Trueman Called It

trueman

This last couple of days I have been at the Paideia Center conference at RTS Orlando, where the main subject was the doctrine of the Trinity. The lectures and panels were all excellent, but I wanted to quickly highlight something Carl Trueman mentioned in passing (and I can’t remember if it was in a lecture or one of the panels). Back in 2002 he had an editorial in Themelios, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act,” in which he warned of the deleterious effects upon theology if the curriculum neglected the historic categories and simply fed students on a diet of pure ‘Biblical’ theology of the redemptive-historical sort.

While there is nothing wrong with it in and of itself, it has it’s limits:

My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse. Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism; the theological unity of the bible will be swallowed up and destroyed by its diversity because it has no foundation in the one God who speaks; and Christian exclusivism will be sacrificed to a meaningless pluralism as the church’s narrative is reduced to having significance only within the bounds of the Christian community. I suspect that ‘Openness theism’ is merely the most well known heresy to have been nurtured in the anti-doctrinal, anti-tradition world of contemporary evangelicalism; it will certainly not be the last. And my fear is that the overwhelming economic emphasis of the biblical theology trajectory effectively cuts the church off from probing the ontological questions which I believe are demanded by reflection upon the biblical text, by consideration of the church’s tradition, and by our Christian commitment to the notion of the existence of a God who has revealed himself yet whose existence is prior to that revelation.

You can (and should) read the rest here.

I want to note a few things. First, this was fourteen years before the Trinity Debate of 2016, so I think we can all agree that despite Trueman’s notorious (and endearing) pessimism, he wasn’t just whistling in the dark. All has not been well in contemporary Evangelicalism’s theology proper for a long while.

I’ll just pitch in for myself that the problems are not just seen in things like open theism or the Trinity debate. They have had repercussions down the line into other areas of dogmatics. Atonement doctrine, for one, is a place where I have become convinced that only a recovery and appreciation of some of the classic ontological categories and judgments can make sense of our account of the person and work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection.

Without thick accounts of things like the nature of the persons, relations of origin, unity of operations, the two natures of Christ, as well as attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, we don’t have the proper grammar to explain what we mean when we say that the Son was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this has contributed to some of the blowback and problematic rejections of classic Protestant doctrine on this score.

Now, the encouraging thing is that this is changing (I think). A number of helpful retrieval projects are afoot among Protestant and Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars going to work today. Heck, the Trinity Debate itself was salutary on that score. (Which is a good reminder for those of us who tend to think all theological polemic is just divisive and unhelpful for the church.)

Still, it’s an uphill battle. I’ll only throw in my one cent of caution for the younger folks leading retrieval charge: don’t over-correct in the other direction. As one older pastor warned me, you need to do some of this overhaul work, but if you go too far in the other direction, you’ll just face the pendulum swing back in the next generation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Interpreting the Text to Death with Kierkegaard

kierkegaard 2It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not at all obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. This is part of why we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers who will roll up their sleeves and carry on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church.

Of course, under-interpretation, simplistic readings, and a lack of textual nuance aren’t the only danger we run when it comes to interpretive task. Indeed, Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” –For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point—hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Obviously, this isn’t an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day, though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria