Posted on Sunday, March 03, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A number of people have emailed with regard to my recent series asking versions of the following questions: But don’t words change their meaning over time?  So doesn’t the nature of what we subscribe inevitably change as well? 


A number of observations are in order. 


First, words do indeed change their meaning over time.  Even the process of creedal formulation bears witness to this: in 325, claims that there was more than one hypostasis in God was anathema; by 381, the claim that there were less than three hypostases in God was anathema.  The reason?  Theologians had redefined hypostasis to serve the purpose of orthodox doctrinal formulation. 


Second, when it comes to confessional subscription, the question is not ‘If we wrote this confessional document today, would we use the same words?’  Most likely we would not.  The question rather is ‘Can we affirm the concepts which this language was originally intended to express?’  That requires those of us subscribing to be taught well what the document meant – hence the importance of historical theology -- and then to decide if we can subscribe it in good conscience. 


Third, the claim that one subscribes to the words of the confession but that we need to understand them today in a different way is a long-established technique in Christian theology, but not one with a very impressive pedigree.   ‘We cannot believe in literal resurrection today but we still honestly affirm that Christ was raised – we just take it to mean the experience of his resurrection power in the life of the Christian community’ was the German liberal move in the nineteenth century.  ‘We do believe scripture is without error – we just define error today in such a strict way that we cannot apply it to claims about scripture in earlier confessional documents’ is another play on essentially the same historicizing approach.  And ‘Yes, I affirm simplicity and impassibility – but we now know that they cannot mean what the Westminster divines intended them to mean in the seventeenth century’ is a third.  In each case, one might respond that (a) subscribing a confession is a voluntary act and if you do not believe what they intend to express, you do not have to subscribe them (b) subscribing the confession but saying that the words now mean what I or my favorite modern philosopher/theologian want them to mean is the Humpty Dumpty fallacy (see my earlier post).


I think it was Cornelius Van Til who saw Karl Barth’s problem as being, in part, that he used the language of orthodoxy but to mean something that was far from orthodox.  Whether that is a fair characterization of Barth is beyond the scope of this blog; but Van Til’s point would seem to have potential relevance to more than just Barthianism.


Posted on Monday, February 11, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Etienne Gilson once commented that to be a competent philosopher, one also needs to be a competent historian of philosophy.  Given some of the heterodox ideas currently being promoted by those who claim to be confessional Protestants, Gilson’s rule would seem to apply to theologians as well. 


In my recent lecture on the doctrine of God for the Paideia Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, I observed that one of the justifications for Protestants today revising and rejecting the classical theism of Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments is the assertion that the Reformers did not subject the doctrine of God to the same rigorous examination in light of scripture as they did other doctrines, such as justification or the sacraments. 


Those who make such an assertion demonstrate an incompetent grasp of history. Yes, it is true that the Reformers did maintain the classical doctrine of God.  But we cannot conclude from this simple fact that this was because they did not subject it to their view of scripture as the norming norm.  We first need to take account of how and why the Reformers did reaffirm the classical position.  When this is done, the assertion that the Reformers held unreflectively to an unreformed doctrine of God appears at best to be only a half-truth -- and a mischievous and ill-informed one at that. 


It is mischievous because the argument that the Reformers did not sufficiently reform the doctrine of God is typically deployed by someone who wants to justify their own significant revision of the classical position while yet seeming to be orthodox and Protestant.  The move is thus rhetorically very clever: It allows the one repudiating the content of the Reformers’ theology to present that repudiation as if it is simply a more faithful and consistent application of the Reformers‘ method.   In short, he claims to reject the Reformation doctrine because he honors the Reformation spirit.   


It is ill-informed because it appears to be ignorant of the pattern of doctrinal discussion in the Reformation.  The early Reformation writings of numerous Reformers – most notably Melanchthon and Calvin – do reveal significant hesitancy in deploying the fine-tooled technical language of classical Trinitarianism.   It would seem (not surprisingly) that they desired to set forth the Christian faith in terms as close to those of the Bible as possible.  But by the time we reach the late the late 1530s the traditional Trinitarian language is becoming once again prominent.  And the reason for this is simple.  The Reformers, including Melanchthon and Calvin, learned the hard way – through contemporary challenges to the biblical doctrine of God – that theologians had developed the technical language and concepts of classical Trinitarianism because these provided the best and most effective means of expounding, defending, and preserving the biblical faith.   The idea that somehow the Reformers merely assumed the classical doctrine without thoroughly testing it by scripture is therefore simply incorrect. And contemporary theological revisionism predicated on such a notion is therefore historically incompetent. 


