been an illusion (19). While the 1960’s admittedly marked the end of liberalism, the period also qualifies as the inception of new evangelicalism’s regression down the same road.

Before the 1960’s, evangelicalism was a cultural outsider; after, it rapidly became a part of the inside. Before, it defined itself theologically; after, it increasingly has not. Before, its leaders were seldom managers and bureaucrats; after, they usually were. . . . Before the 1960’s evangelicalism was “strong”; after, it was “weak” (24).

The grounds for unity shifted away from a commitment to a common theological confession to a commitment to a common acceptance of diversity (25). Religion became civil, and culture became neutral (26-28). A passion for truth and a cutting edge for battle in the face of costly consequences suffered obsolescence.

Wells introduces the next chapter with the admission that new evangelical Christians are unique in society with their confidence in the neutrality of culture (35). He argues that those so ambiguous about the danger they face hold little hope of defense. “Those who are cognitively and morally dislocated from the worldly culture are the ones who are driven to change it” (36). Further arguing against this ambivalence, Dr. Wells discusses the biblical doctrine of κόσμος. He finds three New Testament meanings for the term: (a) “the earth, created order”; (b) “the nations, the human community”; and (c) “the ways of fallen humanity, alienated from God and his truth” (37). He then gives evidence that the Scriptures demand “otherworldliness” in the context of the third meaning of the term. Yet Wells strictly affirms the church’s calling within the context of the first two meanings. “Biblically speaking, it is entirely inappropriate for the church to become ‘otherworldly’ with respect to these first two meanings of κόσμος” (38).

But with this position, Dr. Wells unwittingly mutes his clarion call for change. He fails to demonstrate how it is that “otherworldliness” can be achieved consistently in the third context without also proper application to the second when necessary. Practice cannot consistently sustain the theoretical distinction defined by Dr. Wells between the “human community” and “the ways of fallen humanity.” Simply put, the “community” produces the “ways.” Otherworldliness must at times apply to the former if one desires to truly maintain otherworldliness in regard to the latter. Church history teaches that an unregulated enthusiasm for thisworldliness in the “human community,” a zeal for political influence and social relevance, has often opened the door to her acceptance of “the ways of fallen humanity.”

Chapter Four is entitled “Clerics Anonymous.” Here Dr. Wells attacks “two connected revolutions on the modern world – the therapeutic and the managerial” (61). He takes on some heavyweights of new evangelical ministry philosophy, the advocates of the church growth movement. Specifically, he critiques the “Religious Economy” of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark (63).20 Correlating the numerical growth of a denomination subsequent to the American Revolution with its relative emphasis on democracy, these men argue that church growth depends upon a correct response to market forces. They enumerate four of these forces: (1) organization (church polity); (2) sales (clergy); (3) product (religious doctrine and life); (4) marketing technique (evangelism and growth).21 Dr. Wells responds forcefully. He charges the movement with teaching the sovereignty of the audience and with legitimizing ideas only in the market place. He protests that the success measured by these proponents may only prove that the new evangelical church has been willing to “prostitute itself by seeking worldly accommodations” (68). A pragmatic optimism drives the movement with an anthropocentric therapeutic process that obliterates the doctrine of sin (80-81).

With Chapter Five Dr. Wells begins his transition from problem description to problem solution. Yet Chapter Eight, which contains the analysis of his extensive survey, belongs to his description of the problem as well. Dr. Wells draws three conclusions which he claims are “beyond dispute.” New evangelical seminarians personally affirm the importance of theology; they have lost confidence in the Church’s vision and theological character; and their theology stops short of controlling their lives and thinking (187). The loss of meaning suffered by the label, “evangelical,” exposes the impotence of theology among those surveyed. “The result is that it is now impossible to predict exactly what people who refer to themselves as evangelicals will think, how they will view the world, or how they will act” (191).

