Dr. David F. Wells was Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In 1993, he published his book, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? in order to share his alarm about the state of the Confessional Church in the world today.
“The disappearance of theology from the life of the church, and the orchestration of that disappearance, by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today, but, oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss from the evangelical world, in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, in the shift from God to the self, as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, and in its reveling in the irrational” (David Wells).
In 1994, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals was formed to call the church back to its confessional history. The Alliance promotes the traditional doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, particularly Calvinism, in response to a perception that “the light of the Reformation has been significantly dimmed.”
If a Christian is not familiar with the term “Calvinism”, then a Christian should at least grasp the fact that the church has a theology that should be studied. For now, let it be said that Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological persuasion of John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564), and other Reformation era-theologians.
The Reformation era formally began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546) began to criticize the selling of indulgences. Posting The Ninety-Five Theses, to the church door of Wittenburg, Germany, Luther invited other scholars of Europe to debate with him whether or not the church should sell forgiveness of sins. Luther also wanted to debate whether or not the Pope has authority over purgatory. The young, 34 years old, fiery monk also opposed the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints, saying such a doctrine has no foundation in the gospel. What can be found in the gospel are five foundational doctrines of grace.
Sola scriptura Scripture alone
Sola fide Faith alone
Sola gratia Grace alone
Solus Christus Christ alone
Soli Deo Gloria Glory of God alone
Reformed theology is rooted in these five doctrines. There are other forms of theology, such as Lutheran Theology, Baptist theology, Arminian theology, Dispensational theology, Liberal theology, Liberation theology, and, more recently, Self-esteem theology. One of the first truths to be stated is that, Reformed theology is, Reformed theology. While that sounds redundant, it needs to be said because there is a difference between religion, and theology.
There is a profound difference between the study of religion, and the study of theology, because, there are two approaches to faith. One approach is God-centered. The other approach is Man-centered. A Man-centered approach to faith is religion. A God-centered approach to faith is theology.
A God-centered approach to faith will lead to a theological understanding of God which in turn will lead to His creation and to the study of anthropology, or the study of man.
A Man-centered approach to faith is religion because it begins with anthropology and assumes that theology is a subcategory. This in turn naturally leads to philosophical speculation about God, polytheism, or the study of many gods, and cultural relativism, all faiths are of equal value.
This is a modern paradigm shift. During the Middle Ages, when the Universities were formed, theology was called the Queen of Sciences. Theology was called the Queen of Sciences because in the ultimate search for truth, in the various branches of inquiry, the ultimate source is God. It was once assumed that the study of man was to be made in light of our understanding of God.
Since man is created by God, and since man is the image bearer of God, to have a proper understanding of what it means to be human, we must first study the God who created us. Today, in secular university, theology is either a subcategory of religion, or it is not taught. Theology might be taught in anthropology or sociology, but it is not given pre-eminence. Paul explains why.
“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21).
The study of theology is the study of God, in and of Himself. The study of religion is the study of a type of human behavior.
When people are involved in religion, they are involved with elements which characterize religion such as prayer, worship, sacrifice, singing, meditation, lectures, and study. All of this is under the trappings of human religion. When faith is studied from a man-centered perspective, all that is being studied is how humans behave with their religious beliefs in their personal lives, and in the cultic lives. When faith is studied from a theological Reformed perspective, it is studied with God as the center of a worldview that provides belief and behaviour. The central thought is that religion is man-centered; Reformed theology is God-centered.
Where a person starts in their thinking will determine where they will finally end. That is the difference between truth and falsehood, heaven or hell. In modern society, there are many foolish clichés that are the result of an anthropomorphic, or a man-centered understanding of life.
It does not matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something.
All roads lead to Rome, so all religions lead to heaven.
One person’s religion is as equally valid as another person’s religion.
It does not matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.
What all of these clichés teach is that God only cares whether or not individuals are religious. That is not true according to gospel terms. God insists that individuals worship Him in spirit and in truth. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
The Bible recognizes that men are incurably religious. The problem is that the natural man does not seek the one, true, God. Men seek the gods of their imaginations, not the God of revelation. “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11). When God made His covenant with Israel, there were other nations who were religious. To all was given the Moral Law.
“And God spake all these words, saying, 2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;\ 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 13 Thou shalt not kill. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery. 15 Thou shalt not steal. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. 18 And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off” (Exodus 20:1-18).
Soon after the giving of the Moral Law, the people turned from God to religion. Their religion centered on a Golden Calf. The people wanted a god like other nations. A god that was relevant. A god that was contemporary. A god they could see. A god they could get excited about. Aaron, the first High Priest, appointed by God Himself, succumbed to the will of the people.
“And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. 18 And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear. 19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. 20 And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. 21 And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? 22 And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. 23 For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. 24 And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf. 25 And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:) 26 Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. 27 And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. 28 And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. 29 For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day. 30 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. 31 And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. 32 Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. 33 And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. 34 Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. 35 And the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made” (Exodus 32:17-35).
While the people were making their Golden Calf, while Moses was communing with the Lord, God knew what Israel was doing. “And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 9 And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation” (Exodus 32:7-10).
The people were engaged in religion. The religion they practiced was man-centered. It was a religion of their own imagination. Their religion distorted and corrupted the image of God. The people gave honor and power to the Golden Calf that was unwarranted. They gave praises and sacrifices to the Golden Calf which was deaf, dumb, and dead. It was not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent.
In Romans 1, Paul teaches that every person knows the power and glory of God. But the sin of the human race is to take that knowledge and suppress it, or push it down in order to substation religion for a relationship with the living God. The most basic sin that individuals commit is the besetting sin, the proclivity towards idolatry.
Idolatry involves religion. Even the Christian faith can become religion when God is stripped of His sovereignty, and reduced to being made in the image of man. This is what many forms of Christianity do reflected in Arminian theology, Self-esteem theology, or Liberal theology. In the place of God, man is exalted. The will of man is made the determining factor in salvation and in sanctification.
The most important facet of Reformed theology is its focus on theology. Our view of God is important. Theology is life because theology is the knowledge of God. There is no truth more important that exists than to know God. Our lives will never be reformed, our lives will never be what they should be apart from a true knowledge of God.