Of course, there is a further obvious problem when anyone who subscribes to the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, or the 1689 Baptist Confession, claims that classical theism needs revision.  These confessions explicitly affirm classical theism as biblical and those who take ex animo vows to such are therefore committed to believing and maintaining the same. If they cannot do so with a good conscience, they should not take the vows.  It is simply dishonest to affirm at one’s ordination that which one then denies in one’s teaching. 


As I noted at the start, Gilson’s rule clearly applies as much to theologians as to philosophers.


Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.

Posted on Tuesday, February 05, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'  

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'  

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'  

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass 



In the first three posts, I highlighted what might be missed or overlooked in contemporary theological education when Systematic Theology is confused with, or even replaced by, Biblical Theology.  In this final part I want to highlight the fact that the issue of the ST-BT relationship is not just theological and pedagogical. For confessional Protestants, it is also ecclesiastical because ministers take vows to uphold the faith as summarized in the great confessions of the Reformation.  Since those confessions were forged through the kind of dialectical doctrinal process which I noted in Part Two, it is highly questionable whether one can subscribe to them wholeheartedly and uphold their teaching without all that such a background involves. 


Before addressing this directly, however, a couple of preliminary observations are in order. 


First, it is important to note the role of seminaries in shaping contemporary expressions of the Reformed faith.  The reason is simple: they train the men who fill the pulpits of Reformed churches; therefore their curricula play a decisive role in how the Reformed faith is understood, yet these are not driven simply by the content and the priorities of their confessional standards.  There are a number of reasons for this. Faculty interests inevitably shape classroom content.  Institutional narratives often ascribe to local heroes a significance in the history of the Christian faith which they may not intrinsically merit.  That too is often reflected in the curriculum.  We also live at time where the market has many seminaries ostensibly committed to the same confessional standards and yet compete for a diminishing pool of students and donor dollars.  In such a context, there can be a real temptation to market marginal local distinctives as if they are vital to the essence of the Reformed faith.  I cannot address these matters here -- I intend to do so in the second of my forthcoming DenDulk Lectures at Westminster Seminary in California.  But in all that follows, it is important to bear in mind that the realities just described also play a significant part in the story of the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. 


Second, we should also note that the Christian faith is a dogmatic faith, a faith of assertions.  And the Reformed branch of Christianity expresses those dogmas and assertions in its confessions.  To be a Reformed Christian is therefore to believe in the dogmas and assertions those confessions contain.  It is doctrine that defines, not commitment to a redemptive-historical approach to exegesis or a particular approach to apologetics.  Those may be important, but they are at best secondary issues in terms of confessional subscription.   


Given this latter point, it should be clear from all that I have said in Parts 1-3 that Systematic Theology must play a central role in the theological curriculum and must never be confused with Biblical Theology. The historical and dialectical nature of the doctrinal formulations contained in the historic confessions which define the Reformed faith makes Systematic Theology and Historical Theology vital to understanding what they actually mean. 


Take the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 2, ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity.’   This chapter has both historical roots – it expresses the classical doctrine of God as found in the Nicene Creed and the tradition of Trinitarianism which flows through the Middle Ages to the Reformation  – and a historical context – it is designed, among other things, to rule completely out of bounds Socinianism, a seventeenth century form of open theism.  As a result, it uses technical vocabulary whose meaning has been defined within that historic tradition.  For example, it states that God is ‘infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense’ and so on.   What is important to note is that these words are carefully chosen because they already have precise, established definitions.  They are not empty placeholders onto which the reader can impose any meaning he chooses.  The rather banal conclusion we can draw is this: if the Confession states that God is without parts, or passions, it cannot therefore be understood as teaching that God does contain parts and is passible.  


