Posted on Thursday, March 24, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In wake of my product placement post, a correspondent recently drew my attention to the rise of the Reformed celebrity endorsement as a most unwholesome phenomenon.  Of course, such things are not entirely new.  Book commendations are an example of such.  I have done plenty – far too many – of those.  But there is an important difference between the typical book commendation and the new type of product promotion that is emerging.  It is the distinction between an innocent recommendation and a paid endorsement.  

When I write a book commendation, it may or not be well-informed, but I am not in any way motivated to do it by the notion of financial gain or obligation.  Put simply, I do not get paid by the author or publisher.   But when someone is on the payroll of the organization whose products they puff, they are not merely someone impressed by said products and thus volunteering to promote them.  They are paid spokespersons.   They are akin to Michael Jordan promoting Nike, with a vested interest in you buying what they are promoting.  And that needs to be acknowledged, lest the public be deceived about what is really happening.

I receive a small stipend from the Alliance.  If I promote Alliance material, I therefore  do so as someone with a financial interest in the organization, not simply as somebody enamoured of the intrinsic importance of the Alliance in an otherwise disinterested way.  That is why I would never do so in my church’s worship service for that would be an obvious conflict of interest.   By contrast, I also write for the website of First Things but receive no remuneration for my blogs there.  Were I to promote the FT blogsite in some context, therefore, I would do it simply because I believe in what the FT team is trying to do.  No conflict of interest would be involved.

So, as we move into the next phase of the celebrification of the Reformed world, that of the paid endorsement masquerading as innocently helpful recommendation, there are a couple of useful questions for congregants  to ask (maybe at the annual meeting?) when an already well-paid pastor introduces some parachurch product into his worship service.  What dollar figure does said pastor enter on his annual tax return as originating in the bank accounts of the not-for-profit he is promoting?  What proportion of his gross annual salary comes from said organization?  If the answer is more than zero, then there is almost certainly a further question about conflict of interest which needs to be addressed, even if only to reassure the congregation that the pastor is, like The Kinks’ David Watts, ‘of pure and noble breed.’  No pastor or organization with nothing to hide would object to transparency on such issues.  In fact, I would imagine they would heartily welcome it.

Were I ever to promote Alliance material in my church, I would not only be willing to report my small Alliance stipend to the congregants whose tithes pay my pastoral salary but I would consider it absolutely necessary -- the only way to defuse any suspicion of conflict of interest.  Congregants have a right to know who is pulling their pastor’s strings.  And that typically means knowing who is paying him what amount.  After all, once money is involved – and it can be big money even in the small subculture of the Reformed church – it is a fine line between paid product endorsement and rather devious product enforcement.  

Ah, yes, product enforcement – the other side of this sinister subcultural coin.  But that is another blog for another day.  Sufficient to the day’s post is the depressing truth contained therein.

 

The author receives minimum wage from the Alliance.  His soul does have a price but he’s currently holding out for a lot more.

Posted on Monday, February 29, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The arrival of a new Christological creed from Ligonier Ministries raises some helpful questions.  Over at Reformation 21, Mark Jones seems generally appreciative of the intention while critical of some of the theological shortcomings and wording of the various documents. Yet, while sharing Jones’s concerns, my hesitations about the project are somewhat different.
 

One concern at which Jones hints is that a parachurch group has produced a creed, an ecclesiastical, ecumenical, liturgical document.    One (debatable) response to him might be that gatherings such as the Westminster Assembly were not obviously ecclesiastical in origin and authority, and that the Belgic Confession, while deriving its official status from an act of the church, was the work of one man.   Setting aside the strength or weakness of such a claim, one thing still seems obvious: today’s parachurches, such as Ligonier or indeed the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, are not direct analogues of something like the Westminster Assembly.   Apart from anything else, these modern parachurches are brands.  Of this more below.
 

One might also respond to Jones by saying that the statement is not a creed, and that churches use many things – hymns, Bible translations, written prayers – which are produced by individuals, have no specific ecclesiastical origin or status, and yet are useful in her life and worship.  In response to this, the document’s own statement of purpose is helpful:
 

For the glory of Christ and the edification of His people, the Ligonier Statement on Christology seeks to encapsulate the historic, orthodox, biblical Christology of the Christian church in a form that is simple to confess, useful to help teach the church’s enduring faith, and able to serve as a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together. This statement is not a replacement for the church’s historic creeds and confessions but a supplement that articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what He has done. May Christ use it for His kingdom.

