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

Mere Fidelity w/ Carl Trueman: Did the Reformation Ruin Everything?

Mere FiThis week on Mere Fidelity we had the pleasure of hosting Carl Trueman, professor of church history and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, author of a good many excellent books on Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. On this episode, we asked Trueman about a number of the recent challenges to the Reformation: Is it actually something to celebrate or is it rather a tragic loss to be mourned? Did Luther and Calvin tear the sacred Tapestry of the Enchanted Medieval world? Did Sola Scriptura really split the Church? What should we make of history and causation? In other words, how much impact did Luther really have, or should we be blaming Ford’s Model-T for the modern fragmentation instead?

I have to say, this is hands-down a top 5 favorite episode for me, so I hope you enjoy.

And if you do, please do leave us a review on iTunes. We are also available on Google Play.

If you’re interested in supporting the show financially, you can check out our Patreon here.

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.

Calvin: Troubler of Israel?

Calvin trouble.jpgIt seems obvious enough to say that trouble is often a matter of perspective. In a marriage, one spouse might think everything is hunky-dory (a phrase whose original meaning still escapes me), while the other is thoroughly convinced that things are in need of an intervention.

From another angle, even when you both may agree that there is trouble, that there are “tumults”, but there’s no consensus about who the main “troubler” is. Indeed, some of our biggest disputes from childhood on revolve around the question “who started it?”

Concerns such as these are, in part, what motivated John Calvin to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While later editions were intended for a variety of purposes like introducing theological students to the proper entryway for reading Scripture, he initially wrote his brief outline of the Christian faith as a defense, an apologia, of the new Evangelical faith of his fellow-believers against violent persecution, especially in France.

Indeed, in his preface to King Francis I, he states this is part of his goal, and then within the preface he sets about answering a number of the charges typically lodged against the Reformation of his day such as novelty, the violation of custom, and so forth. The preface as a whole is classic Calvin and worth your time. (I enjoy the section on the Fathers, in particular).

What caught my eye this read through was his segment on the charge that the Reformation brought about “disturbances, tumults, and contentions” that preaching Evangelical doctrine seemed to produce. In the eyes of their critics, Medieval and contemporary, the Evangelical reform was a destructive event, disturbing the peace of the Church. Obviously, true doctrine would not have such negative effects on the holy Church of God.

Calvin’s response is instructive.

First, Calvin takes the objection and flips it. He says that instead of blaming the Evangelicals, critics should have blamed “Satan’s malice.” Because it is “a certain characteristic of the divine Word, that it never comes forth while Satan is at rest and sleeping.” While the Word was buried, Satan “lay idle and luxuriated in deep repose.” But now, one of clearest signs that this Evangelical preaching is the work of God is precisely the tumults that the Word is provoking! Just as it was in the days of Jesus, when the strong man assaulted the kingdom of darkness, so now, Satan stirs up trouble from all sectors to stop the movement of the kingdom of God.

Second, and this is the part that caught my eye, Calvin notes that it’s frequently the case that the Word of God stirs up accusation against it.

Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [1 Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. The charge of stirring up the people was laid against the apostles [Acts 24:5 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [1 Kings 18:18].

When Elijah went preaching in Israel and proclaimed the drought against it for its idolatries under Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab called him “you troubler of Israel.” In Ahab’s mind, if Elijah weren’t around, things would be running smoothly. The drought is Elijah’s fault. A similar situation was true of the apostles’ preaching and, of course, Jesus himself.

But Calvin’s point is that the critics have it exactly backwards. The truth is not the source of the trouble. It only shines a light on the darkness, exposing what has hitherto gone unnoticed. Yes, it is the occasion of outrage, but it is not the true cause. Ahab and the Baals he supported were the true troublers of Israel. Or again, it wasn’t Christ who troubled Israel, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who had the people following the traditions of men as the Law of God. It wasn’t the apostles who were at fault for proclaiming the true God in the face of the pagan idols, but the idolaters.

In other words, “we didn’t start the fire.”

