Donald T. Williams. Ninety-Five Theses for a New Reformation: A Road Map for Post-Evangelical Christianity. Toccoa Falls, GA: Semper Reformanda Publications, 2021. 485 pp.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, suggesting ways in which the Catholic Church needed reform. Over 500 years later, Donald Williams has written a work to call the evangelical church to a similar kind of reform. Williams is very clear about his purpose; this is not a call to abandon the Evangelical church. Rather, “I want to confirm [the Reformation’s] work, not abandon it — and I want to continue it, not just repeat it” (25). The Reformation was necessary and good. It brought the church a long way, but the church has drifted from many of the critical arguments Luther championed. Therefore, Williams’ work is a call to remember who we are, what we believe, and why it matters.
Williams has organized his ninety-five theses in nineteen groups of five. For example, the first group of five discusses the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In these five individual theses, Williams explores different kinds of authority and what we mean when we claim to follow Scripture alone. He argues, “We can say that Scripture is alone at the top of a hierarchy of authority. It is alone in the position of having authority that trumps every other authority whenever they come into conflict” (32). Williams does not mean that the Christian should reject reason because the Bible does not explicitly explain the law of non-contradiction. The Christian should not reject all scientific knowledge because the Bible does not include chemical formulas and details on subatomic particles. This kind of structure forms each of these nineteen groups. In a move reminiscent of Aquinas, Williams explains a doctrinal position of the church and then uses the balance of each chapter to address potential challenges that might arise. His organizational technique is well-suited to a project of this nature because if readers are trying to focus on a specific question, they can turn to the appropriate section and get specific insights on their topic of interest.
As another example from a later chapter that might be of particular interest to readers of this Journal, Williams discusses the Christian mind. He bluntly calls anti-intellectualism a “heresy” (315). He writes, “A fully biblical view of the mind would therefore see the Scriptural view of its fall and corruption as tempering the Scriptural view of its grandeur rather than merely replacing it. The mind was corrupted, like every other aspect of our nature — not destroyed. It needs to be redeemed, not discarded” (317). Following his introductory thesis, he discusses how Christians must, by Biblical mandate, study and be lifelong learners. In the fifth thesis of this section, he suggests some practical ways for Christians to cultivate the intellect. The first thesis lays out the claim, and the remaining either support the argument further or refute challenges to his position.
There will be those who read this book and consider Williams to be overly critical. While his tone is charitable and gracious, this book will cause Evangelical leaders and laypeople to seriously consider what they mean when they say that they are Christians. Williams says nothing in this work outside of the boundaries of historic Christianity; he provides a great deal of Biblical support for all of his arguments. Beyond that, when he discusses something that is perhaps more controversial, like what he terms “Worship Wars,” he acknowledges differences in opinion in those areas. In terms of content and tone, this book should not generate much controversy.
The challenge that some readers will face from Williams is that, at least from this reviewer’s perspective, his critiques strike at some widespread practices in the church today. Readers will recognize themselves and their churches at times in these pages. That will naturally be uncomfortable for many. For instance, Williams devotes an entire chapter to hermeneutics, and his first point is that context matters and discusses eight different kinds of context. However, his next point reminds the reader that the author’s intended meaning is more important than the reader’s interpretation. He quotes what he considers the golden rule of hermeneutics, “If you want your readers to care about what you actually are trying to say to them (and you do, or else you would have no reason to write), then you have to extend the same courtesy to other authors, living or dead” (136). While true, this claim strikes at the heart of many of our postmodern cultural assumptions. Objective meaning does not matter, and our individual opinions take the prime position. These kinds of countercultural claims are also running rampant in churches and pulpits. Therefore, when I suggest that this work will make readers uncomfortable, it stems from sections like this. It exposes practices that are so common in culture and churches that many might recognize themselves as at odds with these theses.
However, this discomfort is part of what Williams is trying to create; it is part of what Luther tried to create. In order to awaken a sleeping church, someone needs to sound the alarm and be the wake-up call. Near the end of his book, Williams writes that the Reformation phrase semper reformata “is a recognition that as a body whose membership on earth is made up entirely of sinners, the church always contains the seeds of its own destruction, seeds which will germinate the very moment it forgets its entire dependence on God’s Gospel for its existence, God’s Son as its Head, God’s Word for its direction, God’s Spirit for its power, and God’s grace for its health” (385). Unless the church is always involved in self-reflection, it will deviate from its historical roots and spiral towards death. This is nothing new; it is not unique to our twenty-first century “post evangelical” era. Nevertheless, it is present in our time, and readers would do well to heed Williams’s warnings in this book. Even for those in a position of spiritual health, it will remind the reader why central doctrines of the church exist, are so essential, and need to be defended.
Zachary D. Schmoll (PhD in Humanities, Faulkner University) is an adjunct faculty member at Houston Christian University and Southeastern University. He is the author of Disability and the Problem of Evil (Public Philosophy Press, 2020) and was the Founding Editor of An Unexpected Journal. When he is not reading or writing, you can find Zachary playing power soccer, a four on four sport played by power wheelchair users on a basketball court with an oversized soccer ball.