On My Shelf: Life and Books with David Wells

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with David Wells (b. 1939), prolific author and research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. In this interview we learn what books have profoundly shaped him, what he’s learning about life and following Jesus, his calling as a teacher and writer, and more.

What’s on your nightstand? 

My nightstand has light reading on it. My day job sometimes takes me into complex stuff so I prefer something not too heavy at night. Right now, I have David McCullough’s account of the Revolutionary War, 1776. I had read this earlier along with his biography of John Adams. But it’s such a compelling narrative I thought it worth a re-read.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel? 

The gospel is the message of salvation and, as such, it’s the place where our understanding of God, sin, grace, and Christ all come into tight focus. On those subjects I drank deeply from Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics. This is a selection of the best in Reformed thinking from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It put me in touch with the deepest thought in the life of the church.

I love the Princetonians, especially Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, and some of B. B. Warfield’s writings.

J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, at a popular level, is on this same list.

What books have most helped you teach others about Jesus? 

I first heard John Stott (1921–2011) when he visited the University of Cape Town on a gospel mission. At the time, I was a rebellious student who knew nothing about Christian faith. I was converted soon thereafter, and immediately read Basic Christianity, which solidified my understanding.

Two years later I moved to London and, as it turned out, was able to live with Stott in the All Souls Church rectory. What made such a deep impression on me was seeing the seamless connection between the biblical truth he preached and wrote about, and the way it was worked out in the practical setting of a church. Many other books followed, of course. Later came his The Cross of Christ and then his commentary on Romans, which is the most lucid exposition of Romans available. These books all have the ring of authenticity and they have shaped the way I see things.

What have you found most satisfying in teaching over 40 years?

Teaching has never been a chore for me, as it is sometimes for others who also like to write. And to think I’ve actually have been paid to do something I’ve enjoyed so much! But I think the deepest satisfaction has come later, maybe many years later: it’s when I’ve met up with former students. Some are now pastors, some missionaries, some scholars, and others have gone into various walks of life. Some who weren’t always standouts in the classroom have ended up as standouts in life. When I see what they’re doing I marvel to think that I had the privilege, for a brief time, of providing some small input into their lives.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why? 

The autobiography I still remember, though I read it many years ago, is Malcolm Muggeridge’s Chronicles of Wasted Time. It’s not an autobiography in a conventional sense. It’s his account, as both a journalist and an intellectual, of some of the great developments of the last century he witnessed or was involved in. But now he looks back on these—the rise of Joseph Stalin and the Communist world, British socialism, and the literary world—from a Christian perspective. The two volumes he was able to complete are filled with pungent, searing insights. Only dead fish, he once said, float with the river’s current. In these volumes, he swims against the current. They connected with me because I was trying to think about the time in which I was living—the modernized West—just as Muggeridge had about the time he’d lived through. His language is not that of the theologian, but his issue is that of Christ and culture as seen from within the prism of his life experience.

I also remember first reading Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand. I read it at a time when I was finding my own place in the theological world as a young student. Luther’s story inspired me and led me to read Luther himself. This I did with great profit.

What are your favorite fiction books? 

Aleksandr Solhenitsyn’s One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich is my favorite. Its simplicity and extraordinary humanity shines through despite the Stalinist brutality that is its context.

Near the top of the list is Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which is striking, brooding, and memorable. It was written in the 19th century during a turbulent time that has some similarities to our own.

I also admired John Updike’s skill in the five books he wrote on his character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. These began with Rabbit, Run. Updike takes us on a journey into the soul of an ordinary man living an ordinary American life. He writes with unusual psychological insight into the anxiety and turmoil that churn within this man as he moves through life.

You’ve written a number of books detailing the decline of the evangelical church. Looking at the evangelical landscape today, are you encouraged? 

We’re now at the end of the post-WWII boom in believing, institution-making, and book-writing. It’s not clear to me what happens next. But I’m encouraged by the yearning I see for a deeper kind of faith—less trendy, less indebted to pop culture, more Reformational, more seriously biblical, and more theological. I do see signs of this and I’m encouraged.

What are you currently researching and writing?

I’m about to start work on a revision of The Courage to Be Protestant. Actually, I’m thinking it will be substantial enough to make the next edition more like a sequel. On the first go around, I spent quite a bit of time on the emergents and the church marketers. The emergents have now dissipated, as I predicted they would, and the marketers have morphed into the “attractional church.”

At the same time, our culture has become markedly less accommodating to Christian convictions. Indeed, Christianity is increasingly leaving the West, now flourishing in many parts of Africa, South America, and some parts of Asia. What, then, is our future here in the States? These are some of the changes I want to ponder as we think afresh about the significance of the Protestant Reformation on the eve of its 500th anniversary.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I’ve been learning what it means to say with Paul, “I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). This call comes at the beginning of our walk with Christ and lasts to the end. We are, in fact, in life’s long marathon. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon that takes us up hills and down, through heat and cold, over rough surfaces and smooth. It takes us through all the seasons of life from the beginning of spring into deep winter. Always and everywhere, when we are young and old, when things are easy or harsh, there’s that upward call of God that has to be heard and must be answered. This is the constant amid all of life’s changing circumstances and within all the changes that getting old brings. This call cannot be silenced. It’s always there until, like Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we see that great river in front of us, plunge into it, and find ourselves on the shores of eternity.

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