Posted on Tuesday, March 07, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Reading Augustine's De Trinitate this semester with a group of students, I was struck by this brilliant analysis of the way that sin operates.  It comes from Book XII:


"For just as a snake does not walk with open strides bur wriggles along by the tiny little movements of its scales, so the careless glide little by little along the slippery path of failure, and beginning from a distorted appetite for being like God they end up by becoming like beasts."


Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Donald Macleod has written a moving obituary of the Rev. Dr. Iain D. Campbell.  You can find it here.

Posted on Friday, December 30, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

‘To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.’  So wrote John Henry Newman in his famous essay on doctrinal development.  I have critiqued this comment from a confessional Reformed perspective in First Things and will do so again in a forthcoming collection of essays on the Canadian Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan, to be edited by the philosopher R. J Snell.  I believe that confessional Protestants do have a good response to Newman on this issue.  But after the last six months, I am not sure that the same can be said for Evangelicals.  Given all that has emerged in the course of the Trinity debate, the question for them is: Is to be deep in history to cease to be Evangelical?


That is why I want to point Evangelicals towards Stephen Wellum’s new book on Christology. I would say that this is easily the Evangelical book of the year if one is looking for a volume that both makes an important contribution and is likely still to be read with profit ten years from now.   Wellum is not one of the high profile Evangelical leaders but, for my money, he is one of their best systematicians and deserves to be widely read and listened to.   If one of the key weaknesses with contemporary Evangelicalism is its detachment of biblical theology from dogmatic history, and notions of orthodoxy from church history, then Wellum’s approach is a welcome and necessary corrective.   


First, he sets out the challenges to traditional Christology today by looking at the significance of trends in biblical studies since the Enlightenment, and the epistemological and metaphysical challenges that modernity posed for orthodoxy.  He also outlines postmodern and postliberal critiques.  Second, he discusses the biblical material relevant to Christological discussion.  Third, he offers an account – and a remarkably succinct yet thorough account at that – of the development of Christological dogma in the church, culminating in Chalcedon (451) but also addressing post-Chalcedonian developments.  This is critical for understanding why the church thinks the way she does.  The failure to understand the logic of the historical development of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine is why so much Evangelical theology of the last thirty years has been so poor.    Wellum offers a superb example of how a truly Christian theology must address the issue of development.  Finally, he looks at modern Christological revisions, particular the kenoticism of Forsyth and others.


Readers may not agree with all of Wellum’s arguments or conclusions but all will come away better informed about the history of Christology and why, for example, dyothelitism, as strange as it first sounds to untrained ears, is so important (p. 348: ‘What is ultimately at stake is the full humanity of Christ and whether Jesus is our all-sufficient Redeemer.’).  They will also have seen how systematic theology can be done in a manner which is biblically, theologically, historically, and ecclesiastically responsible.


If Evangelicalism is to have a future connected to historic Christianity, then it will have to do a number of things.  It will need to break the nexus of non-ecclesiastical and unaccountable platform, power, and money which currently appears to determine the boundaries of orthodoxy; it will need to recognize that errors on the doctrine of God have historically proved just as lethal to orthodoxy as those on scripture – if not more so; it will need to set its biblical theology in positive relation to systematic theology and the creedal and confessional heritage of the church; and it will need to think long and hard about how orthodoxy is transmitted from generation to generation. As a Brexiteer from the Evangelical world, I myself doubt that it can be done.   But if Evangelicals start looking beyond the lighted stage to those like Stephen Wellum, I might well be proved wrong - and happily so, I might add.  May his tribe increase.

Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

My favourite church history book of 2016 is Bruce Gordon’s John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.   I confess to being a little partisan: Bruce is my oldest scholarly friend since we were both postgraduates in Scotland in the late 80s and denizens of the Scottish Church History Reading Group that met under the learned authority of scholars such as Ian Hazlitt, Andrew Pettegree, and David Wright.  A scholar and a gentleman, and now Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale, Bruce is one of the finest church historians of his generation.


In particular, Bruce is an outstanding Calvin scholar, with his biography of the Reformer being now perhaps the standard in English.  This small volume is part of Princeton University Press's outstanding Lives of Great Religious Books series.  This is a new twist on the biographical genre, looking at the reception, interpretation, and influence of  key religious texts.  Others in the series that I have read have all been excellent: Paul Gutjahr on the Book of Mormon, Alan Jacobs on the Book of Common Prayer, and Garry Wills on Augustine’s Confessions all represent fine marriages of authors and topics.  Bruce and the Institutes is another.


