Are Evangelicals Still Protestants? (With a Nod to David F. Wells)

I was recently handed a book by a member of the church. The book is called: “The Courage to be Protestant: truth Lovers, marketers, and emergents in the postmodern world” by David F. Wells. Like most books I actually get round to reading, this one is a few years old – it was published in 2008. So far, I have only read the first chapter – but already it has gripped me. The author, a professor of historical and systematic theology, has his finger on the pulse in terms of the condition of the evangelical church.

First some comments on the title. The word “protestant” in the title is significant. It is a category that has negative connotations in the UK. The word protestant stirs up memories of the conflicts between Northern Ireland and Ireland. From my perspective, it also stirs up memories of west central Scotland sectarianism. Protestantism is something, for me, which has more connection to my life before I professed personal faith in Christ rather than how I have understood my faith in Christ.

However, that being said, my discovery of personal faith did not happen as a result of the Roman Catholic Christianity I had been taught as a child, instead, I discovered personal faith through the preaching of the gospel – in particular – the preaching of justification by faith alone. While most people consider this to be the gospel of evangelicalism, it is in fact the protestant gospel. In other words, it is the gospel as proclaimed by the protestant reformers.

However, one of the issues I have been aware of, very early on in my faith, is the lack of gospel-centredness within evangelicalism. In fact, it is not just a lack of gospel-centredness that I have observed; it is a lack of doctrinal conviction and a lack of conviction about the nature and importance of the church and sacraments. David F. Wells identifies these issues and traces them historically to their source. In other words, he identifies the contemporary problems, identifies the causes and sets forth the solution. What is the problem? Evangelicalism has severed itself from its historical reformed protestant roots. What was the cause of this? Classical evangelicals embraced doctrinal minimalism in an attempt to unite the movement through core and central truths. What was the consequence of this? Doctrinal minimalism descended into doctrinal indifference. Indifference about secondary issues led to indifference about central issues. And eventually evangelicalism was no longer marked by a commitment to truth. Wells demonstrates that, “"The older, classical evangelicalism first mutated into a segment of marketers and then mutated again into a segment of emergent."

In other words, doctrinal minimalism evolved into pragmatism – the seeker friendly, and market driven approach that developed methods that were designed to reach the masses. However, once the shallowness of this consumerism approach to Christianity was seen for what it was – a new generation of disgruntled church goers reacted against this and as a result created the emergent church. The emergent church is really a revivalism of liberalism. Wells argues that classical evangelicalism, marketers, and emergent are the three main strands (although he acknowledges that many sub-strands continue to evolve) of evangelicalism.

In many ways this analysis is spot on. Throughout my Christian life, I have always been within the classical evangelical camp, (although I have often been in “marketer” churches). However, this is no longer true – a few years ago I came to the conclusion that the only hope for evangelicalism is to be found within a solid ecclesiastical and confessional context – in other words I rediscovered protestantism. Not the bitter, sectarian protestantism, which many associate with Orange Lodges and Old-Firm matches. No, I’m talking about the protestantism of Luther, Calvin, and Knox.

A number of books helped me on this journey of discovery. The first was a book that I read sometime in 2005/2006 – it was called: This Little Church Went to Market: Is the modern Church Reaching Out or Selling Out? by Gary Gilley. The second was a book that I read in 2008, What Happened to the Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines which shook the world by Ryken and Boice.The first book helped identify key problems within the Church Growth Movement (the principles of which were to be seen everywhere I turned). The second helped identify the influence of culture upon evangelicalism, in other words – it clearly showed how evangelicalism had embraced several unbiblical cultural ideologies. Further, it demonstrated how evangelicalism, historically was built upon the five solas of the reformation, the book also demonstrated that evangelicalism needs these core doctrines if it is to remain authentically evangelical. The final book (which really was the nail in the coffin for commitment to contemporary evangelicalism) was The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman. Again, it highlighted the impact of culture upon evangelical identity and practice and clearly demonstrated the importance and essential nature of creeds for the health of the church. The way forward for me was clear. Identifying the problems of the church growth movement was not enough; recognising the need for the five solas of the reformation was good, but not enough. No. If a high view of scripture was truly to be preserved, if the gospel was to be guarded, proclaimed and gloried in, and if ecclesiology was going to be healthy, biblical and taken seriously, I realised that this could only happen in a confessional environment. In other words, a church context which preserved the essentials of the faith in a well formulated confession of faith.

Back to Wells. Wells highlights an important issue surrounding all of these matters, he says: “The truths of historic Protestantism are sometimes no more welcome in evangelicalism than they are in the outside culture." This is absolutely true. In other words, we are living in times where truths are not popular. The church has become more concerned with image than truth. In this sense, the title of Wells’ book is spot on – “The Courage to be Protestant”. His opening sentence in chapter one is powerful:

“It takes no courage to sign up as a protestant. After all, millions have done so throughout the West. They are not in any peril. To live by the truths of historic protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today's context."

I may blog some more on Wells’ book as I work my way through it. But for now, I just wanted to flag it up and encourage others who are on a similar path to get a copy. Also, I should clarify, the book is not called, “The courage to call yourself Protestant”. Given the sectarian history of Scotland, that may not work so well here. No. The book is called, “The Courage to Be Protestant”. In other words, actually learning and embracing protestant teaching is far more important than the labels. Sometimes those who make the loudest noise about being “protestant” or “presbyterian”, when you scratch under the surface, are not really protestant or Presbyterian in practice (see my last post as a case in point). Wells isn’t that driven by labels, he is more concerned with reality – and labels are only useful in as much as they reflect the reality.

Why is any of this important? Quite simply because the gospel is important. The scriptures are important. And the church is important. I am an evangelical in the truest sense, but evangelicalism has proved to be an insufficient vessel in which to fish from. The boat is going under – and if you care about the call to be “fishers of men” you too should care about the issues being raised in Wells’ book.