David Wells: TEDS Alumnus of the Year
newsroomadminJuly 14, 2014
In God’s providence, this year’s Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Alumnus of the Year receives his recognition in the midst of another celebration.
The 2013–14 academic year marks the fiftieth year of the beginning of the transformation from a small, denominational seminary into a large, internationally recognized evangelical theological institution. It was during the early years of this time that our recipient both graduated from (1967) and taught at Trinity (1969–78).
Born in 1939 in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Dr. David F. Wells spent most of his childhood running around the bush and playing rugby. The second of two children, David’s father, Archie, served as a district commissioner and also sat on the High Court there (the equivalent of a governor and Supreme Court judge in the States), while his mother, Jessica, managed their house situated in the vast grassy woodlands of southern Africa.
“There was no civilization there,” Wells says. “My mother sometimes helped in my dad’s office, but there were no businesses or anything like that around. We were really out in the bush and, in fact, never had electricity or indoor plumbing. Cooking was done on a wood stove.”
In 1957, after graduating from boarding school, David went off to university in Cape Town, training to become an architect. It was there, as a radical student flirting with Marxist thought, that he found himself confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In those days, many universities would put on a “mission” and invite a “commissioner” to make a case for Christianity, during the course of which the speaker would deal with the various pressing questions of the day. On this particular occasion, John Stott was the mission’s representative, and it was through his preaching and teaching that God called David Wells to follow him. Almost immediately, Wells recalls, his vocational desires shifted toward the ministry, particularly toward missionary work.
This desire prompted David’s move to the United Kingdom in order to pursue a bachelor of divinity (today’s master of divinity) at the University of London. Shortly after his arrival in the city, David sought out the man whom God had used to change his life’s direction, and Stott promptly invited him to stay with him in the rectory of All Souls Church during the course of his studies. This mentoring relationship, which deeply affected Wells throughout his life, is what also led David to Trinity.
After being ordained in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference and finishing his divinity degree at the University of London in 1968, David and his American wife, Jane (they married in 1965, having met at Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri), moved to Chicagoland to attend Trinity, per Stott’s recommendation. By this time, Wells’ desire to serve as a missionary abroad had been supplanted by a desire to serve the church through academia. David often found himself at the top of his class at the University of London (competing regularly with his classmate and longtime friend Os Guinness), and so he discovered his giftedness in doing theology. At Trinity in 1966–67, David fondly recalls the faculty being “really extraordinary,” from whom he received a “terrific education.” While focusing on church history in his master of theology program, Wells spent the majority of time working on John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.
From Trinity, Wells went on to Manchester University in England, where he completed the requirements for a PhD in an astonishing three years. While at Manchester, David received an unexpected call inviting him to teach at TEDS.
“I never thought that I would get invited back to Trinity,” Wells says. “But it was a welcomed surprise.”
Just a few years before the second round of Kenneth Kantzer’s hand-picked team came on to teach at TEDS in the early 1970s, Kantzer, with John Warwick Montgomery’s blessing (then head of the church history department), asked Wells to teach in 1969 (first as professor of church history, then as chair of the church history department, then finally as chair of the systematic theology department in 1977). In so doing, David joined the ranks of those who, with Kantzer, Arnold T. Olson, H. Wilbert Norton, and Harry Evans, dreamt of and put into the practice the great experiment that would become Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Wells resonated deeply with that vision of an academically superior graduate seminary that was unswervingly faithful to orthodox Christianity, where gospel-centered instruction was at the heart of the curriculum, where godly and well-trained professors formed students to be faithful preachers and committed to the evangelistic mission of the church. It was a broad ecumenical vision, in line with the central convictions and priorities of historic Christianity, as found in the Bible, the early creeds, and the doctrinal confessions of the Protestant Reformation.
“Both as a student and especially as a faculty member, there was a deep sense of exuberance about a Trinity education,” Wells recalls. “It was attempting to accomplish something that had not been tried previously, at least among evangelical free churches.”
“And there was no guarantee that this experiment in service to the evangelical church at large would endure.”
This broad ecumenical vision—service to the global evangelical church that cut across denominational lines—has perhaps influenced David’s work more deeply than anything else. His academic career, which spanned nearly a decade at Trinity before he went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1979, has seen a commitment to institutions that exist to advance the kingdom of God across the world, regardless of denominational affiliation. His writing career, in which he has authored more than twenty books and co-authored or edited many more, embodies this same spirit.
Fewer names are more closely associated with incisive and critical analyses of the intersection of evangelical Christianity and culture than David F. Wells. Yet, he does not consider himself primarily a critic of evangelicalism.
“I see myself primarily as a proponent of reformational Protestantism,” Wells says. “I see a waning and a denying of the very elements that have always been important to evangelicals.”
And so we see the impetus for the trajectory David’s writings have taken. With the publication of No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? in 1993, Wells sparked a coalition of like-minded reformational Protestants to face the challenge of the evangelical church in America—the abandonment of its historical and theological roots for the pragmatic naturalism of the world.
That coalition generated a conference and eventual declaration of faith—the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (1994) and the Cambridge Declaration (1996). From No Place for Truth, Wells went on to publish in this “series” God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1995); Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998); Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2005); and, finally, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (2008). All of these served to critique the evangelical landscape, with the express purpose of calling his beloved church to return to the historic faith of classical evangelicalism—one marked by doctrinal seriousness, as opposed to the new movements of the marketing church.
But this was not to be his last word on the subject. Just this year, Wells put the capstone on his long-running critical call to action with the publication of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Jan. 2014). To his mind, this book is his most important work to date.
“God in the Whirlwind was in a way a response to the critics that criticized me for never offering a solution,” David says.
At first, Wells was seeking to answer the question, why is the theological character of the church disappearing? No Place for Truth was his answer. But more work was to be done. How has the culture shaped our horizons? The other books mentioned above continued to unpack his answers to that question. But with God in the Whirlwind, “the hardest book I have ever written,” Wells sought to provide some sort of way forward from the potential analysis-paralysis.
When focusing only on the analytical, you may feel like you are mastering the subject, and thus you can keep your distance from it. “But when you’re writing on the greatness of God and his character—the more you think about and formulate it—the more you realize there are depths you will never plumb,” says Wells. “I found myself always standing before God as a pauper.”
What is more, a renewed vision of God’s character is the “cure for the shallow theology we find at times in evangelicalism, with its weightless God and sentimental gospel,” Wells says. “The way forward is for evangelicals to recapture a God-centered, God-fearing, and God-honoring life of the church,” he explains. “Nothing else gives better shape to the Christian life than the holy love of God.”
Today, David serves as distinguished senior research professor at Gordon-Conwell since 2008, after serving as the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology for seventeen years prior to that. In addition to teaching and writing, Dr. Wells has served on the boards of several international ministries, including The Rafiki Foundation, an organization that establishes orphanages and schools in Africa, with the express purpose of helping Africans know God and raise their standard of living. For a number of years, he was a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, its theology working group and its planning committee for the World Congress that was held in Manila in 1989. He has also worked to provide theological education and basic preaching tools for pastors in developing countries for some time.
With more than fifty years in service to Christ and his church, Dr. David F. Wells was selected for the TEDS Alumnus of the Year award because he by God’s grace embodies the core values of Trinity International University: Christ-centeredness, Comprehensive Education, Community, Church Connectedness, and Cultural Engagement.