 

It is clear that the import of the first sentence means that we should read the term ‘supplement’ in the second as ‘stand alongside and be formally, materially, and functionally interchangeable with’ etc. etc.   For, if this is ‘a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together…. [and] articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what he has done,’ then it is intentionally designed to perform a distinctive catholic, ecclesiastical, and ecumenical purpose.   It is also hard to see how the statement could be used in a public worship service other than at that point in the liturgy where the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed might be placed.  For me as a Gloucestershire man, the First Law of Sheep Identification surely applies to such things: if it is white, woolly and goes ‘Baaa!’ then, call it what you may, it’s quite definitely a sheep.  Thus, if it looks like a creed, sounds like a creed, and functions liturgically like a creed, then, hey, guess what?  It’s a creed!
 

This is where the brand aspect becomes a matter of concern. After all, the text carries the name of Ligonier.   Should the church integrate a brand into its liturgy in such a fashion?  One might respond in the positive, pointing to the fact that churches use hymn books and Bibles which are attached to particular editors and publishers.   But again, the act of creedal formulation, and the insertion of such a creed into the liturgy of a church as an act of corporate, ecclesiastical, ecumenical confession, carries a solemn and special significance which goes beyond the singing of a hymn or the adoption of a Bible translation.  As the document itself declares, this composition is specifically designed for common confession, for rallying together, and for mission.  
 

To repeat: as its very name indicates, this Christological statement is inextricably and explicitly bound to a brand. Not to a congregation.  Not to a denomination.  Not to an ecumenical church council.  Not to an otherwise anonymous group of theologians who gathered in a specific geographical locale with a narrowly defined purpose  and who, at the close of business, went their separate ways.  It is bound to a brand, a very particular, influential, and ongoing brand.  
 

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being a brand – I work for one and, indeed, I am writing for one here and now; but – forget the contestable parachurch issue for a moment – brands should not be intruded into territory traditionally occupied in church life and public worship by ecumenical creeds.  When they do so, whether they intend it or not, such brands risk promoting themselves in and through a central part of the liturgical action of the church.  This is therefore the key question that needs to be asked by all churches contemplating adding this to their liturgical repertoire: should we adopt for the purpose of common confession, for rallying together, and for our mission, a creed which is so unavoidably associated with a specific brand?   
 

One final point.  Part of the problem in today’s church is her loss of historical roots. Groups like Ligonier really have done great work in promoting historic Christianity for which we should all be grateful, but this task really requires more than just preservation of historic concepts.  Historical roots are also properly nurtured by the cultivation of forms and practices which connect the church to her past because they are continuous with that past.  One obvious way of doing that is use of those documents which are in form, content, and function part of her historic identity.  
 

However good the intention here, supplementing the ecumenical creeds with modern equivalents potentially dilutes the exclusive place which they have held.   Reciting the Nicene Creed connects us in both content and form with Christians around the world and through the ages.  This creed does not do that and is actually only useful at precisely those points where it says what has been better said by its predecessors before.  I fear that the shadow of that modern reformed evangelical disease, the misguided love of theological kitsch as an antidote to weightless evangelical innovation, is ever lurking in the background of this need to supplement the tried and the tested.  

If you are a Protestant who really does want ‘a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together,’ then simply use the Nicene Creed.  It is not in danger of ever being a piece of kitsch.   It does not risk promoting a brand.  And all the evidence suggests that it has done its job pretty well for some 1600 years.

Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

For any who missed it, the people at Canon Press have released a statement on the recent plagiarism issues. It should reassure the True Believers, provide fodder for those interested in researching the interconnections of personalities and publishing (but please remember -- do not use an uncredited assistant in doing such. See esp. Point 4), and leave anyone surprised by its stated outcome rather vulnerable to being sold the Brooklyn Bridge by some guy in a pub. Rachel Miller responds here, with a combined lesson on Basic Research Methods and Plagiarism 101.

 

Posted on Tuesday, January 05, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Pruitt and La Diva have, as usual, pointed out the obvious: The problems of a culture where women are expected to have agonies of conscience over whether to give travel directions to a man who is lost, or whether to serve as a police officer, but where it is fine to share a gospel platform with a woman preacher (whose gender, incidentally, is probably the least of our concerns when compared to her theology).  So out of Ref Pack loyalty, I add the following:

The whole Passion conference raises the obvious question about what complementarianism now means in practice.  Is it merely ‘nothing at all’? Or is it ‘whatever the leaders of the movement find convenient on any given day’?  Who knows any more?

