Posted on Monday, September 26, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As October looms, so does Reformation season.  And this year, of course, we stand on the threshold of the 500th anniversary of the posting by Luther of his Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences.  Next year will no doubt bring a bumper crop of Lutherana in its wake but in a series of posts over the coming weeks I want to make suggestions about books that anyone who wants to know more about the great Reformer should own right now, in order to understand what all the fuss will be about in 2017.

 

 

To be tired of Luther is to be tired of life.  And I am convinced that with Luther, the best way to learn about his theology is first of all to learn about his life.

 

 

The classic life, and the place for to start your Luther studies, is still Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand.  It was the book which first ignited my own interest in the Reformation, not simply for the clarity of the prose but also because Bainton (himself a somewhat radical figure) had an unerring ability to sympathize with the marginal and the outsider.  It is no coincidence that one of his other classic biographies was that of Michael Servetus.   Of all Luther's biographers, Bainton captures the fast-paced action of so much of the Luther story.

 

 

After Bainton, Martin E. Marty’s short biography, is also quite superb.  Marty is a scholar of real stature but he wears his learning lightly.  This book is an easy read and contains many anecdotes which reveal the humanity of Luther in all of its amusing ordinariness.

 

 

The gold standard for sheer detail is the biography by Martin Brecht, translated into English in a  very readable three-volume edition.  Do not be intimidated by the work's daunting size.  Luther’s life was full of excitement and drama and these massive volumes carry the reader along.  Brecht has read deep and wide in the Luther corpus and the great events of the Reformation are blended here with many anecdotes which reveal Luther the man.

 

 

Heiko A. Oberman is without doubt the most important Reformation scholar of the last one hundred years.  His work on the intellectual background of the Lutheran Reformation in late medieval nominalism fundamentally transformed our understanding of how Luther should be understood.  Indeed, Oberman, perhaps more than anyone else, made the compelling case for understanding Luther as a premodern figure, a man of the Middle Ages, and thus to be distinguished from almost every other Reformation leader.   His Luther: Man Between God and Devil is perhaps his most brilliant and most speculative book.  Blending insights from his own late medieval studies with some of the psychological insights of Erik Erikson, this is a work to be read for its mastery of the subject, its interdisciplinary brilliance, and its (sometimes implausible but always breathtakingly brilliant) conclusions.

 

 

Finally, two very recent biographies are worth reading.  Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer is a fine work of scholarship, the culmination of a lifetime of study and reflection on the subject.  Then there is distinguished historian Lyndal Roper’s excellent Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, which is already available in the UK but not scheduled for the US until March, 2017.  

 

 

Of these two, Roper’s perhaps has the edge.  A feminist, she is not naturally sympathetic to Luther but has produced a remarkably nuanced and insightful work.  What she does is present a Luther unaccommodated to modern sensibilities by pressing particularly on the issue of his eucharistic thought, a point which divides him decisively from strands of modern Protestantism which try to claim him as forebear.   This is both theologically and methodologically important.  Theologically, it presents the real Luther, the Luther who abominated Zwingli for his memorialism.  Methodologically, it requires that the modern reader face Luther as he really was and not make him the comfortable companion of contemporary American evangelicalism – a move that can be made far too simply when his gospel of justification is abstracted from the doctrinal matrix within which it must be understood.

 

 

So that should provide some ideas for how to approach Luther through his life.  Next week, I will offer some thoughts on where to start reading his voluminous theological writings.

Posted on Thursday, September 15, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As 2017, the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to that infamous door, looms, we can expect a deluge of Luther materials.  It is going to be the nearest thing to church history heaven on earth for those of us who love the Doc.

 

Almost first out of the blocks, it seems, is an excellent webpage and accompnaying materials co-sponsored by the Imperial Grand Black Chapter and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland: Luther 500.  The project is the brainchild of my friend, Robert Campbell, and consists of a series of great booklets -- attractive in hardcopy and free for download.  I was invited to write the biographical essay in the booklet on Luther as Theologian of the Cross.

 

I have to say -- of all parachurch organizations, I never expected to be writing for the Lodge.  To be working for First Things and the Grand Black Chapter is pretty -- ahem -- ecumenical.   Yet the younger leaders, like Robert Campbell, are focused not on politics but on articulating the evangelical faith to a new generation.  And the result is really extremely helpful and I recommend the series to anybody who wants to introduce Luther to Christians who may not be aware of him, or indeed for the purposes of evangelism.  And I'll back anything that promotes further knowledge and appreciation of the Doc.

