Posted on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A few weeks ago, at ca. 10 pm at night, I received an email from a former student of about a decade ago.  He was writing to let me know that, whatever good I thought I might have done in this life, I needed to understand that he had become an atheist because of me.  He told me in no uncertain terms that it was me who had turned him decisively away from the faith.  He did not cite specifics but referred to my ‘abhorrent lifestyle.'   As I do not recall ever seeing him outside of the campus context, I am guessing he must have been referring to that rather unfortunate baby eating incident behind Machen Hall in 2007 -- but, in my defense, it was only a small baby and, after the police interviewed me and explained the problem, I never did it again.



Of course, it is always sad to hear of someone losing their faith but this particular email provoked two thoughts in me as I read it. 



The first was that in its absolute self-absorption this was a quintessentially millennial theodicy problem.  Now, there are serious atheists out there and there are difficult questions for Christians to answer. If someone says to me that the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust means that God cannot exist, I do not agree but I am going to take the matter with the seriousness it demands.  Likewise, if a grieving parent tells me that the death of their three-year-old child from cancer has raised serious questions about God’s loving sovereignty, I can see that that is a substantial problem which deserves a substantial response.  But, come on -- ‘You were a nasty church history professor.  You were horrid to me.  You really were.   Therefore God does not exist.'  Really?   That is not only a piece of logical and metaphysical nonsense.  It is also a piece of contemptible trivia, of decisive weight only to one who is completely self-absorbed.   Unworthy of note except as a reminder that not all atheism merits a serious response, not all atheists are intellectual heavy weights, and not all suffering is equal.



And the second thought? I guess it’s this:  Don’t email hated former professors late at night when you’ve had a few too many and your self-pity levels are even higher than normal.  It not only interrupts my watching Swedish crime noir over a decent Italian red, it’s also undignified.  It makes you sound ridiculously self-pitying.  And it’s a risible trivialization of the serious theodicy questions of those who have really suffered pain and contradiction in this life.

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

I have received unexpected and unsolicited gifts of two drinking vessels recently.  The first, from the person we at the Spin know simply as Evil Amy the Less, the author who last year had the slanderous temerity to base (and indeed name) the character of an alcoholic priest in her novel of medieval times upon a distinguished and universally loved and respected church historian, needs no further comment.


The second, however, provoked more substantial historical ruminations.  It arrived yesterday and is a beer glass with one of my favourite Luther quotations inscribed upon it, taken from one of the Invocavit Sermons of 1522.  The curvature of the glass means that the picture is not entirely legible but the whole statement reads as follows:


“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no price or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.”


I love this quotation, mainly because it references beer and thus clearly indicates that no Southern Baptist leader could ever claim Luther as an antecedent (and that is even before we touch upon his theology of baptism, the Lord’s Supper etc etc etc).  Bear that in mind during this 500th anniversary year....  But I also love it because it rests upon Luther’s supreme confidence in the proclamation of the Word.


In the popular imagination, it is the Diet of Worms where Luther is at his most vulnerable, standing before the massed elite of the Holy Roman Empire, to defend his theology (and I have a porcelain beer growler commemorating that scene).  In fact, other moments were equally risky – Augsburg in October 1518, for example.  And we also know in retrospect that Frederick the Wise had instructed his equivalent of the special forces to make sure Luther was kept safe.  Hence, his ‘kidnapping’ and subsequent sojourn in the Wartburg Castle under the pseudonym Junker Georg.


But while Luther stayed at the Wartburg, leadership in Wittenberg passed to his colleagues, the non-descript but radically inclined Konrad Zwilling, the young and gentle Philip Melanchthon, and the passionate Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt.


Karlstadt had been Luther’s senior colleague.  He was part of the Wittenberg faculty theological discussions driven by the rediscovery of the works of Augustine.   He had stood shoulder to shoulder with Luther at the Leipzig Disputation in April 1519.  Yet he was flawed.  Too verbose for his own good, it was inevitable that he would be literarily eclipsed by the talented pen of Doctor Martin.  And he tended towards a transformationist theological vision.


Late in 1521, Karlstadt and Zwilling started to drive the Wittenberg reformation in a radical direction.  Stirring up iconoclasm and riots, Karlstadt took to walking around Wittenberg dressed as a peasant and officiating at mass in a plain robe.   Then three individuals arrived, the Zwickau Prophets, who believed in the continuing direct leading of the Holy Spirit and thereby neglected the crucial centrality of the Word and the inseparability of Word and Spirit.


Wittenberg looked set to descend into chaos.  Luther returned incognito in December 1521 and, while pleased at the strides the reforms were making, he was deeply disturbed by the chaotic atmosphere and the iconoclasm.  Then, in early 1522, the Elector recalled him to the town permanently.


This was the moment Luther was most vulnerable.  Like Will Kane in High Noon, he was now totally alone.  His theological allies were either too timid or had gone over to the charismatic lunacy of the men from Zwickau.  The knights were conspicuous by their absence.  And the Elector was waiting to see what would happen: he knew that if the reformation in Wittenberg could not be brought under control, he risked invasion from the Emperor; if Luther failed, Frederick would have to reimpose the old ways.  Luther had no decisive allies.  It was all down to him.


In this context Luther quite literally preached the reformation back onto a stable footing in a remarkable series of pulpit performances which come down to us as the Invocavit Sermons on 1522.  By the time he had finished, the Zwickau whackos were gone, and Zwilling and Karlstadt had had to leave Wittenberg.  Luther was back in control with Melancthon as his gentle second-in-command.  Others, like Justus Jonas, who had been swept up in the madness had returned to sanity.  All was well.  Luther had preached God's Word and God's Word had done it all. And it is from these – and from that crisis moment – that this quotation is drawn.



So every time I sip the amber nectar from this wonderful glass, I will thank God that I am not a Southern Baptist and then I will praise him for the power of his Word as so admirably demonstrated in Wittenberg in the dark months of early 1522.


POSTSCRIPT: The glass is produced by Reformation Glass whose products are available via Amazon but not through the SBC.


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.