The incorrigibility of the Top Men of the YRR has been obvious since at least the time of the Elephant Room.  Once that was established, a few cut ties with the movement.  Many more remained silent, and that silence of the fellow travelers on key issues has been an interesting thing to observe over time.  And when it comes to complementarianism, what has been most fascinating during this last year has been the silence from a particular quarter.

I do not really have a stake in the evangelical complementarian game.  Now, to be clear, I do not believe in women's ordination to church office and I do believe men and women are different.  Anyone who doubts my belief that gender is tied to biology and that men and women are different should check my posts over at First Things.  But the CBMW game is too much of a single-issue cause, too wide-ranging and micro-managing, and too shaped by reaction to feminism for my tastes.  It does not really interest me and I have thrown my pennyworth in on the matter over the last year only because people in my congregation read and listen to such material.

There is, however, a constituency out there which surely has a deep concern about this matter: Self-described complementarian women.  And what is stunning is that the Top Girls have remained publicly silent on the weird claims and inconsistent behavior of some of the Top Men on this score.  La Diva has, as far as I can tell, been left publicly twisting in the breeze on these matters.

We do not need a replay of The Bacchae or even a public burning of denim jumpers.  We simply need intelligent critique of the chaos that now is practical complementarianism.  And it would be most powerful and constructive if it came from leading complementarian women. For they are the ones whose cause is made ridiculous by a leadership which promotes a culture of neurotic angst about simple career plans and yet which shares gospel platforms with people channeling Joyce Meyer.  It is time to speak up.

Any takers?  Anyone?

Posted on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In one of those surreal twists of fate that sounds like the start of a corny joke ('A presbyterian minister, his wife and an Archbishop walk into a bar....), the present Mrs Trueman and I recently found ourselves having dinner in a Philly pub with Charles Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.  Separated by a fair amount of theology, we are yet very much united by concerns over religious freedom and the chaos that is contemporary sexual identity politics.

At one point in the meal, I thanked the Archbishop for the difficult stands he has taken on a host of matters in Philadelphia, especially those on LGBTQ issues.  He paused, looked me in the eye and then commented 'You know, Carl, it is never difficult to do the right thing.  It can be very tiring. But it is never difficult.'

I thought of that comment when I read Todd's post of yesterday and wondered why there is such chaos and indifference in so much of Christian higher education.  It is never difficult to do the right thing.  Only tiring.  That's all.

Posted on Thursday, December 10, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I see there is a book signing in Moscow, Idaho, today and tomorrow.  I wonder, which of the authors will be there to put their John Hancocks on the title page?  Greg Bahnsen and Ellen G. White are both dead so I assume they are unavailable -- but maybe Iain Murray, Paul Rose, Wayne Blank and Tim Challies will be joining the festivities?  As the man says, should be a collector's item before sundown.  But maybe not for the reasons originally assumed.

Some people think I take an overly pessimistic view of the way in which the conservative Protestant world of big gospel business does its work and imposes its agenda.  I think I may ultimately prove to have been a naive optimist. Because it's a very small, self-policing world, as Rod Dreher makes clear in his critique of this mendacious buffoonery at the end of his blog.

But I am sure I can hear the sound of the Idaho wagon train circling even as I write.

 

STOP PRESS: Looks like the book signing is off.  I guess they just realized White and Bahnsen couldn't make it without somebody breaching Old Testament law.

Posted on Thursday, December 10, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The redoubtable Rachel Miller has found some fascinating instances of what would appear to be plagiarism.  To quote Yogi Berra, 'It's like deja-vu, all over again.'   But Rachel's only a woman, so I guess she has no authority to point this out.  Back to business as usual, then?

Posted on Tuesday, December 08, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Seeing Todd’s post yesterday on adultery reminded me of a conversation I had on Sunday night.  A student (the one who combines excellent taste in dating with an apparent reckless disregard for his own safety -- hey, I'm still watching you, sunshine....) said he had heard of a pastor who had been caught in adultery but had now been forgiven by his wife, reconciled to her, and was back in the pastorate.   His (the pastor’s) argument was that we are all sinners and so why should this sin be more serious than others.  What did I think of such?  Not a lot, as it happens.

