We recently asked David Wells, author of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Jan. 2014), a few questions about what he hopes to accomplish with his new book and why he thinks a renewed appreciation for God's "holy-love" is important for evangelicalism.
How does God in the Whirlwind contribute to the work you’ve already done in No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, and The Courage to Be Protestant?
Christianity Today has dismissed this new book as being a mere retread of these prior works with lots of hurrumphing, they say, along the way! Oh, dear. I am sorry that they were unable to see that this book is actually quite different from what I have written in the past. It is true that my understanding of modernized culture remains substantially the same as before. In this book, though, I have focused most of my attention, not on the culture, but on developing a biblical understanding of the character of God. This is something I have not done before and some of my critics have said that while I have exposed the problems in the church, I have not given the answers. Well, the answers are all tied up in knowing God and obeying him. This book is really a biblical theology of God’s holy-love showing how that holiness and that love are progressively revealed through the O.T., are embodied in Christ, and come together in the cross that God’s love provided and that his holiness required. This is what grounds and defines our sanctification, worship, and service in the world.
In the introduction, you write that the primary thing that evangelical theology lacks is an understanding of God’s character that carries “weight.” What do you mean by this?
What gives weight to God in our lives is two things. First, he has to be enthroned in the center and not merely circling on the periphery. Second, the God who is enthroned must be the God who has revealed himself in Scripture. This God is not simply the supplier of everything we want, our concierge, and our therapist dispensing comfort as we feel the need for it. He is the God of burning purity as well as of burning love. That God, as he rules our own private universe, will wrench around what happens in that universe to conform us to who he is in his character. The “god” who is there only for our needs as we define them will be a “god” who is light and skinny.
You’ve coined the term “holy-love” as a way to refer to the essential union of God’s holiness and love. You write, “Today, our constant temptation, aided and abetted as it is by our culture, is to shatter the hyphen.” How does this happen and why is it dangerous?
We have to hold God’s holiness and his love together in our understanding because that is how he is! His holiness and his love are never incompatible with each other. Just the reverse. Let’s think about it this way. His holiness is his utter moral purity. If it did not include his love, then that holiness would be far less than what we know God's holiness to be. Without his love, his holiness would be emptied of what is essential to being holy. In fact, his love is his holiness in action. That is why his love always seeks what is right and what is morally pure. It is never indifferent to what is wrong in life. At the same time, God’s holiness is essentially redemptive in nature, just like his love.
But this hybrid, this holy-love, is hard for us to practice consistently in our own lives. We tend to fall to the one side or the other—holiness without love or love without holiness. Legalists err by focusing on the demands of God’s holiness and then lose sight of his love. The result is a hard, unattractive moralism. Antinomians err on the side of his love and lose sight of his holiness. The worst form of this was the old Protestant liberals who were so taken with God's love and its inclusiveness that they jettisoned his holiness. So, Christian faith was emptied out of any atonement because God was no longer seen as wrathful in response to sin. Neither legalism nor antinomianism are good—though for entirely different reasons. The truth is that God’s holiness, as expressed in the law, gives us the moral norms for life, and God’s love fills us with the desire so to live and thus to please him. Love in the service of what is true and right is a beautiful thing!
How should Christians answer the charge that we are intolerant and exclusive in our thinking about God and salvation?
There is no way to soften the truth that Christ is the only incarnate Son of God, uniquely the way to God, and the only source of saving grace. But why would anyone who belongs to Christ want to soften this? The uniqueness of Christ is, in fact, what makes the Christian faith so glorious. What can be tempered, though, is the way that we relate to people as we tell them this gospel. I am quite certain that if unbelievers saw in us more authenticity, more of the character of Christ, more of the spirit of service, their hostility to Christian faith would subside quite a bit.
You argue that our thinking is fundamentally flawed if we seek to understand God’s love through the lens of our own experiences related to loving and being loved. Why is that? Doesn’t such a claim negate the importance of the imago Dei?
There is nothing wrong and, indeed, everything right with loving and being loved! By creation, we have been made social beings for whom giving and receiving love is at the heart of our families and relationships.
But here is the problem. Our need for a relationship with God is often understood in therapeutic ways. We need answers to our sense of emptiness, to the bruises life gives us, and to disappointments. The answers we really want are for God to make those things go away and to restore us to full happiness, fulfillment, and wholeness. God, no doubt, is gracious to us in the midst of our pressure-filled lives, with their fast pace and debilitating anxiety. But what we are thinking about as his love may be very different from what it really is. We are often looking only for therapy, for comfort. God, though, is about building our character. He loves us, but his love goes hand-in-hand with his holiness. That is why he is more interested in our character than in our comfort! So, God’s love may be very different from what we are thinking we want and very different from how God relates to us in grace!
What is the biggest challenge the evangelical church will face in the next 50 years?
The evangelical church is in different situations in different parts of the world. Since I have traveled to Africa a lot, I can tell you that while Christianity is spreading rapidly, there is a deep need now for that faith to be instructed in the truth of God’s Word. In some places, Bibles are scarce. In almost all places, educational materials are non-existent, and often pastors have had no opportunity to receive training.
But here in the U.S., we have Bibles, theological education, literature, a surfeit of education, organizations, and churches. What is astonishing today is that despite this surfeit, there is a growing literature pointing out the obvious: the church seems to be losing ground and people more and more seem to be losing interest. I think of Julia Duin’s quick, journalistic trip around the religious world called Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What To Do About It or Eddie Gibbs new book which begins at the same point, The Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World. In my view, the greatest challenge that stands before us is that Christian faith, for too many, has lost its reality. It is no longer on the same moral and spiritual scale as the world around us but has become a much smaller and more comfortable thing than it actually is. It has been domesticated in ways that are really very injurious to its nature.
I am, however, greatly heartened by the fact that more and more people are understanding this. There is a younger generation that is arising that really wants the real thing. And we can be assured that, if we do want the real thing, God, in his grace, will ensure that we find it!
David F. Wells (PhD, University of Manchester) is the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In addition to serving as academic dean of its Charlotte campus, Wells has also been a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is involved in ministry in Africa. Wells has written numerous articles and books, including a series that was initiated by a Pew grant exploring the nature of Christian faith in the contemporary, modernized world. He is the author of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World.