Inerrancy and involvement in a local church only made it to 55% in the survey, while a preference for the love of God over the holiness of God scored a resounding 80%. Dr. Wells identifies a troubling trend toward viewing ministry as counseling. After suggesting that the popularity of counseling majors among students portends little good, he fears that graduates “will likely offer leadership that is more consensual, that takes large account of the feelings of those being led, and that will place as much emphasis on preserving relationships as it does on acting on principle” (203).

Proposal – Recycling and the Wasteland

After his convincing description of the problems facing new evangelicalism, Dr. Wells offers his solution beginning in Chapter Eight. There he describes two components to his recommendation.

The answer, I believe, lies in the convergence of two separate but related lines of thought: we need to move away from Our Time’s prevailing anthropology, and we need to move away from Our Time’s prevailing theology (113).

The remainder of Chapter Eight contains the specifics for the move away from the prevailing anthropology, and Chapters Nine and Ten discuss the importance of the doctrines of God’s transcendence, God’s providence, and the cross of Christ in order to move new evangelicalism away from the prevailing theology.

By a new anthropology, Dr. Wells means that new evangelical Christians need conversion from the consumption of religious experience to a concern for moral thought. The movement’s infatuation with the love of God and embarrassment over the holiness of God must end (114). The goal of meeting psychological needs ought to pale in comparison to the need to do right (115). He issues a call to forsake religion based on our terms rather than God’s (117).

The move away from the prevailing theology involves a move away from the centrality of God’s love to the centrality of His holiness. “The Christians in Our Time sometimes act as though they were the first to recognize that God is a God of love” (135). Dr. Wells traces man’s natural disinclination for the holiness of God throughout the history of theology. Speaking in rather broad terms, he perceives this tendency in a polarity between the holiness of God and the love of Christ early in the Church’s history. Romanism compounded the problem pitting the holiness of Christ against the love of Mary. He believes that Puritan Calvinism inherited seeds of a polarity in the Godhead from the Reformers, such that after Puritanism passed, the seedlings of Deism on the one hand and modern evangelicalism on the other took root (128-129).

In order to avoid this historic tendency, Dr. Wells sets some boundaries he encourages new evangelicals to respect. First, the nature of the Father and the Son must not be disengaged. On the one hand, this boundary protects against making the Son a comfortable alternative to the Holy Father, and on the other it precludes the pluralistic view that God can be legitimately claimed without reference to the Son (130-132). Next, the nature of the holiness of God must include the concept of exclusive loyalty (138). God’s holiness must have teeth (144). It must demand obedience.

Yet the fortress Dr. Wells seeks to build lacks walls. With scriptural separatist convictions repudiated long ago, new evangelicalism has no practical defense against the onslaught of modernity. Dr. Wells illustrates the helplessness of this condition when he calls for action with the sad words, “Instead, they will have to begin to build afresh, in cogently biblical ways, among the decaying structures that now clutter the evangelical landscape” (215). Here we see not only a desire “to build afresh,” but also a basic commitment “to build among.” Dr. Wells believes that new evangelicalism is like a house which shows no external signs of decay, but which termites have rendered structurally unsound (90), and yet it is within this structure that the future remodeling he prescribes must take place.

Principles – The Reality of Truth

“Why is it that today the implications of God’s holiness often slide off the church like water off a duck’s back?” asks Dr. Wells (145). He sees the problem to be “the shallow waters of modernity,” far away from “the deep waters of God’s otherness – his holiness and truth” (151). He warns that the course set by some new evangelicals to rediscover these waters in the seas of Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy will fail (226-227). But there is no call here for a return to the straits of fundamentalism either, the harbor from which this anchorless vessel strayed generations ago.

“Today any evangelical who demurs from the cultural consensus will almost certainly be viewed as a rebel, perhaps even a subversive, and almost certainly as irrelevant and out of it” (59). “Irrelevant and out of it” was the Ockenga pronouncement upon fundamentalists from the beginning, a decree which has been religiously obeyed by his successors. Ironically, it is here that we find the reason why the repudiation of separatist convictions remains inviolable to Dr. Wells. But in spite of this limitation, “the reality of truth” described by Dr. Wells holds many lessons for us who own the heritage of those whose landscape has been spared the wreckage of Ockenga.