Calvin’s counterpoint is interesting because the charge against the Reformation of inciting “tumult” of various sorts is still with us. Only now we’ve got scholarly monographs arguing that the Reformation with its doctrines of the clarity of Scripture, sola Scriptura, and so forth, unleashed tumults of a different sort: individualism, skepticism, rationalism, and the evils of the Enlightenment. Brad Gregory’s widely-influential (even among Protestants prone towards guilty conscience) and widely-criticized The Unintended Reformation is one such work.

In an older review to which I return regularly with great delight, Carl Trueman makes a Calvinian point about Gregory’s criticism of all the ills following the interpretive diversity fostered by the doctrines of sola scriptura and the clarity of Scripture. He points out a number of objective, unpleasant facts about the Papacy of the Medieval period prior to the Reformation (disorder, multiple popes, corruption, etc). And then he drops this humdinger of a paragraph:

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

In other words, even if you grant that the Reformation troubled the Church, it was the trouble that follows another, arguably deeper trouble by way of response.

I wouldn’t dare claim that the Reformation was without its faults. Nor do I think that Luther, Calvin, and the crew were necessarily on par with the apostles. Nor am comparing the whole Medieval Catholic Church to the teachers of the Law, or Israel under Ahab. (And actually, in that same preface, Calvin himself refutes the idea that the Church was absent until the Reformation.)

That conceded, I do think it’s worth stopping and considering whether in our dismay about some of the ills of Western Christendom, we have paid enough attention to Calvin’s logic in defense of the Evangelicals: when the Word of God goes forth, we ought to expect tumults, both from the light it shines as well as the opposition it provokes.

I’ve written about moving past my shame-faced Protestantism before, so I guess what I’m saying is that the more I read and study, the less I’m convinced we ought to buy the line that Luther and Calvin were the troublers of God’s Israel, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria  

Trueman on Why Engage Karl Barth Even If You Think He’s Weird

engaging Barth.jpgThis Fall I’ll be taking a semester reading course on the massively influential, 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. I’ll be focusing on his doctrine of God, with a particular emphasis on his treatment of the divine attributes or “perfections”, to use his terminology. My hope is that it will help me do some preparatory work in thinking through the structure and shape of the doctrine of God for my (hopefully) eventual dissertation on the attribute of God’s holiness.

Also, I’ve been wanting an excuse to take a deep dive into his Church Dogmatics for a while. So there’s that as well.

As a Reformed(ish) Evangelical, mentioning that you’re going to be spending time with Karl Barth may raise some eyebrows, though. Well, not in all circles. (Even here at Trinity, in the house that Carl Henry built, we’re regularly encouraged and expected to be able to read widely beyond traditionally Evangelical authors.)

Still, Barth’s kind of odd and difficult to understand on some key points of doctrine. And when even when you can understand him, he says some things about Scripture, God’s being, etc. that have left people predictably (and not unfairly) uncomfortable. Even (maybe especially) if you’ve never read him, you know to be cautious.

There’s a fear that once you dive in, you might get become disoriented in the haze of all that heavy dialectic and be lost, if not to Orthodoxy, then at least to the regular patterns of English language usage.

So what value is there for someone of fairly traditional theological instincts for spending so much time poring over his mountainous tomes and the mists of difficult secondary that enshroud them? Especially if you suspect you might spend a fair amount of time disagreeing with him?

Carl Trueman actually has one of the better answers for the skeptical.

In the foreword to a collection of essay by Evangelicals interacting with Karl Barth on a host of issues, Trueman sort of sets the scene for why Barth remains such a relevant figure for Evangelical theological interest. Towards the end he lists a few issues like the appeal of his dynamic doctrine of Scripture, some of the cross-appeal with developments in philosophy of language, and the focus on narrative in theology.

At this point he asks, “But is Barth the answer?”

On one level, I would most definitely say no. For myself, I believe Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian, offers a more helpful resource on each of these points; but, on another level, interacting with Barth as a great mind wrestling with serious issues is surely of tremendous value. I often tell my students that great theologians are most helpful at precisely those points where I disagree with them, for it is there I am forced to wrestle most passionately, and there that my own thought is clarified and strengthened.

