David Wells is one of the most influential theologians you’ve never heard of, helping to spark the Reformed resurgence 30 years ago. But if you’d met him as a child—a non-Christian growing up in Africa during the days of British colonialism—you never would’ve guessed the moves God would lead him through.
In this bonus episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast, we bring you a special interview between TGC senior writer Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra and theologian David Wells.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Heather Calvillo: You’re listening to The Gospel Coalition Podcast, equipping the next generation of believers, pastors, and church leaders to shape life and ministry around the gospel. On today’s episode, we’re doing something a little different by bringing you a special interview. It’s between our senior writer at TGC, Sarah Zylstra, and David Wells, one of the most influential theologians you’ve never heard of. David’s story points to how God truly does direct each of our steps. After listening to their conversation, send us an email at [email protected] We’d love to hear your feedback and if you’d like to hear more interviews like this one. That’s [email protected] Now, here’s today’s episode with Sarah Zylstra and David Wells.
Sarah Zylstra: Hi there. This is Sarah Zylstra, senior writer for The Gospel Coalition. My job is to find and report on places where God’s spirit is at work in the world.
Sarah Zylstra: So I hear a lot of stories of Christians who are living sacrificial, joyful, kingdom advancing, God glorifying lives. I’m excited to share this one with you. David Wells is probably one of the most influential theologians you’ve never heard of. He’s spent most of his adult years, quietly teaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and writing a series of books. The first of them, No Place For Truth, was penned in the early 1990s and was a critique of the evangelical movement’s slide away from robust theology and into softer, more seeker-sensitive models. Wells’s warnings against the culture’s post-truth effect on the church turned out not just to be prescient, but also to set the stage for the resurgence of Calvinism. The book helped theologians such as James Montgomery Boice, Al Mohler, RC Sproul and J.I. Packer to form the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Many of them would later organize together for the gospel and The Gospel Coalition. Wells’s students included TGC board chair, Kevin DeYoung, and Capitol Hill Baptist Church Pastor Mark Dever.
Sarah Zylstra: But if you’d met David Wells as a child, that’s the last thing you would have predicted for his future. Wells grew up in Zimbabwe in the 1940s, back when the Sub-Saharan country was a British colony called Rhodesia. His grandmother had traveled there from Scotland, alone and embarrassingly divorced, years before. His mother was a secretary, his father a soldier who fought in the last successful sword charge of World War I. When his father became a judge and district commissioner, the family lived in the bush, as Wells says, which means their home had few neighbors, no street out front, no running water, and no electricity. Here’s Wells.
David Wells: My dad was legally trained. He administered law and, on a very minor scale, was like a governor of a state here. He took care of soil erosion. One of the things that he had to take care of was wild animals that were being problematic. Sometimes elephant will become very, very destructive. And also the crocodile in the rivers. There was one place where women were going down, they went down to the river to wash stuff, and these women were disappearing. And my dad shot a crocodile, a large one, and opened it up and there were 17 bracelets inside it. He had to take care of stuff like that too.
Sarah Zylstra: Wow. So it feels like the boldness of you leaving home was pretty bold, but it was also pretty bold to live at your home.
David Wells: Yes. You had to be very aware of your surroundings at all times and be able to protect yourself if needs be. I can still remember one place we lived, it was called Matoko. I used to sleep on a screened in porch, and behind us, there were hills. We called them koppies. It was an Afrikaans word. And in this koppy behind our house, there was a family of leopards. And I used to hear them just about every night. They were obviously in a pattern. They would come right by our house and by our screened in porch. And I’ll be honest, it really alarmed me because you have this vision of a leopard coming through the screen and getting-
Sarah Zylstra: Yeah, yeah. I can see why that would worry you. But you kept sleeping out there.
David Wells: I did.
Sarah Zylstra: The Wells family went into town about once a month for things they couldn’t produce themselves, like tea or sugar. The rest of the time, they lived off the land, shooting Guinea fowl, pheasant, duck, and small antelope for food. Early on, Wells learned how to handle himself around wild animals.
David Wells: My dad had to go to this very remote part of Zimbabwe on official government and we stayed in these little African huts on the edge, the bank of the Sabie River. And I thought I would just go out and see what I could see, and I did. And I didn’t realize that the lion were about. I did, when one roared very close to me. Lion usually roar at night and they’re warning each other because lion fights are usually fatal. So they’re telling each other, “Stay away. We’re here.” But when you are around a lion, as I was in that case, your instinct is just to run as fast as you can. But that’s the worst thing you can do because that excites their instincts to chase. So I stood stock still. I don’t know how I did it, but I did for a long time. I had a 22, which is not a very powerful rifle. It’s more like a pop gun against a lion. And I waited to see where he was or she was. It was very close, but I couldn’t see it. So eventually I crept back to the camp.
Sarah Zylstra: It’s easy to see God’s physical protection for twelve-year-old Wells in that story, and really throughout his childhood with its myriad opportunities for physical danger and minimal medical resources if you did get hurt. But if you asked the 81 year old Wells about moments he knows God was working in his life, he’ll direct you somewhere else.