This is where the problem of subscription to the Westminster Confession becomes problematic for those who have sloughed off the exegetical and metaphysical contexts which gave rise to its doctrines and language.   If one abstracts the notion of simplicity or impassibility from the metaphysics of pre-modern Christianity, there is a very great danger that one will subsequently use the classical terminology to express theology that is inconsistent with, or even antithetical to, what the Confession was attempting to express and protect.  The moral onus, therefore, is upon those Reformed theologians and institutions who detach themselves from that wider tradition to demonstrate that they still maintain what the Westminster Confession teaches.


My friend and former colleague, Lane Tipton, provides one example.  He is much more passionately committed to Biblical Theology and persuaded by the thought of Cornelius Van Til than I am; he is therefore a good example of the theologian who might well dis-embed the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of God from its original exegetical, metaphysical and polemical matrix and thereby risk losing the meaning of technical terms. But in a recent review of Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics, he asserts (and expresses agreement with) Vos’s commitment to the notion of God’s immutability: 


That there is no change in God as he creates—which is what the language of “no real change” is designed to safeguard—is a deeply creedal and confessional strand of orthodoxy. God freely wills a “new relation” that introduces no change in God as he wills that “new relation.” Hence, while not introducing change in God, either ad intra or ad extra, the absolute God freely wills a bona fide “new relation” in the act of creation, yet undergoes no change himself. Hence, God relates to the world as the absolute, triune Creator.  


It is worth adding that Vos can do what Dr. Tipton describes precisely because he does not allow Biblical Theology to override classical categories.  Rather, he is a creedal and confessional theologian who applies a Reformed doctrine of an absolute God, the God of classical theism, to his understanding of scriptural language which might seem, on a superficial reading, to impute real change to God.  Vos is still connected to, and appreciative of, the older dogmatic work of true Systematic Theologians. 


To repeat: as the terms of the Confession possess specific meaning and connect Presbyterianism to the historic, catholic, biblical doctrine of God, the onus therefore lies on the Biblical Theologians and those who adopt post-confessional theological frameworks to demonstrate that they still maintain the actual teaching of the Confession that God does not change, that the relationship between God and creation is not some kind of mutualism or give-and-take.    


Now, creeds and confessions are, for Protestants at least, subordinate standards.  Scripture is the supreme norming authority, as the WCF itself makes clear.  One may therefore study the theological matrix of the Reformed confessions and come to the conclusion that what the WCF teaches about God is wrong.  In that case, Presbyterianism has a means of addressing the concern: the person concerned should be honest about what he is doing and, if no exception to the Standards is allowed on that point, demit the ministry. That would be a perfectly honorable and legitimate course of action. What is not acceptable, theologically or morally, is the propagation of views which the Confession was designed to exclude as if they are actually what it affirms.  That can only be done on the basis of historicizing what the Confession really means.  And if the conservative Protestant world finds such a move intolerable relative to the doctrine of scripture, as taught for example in WCF 1, it should also find it intolerable relative to WCF 2. God is surely no less important than scripture; and deviations on the orthodox doctrine of God have proved deadly to the faith over the centuries.  Indeed, to make the doctrine of scripture a touchstone of orthodoxy and to wink at deviations on the doctrine of God (which seems the default attitude in much of the evangelical world), is to reveal a debt not so much to the concerns of the Bible and of historic Christianity as to the priorities and tastes of modern American evangelicalism. 


To return to Humpty Dumpty, when it comes to the meaning of the classic vocabulary of Reformed theology, the question is: Which is to be master, that’s all -- in this case, the Confession or the reader?  And in order to ensure that it is the former, not the latter, Systematic Theology must be properly taught and never confused with or replaced by Biblical Theology; and both ST and BT should be positively connected to Historical Theology.   If that does not happen, then sadly, as with Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put the Faith back together again.


Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.

Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In Part Two of this four part series, I offered some thoughts on the nature of doctrinal development.  Now I want to turn to the discipline of Biblical Theology. 


Biblical Theology as a discipline emerges formally with the work of Johann Philipp Gabler in the late eighteenth century.  In his justly famous 1787 inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, he distinguished between the disciplines of Dogmatic Theology (what we today typically call Systematic Theology) and Biblical Theology.   Gabler saw the former as marked by a systematizing and philosophical bent and deeply shaped by the intellectual context of the individual theologian; the latter sought to set forth the ideas and beliefs of the biblical writers themselves, being always sensitive to the particular historical context of specific books of the Bible.  And Biblical Theology lacked the overriding desire to find the kind of greater doctrinal syntheses which distinguished its dogmatic counterpart. 