Engaging With Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiquesed. David Gibson and Daniel Strange (15)

So, first off: Herman Bavinck, y’all. ‘Nuff said.

But more seriously, at the almost purely negative level, then, Trueman says that wrestling with a high-caliber thinker you know you disagree with can help you more fully grasp the logic of your own position, as well as strengthen your theological resolve.

I have seen that time and again, especially in my readings in atonement theology. Some of the most beneficial works I have read were the critiques, precisely because the strength and force of their objections forced me to clarify points at which my thought was too fuzzy. Or in other cases, I had to work to ground my logic even deeper in Scripture, studying passages more deeply in their context and so forth.

Put less negatively, with creative thinkers like Barth, the very “weirdness” of some of the moves they make stretch you and press you deeper into the logic of the issue.

For instance, reading about the way Barth has reordered and coordinated his reading of God’s attributes in distinction to the classical discussion has helped some blocks start to fall into place for me. Instead of treating the more “metaphysical” or incommunicable attributes of “freedom” like independence, omnipresence, and so forth first, as the tradition typically did, Barth flips the order and deals with attributes of “loving” like holiness, patience, and so forth. But why?

To overly-simplify, thought that starting out with the attributes that give you free, independent God tended to leave you with problems when you got around to thinking about that free God setting about actually loving anything outside himself. The metaphysical logic of independence seems to take over undermine our ability to talk about God’s love. In order to counterbalance that problem, Barth starts with the God who definitely loves, and then sets about thinking through how this God is free.

Of course, what’s fascinating is that when you start thinking through developments in 20th Century theology, much of looks like an exercise in making the opposite “mistake” (if you buy Barth’s critique). So much theology starts with an account God’s loving (process, panentheism, etc.) and then has all kinds of trouble talking about God’s freedom or independence. To engage in a bit of clarifying caricature, instead of a cold, self-contained, metaphysical box, you’ve got a warm, co-dependent, metaphysical mess.

In which case, you start begin see some of the appeal of the old logic a bit better in hindsight. But that sort of thing becomes clearer in light of the sort of transitional figure like Barth that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the (over-neat) camps.

And that’s just one example.

Now, given what I have read of Barth in the past, I’m hopeful reason to read Barth for the simple, positive reason that Barth was brilliant. So I’m thinking I’ll profit plenty beyond the weirdness and stretching.

Well, if after all that you’re still worried about me, just know I’m also taking a class on Calvin this Fall, so that ought to even things out.

Soli Deo Gloria 

 

 

Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

CarlTruemanOften-times in modern conversations between Catholics and Protestants, the challenge of the apparent chaos of Protestant interpretive pluralism is wielded against the idea that Scripture is “perspicuous” or clear enough with regard to the issues of salvation and so forth. The idea is that Protestants opened up a Pandora’s box with the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture alone, ultimately, is our final norm for theology. Of course, there’s the usual misunderstanding here that for the early Reformers this didn’t mean ignoring tradition entirely, but even when that is conceded, the point is still raised that Protestants have made a mess of things. It should be obvious given all of our denominations, and all of our theological disputes, that the “clarity” of Scripture isn’t all that clear, and that’s one more reason we need Papal authority, and the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church in order to give us something solid to stand on. It’s one, or the only, check we have against the sort of interpretive anarchy we see in all of our “Well, I feel like this means…” Evangelical Bible studies.

In a review of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which, among other things, argues along these lines, Carl Trueman argues that this line of thought tends to forget one key issue: the perspicuity of Scripture was put forward as a response to the mess of the Medieval papacy:

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Trueman is no rabid Rome-hater, but points these things out in blunt form because he’s:

...simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Of course, none of this is an actual argument for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, or sola scriptura. For that, I’d commend Mark D. Thompson’s fine book A Clear and Present Word.  All that same, these are points ought to be kept in mind the next time the papacy, or the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is presented as an obvious answer to the issue of Protestant interpretive pluralism.