David Wells: As I look back, I have been struck by the extraordinary providence of God, and in connection with two moves to two different countries, when I left Africa and ended up in England, and when I left England and ended up in the US. These were extraordinary things. When I was growing up, it was at the time when colonialism was just ending and there were freedom movements springing up in Africa. And these movements came ever closer to Rhodesia. They sort moved South.
David Wells: Almost the last time I saw my mother, which was after I’d left Zimbabwe, she picked me up at the airport in Bulawayo, where I live. And she reached into her purse and took out a revolver, put it into her lap. Then she reached under the car seat and took out another one, handed it to me. It was dusk, so it was dangerous. These when attacks. And she said, “I’ll take my side. You’ll take your side.” And that’s how we drove into Bulawayo because Rhodesia was under siege by gorillas. And of course, eventually in 1980, Mugabi came to power.
David Wells: So when I was growing up in Rhodesia during this time, there was no question that I would have to leave. My whole generation up and left. A lot of them went to Australia, a few to South Africa, and some like myself ended up in Britain. So this was on my mind when I went to the University of Cape Town to the architectural school there. I knew I would have to find another country. The question was which one?
Sarah Zylstra: Yeah.
David Wells: And it was at the University of Cape Town when John Stott was visiting as a missioner. And for the very first time in my life, I heard the gospel, and a couple of days later came to faith. And almost immediately, I sensed a call into ministry. It was almost simultaneous. So I then began to think, “Now, I’ve got to get a theological education.”
David Wells: So how was I going to do that? Well, I decided that probably the best thing to do was to go to Britain, to go to England. I went to London and there, I had written to John Stott beforehand. And he said, “Well, come and see me.” So I do. And he said, “Where are you living?” I said, “I’ve got nowhere to live in 10 days time.” So he said, “Well, come and live with me.”
David Wells: So I moved into the rectory as it was called, attached, to course, to All Souls Church. And lo and behold, next door was the Royal Institute of British Architects headquarters. So the day I moved into the rectory, I went next door. I needed a job. I had no money. I’d only left with the equivalent of about $400. So I was just about out. And there was a bulletin board with positions that were available. Firms were looking for help. I picked the one that I thought probably would work well for me, borrowed a telephone, had an interview the next day. And the next day I began to work as an architect in London. It was about a 10 minute walk from where I was living.
David Wells: And just a year later, I was still thinking that I need a theological education. I’m not here to work as an architect. I need a theological education. How was I going to pay for it? And someone mentioned to me there was some London County Council awards, and I thought I couldn’t apply for that. I’m an immigrant. I’ve just arrived. But I did. And the amazing thing was I was given not only an award, but the major award.
Sarah Zylstra: How did you pull that off? Did you write a really good essay or how’d they give that to you?
David Wells: I can’t explain it. I honestly can’t because that major award paid for my tuition and living expenses. So I started in at the University of London. So I look back on that whole thing. I had gone out almost like Abraham, not knowing where I was going, and the way it all came together was just remarkable. And to me, there is no other explanation than the sovereignty of God and his provision.
Sarah Zylstra: The whole thing is amazing. I’m amazed that you can just walk up to John Stotts office and knock on the door. That’s amazing.
David Wells: Yeah, it was. It really was. Yeah. The other one was the move to the US.
Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Yeah.
David Wells: I had a friend. His name was Ken Blackwell. He had a Lambretta scooter. You know these little things with small wheel? And we’d heard about Francis Schaeffer. And he said to me, “Well, look, why don’t we ride across Europe and go and visit Francis Schaeffer and check it out for ourselves?” So we set off on his Lambretta scooter, rather terrifying riding through Paris. Those French drivers are really pretty wild. It was the two of us were on it with our knapsacks and then-
Sarah Zylstra: Had to be kind of a long trip too. Wasn’t it? I mean, that’s not just across town.
David Wells: No, no, no, no. It was a couple of days. Three days as I recall.
Sarah Zylstra: Three days?
David Wells: Yeah. And then into the Swiss Alps where his scooter expired.
Sarah Zylstra: Oh no.
David Wells: So I set off walking. He went down the mountain back the other way. I started walking, not knowing where L’Abri was, when a bus pushed passed me and stopped. And the young woman got off and we were, it turned out, at L’Abri. The young woman’s name was Jane Bowman. And I noticed her. That was the beginning of the weekend. I talked to her a couple of times, just briefly, introduced, et cetera. She then during the week had to go back down to Lausanne where she was staying. She came up the following weekend and we spent a weekend talking and decided at the end that there was a future for us together. I nervously asked her if she would consider this. And she was very happy to do so.
David Wells: We were both heading off in different directions. She was going to Greece the next day, I was coming back to London, but we decided that perhaps what she ought to do is to come and visit a little bit. Her parents thought that was a very good idea since really it had been one and a half weekends. So she did, and she stayed for three weeks. And then at the end of that time, we formally announced that we were engaged. But I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had to do some more academic work for sure, if I was going to teach. So we did spend-
Sarah Zylstra: Did you always think teaching or were you … Lots of people would become a pastor after a theological education. Did you ever think I wanted to be a pastor?
David Wells: Well, I did do a little pastoring actually, but it was here in the US. I had originally thought that I wanted to be a missionary.