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A few weeks ago I received a small package from a man announcing himself as the father of one Wendell Kimbrough, and containing his son's new cd of Psalms.   I always wince at such arrivals on the grounds that I fear I am going to have to come perilously close to breaking the Ninth Commandment when I write back expressing my thanks and appreciation.

 

I've always been an advocate of psalm singing.  Yes, I know that it has to be done well.  Flat acapella singing of the whole of Psalm 137 to the tune 'Smallpox' is not going to lift many people's hearts heavenwards.  But the Psalms do articulate a range of human emotion in response to life and to God which are rarely found elsewhere.  They allow us to mourn and they allow us to rejoice, and all points in between, in songs of praise to our Lord.  So I am always interested in anybody doing anything new and interesting with them.

 

Well, the cd sat on the passenger seat of my car, unlistened to, for some days until my wife and I were traveling to church.  My usual preference is nothing at all or a bit of The Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies on a Sunday morning (not a particularly godly choice, I confess, but definitely very English).  My wife being somewhat more sanctified than me picked up the Psalm cd, ejected Ray and the boys and inserted it into the player.  All without asking my permission, mind you -- that's how far I've slipped down the egalitarian road.  She'll be wearing trousers, cutting her hair, and wanting the vote next.  Where will it end? 

 

Anyway, we listened.  And I was impressed.  This is a musician with talent, a great voice, and a feel for what contemporary tunes fit with the words.  I would say that there are touches of American folk -- perhaps particularly tones of Dylan and also The Band -- and some traditional country and western (a style of music which is not one I typically appreciate but does seem to be OK here).  And I lack the ability to know whether all or any of the compositions would transfer to congregational singing.  But this is good.  Really good.  And I would recommend it to anyone who loves the Psalms and simply wants to hear how these old songs can be set to attractive and varied contemporary arrangements.

 

The album can be ordered from here.  I hope that in coming years we will see Wendell Kimbrough doing much more of the same with the Psalter.  And, for the record, I did not need to worry about breaking the Ninth Commandment in my note of thanks.

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I use the ESV and so does my church.  I enjoy it as a translation, though sometimes prefer the TNIV for narrative sections.  I am no biblical linguist, so that is a purely aesthetic judgment based upon readability.

 

Scot McKnight just posted an interesting and typically provocative analysis of the change to the translation of Genesis 3:16 in the new ESV that is coming out -- what will be the definitive text.  Again, I am no linguist but it seems that the post by Scot provides an excellent starting-point for those who are competent in the field to launch constructive discussion on the translation and its proposed changes.  This debate looks set to be fascinating.

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville



Why has this Trinitarian issue generated such passion?  Given the fact that the EFS/ERAS/anti-eternal generation view has been shown to be wrong, why has there been no ‘We’re sorry we misled the church for so long.  We recant our errors. We resolve to do better in the future.’?  Why are we witnessing instead an attempt to re-write history, as if there had never been a problem, and the silencing of those who point this out?  Doctrinal debates happen all the time but rarely generate this degree of passion and bizarre  subsequent behavior.  And Todd’s post last week was scarcely polemical.  Come on -- he is the nice guy on the MoS.

 

Is it money?  Well, I guess some have certainly made good royalties from advocating EFS but not as many as have furiously attacked Todd and others.   Is it platform?  This probably plays into it more, as so many high-profile leaders either bought into it or have important links with those who do.  But even so, the violence of the reaction has been extreme.  Is it some theologian’s concern for his legacy?  I have been told that is the case but, if so, that is really rather sad.  A legacy is only worth preserving to the extent it is true.  Who wants a legacy of error? And to the extent a legacy is true, it is not really the property of any one person. The truth pre-existed him after all.  I do not think that any of these things account for all of the widespread anger at the whistleblowers.

 

I would suggest another angle: that the reaction is so strong because, unlike some other theological disputes, this one is an issue of identity.  When groups root their identity in a specific narrative, then a serious challenge to that narrative will be greeted with real hostility, for such a challenge is not simply a disagreement over details.  It is a denial of personal legitimacy.   Those being critiqued will interpret their critics in very negative moral terms, and the normal rules of decent procedure and public debate will not apply. 

 

Now, when your movement is built upon the notion that you have saved historic Christian orthodoxy from liberalism and you are the last best hope of the gospel and of Christianity in the present, then the validity of that narrative is basic to the legitimacy of your identity.  And when somebody comes along and points out that your understanding of the doctrine of God stands outside the historic parameters of orthodoxy, it is not the equivalent of being told that your view of baptism is defective.  It is far more offensive.  It is being told that you are not who you think you are.  Your self-understanding is being utterly delegitimized.