It’s not that obvious.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Ecumenism of Exile and the Future of Protestant Unity

Sanders, Leithart, R. Gaffin's grandson (RG4), and yes, I did get Trueman in a photo. Unfortunately it wasn't a selfie.

Sanders, Leithart, R. Gaffin’s grandson (RG4), and yes, I did get Trueman in a photo. Unfortunately it wasn’t a selfie.

Just this last week Biola University hosted conversation on The Future of Protestantism between theologians Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman. Matthew Lee Anderson over at MereOrthodoxy.com got it into his head to pull these three together after and exchange last year between LeithartSanders, and, once again, Leithart, on whether Protestantism as a sort of “Glad Protestantism” should have a future, or whether it should give way to some sort of “Reformational Catholicism.” So, the newly formed Davenant Trust (which you should go check out and support!), Biola’s Torrey Honors Program, and First Things sponsored the whole thing, pulling Trueman in, because, well, he’s Trueman.

The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating, and has been aptly summarized elsewhere, and can be viewed in its entirety here. Kudos to everyone involved in putting it on. These are exactly the sort of conversations Evangelicalism needs to having more often.

Two major, overarching comments before proceeding to my main point. The first is that it could have been aptly named the The Present of Protestantism, or The Past of Protestantism Recapitulated. In recently reading a Calvin biography, I couldn’t help but see in the differing approaches of Sanders, Leithart, and Trueman to the present challenges, an analogue to the original debates between the early Reformers who had varying contextual concerns. One seemed more concerned to reunify with Rome while beating off the Anabaptists, another to bring the Swiss and the Germans together, and still another to the Turkish threat looming from the East.

Second, the interlocuters seemed to be discussing the issues on different registers. Every time Sanders or Trueman pressed Leithart on some doctrinal or practical point, he’d say something like, “Well, yes, I don’t see any problem with you doing that,” or, “Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever denied that.” At that point I’d think to myself, “Well, that argument seemed to shrink quite a bit.”

All that said, there was one thread in particular that I thought deserved some development, or tugging on and that’s the issue of what we might call “the ecumenism of exile.” Do forgive the ramble the follows.

Ecumenism in Exile?

At the heart of Dr. Leithart’s proposal was a now widely-discussed figural reading of Israel’s history in which the split and reunification of Israel in the forge of the exile is something of a picture of, or historical precursor to, the reunification in which the public unity of the church is realized. It’s not merely the death of Protestant tribalism, but really, the eschatological coming together of Protestant and Roman two into one new man again, a la, Ephesians 2.

What was interesting to me was how that dovetailed with Trueman’s initial comments on the coming cultural isolation and marginalization of Christianity in the modern American West. He’s helpfully excerpted them here:

Christianity, at least in its traditional, orthodox forms, is about to see itself politically and socially marginalized in America in a way unprecedented in history.  Central to this is the way in which same sex marriage has come to function both culturally and legally. Recent judicial rulings and the appropriation of the idioms of the Civil Rights movement have effectively shut down intelligent discussion on the issue in the public square. This will change everything for Christians.   It is one thing to be regarded as intellectually foolish for believing in the resurrection of the dead; it is quite another to be regarded as morally dangerous for believing that marriage is to be between one man and one woman.  Societies generally tolerate idiots, allowing them to go about their daily business unhindered. Peddlers of hate typically have a harder time.  Conservative American Christians must realize not simply that they are no longer kingmakers in election years; they might soon not even be regarded as legitimate members of society in many quarters. 

These two threads were pulled together by Brad Littlejohn’s question in the Q&A portion to Dr. Leithart on the visible unity of the Church in the headlines of the Huffington post. Essentially, Littlejohn asked whether or not we haven’t achieved a sort of functional, public unity in the eyes of a progressive, unbelieving world that stands opposed to the supernaturalist, and especially moral conservatism of Christianity across confessions. In other words, the Huffington Post doesn’t care about what type of Presbyterian you are, or if you’re Orthodox instead of Catholic, so long as you’re on the wrong side of whatever social  justice issue they happen to be championing. And if, as Dr. Leithart mentioned, we do have Evangelical pastors reading papal encyclicals for moral guidance, linking arms with Catholics at the picket lines, haven’t we reached a place of effective public unity? Or something along those lines.