Sarah Zylstra: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I can see you doing that.
David Wells: But that changed when I was in the middle of my academic work. So I did a degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I then went back to Manchester, University of Manchester in England. And it was while I was towards the end of my doctorate, that I was recruited to come back and teach at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And the lovely thing about that was that, of course, Jane my wife was coming back to the US, which she was willing to go wherever I went. But she is an American and I was able to come here without any problem because I was married to an American. So I got my green card, and then not long afterwards, I became an American citizen. So I am actually an African American.
Sarah Zylstra: Oh, look at you.
David Wells: Yes. But how that all transpired, again, it was so evidently the providence of God and his provisions.
Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Yeah. What made you change from missionary to scholar?
David Wells: Well, in England in those days, when you did a course, all your grades, all the grades from the students in the class were put up publicly. So you knew exactly where you were, at the top or at the bottom. We wouldn’t do that today because it wouldn’t be good for self-esteem, et cetera. But I noticed that I was usually up at the top. Oz Guinness was usually there too. So there’s nothing that encourages you quite like a little success. And I began to think maybe I have an aptitude for this sort of work. So that’s eventually what happened.
Sarah Zylstra: Maybe if we put up those scores today, some students would be encouraged to …
David Wells: Sue.
Sarah Zylstra: Fair enough. Fair enough. That wouldn’t work out. But it did for you. Maybe that’s why God put you at that point in time.
Sarah Zylstra: Wells powered through three theology degrees, a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate in six years. He took a job teaching theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, then began teaching at Gordon Conwell Seminary in 1979. He was there when he wrote No Place For Truth, followed by four more books that essentially laid out a systematic theology for the modern age. My colleague, Matt Smethursth, read it recently.
Matt Smethurst: The new Calvinist movement, for all its foibles and fallen stars, is a direct answer to Wells’s prayer in No Place For Truth. Reading the book recently just made me so grateful to God on multiple fronts, grateful for the theocentric legacies of Sprole and Piper and Carson and others, for doctrinally serious seminaries, for the evangelical theological society, for reformed hip hop, for publishers like Crossway, for conferences like Together For The Gospel, and for ministries that serve churches like Desiring God and Nine Marks and The Gospel Coalition. So much good has been accomplished and so much ground taken since Wells wrote that book. And reading it in 2020 with the benefit of hindsight makes that crystal clear.
Sarah Zylstra: Wells eventually retired from teaching, but he didn’t stop writing about the gospel. He just switched audiences from Western theologians to African children. His friend Rosemary Jensen had started an organization called Rafiki, which cared for and educated orphans in 10 African countries. She asked him to edit a Bible study for them.
David Wells: And someone said, “Well, why don’t we do something like Bible Study Fellowship has done?” And Rosemary, who was the president and founder of Rafiki, said, “Yes, except we’re not going to do just a few books. We were going to do the whole Bible.” And I sort of inwardly gasped. I didn’t say anything because doing the whole Bible is quite an undertaking.
Sarah Zylstra: It is.
David Wells: So I did edit it. I edited it all. It’s all written from a reform perspective. And I did a number of books myself because it hadn’t worked out one way or another. And since this is Africa that we were thinking about and Christian materials are not abundant in many parts of Africa, we really tried to provide something substantive. For example, I did Romans and it comes to 150 pages. So it’s quite significant. Now you multiply that out over the whole Bible and you see this is quite a large undertaking.
Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Yeah.
David Wells: I think there was 17 or 18 of us who did it and we completed it in a decade or 12 years, something like that.
Sarah Zylstra: The Bible Study is currently being used by 400 study groups, both in Africa and in the United States.
David Wells: It’s just been a wonderful gift to me because I can go back and just do a little something for Africa.
Sarah Zylstra: Yeah. Yeah.
David Wells: And I’ve been very grateful for that.
Sarah Zylstra: When you kind of look back at your life as a whole, I guess when you think about what’s going to live, on what’s your legacy going to be, what are things that you think of when you look back on your time?
David Wells: Oh, Sarah, I don’t think about that at all. I think you just have to follow the Lord, and in the best possible way that you’re able, serve Him, depending on Him and on His grace, and let Him dispose of your efforts however He will. I’m not looking back and asking about legacy or any of those things. I am actually looking forward to the time when I’m with the Lord and all of the chaos and suffering and evil of this world has been finally judged.
Sarah Zylstra: If we look back, we can see the influence of David Wells has been pretty remarkable. Not many of us are going to write cultural critiques that helps spark a global movement toward the gospel, but the pattern he’s laid, of following God, one decision, one move at a time, is one we can all imitate.
David Wells: The way it all came together was just remarkable. And to me, there is no other explanation than the sovereignty of God and his provision.
Sarah Zylstra: And as we trust God with our daily decisions, when to hold still as a lion roars, when to get on a scooter, to cross Europe, which continent to land on after graduation, or more likely, whether to have another child, when to enroll in our next class, how to speak to our next customer, we can fix our eyes where David Wells fixes his, on the beauty and joy and peace we know is coming.
David Wells: That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Sarah Zylstra: Me too. Thanks for listening.