Much important work has been done over recent decades by Richard A. Muller to relativize the significance and status of the Institutes.   It is no longer feasible to see this work as a kind of systematic theological Colossus bestriding the Reformed world.  Reformed theology was more eclectic in its origins and its formation.  Indeed, Bullinger’s Decades  were arguably as important in the late sixteenth century on the formation of English Reformed theology as anything Calvin wrote.


And yet…. And yet….  The Institutes  does have a literary quality to it that was frequently lacking in other tomes of the same period.  And, however one relativizes its importance in its own day, the book did come to dominate the Reformed imagination in a way that no other has ever done.  Who outside of scholarly circles reads Bullinger or Peter Martyr today?  Yet Calvin’s book sits on the shelf of many a thoughtful layperson.  This is what Bruce teases out in this great little volume, showing how the book was appropriated and read by later generations and how it achieved the status which it now enjoys among friend and foe alike as setting the standard for Reformed theology.


For a book of just over two hundred pages, the reach is remarkable, from Switzerland to China by way of the Netherlands and South Africa, from Servetus to Mark Driscoll (whom Bruce dismisses with a casual but appropriate wave of his scholarly hand) by way of Toplady, Barth, and Brunner.   At the end of the work, the reader knows that, while the Institutes is not the uniquely authoritative text that has sometimes been claimed, it has nonetheless enjoyed a remarkable, fascinating and at times convoluted history.  It not only helped define Protestantism; it also shaped cultures, for good and for ill.


This is a book – and a series – to read and to enjoy.

Posted on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I’ve spent the last few months finishing up a book with Bob Kolb, the Luther scholar, entitled Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation.  It is due from Baker later next year.  Bob is, for my money, the greatest living Luther scholar in the English-speaking world.  Working with him, I felt rather like this.


The project arose out of a three-way conversation between Bob, myself, and Dave Nelson at Baker.   We were concerned about three things.  First, many Lutheran students do not understand Reformed theology.  Second, as a tit-for-tat, many Reformed students do not understand Lutheran theology.  Third, many Evangelical students do not understand either Lutheran or Reformed theology and tend to identify the bits they like out of both traditions with their own while viewing the bits they don't like as aberrations or of marginal importance.  Something needed to be done.


Both Bob and I wrote the book as catholic Christians – those who hold to the creeds of the ancient church – and as evangelical Christians – those who believe in justification by grace through faith and identify with ecclesiastical bodies which subscribe to Reformation confessions.   To use Bob’s distinction, we do not write as Evangelicals whose movement is rooted in the revivals of the eighteenth century and which draws much of its strength from Baptist and parachurch circles.   Thus, the volume has sections on some things of interest to Evangelicals, such as the doctrine of scripture, but also on matters of comparative indifference to Evangelicalism while yet of great importance to the Reformers, such as the Lord’s Supper.


The joy of the project lay much in our friendship but also in the fact that we allowed the history of our creeds and confessions and churches to guide our priorities and our discussion.   A common commitment to Nicaea and Chalcedon, and a trust in God’s word and in the righteousness of Christ was the foundation which allowed then for substantial engagement.  It also meant that we could disagree while yet preserving a common Christian bond of friendship.   Further, it was good to have confessional history set the framework for our discussion.   If nothing else, the debate over the Trinity of the last six months has pointed to how contemporary economies of power and money, detached from ecclesiastical accountability, profoundly shape the American Evangelical landscape.  It has also revealed how the Evangelical mind is gripped by the notion that, while any deviation on scripture is lethal, considerable flexibility on the doctrine of God is tolerable.   History indicates otherwise and Evangelicals need to understand that. 


So as we head into 2017 and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Bob and I hope that our volume will contribute to mutual understanding between the Lutheran and Reformed heirs of the Reformation. And we hope too that it might encourage Evangelicals to think more seriously about the historical and ecclesiastical implications of the Reformation for the faith today.

Posted on Thursday, December 08, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Todd’s inaugural post as the new editor of this blog (all complaints to Pruitt from now on, please) makes a very good point and also highlights Fred Sanders’s fine review of Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity.  Sanders is witty and sharp as always – and rightly so, for the stakes on the Trinity issue are high, as they are on any matter pertaining to the essence of the faith.