No, Yes, Maybe

As I listened to Littejohn’s question I found myself thinking, “Well, no. But, yes. But…maybe.” First, the no.

In the first place, we have to take into account the various liberal denominations out there, the rise of vocal, progressive Evangelicals on various social issues, and so forth. One of the things The Huffington Post and similar outlets like exploiting, in particular, is the kind of disunity on these social issues that American Christianity allows for because of its freewheeling character, lack of doctrinal discipline, and capitalism’s tendency to foster theological novelty as a form of entrepeneuership. Just last week the UCC sued for gay marriage in one state. I had a friend suggest, not implausibly, that next Time Man of the Year will probably be the first major Evangelical pastor to declare for gay marriage. So, in that case, I’d say the issue of public unity on moral and major theological issues is problematic.

And yet, and yet…I do find myself wondering whether the coming public exile, the marginalization of those who hold to a sort of historic moral orthodoxy (along with broadly Trinitarian confession), is precisely the cauldron that will purify, unify, and so forth. In other words, as conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Orthodox get kicked out of the public square for not playing by postmodern liberalism’s rules, we might possibly begin to band together since we don’t have the luxuries of living in Christendom, where clinging to denominational/doctrinal fights make sense.

Maybe this is where Sanders’ proposal comes into play. Maybe the future of Protestantism is a Trinitarian, Evangelical, “mere orthodoxy” that isn’t necessarily shy about distinctives, but doesn’t walk away from the table because of them? I do think there was quite a bit of overlap there between Sanders’ call for low church Evangelicals to return to the broad tradition, with Trueman’s more specific call to plunge deeply into Reformational, confessional, and yes, broadly catholic, sources. Perhaps that’s the answer?

I’m still not sure, though, for at least two reasons. First, I don’t have Leithart’s upbeat, postmillenial (possibly Hegelian) eschatology, so my convictions about the already/not-yet keep me from being so optimistic about the sort of almost institutional, visible, unity that he does. Truemanian pessimism has taken root for me here.

Second, this is where the issue of Trinitarian, Evangelical progressives comes in, which is the sort of thing that Sanders, Leithart, and Trueman didn’t address. Maybe that’s because they’re real theologians unconsumed with the blogosphere like I am. Still, in conversation with a couple of friends (Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts) we mused over the fact that if you try and go for some of that kind of lowest-common-denominator, Nicene, Evangelicalism as the baseline for agreement, then the challenge to present a public unity comes at you, not from the Catholics, but from the progressive left. Increasingly we’re seeing people who self-identify Evangelical (or Post-Evangelical), are Trinitarian, resurrection-affirming types, who nonetheless have left behind what I earlier referred to as the moral orthodoxy, that, though never enshrined in an ecumenical creed, up until about 40 years ago, was unquestioned across Christendom. The question that’s beginning to come up in these discussions is “Are the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds enough?”

Unfortunately, there’s a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” logic here. If you let the progressives in, so to speak, then–liberal fantasies about Francis aside–you essentially lose the ecumenism of exile with our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren. But, if you don’t, then there goes your broadly Trinitarian, Evangelical unity, and it seems sharper confessional lines have to be drawn. So, I guess it’s a “no, yes…well, probably not, but maybe if we sort this out…”

This isn’t an easy issue and it will take brighter minds than mine to puzzle it out. I think there are some good early stabs at an answer out there, and yet, ultimately, this is a puzzle only the Lord of the Church can sort out. The Future of Protestantism, and indeed, Christianity as whole, is thankfully in his hands.

So, along with having important conversations such as these, let us not forget to pray with the early church for our deepest hope of unity: “Come Lord Jesus!”

Soli Deo Gloria