Gabler himself made it clear that he was no great fan of orthodox systematics, and his method proved popular and influential with others in the field of Biblical Studies who were uncomfortable with what they regarded as a Procustean bed of dogma.  In short, his approach essentially untethered analysis of the content of scripture from what he and his followers suspected were alien dogmatic structures that surreptitiously distorted how the Bible was read. 


Orthodox theologians had, of course, been aware of the historical dynamic of the biblical story before – the work of a covenant theologian such as Johannes Cocceius provides an obvious example – but the level of historical sensitivity that emerged in the late eighteenth century created an intellectual culture much more attuned to the development of historical consciousness.    


This is where Geehardus Vos, one of the fathers of modern conservative Biblical Theology, is significant.  His contribution was to baptize the Biblical Theology paradigm into an orthodox context, such that it became useful to conservative Christians. The post-Vos modern redemptive-historical method of interpretation is continuous with Gabler in taking the historical nature of scripture seriously, but orthodox in seeing the whole Bible as containing one, consistent story which has a unity.  This is because it is inspired by one divine author, God, and points towards and then culminates in the work of Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh. 


In reflecting on orthodox Biblical theology, it is therefore important to acknowledge with gratitude its obvious strengths.  The Bible does contain a dramatic story and there is such a thing as a progressive revelation of God and his purposes in the text.  Readers need to be aware of this and pay heed to it because that story is the narrative of how God has acted in history.  


Redemptive-historical preaching based upon such Biblical Theology is also an important tool: my own great love in the pulpit is preaching Old Testament narrative; and a redemptive-historical approach, if properly applied, helps to make sure that Old Testament sermons never lose sight of the overall Bible story, culminate in Christ, and avoid practical applications which are divorced from the gospel and therefore merely legalisms. 


I might add a further personal note -- my own reading and understanding of the Bible is deeply indebted to the work of Biblical Theologians, most notably my former colleague and friend, Greg Beale, but also the distinguished Southern Baptist scholar, Tom Schreiner.  In helping me to understand the way in which the Bible’s storyline develops, these men have been exceptionally useful to me. 


But, even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.  


Further, there is a second danger: Biblical Theology, with its focus on the drama of the developing biblical storyline, is naturally tilted towards catching a very significant thread of biblical teaching (narrative action) and away from other important aspects of the Bible, such as the metaphysical realities to which scripture also points.  These might be explicit metaphysical statements as in Jn. 1:1, or the implicit but necessary ontological assumptions that lie behind the historical action in verses such as Gen. 1:1.  As New Testament scholar, C. Kavin Rowe, puts it: 


The New Testament and the early Church made claims about the human person Jesus of Nazareth and about the Spirit... that required specification in terms of ontology. 


Put simply: fidelity to the Bible’s teaching about Jesus and the Spirit – the scriptural narrative –demands that we press through the events and actions ascribed to them to discern who they actually are in terms of their very being.  In short, the Bible does not reduce God’s identity to his actions.  He is not cabined within the historical process.  It also points to a God who has a reality prior to, independent of, and thus foundational for, those same actions.  No account of the Bible’s teaching which omits those strands of biblical teaching can be described as complete. 


Kevin Vanhoozer expresses this point as follows: 


Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (ie. their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action. 


In short, the ‘big story’ may be the whole story, but it is not the whole message.  God acts in a certain way in history because he is a certain kind of God in himself in eternity.  Any theological account of redemptive history which terminates simply on questions of economic action rather than divine being is therefore not false so much as it is inadequate.  This basic point lies at the heart, for example, of Matthew Levering’s respectful and appreciative but nonetheless penetrating critique of the New Testament scholars N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham in his book, Scripture and Metaphysics.   


And this brings me to the key issue now being faced in confessional circles.  As I argued in Part Two, the creeds and confessions to which we subscribe contain theological truth claims which were not originally based on narrowly redemptive-historical approaches to scripture. Indeed, they were formulated long before such approaches emerged in their modern form.  Nor were they constructed by those who pursued biblical exegesis and consequent doctrinal synthesis in isolation from ontological questions or from that history of controversy that drove the development of doctrinal formulation.   So here is the question: Can such doctrines as, for example, simplicity, impassibility, and the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity – in other words, the orthodox doctrine of God as confessed by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and confessional Protestant churches -- be maintained on the basis of a Biblical Theology to which Systematic Theology is rendered nothing more than a poor relation or where Historical Theology plays little or no role?    