The first lesson is the power of juxtaposition. Dr. Wells begins the book with a description of an encounter he had with a rude driver who had two bumper stickers, one advertising “McGuire, a local politician,” and the other advertising “Jesus.

Those who needed McGuire were encouraged to purchase him with a vote; those who needed Jesus were informed that he was also available, too, and perhaps on equally convenient terms.

It might be said that this book is about Jesus and McGuire. . .I am more concerned about the immediate byproduct of this confusion, which is the difficulty that is introduced when the name of Jesus goes on the bumper alongside that of McGuire (5).

Clearly one of the hallmarks of the fundamental separatist position is circumspection when it comes to associations. A new evangelical finds himself juxtaposed with the liberal in far more publicized venues than the bumper of a pickup truck in Boston. Unfortunately, Dr. Wells demonstrates the very problem he tries to correct. God in the Wasteland quotes not a single fundamental separatist author in spite of the extensive literature available relevant to this topic, although the likes of Rudolf Bultmann (39) and Karl Barth (162) receive the respect of definitive authorities.

A second lesson is the central importance of practical separation to the holiness and transcendence of God. “What has been lost. . .is God’s angularity, the sharp edges that truth so often has” (114), but that kind of truth cuts and divides. “The enduring value of doing what is right” and “costly obedience” are necessary (115), but this righteous obedience responds faithfully to the command, “Come out and be separate!” “Restoring weight to God is going to involve much more than simply getting some doctrine straight” (115), so then it must also involve the passion to militantly contend for that doctrine.

Finally, there is the instructive contrast between Dr. Ockenga and Dr. Wells. Fifty years separate their respective assessments of their movement, and the decay from “phenomenal” to “fading” happened gradually. As fundamentalists, we need a discerning sensitivity for the slow movement of compromise if the future of our churches and institutions is to rise above the destiny of “wasteland” and “fading dreams.” May our theology remain salient enough to pass a correct understanding of our label to the next generation; may the separatist convictions of our fathers continue to protect the landscape of our ministries for our children and for our gospel witness to the world; and may Christ find faith among us when He comes to the glory of His name.


14Quoted in William E. Ashbrook, The New Neutralism (Columbus, OH: Calvary Bible Church, 1970), pp. 4-5.

15Harold J. Ockenga, foreword to The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell (Grand Rapids, MI:  The Zondervan Corporation, 1976), p. 11.

16“Because no individual carried the banner for the new evangelicalism and no one developed a theology or a definitive position, many younger evangelicals joined the movement and claimed the name, but did not confess the doctrinal position of orthodoxy” Ibid., p. 12.

17See Michael Harding, “Review Article:  No Place for Truth,Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Fall 1996), pp. 291-296.

18David F. Wells, No Place for Truth:  Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), p. 129.

19Whereas the separatist convictions of men like A. J. Gordon and A. C. Dixon gave birth to the infancy of Gordon College, leading new evangelicals, Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham, enacted the 1969 merger of The Conwell School of Theology with The Gordon Divinity School to form The Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Ockenga served as Gordon-Conwell’s first president.  Funding for the new institution was provided by J. Howard Pew, one of the beneficiaries of the Sun Oil dynasty and a co-founder of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Author: American Council of Christian Churches

Since 1941 the ACCC has sought to PROVIDE information, encouragement, and assistance to Bible-believing churches, fellowships and individuals; to PRESERVE our Christian heritage through exposure of, opposition to, and separation from doctrinal impurity and compromise in current religious trends and movements; to PROTECT churches from religious and political restrictions, subtle or obvious, that would hinder their ministries for God; to PROMOTE obedience to the inerrant Word of God.