 

When I started writing about the problems with Big Eva some six or seven years ago, I was working on the assumption that appropriately critical voices would be heard.  At that time I was friends – good friends -- with many in the leadership of the movement and thought we were on the same side and wanted the same things. Events since then have shown that I was hopelessly naïve. Early on one senior leader called to tell me in no uncertain terms that none of my critiques would make him change anything about his organization except perhaps the use of the term ‘VIP Seating’ for the area reserved at conferences for the speakers.  That told me that there was more at stake for some than ‘the gospel.’ But I do confess that in the years since I have been overly cynical in thinking that change has not occurred simply because of money and platform.  The problem is deeper.  It is one of identity. So it is not just those with money or platform to lose who become angry with the critics.  It is everyone to whom these groups give a sense of belonging.

 

These mass organizations will start to fracture and dissipate in the next five years.  There is now too much of a distance between the left and the right in some groups for them to hold a coherent identity together other than by an act of sheer will.   Others have been exposed as being indifferent to seriously deviant theology.  And now the donor-base public is beginning to see something of the sharp practices that operate out of sight, as with the backroom bullying and browbeating of Todd Pruitt  -- a minister of the gospel, for pity’s sake! The language of gospel piety always drips very easily in public from the lips of those who know that the iron fists of the Machine are quietly crushing critical windpipes off camera.  

 

As Liam Goligher said to me the other week, ‘Evangelicalism is broken beyond repair.’ 

Posted on Friday, September 09, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I was interviewed on Wednesday for a forthcoming movie about the New Calvinism.  Afterwards, the interviewer commented on how kind and charitable my comments had been compared to my writings on the subject.   I responded that that was of course the case – in the movie, I was speaking for and about the decent people who form the core of the movement, not those who lead it.  My writings over the years have focused on the latter and the way some of them exploit the former to build their platforms.  I have no time for that behaviour.  But for the people who love the Lord and simply seek day by day to live out their faith – to them I am grateful for their faithful and often difficult witness in the wider world and, indeed for funding places like Westminster through their sacrificial giving.  They are driven by their desire not for personal fame but simply to help train the next generation of ministers.  And I am privileged to benefit from this and to do my best to teach the faith to those who will teach it to others.  I live and work in a comfortable, Christian environment.  Most Christians -- the Christians who fund my environment -- do not.  They make their money in difficult callings and then generously give some of it to people like me so that we can help train people to lead the church into the future.   I hope I never forget that.

 

That’s why Todd’s last post was an encouragement to me.  Finally, there is evidence that I am not mad.  The Big Eva world is indeed run as the personal fiefdom of a few, even if many of those decent people involved on the various mastheads are unaware of this.  But cross those few, or touch their dogmatic golden calves, and you can expect the fight back to be dirty, relentless, increasingly dangerous, and by and large hidden from the watching world – the world, that is, that funds evangelicalism on the assumption that hard-earned donations go to spreading the gospel, not building personal platforms and nixing the dissidents.

 

I opened my first patristics lecture of the year yesterday with perhaps the most brilliant one-line summary of what 19 centuries of post-apostolic history have been about.  It is from Robert Barron’s essay on Augustine:

 

'In the end, it all comes down to a correct description of God.'

 

Tragically, it has become clear that some of the most influential evangelical theologians today do not describe God correctly.  It has also become clear that they have no intention of correcting their errors.  As a by-product, some of these errors have been used to enable domestic abuse.  This does not bode well for the future.  What is tolerated in one era might very easily become the orthodoxy of the next – and there is much evidence to suggest we might be there already.  

 

When Todd told me of the vicious attacks he was receiving yesterday, I was shocked to know the name of the person involved.   But then again I was not shocked at all -- such vile attacks are part of the culture.  I get them myself all the time, usually cloaked with some throat-clearing token piety at the beginning or the end.   It is simply easier to attack the man than address the arguments.   For myself, I simply ignore them -- hey, the man who has no enemies has no honour.  Todd, however, is more sensitive.

 

And that’s why Todd pulled his original post about Burk’s article: the relentless behind-the-scenes attacks are tiring and discouraging, aimed at one thing and one thing only – closing down any discussion of the errors that are rampant on the doctrine of God.  Not everyone can put up with them. I know the toll such attacks have taken on Todd in the past. But somebody will have to take a stand at some point or the situation really is lost -- theologically and, as is increasingly apparent, ethically.