The book by John Armstrong which Todd recommends is excellent in laying out the arguments as to why restoration to office is not possible in such circumstances (though restoration to fellowship in the church is, of course, for those who have repented).

One thing I would like to add though is a comment on a particular version of the ‘we’re all sinners, so it’s really ok’ argument.  In one instance, while debating whether a particular individual was qualified for office, a person read to me the list of qualifications for eldership and declared: ‘If we apply those, then nobody will ever be qualified!’

Really?  Is it so hard to be faithful to one’s wife? To be sober minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach?  Not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy for money? A good manager of one’s household, and well-respected in the neighbourhood? The list, as far as it connects to personal qualities, is simply demanding what my father would have called ‘basic decency.’  To use the list as if it demands sinless perfection is perverse.  Ironically, it can then lead to dismissing it as irrelevant in practice.  That actually leads to a lowering of the bar below the level of basic decency, which is clearly an abuse of the text.

The idea that adultery is not disqualifying for office because all are sinners is a silly, self-serving argument.  The options are not ‘sinless perfection’ or ‘nothing really matters.’ Basic biblical decency is the standard.  Not hard to achieve.   And the argument for permanent disqualification for adultery rests upon the peculiarly heinous nature of the violation of the marriage bond.  The unique significance of physical, sexual union, the depth of betrayal of trust involved, and the mockery of the relationship of Christ to the church which such constitutes, all serve to make this particular transgression exceptionally serious.  Not the unforgiveable sin by any means but certainly irreversible when it comes to its significance for office-bearing in the church.  That is what I have told my own elders should apply to me if ever I commit adultery.  And I pray – and take practical steps -- every day to make sure that I do not do so.

Posted on Monday, December 07, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Four or five years ago, I pointed out that a certain well-known sociologist who had built his career railing against Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was reviewing his own books on Amazon and giving them five stars.  I indicated that I was a bit old fashioned when it came to book reviews and still held to the prehistoric, unenlightened notion that they were best done by people who were not actually the authors.  Amazing to tell, said book reviews vanished within 48 hours.  Payback came in the form of an email from this sociologist who told me that I 'would be pitiable' if I 'were not so annoying.'  That's what I call a result.  And I'm saving that particular comment for a book commendation at some point.

Well, looks like the PCA are in on the act -- Sean Lucas giving two of his own books an 'honorable mention' in the year's Top Ten. 

As an immigrant, I want to be culturally sensitive. I really do -- you know how much such things mean to me. Perhaps reviewing and recommending your own books is an American thing? 

Posted on Tuesday, December 01, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In reflecting on Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism after nearly a century, it is very clear that it is a work which presents in particular Christian form the pathologies of the modern age.  In its prioritizing of experience and psychology, its disdain for history, and its practical suspicion of institutional authority, the ‘Christian’ liberalism of Machen’s day was scarcely unique.  The question then comes: What is to be done?  How can the church today, surveying the landscape that has been so utterly changed by the cultural trends which Machen so feared, respond?

It seems to me several points suggest themselves.

First, the church needs to understand that the forces pressing for her theological and moral dissolution are deeply embedded in the currents of the modern world.  It is not simply that the church needs to guard the teaching office through appropriately orthodox training for pastors and elders, though she certainly needs to do that.  The church must realize the size of the task that lies before her.   The forces Machen saw at work in the church of his day continue to shape the hearts and minds of congregants six – perhaps even seven – days a week.    And we need to understand that these forces operate in a manner which is not primarily argumentative.      Truth is conceived of in aesthetic terms and what constitutes virtue is a function of taste. This is because people are watching soap operas and sitcoms and commercials, not because vast numbers of congregants are reading Wilhelm Reich or tomes of post-Freudian theory.  
We need to understand that Biblical illiteracy is no longer simply an informational issue, a lack of knowledge of the biblical text and story line.  The problem is not simply that people have never heard of Noah or even perhaps Jesus. It is the fact that they do not even think any more in terms of the most basic categories with which the Bible operates, perhaps most fundamentally the idea of human nature as a given.  And they do not even realize that the way they think now is not the way it has to be.  The task that lies before the church is thus much vaster and more difficult than we could ever have imagined.

