God in the whirlwind Paperback – 17 Jan 2014
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Rich, deep, and faithful - 'God in the Whirlwind' invites us to come before the very heart of God. No theologian understands the modern world better than David Wells, yet no theologian uses the modern world more powerfully to wrench us back to truths that are foundational and never to be superseded by the latest anything. To be read slowly and with prayer. --Os Guinness, cofounder, The Trinity Forum; author, 'The Call'
... Here Dr. Wells is again the splendid biblical theologian he has long since proved himself to be - whose work is driven by devotion to the God who is Holy-love, and whose Luther-like desire to 'Let God be God' is clear on every page. Drink safely, deeply, and be satisfied. --Sinclair B. Ferguson, Professor of Systematic Theology, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas, Texas
In this important book, David Wells begins the process of bringing his influential critique of late modern culture and the church down into practice. Here we have a 'practical theology' for conducting the church's life based on the reality of a God of 'Holy-love'. This particular way of understanding and preaching the doctrine of God, Wells believes, protects the church from either being co-opted by the culture or becoming a ghettoized subculture. Decades of teaching theology is boiled down here into accessible, practical chapters. I'm glad to recommend this volume. --Timothy J. Keller, Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City; author, 'The Reason for God'
About the Author
David F. Wells is Senior Distinguished Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is an ordained Congregationalist minister, and has been a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and a distinguished lecturer at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including 'No Place for Truth', 'God in the Wasteland', 'Losing Our Virtue', 'Above All Earthly Pow'rs' and 'The Courage to be Protestant' (all IVP).
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I know generalizations can sometimes be unhelpful and someone can always point out an exception, but I think it’s fair to say that the expression of Christianity in the West in this day and age is often shallow; moralistic therapeutic deism commonly masquerades as the Christian faith, and God is seen as a cosmic Santa Clause and/or “buddy Jesus.” David Wells firmly believes that what has been principally lost in the evangelical Church is a biblical understanding of God’s character – a character that has weight; a character Wells sums up in his latest book as “holy-love.” In five previous interconnected volumes (1. No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?; 2. God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams; 3. Losing Our Virtue: Why The Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision; 4. Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World; 5. The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World), Wells answered from a cultural perspective the question of what accounts for the loss of the Church’s theological character. In this new book, God in the Whirlwind, he has shifted his focus to the “Christ” part of the Christ-and-culture issue.
Wells begins in chapter 1 by declaring that “[o]ur destination is the character of God. We are taking a journey into ‘the Father’s heart,’ as A.W. Tozer put it” (15). Our goal in life is to know God, enjoy God, love God, serve God, glorify God. In this book, Wells takes us on a journey into God’s character, which he sums up as holy-love. Then he highlights two challenges to knowing God – culture and distractions. In regards to the first of these challenges, Wells points out that the culture touts a non-interfering god of love who is not judgmental and goes on to show us why moralistic therapeutic deism is so prevalent in our culture.
When postmoderns think about life in a psychological framework, they do so from a center in the self. It is the self that determines what salvation means and what life means. When we think about life within the moral framework that Scripture gives us, then we are thinking of it with God at its center. It is he in his holiness who defines the salvation we need and he in his love who provides what we need in Christ. In a postmodern view, we are at life’s center; in a biblical view, we are not. It is God who is life’s center. If we do not understand these differences, we will be at sea when we start to think about how God has actually revealed himself” (34-35).
Wells then spends a bit of time in the first chapter explaining his theme as the holy-love of God – as Wells uses the designation, he means God’s love and holiness in unity and comprising the many aspects of His character of which Scripture speaks. Because of the theme, redemption is the natural place to start. The next two chapters look at how God’s saving purposes unfold throughout the Old Testament and into/through the New. Chapter 2 looks at continuity – what has not changed in regards to justification from the Old Testament into the New. Specifically, these areas of continuity are the cause of our acceptance before God (grace), the instrument of our acceptance before God (faith), and the ground of our acceptance before God (Christ). Chapter 3 looks at discontinuity – things that have changed from the Old Testament to the New. One difference is that our knowledge of Christ is explicit because we look back on when He came; Old Testament saints looked forward in faith to when God would provide a deliverer, seeing only in types and shadows. A second difference lies in the work of the Holy Spirit – since the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the Holy Spirit’s work has been to secure what Christ accomplished on the cross, and to everywhere and always point to Him. These differences allow us to have a deeper knowledge of God than was possible for Old Testament saints.
The next two chapters expound upon God’s holy-love, with chapter 4 looking at God’s love and chapter 5 looking at God’s holiness. Chapter 6 focuses on the atonement, first pointing out the differences between crucifixion and the cross, and then showing how the crucifixion became the cross. Finally, in the final three chapters, which talk about the “practical” issues of sanctification, worship, and service, Wells shows how God’s holy-love is at the center of each of these.