Todd's post, Fred's review, and some of the reactions to it raise the question of how the issue of tone played out historically and theologically in the Reformation.   It looks to be another area, in addition to that of major doctrine, where modern conservative evangelicalism has a rather vexed relationship with Luther and company.  If you are looking for politeness in the Reformers, then you are going to have to buy a microscope.  Courtesy in polemic was a rare commodity, as even the woodcuts frequently demonstrate.  True, there is some evidence that the French editions of Calvin’s Institutes were a little more polite than the Latin but that was less to do with Calvin having second thoughts about his style of attack and more to do with his elitism.  After all, we would not want the Great Unwashed thinking that they can talk about our educated opponents in quite the ways we do….  The Reformation was remarkable for two things in this connection: It engaged in powerfully worded polemic; And it generally played that polemic out in public, eschewing elitism, as Luther did in 1525 when he rudely rebutted Erasmus’s view that the bondage of the will was too tricky and confusing a doctrine to preach from the pulpit. 



Those of us who claim to be heirs of the Reformation should take heed.  Style and substance are not so easily separated as we might like to think.  And the people in the pew have the right -- and the need -- to hear about the whole counsel of God, from his being in eternity to the consummation of all things at the end of time.  For the Reformers, nothing in God's Word was to be the monopoly of a priesthood or a scholarly guild.


We live in an effetely aesthetic age, where taste consistently trumps truth.  In the world of secular politics, concern over tone is often a means by which the elites outlaw their opponents while yet retaining their own right to speak as unpleasantly as they wish about those they despise.  For example, Clinton’s decrying of the aggressive tone of Trump rallies while feeling free to avail herself of terms such as ‘basket of deplorables’ to refer to nearly half of the US population.  It is thus simply a way of polemic by less honest means.  And lower down the food-chain where most of us exist, concern over tone is often nothing more than unthinking capitulation to the tastes of the present day and/or a lazy move which allows us to render perfectly good arguments illegitimate and unworthy of response.  Sharpness of tone is always so much more obvious and unacceptable in those with whom we happen to disagree.


Had Luther and company conformed to the criteria of politeness which some blog commenters seem to require today, the Reformation would never have happened.   When the faith is on the line, the tone is necessarily strong.  That is biblical.  If you have not gone so far as to call on someone to castrate themselves, you have not crossed any boundary of taste set by the Apostle Paul, Gal. 5:12.  And if you think anger or sarcasm in theological argument are necessarily sinful, you will end up with Christological problems, for Christ exhibited the former and deployed the latter.   No doubt such calls for kindness are well-intentioned, but a sharp, cutting tone is generally necessary when the faith is on the line.  The natural human tendency is towards blurring important distinctions, watering down the faith, and accommodating to the criteria of the world.  Therefore, argument in itself is not enough to communicate the importance of what is being discussed.  Style of argument is important too.  From Athanasius’s talk of ‘Ariomaniacs’ to Zwingli’s salvoes against Anabaptist fanatics, the rhetoric was always as high as the stakes involved, and rightly so.   Indeed, I can think of no cardinal doctrine of the faith which was established through expressions of politeness towards error.  Yes, we must avoid slander and unnecessary meanness.  But we must also make sure that our style and tone reflect the urgency of any given situation.  Fred is quite right to have written as he did.


Nice guys not only finish last.  They also tend to end up heterodox or even worse. 

Posted on Thursday, November 10, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

It's been interesting seeing some of the sharp rhetoric being used about Christian voting over the last few weeks, rhetoric that has if anything become more extreme in the last twenty-four hours. 


But here's the thing: if you are a pastor who thinks an evangelical who voted for Trump has hindered people from believing the gospel, promoted hate or racism or whatever, then you think that person has sinned.  The same applies if you think a vote for Clinton directly promoted infanticide.  As a pastor, you then need to find out who in your congregation voted for the Donald -- or for Hillary -- and discipline them.


Alternatively, if you want to avoid becoming a cult or if you simply do not have the courage of your blog convictions when it comes to actual face-to-face ecclesiastical practice in the real world, you might want to tone your comments down.  You should acknowledge that, while political thinking as a Christian is complicated and nuanced, voting is not, and thus every vote cast represents a trade-off of some set of moral convictions against others. And trade-offs of this kind in a functional two-party democracy are notoriously challenging to parse.   You might also want to acknowledge that dressing up your vote as the truly biblical one and/or others' votes as the sinful ones is often simply a way of pre-empting any real discussion and granting your position the automatic moral high ground.


The Kinks have much wisdom to offer us here.  When it comes to voting, 'I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air' captures the feeling many people have. A bit of political (and Christian) humility at this point might go a long, long way.