 

Posted on Wednesday, August 24, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Rachel Miller has a fine post tracing the relationship between CBMW and EFS/ERAS.  It is also helpful in highlighting connections (which I was told I misrepresented in my first post on the subject) between various of the headlining Big Eva organizations.

 

I am perplexed that a Christian organization would declare itself neutral on the Trinity debate -- not simply because of the evidence collated by Rachel but also because of the principle involved.  To be neutral on the issues raised is, as I said in my first post, to stand aside from the historic Christian tradition which is emphatically not neutral on this issue, seeing it as basic to what the Christian faith is, and for which, at least in the fourth century, many made significant personal sacrifices.   Who has decided that this doctrine, of all things, is a matter for private judgment?

 

So two questions come to mind: First, how can a Christian organization possibly be neutral on the Trinity?  It is hard to imagine an organization being neutral on, say, the Incarnation, the Deity of the Spirit, the doctrine of scripture etc.  And the Trinity involves the very identity of God.   This surely indicates something about contemporary evangelical culture in relation to the Christian tradition.

 

Second, Why would a Christian organization want to be neutral on the doctrine of the Trinity?   That is probably the more insightful question as it takes us to the heart of the dynamics of the evangelical world as currently constituted.

 

 

Posted on Tuesday, August 02, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Perhaps the most significant result of the recent Trinity/complementarian combat has been the way it has hopefully revealed to a wider audience what has been clear to many for a long time: the economy of power and influence that exists outside the formal denominational structures of the conservative Protestant world.   I have written a lot about evangelical celebrity in the past but it is clear that celebrity is only one of the factors that shapes the current theological landscape.   The broader structures of power – formal and informal – do cultivate celebrity but their significance cannot simply be reduced to it.

 

The economy of evangelical power is complicated but I want to highlight just two aspects today, aspects which have been critical in the recent discussion and which have a profound doctrinal significance. First, there is the fact that the same narrow gene pool exerts powerful influence across the spectrum of conservative evangelical organizations.  The same men operate in positions of influence in numerous headline organizations.  That represents obvious potential for conflict of interest and also offers the ability to control the news, direct debates, and decide who is allowed to speak and who gets to live – or die -- in the Twitter feeds.  When one asks ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me?  How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’ the answers are not obvious.  And that should give pause for thought.

 

The second aspect is something noted by British political theorist, Claire Fox, as being emblematic of single-issue groups: catastrophization.   She has pointed this out with respect to bullying but her arguments have wider application.  She notes that there are powerful lobby groups with a vested interest in expanding the definition of bullying and in exaggerating its impact.  Such groups also have a defensive strategy of demonizing any critics through character assassination, impugning of motives, or accusations of being pro-bully or deliberately blind to the dangers bullying poses.   In short, such groups catastrophize a particular problem and then offer themselves and their agenda -- often an increasingly radical one -- as the only solutions.

 

The Trinity/CBMW debacle is a good example of the confluence of these two phenomena.  On the one hand, those with power in various organizations have tried to corral the debate by ensuring silence or ‘on message’ interventions. That has obvious high-stakes doctrinal significance for the issue at hand has been the Trinity.  On the other, the single-issue catastrophizers have attempted to marginalize critics by arguing that the brand of complementarianism being sold by them is the only one capable of solving the devastating inroads of radical feminism.   Maybe my experience is unique, but the bra-burning feminists are not as of this moment breaking down the doors of the OPC and demanding that we play Annie and Aretha singing ’Sisters are doing it for themselves’ before the call to worship.  The problem of feminism is out there but let us keep it in proportion -- and let us keep our responses in proportion too.

 

The economy of power is here to stay.  All movements and organizations have their equivalents, after all.   That's life.   But merely being aware of such can help foster change.  In fact, two things can and should be done to mitigate the potential for future mischief.  First, leaders need to start assessing conflicts of interest and taking appropriate action to disentangle themselves from such.   Second, we need to be more self-conscious about the structures of power and influence that are at work in the Christian world.  My earlier questions -- ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me?  How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’ – are the pertinent ones.
 

Posted on Saturday, July 09, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

We see that Dr. Ware has issued an open letter to the three of us.

 
Over the last four weeks, Dr. Ware's critics have offered on this webpage and elsewhere masses of evidence and argument demonstrating that his position is not consistent with Nicene Trinitarianism and that his use of Nicene language is incompatible with how that language is used in the tradition. He has thus far chosen not to demonstrate where these arguments are wrong but simply to continue asserting his idiosyncratic use of orthodox terminology. 
 