This is a Scripture-soaked and gospel-centered book, and an enjoyable and valuable read. Those who have read Wells’s previous books will no doubt feel like they’ve heard some of this before, but the material is still important and presented in an accessible way that is full of Scripture and Scriptural truth and cuts to the heart. For those who have never read any of David Wells’s books, this is a great introduction.
This isn’t a book about relating to culture with ten neat steps; this is a book with God at the center. While it may not seem practical, I truly believe that a correct vision of God is what truly transforms and that in born-again believers, orthodoxy always leads to orthopraxy. This book provides that robust biblical theology and gospel-soaked exhortation through which life-change will happen.
*I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.
David Wells spells out so clearly what I have “felt” for a long time but have been unable to put into words. There is something wrong in the churches and in Christianity today. In the book, Mr. Wells explains that we no longer understand God’s character, his Holy-Love. Today we hear a lot about God’s love but not much about his Holiness. In fact, the author states:
“We have become inclined to think of God as our Therapist. It is comfort, healing, and inspiration that we want most deeply, so that is what we seek from Him. That too, is what we want from our church experience. We want it to be comforting, uplifting, inspiring, and easy on the mind. We do not want it to be something that requires effort or concentration. We want God to be accepting and nonjudgmental.”
This is not what God calls us to be and to do. We are not to be served, but to serve God and others. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Our culture says “God is Love - He won’t send anyone to Hell”:
“Love is the only attribute of God we can come close to understanding. We don’t really comprehend eternality, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. But we think we understand love, our love and God’s love”. (But the author says our assumptions are wrong.) “We are beginning not with who God has revealed Himself to be, but with our intuitions as to who we think He is. We are making projections from ourselves. God’s kind of love comes from above not from below. It is the opposite of what we assume. It is contrary to the way our culture inclines us to think. In fact, it goes against our deepest instincts. God’s love descends to us. It is generated purely by Him to us. There is nothing we can do to make God love us, to send His Son, the Holy Spirit, or to come down to us and bring us back to Him.”
We cannot know God’s love except in its union with what is Holy. Over the years, I have talked to many people who always want to talk about God’s love. I understand God is love but I always have to respond “but God is also Holy”. Mr. Wells says Holy-Love is in God’s character and cannot be separated. For us to dwell on the Love of God and totally ignore His Holiness is to worship something other that the true nature of God. While the narrow focus on Love may be a cultural response to “legalism” it swings the pendulum to far in the other direction. “We cannot know God’s love except in its union with what is Holy.” “God, therefore, stands before us not as our therapist, concierge, or genie in a bottle. He stands before us as the God of utter purity to whom we are morally accountable.”
David Wells has done an excellent job of explaining where, how and why we have gotten off track and he shows how we are to return to true Christianity. I have tried to give just a little taste of what you will find in his book. However, I have not even shown you the tip of the iceberg. Please read this book for yourself and you will see what I mean. I recommend the book highly and wish that every Christian would put it at the top of their “to be read” list.
I was provided a free copy of this book for review from Crossway Publishing. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.
Reviewed by: Barbara Wright
He comments concerning the various volumes he's authored over the past 25 years: "I began what would turn out to be five interconnected volumes. These we all in answer to the question originally posed by Pew: What is it that accounts for the loss of the church's theological character?...These volumes were a sustained cultural analysis" (13).
And he introduces the current volume by stating: "What has been principally lost in the evangelical church...is our understanding of God's character but an understanding in which that character has `weight.' ...And now, in this volume, I have shifted my focus. No longer am I so preoccupied with the culture part of the equation. Now I am looking out on life from the other side of things, what is symbolized by `Christ' in the Christ-and-culture juxtaposition of things. This volume reflects on what we have so often lost in our work of framing Christ-and-culture. It is the holy-love of God" (14).
We must be sure to catch his intent; otherwise we will judge the book inaccurately. Wells wants to address the Christ-and-Culture debate by discussing the holy-love of God. His application and conclusion explain that by the redeemed persons of the Church portraying the holy-love of God the `culture war' will fall in favor of Christ. It is interesting to note what is absent from his conclusion. The Christ-and-Culture debate is not a debate between Christians and Atheists, but Christians among Christians: how are we as the covenant people of Yahweh to relate to the surrounding culture? The argument that Wells offers (both implicitly and explicitly) is that we are to be within culture as sanctified (holy-love conformed) individuals and that people will recognize Christ as a result. However, in order for this to be true within culture, we must spend a great deal of time apart from culture--the greater part of chapter 7 is dedicated to "carving out" time for spiritual disciplines. So Wells wants to influence the Christ-and-Culture discussion in a rather unconventional way. Does it work? That awaits to be seen among the lives of those who take his words to heart.