(Full disclosure: as a Green Carder, I was thankfully free of any moral dilemma on Tuesday)

Posted on Monday, October 31, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Reformation Day 1516 brings us to the final year countdown to the 500th anniversary of Luther's call for a debate about the nature and scope of indulgences, the event which is popularly seen as the start of the Reformation.


It promises to be a busy year for Luther maniacs like myself and here are two tasters of some of what is to come.  First, a trailer for a movie from the people who brought you Through the Eyes of Spurgeon and featuring myself and my latest partner in crime, the great Luther scholar (we are not worthy!), Bob Kolb, with whom I have just finished a Lutheran-Reformed dialogue book, Between Wittenberg and Geneva which is due out from Baker Academic -- yes, what a surprise -- in 2017. 


The second is a trailer for a PBS movie featuring a cast of characters, from Cardinal Dolan in rather fine surroundings to me, bald and freezing to death, in a Wisconsin church while talking about Luther and the Jews.  The full movie is to be released.... Well, I'm sure you can work that out for yourselves.

Posted on Tuesday, October 04, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville














If reading about Luther’s life is essential as a means of orienting you to understanding his theology, the next thing is to read that theology for yourself.  If you have Latin and German and access to a decent theological library, then the Weimar edition of Luther’s works is an option.  If you lack those languages but still have access to a library or to Logos Bible Software, then the Philadelphia edition of Luther’s works is also very useful.  But with the critical edition of Luther running to over 100 volumes and the Philadelphia edition being not far short of that, the question of where to begin is important and it may well be better to start with a volume of selections.



Two classics of this genre are those by John Dillenberger and Timothy Lull.  I prefer Dillenberger but Lull is now the standard textbook which I use in my Luther class.



Tappert’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel is an old classic, focused on the pastoral Luther.



Of all the 1517-2017 anniversary projects I have seen, the publication of a six volume set from Fortress Press entitled The Annotated Luther is the one that has excited me most.  The six volumes are: The Roots of Reform, Word and Faith, Church and Sacraments, Pastoral Writings, Christian Life in the World, and The Interpretation of Scripture.  I have been buying volumes as they come out and have not been disappointed.



The texts in these volumes are often light revisions of earlier translations but what makes the set so delightful (in addition to the superb production standards) are the new introductions and marginal notes.  Much of Luther has to be set against a technical medieval theological background in order to understand him.  That was, after all, his own background and his Reformation theology is developed in relation (negative and positive) to his medieval training.  Even the fabled Ninety-Five Theses contain many references which require knowledge of the theology of the late Middle Ages.  This set (of which four volumes are already available) offers excellent commentary on each text.



Once you have your Luther books, what should you turn to first?  Here is a brief suggested reading list:



Early in his reforming career Luther produced three sets of theses for disputation that show the rapid development of his thought between 1517 and 1518: The Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (September, 1517); The Ninety-Five These Against Indulgences (October, 1517) and the Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518), in the latter of which he developed both his notion of the bondage of the will, the antithesis of Law and Gospel, and the distinction between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross.



The three great treatises of 1520 (The Freedom of the Christian Man, The Bablyonian Captivity of the Church, and An Appeal to the German Nobility) lay out in detail Luther’s program for ethics, sacraments, and politics.  Readers should also look at the later sacramental work, That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (1527) to see how his earlier emphasis on Chrost’s promise is somewhat supplanted by an emphasis upon Christ’s presence under the pressure of the conflict with Zwingli.



On a darker note – the reader should also look at both On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), a notoriously anti-Jewish work which had an afterlife as propaganda in Nazi Germany and continues to find audiences on various racist and anti-Semitic websites today.   But the text should be read alongside his earlier work on the Jews, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523).  I tell students all the time that the expected never needs explanation.  It is the unexpected that the historian has to strive to explain.  And this earlier treatise is very much an oddity because it is a relatively positive text about the Jews written by a sixteenth century Christian.  The question about Luther and the Jews is thus not ‘Why did he hate them in 1543?’ since that was the conventional attitude.  Rather it is ‘Why was he favorable towards them in 1523?’



The only works which Luther himself considered worthy of outliving him were his Catechisms and On the Bondage of the Will, his famous – and devastating 1525 riposte to Erasmus. I would not reduce his useful canon merely to those items but it is hard to argue that he himself had no highlighted the most important texts.



To these I would add two other works: the Lectures on Genesis, for their remarkable theology of the creative Word of God, and the late work On the Councils of the Church for its mature ecclesiology. 


If you read all the above, you will have a good basic grounding in Luther’s thinking.



Next week I will suggest some books which discuss Luther’s theology.










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.