Second, history as an authority needs to be regained Christianity is as an historical religion in terms of its institutions, its creeds and confessions.  It rests upon a fundamental assertion of the importance of history as the means by which God works.  Machen’s analysis of liberalism resonates with Rieff’s analysis of the great intentional forgetting of the past.   The cultivating of an appropriately historical mindset is crucial; but the manner in which this is to be done is not immediately obvious, given the pervasive impact of the anti-historical  nature of the new barbarism.  

Take pornography, for instance, which is probably the number one pastoral problem within the church today.  We tend to think of it in terms of lust, objectification of other people etc.  Yet lust is only part of the issue.  Pornography divorces sex from real relationships, and thus from any kind of personal narrative or history.  It thus cultivates a mindset which is, in a sense, profoundly gnostic and ironically so – one of the most basic bodily functions, one of the most powerfully physical activities, is effectively disembodied.  And that which is meant to connect the individual to a much larger personal narrative and history is abstracted from any kind of relationship whatsoever.   Porn does not simply cultivate lust and the objectification of sexual partners.  It quietly erodes and destroys the authority of history as well.   Such is just one example – consumerism, the entertainment industry, and the basic psychologizing of life all cultivate patterns of thought that see history as at best irrelevant, at worst something that needs to be overcome.  That is lethal to an historical religion.

Third – and I know you are all just waiting for me to say this -- churches need elaborate confessions.  Just think of how the evangelical penchant for brief doctrinal statements has undone so many churches recently?  After all, how many home-made  12-point doctrinal confessions ever dealt with marriage?  The great confessions of the Protestant church generally did so.  Those churches that combined a Biblicism with an ignoring of history and the simple dogmatic aesthetic of the modern age often abandoned these historic confessions, in a manner I would argue has more to do with the spirit of the age than with actual biblical teaching.   And now they are about to pay the price, maybe even legally.

Ironically, confessional churches are in a much stronger position both pedagogically and indeed legally, relative to developments surrounding issues such as same sex marriage.   When marriage is confessionally defined as between one man and one woman, all other permutations are ruled out of bounds.  Thus, even a document whose authors could not even have conceived of gay marriage has in practice addressed the matter quite adequately in terms of confessional function.   That makes pedagogy and legal defense of a refusal to countenance gay marriage somewhat easier.

Nevertheless, there is a price to pay here: to return to the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is inevitably to return to the divisions of that era.  The challenge which Machen poses to the church is, on one level, the challenge to take the particularity of confessional subscription seriously.  And doing so may well militate against significant co-belligerence in the secular sphere.  Though perhaps Machen’s view might be that such co-belligerence, when it has taken on a quasi-ecclesiastical hue, was always actually an ironic part of the problem, rather than a stepping-stone to the solution.

Fourth, the church as an institution needs to be reasserted, and that with consistency and integrity.   Mere paper orthodoxy is not enough.  The church has to be what she says she is; and that will require tough decisions by those in leadership, and sometimes decisions which may involve some sacrifice.    Only when the church takes heterosexual marriage seriously, for example, will she be able to be the aroma of life to life, or death to death, to the world to whom she witnesses.  And that means not just complaining about society marrying gay couples.  More than that, it means taking appropriate pastoral and disciplinary action against those who engage in adultery and cheap divorces.   If such actions have no consequences, then the church has no moral authority at all.

This is also surely the only way of pursuing Christian discipleship.  The purpose of the church is not to facilitate the self-realization of psychological man but to turn psychological man, the man who claims absolute sovereignty over himself, into the servant of the God who is sovereign over all.  And that requires nurture within a social environment whose culture is the very antithesis of the world around, an environment where the Word stands over against the individual’s autonomy and calls men and women to obedience.  Only in an organized community shaped by that Word will individuals truly come to know who they are and to be what they should be.   The church as institution is the necessary corollary to the Word as external authority.  Thus, a repudiation of the church as a confessing and confessional institution is a repudiation of the very means for human beings to be truly human.

Finally, as I looked again at Machen’s work, I was struck by how he saw in an infant form the very pathologies of the modern age which led to that which Rieff calls ‘the coming barbarism.’  Perhaps I might close by suggesting that were someone to write the equivalent today they might think of giving such a book another title.   Indeed, in its repudiation of all forms of external authority and its exaltation of the individual, the modernism which Machen critiqued has become something much more obviously antithetical to the faith and something much uglier and much nastier.  Given this, an appropriate title might well be not Christianity and Liberalism but Christianity and Barbarism.