But how does Wells get from thesis to conclusion? Does he argue well? Is he convincing? Clear? Unfortunately not as much as we would hope.
There has been mass amounts of press surrounding this release, even heralded as his magnum opus--his hearts' work and gift to the evangelical world. James Smith shadowed the glory early on in CT's pre-release review of the book, but Crossway released a follow-up interview with Wells to address Smith's concerns; The Gospel Coalition has done similarly highlighting the release of the book with praise. Crossway has continued to release interviews, videos, and a study guide alongside the book. Many well-respected evangelical leaders have endorsed the book. I mention all of this because it isn't easy to say that God in the Whirlwind is rather unconvincing and commonly confusing in its discourse; I acknowledge that I am at odds with a great deal of evangelical leaders--at least ones that have voiced opinions about the book.
I do want to say one thing, however, before I mention my problems with his discourse:
Wells passionately loves Jesus, and that truth redounds through every chapter of the book. You simply cannot miss his adoration for our Savior; it is convicting and encouraging through and through to feel the love through printed words.
I plan to explain my reservations and then offer a final commendation (if you would only read a portion, read reservation 3).
Reservation 1: Wells' Christian-cultural corrective is often over-corrective
This is a time-bound book as all cultural engagements are necessarily. This book would be near senseless in many other areas of the world because Wells is engaging the Western world, and more specifically the United States. What's more this book will not be nearly as pertinent twenty years from now as it is today. That's not bad, however, that's actually good! It means Wells has hit something of today. However, I fear that many of his assertions and corrections of the attitude today are over-corrective. Sometimes things are simply too strongly worded, reaching for an emotive effect, but stretching the truth beyond its equilibrium. And at times his overstatement actually usurps his own argument.
For example on pages 30 and 31, he warns of culture's redefining efforts and how concerned we ought to be, but then he compares it to the Marxists attempt which "now lies in ruins," and states, "One suspects, though, that the outcome will not be very different." Ought we to even fear such redefinitions if they will lie in rubble ten years from now? A common refrain throughout is that God is "objective." In several places he further explains that we cannot know God through ourselves that he must be known outside and external and apart from us only. Truly, God is external, but we were also created in the image of God and can know God in part by an internal viewpoint. Our culture today is too self-focused, but that doesn't mean an external look is the only valid option. On page 34, he states that our world "today is deeply, relentlessly, and only therapeutic." But it is a bold and unsupported claim. Perhaps much of the culture is, but by stacking the adjectives together, he leaves no room for any anomaly. That is a dangerous place to stand. On page 147 he engages in syntactic overload: depending on an ambiguous grammatical construction for his argument. Chapter 8 laments the current state of evangelicalism with strong sympathetic tones to the point of despair, but on the final page (217) he says, "There is a way back. We can come back to what we ought to be and to what we ought to be doing. And that is what I perceive is beginning to happen today."
Reservation 2: Wells' is occasionally imprecise, unclear, or unsupported
At times Wells is philosophically, historically, or otherwise inaccurate. On page 27 he collapses modernity and postmodernity, but they are quite different. It is uncertain whether he is using "objective" as meaning `pertaining to an object' or as `absolute.' He states that if John had written I John 4.10 today it "would have been completed quite differently" (33). But that statement overlooks the Holy Spirit's work--assumed, of course, but it doesn't mean the statement is precise. He claims that the apostles were perplexed: "as if David had a deeper and truer knowledge of God without the gospel than we sometimes have with it" (43). I've never read that in Scripture. Were "the works of the law" a reference to "matters that were distinctive to Jewish national identity" (46)? Perhaps, but his exposition on page 46 and 47 contains too few and unrelated verses to convince me. He commonly draws on judicial language for justification, but he forgets that judicial language in the ancient near east was magisterial, not judicial in a three-branch sense. Similarly, legislative language is cultic-legal, not legal alone. The chapter "The Gospel across Time" seems to promise a phenomenological look at the development of the gospel, but ends up actually taking an eternal perspective and leaning upon New Testament Scripture to interpret the Old... though in a dynamic time-bound way! This systematic theology where biblical theology is required causes self-refuting claims such as Abraham first not participating in sacrifices, but also--yes--participating in sacrifices; all believers being regenerate, justified, etc., but not being united to Christ, and yet that these realities are not possible without Christ having actually entered time. Chapter 4 explains that we cannot know God from down up but he must be known from up down which sounds like a question of epistemology, but which Wells turns into a question of justification. Some statements are explicitly contradictory--in word if not in thought: "There are not two sides to it" (86, paragraph 1), and "Indeed, we see this two-sidedness in the very passage..." (86, paragraph 2!). the discussion on imputation is clouded and unhelpful (142, 143). Page 145 uses "incomprehensible" incorrectly when the word used should have been `unapprehendable.' He confuses means for ends in his discussion on reconciliation (147). He first states that redemption should be taken as slave language rather than war language only to later say that we should take it as war language over slave language (148). On page 192 he exposits John 17.11 by `worship,' but his claims simply are not found in his base verse. On page 204 he criticizes Saturday evening services forgetting that Israel measured days by sundown not hours/sunrise.