 

Our criticisms of his material are not new, nor do they emerge from a vacuum.  His understanding of the historic position has been critiqued in the past by, among others, Lewis Ayres and Bruce McCormack.  We are thus at a loss to know why our criticisms are being portrayed as somehow radical and unexpected, or why they have been singled out for such persistent ire and recrimination over the last few weeks.   And we are also at a loss to know how to respond to his latest, beyond referring him once again to those various posts on this blog and elsewhere, and the well-known work of these other theologians.  Frankly, there is nothing more to be said.

 

Therefore, the choice before Dr. Ware and those who agree with his position on the Trinity or who personally disagree with him but still find it a tolerable evangelical expression of the Bible's teaching or who merely enable the promotion of it, is now a very, very simple one: Recant this erroneous theology or stop using the Nicene label to describe it.  We deeply hope for the former but we realize that Protestant consciences are bound to the Word of God; and if Dr. Ware and his supporters genuinely believe the Bible and Nicene Trinitarianism are incompatible, they are obliged to do the latter. 

 

 

We understand that some strands of Baptist and evangelical life have not typically learned the habit of creedal thinking but have tended to emphasize independent Biblicism and personal exegesis.  Perhaps that lies at the root of much of this dispute.  But this is not to say that the debate is to be understood as taking place between those who take the Bible alone as the authority and those who add to the Bible a separate stream of authoritative tradition.  It is rather to say that it is between those who submit to the Bible on the basis of private judgment alone and those who wish to submit to the Bible in the context of the communion of the saints throughout the ages.

 

 

Thus, dogmatic theologians are not to act like so many Humpty Dumptys and the church is not located in some land on the far side of Alice’s looking-glass. Creeds and confessions are ecclesiastically sanctioned documents and therefore do not mean whatever we as individuals choose them to mean.  They mean what the church has decided they mean through the refining process of theological controversy. It is our duty as Christians to allow these documents to interpret us, not vice versa. 

 

Liam Goligher

Todd Pruitt

Carl R. Trueman

Posted on Thursday, July 07, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I commented right at the start of the Trinitarian discussion that, while scripture has gripped the evangelical mind when it comes to the roots of serious theological error, it is the doctrine of God which has historically and theologically more often been the culprit.  The statement below from Bavinck asserts the same (emphasis mine):

 

The dogma of the Trinity, however, has at all times encountered serious opposition. It not only came from without, from the side of Jews and Muslims, against whose attacks Christians would then defend the doctrine. Both before and after its official adoption, within the boundaries of Christendom, this dogma was also disputed by many. Now in the confession of the Trinity we hear the heartbeat of the Christian religion: every error results from, or upon deeper reflection is traceable to, a departure in the doctrine of the Trinity. It is such an integral component of the Christian faith that it still reverberates even in the confession of the Unitarians. All who value being called Christians continue to speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit. All the greater, however, has been the opposition to the ecclesiastical formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity and the more frequent its restatement. At the same time the history of this dogma clearly demonstrates that only the ecclesiastical formulation of it is capable of preserving inviolate the matter with which we are here concerned. Now the great challenge facing us with this dogma is to see to it that the unity of the divine essence does not cancel out the Trinity of the persons or, conversely, that the Trinity of persons does not abolish the unity of the divine essence. There is always the threat of deviation either to the right or to the left and of falling either into the error of Sabellius or that of Arius.  [Reformed Dogmatics 2: God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), edited by John Bolt, translated by John Vriend, pp. 288–289.]

 

I wonder: Was he writing nonsense?  Was he a slanderer? Was he motivated by a desire to take over the reformedish evangelical world?  Did he lack personal integrity?  Was he narrowing the bounds of orthodox Trinitarianism in an inappropriate way?  Was he sharply criticized for tone and intention by those who were (as the saying goes) personally opposed to but, of course, still publicly supportive of the legitimacy of the alternative positions? Was he an accuser of the brethren?  Was he quietly pushing a feminist agenda?   Was he gleefully curbing or even trying to destroy complementarianism?  Was he someone of such intellectual and moral mediocrity that it was amazing to see who published him?  Or maybe he was just looking to provide the late nineteenth-century Dutch equivalent of ‘clickbait’? I only ask, because all of these things have been alleged in public of Liam Goligher and myself over the last four weeks.    And if he was subject to such, I then wonder if such claims were publicly removed and apologies offered to him in an equally public manner?  Because when you cut through the Sturm und Drang and the personal smears and the smoke and mirrors,  the Trinity matters; and it is now more than clear that error has played a significant role in contemporary conservative evangelical formulations of the same.  And errors on this doctrine are the root of errors elsewhere, as Bavinck indicates. So don't shoot the messengers.