Reservation 3: Well's is predisposed to the number two (2) even when it is wise to consider others
Unfortunately Wells often espouses false dichotomies. He is prone to play off the number two: two sides to a coin, etc. But many times there are three or more possibilities. The most problematic is foundational to his argument throughout the book. He frequently foils a "therapeutic" worldview over against a "moral" one, attaching Christian faith and the Bible to the "moral" one. However, that is extremely unhelpful for those of us engaging the public square and the lives of individuals. A moral worldview is not exclusively Christian, and in fact, the Christian worldview is not primarily moral. The "war" between Christ and culture, the marketplace of ideas, is not simply a fight between Christian faith and atheists. It is full of Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslim persons, agnostics, wiccans, Buddhists, and others. Is there a psychological-therapeutic worldview? Absolutely, but it is not the only other one. Mormons have a moral worldview. Moralistic-legalism in fact... some might argue a more strict moral view than Christians. Muslim's as well. Wiccans, Taoists, and Yin-Yang have a positive-negative correspondence as worldview. The biblical worldview is certainly moral in part, but not anywhere near in whole. The biblical worldview is three-tiered in relationship, sovereignty, and character as we image forth the God who has entered into covenant with us. "Morality" is a subsection of character. By no means is it the whole story. Yes, we ought to live forth in holy-love as a moral expression of the God whom we serve, but that is a drastically small point to consider. Returning, therefore, to the thesis: it is good for us to consider how we might live as holy-love conformed individuals in the midst of culture, but the question as a whole is far from answered.
All reservations explained, I commend this book to a very particular audience. This book would be best suited in the hands of a recent high-school graduate as they begin to enter college/university. An understanding of holy-love is certainly missing from the minds of evangelicals, and we would do well to remember it--particularly those who have grown up in an Oprah-saturated world. This book would serve well the young minds who are soon to encounter persons who believe that love is only emotional and that holiness is dead and unappealing. I choose this group for a second reason: they are unlikely to pick up on the reservations I have--most have not read enough sustained argument to recognize when something is unsupported, and the main point of the book issues through and will be remembered far beyond the minute problems.
I give it 5/10, but rounds down to 2/5
This book compares with others that you might be interested in with particular foci
Christ-and-Culture: Leslie Newbigin or James K.A. Smith
Character/love of God: Knowing God, Packer
Relation of love-holiness: God the Peacemaker, Graham Cole
This review is crosslisted on ejboston.blogspot.com and Goodreads.com
However, I still want to commend this book to those searching for an intellectually robust discussion of God’s love and holiness. For me, this was not an easy read, but it still had its rewarding moments. For example: Wells’ summarization of the “new perspective” on Paul was itself worth the price of the book.
P.S. For a more detailed look at the arguments of the book, check out the reviews written by James K. A. Smith (Christianity Today) and Kevin DeYoung (The Gospel Coalition).
As Wells puts it, this book is a journey into the understanding of the character of God. In order to arrive, Wells develop the concept of God's holy-love which is the destination.
Through the book it is shown the way our culture has defined our life and our understanding of who God is and the way he acts. God's holiness and love are described in order have a better understanding, not just about the plain meaning of these two interconnected words but also described from a biblical perspective contrasting with the understanding that comes from our experience.
Like I said when I started reading I just couldn't get after a few pages. The reason is that the first chapters are dedicated to build the foundations of the whole idea behind this book. After some chapters I started to highlight something almost in every page. Wells knows how to put into words what many of us feel as christians about the negative impact of the culture in our lives and in the church.
What I liked about God in the Whirlwind is that it's not only a book full of theory but also a book full of applications for our daily life in and out the church.
Any book that puts Jesus in the center of everything becomes a favorite one to me and this is no exception. I recommend this book specially to young adults that have let culture, even church culture to influence negatively in their perspective about the true nature and character of God.
I received this e-book for free from Crossway for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.