To put the matter in a more pointed ecclesiastical fashion: Can the classic confessions of Reformation Protestantism be faithfully upheld by those who have detached their own approach to scriptural exegesis and doctrinal synthesis from the theological, exegetical, and polemical concerns which led to such confessional formulations in the first place?   


That is a matter of great and urgent significance for churches, for ministers, and for the institutions who train them. And it is to this concern that I will turn in my fourth and final post.

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, PA, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.


Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Last week, I offered some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology.  This week, I want to consider why it is that theology demands more than just harvesting the immediate results of the exegesis of biblical texts. 


Proper Christian theology is always speculative, in the specific sense that it has to address matters not only of economy (how God acts in history) but also of ontology (who God is in eternity).  The great creeds of the ancient church, and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation which affirm their teachings, are the fruit of this speculative theology, addressing not just the acts of God but also his identity, something which requires more than just the construction of a redemptive-historical narrative culminating in Christ. To understand why this is so, we need to see how and why the church has come to confess Christ in the way she does – in other words, a knowledge of theological controversies.


Here is an example.   For many years, I taught a basic introductory course in patristic theology, the anticipation of which was typically not a cause of great excitement for students.  They (rightly) wanted to learn about the Bible.  And the Ancient Church Fathers seem too remote, historically and intellectually, to be of much use to their future ministries.  Given this, I started each course with a question designed to unsettle them.  I would randomly pick on a student in the first class and ask ‘How many wills does Christ have?’   I recall only one occasion when the student gave the correct answer.  Every other victim intuitively responded ‘One.’   At which point I offered the lethal follow-up: ‘So which does he lack, the human will or the divine?  Or perhaps his will is a fusion of the two into one, and therefore neither human nor divine?’


The students usually knew they had been trapped but tended to offer a defense along the lines of ‘But you don’t find the teaching that Christ has two wills anywhere in the New Testament!’  To which I would reply that that might be the case with reference to explicit texts, but it was nonetheless the only position that ultimately made sense of the New Testament’s witness to the identity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Only a two-willed Christ could save; and to understand why, they needed a firm grasp of the development of theological arguments over time.


This is just one instance of what we might term the development of doctrine.  'Development’ terminology can disturb Protestants as it might imply that the truth of the gospel fundamentally changes over time.   But I am not using the terminology that way.  I am referring not to the essential change of truth but to the elaboration and clarification of doctrinal concepts in a manner which refines the theological grammar and metaphysical framework necessary for a correct understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God and Christ.  These concepts and the language in which they are expressed do not operate as alien impositions on the Bible.  What they do is keep us alert to what the whole of scripture says even as we read particular passages.  In short, as Mike Allen at RTS put it to me recently, ‘theological jargon helps with reading canonically.’


The patristic debates about God and Christ provide excellent examples.   We all know that language of Trinity, hypostasis and substance is not there in scripture.*  But Protestants use that terminology to set forth a grammar or metaphysical framework for understanding how the Bible names God.  And the reasons why those creeds and confessions speak the way they do is intimately connected to the history of debate within the church.


Numerous models for understanding this pattern of development have been offered over the years.  Perhaps the most famous example is that of Cardinal Newman who (while still a Protestant) wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  A long and subtle work, his basic contention was that doctrine develops from the Bible as trees grow from seeds: the final product may not look like the original but is it continuous and consistent with it and its growth is also inevitable.


As attractive as it is, this approach is missing one important point: the role of controversy.  Theologian Bernard Lonergan, sympathetically critiquing Newman, points out that doctrinal development is rarely, if ever, linear but rather happens dialectically, through the clash of opposing ideas.  To put this in simple terms: one model for God and Christ is offered which is proved inadequate for dealing with the biblical testimony; and in the process by which it is found wanting, new models are proposed, and so on and so forth until there is some definitive resolution of the question at hand.  So the various modalist and subordinationist debates of the fourth century lead eventually to the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.


The established theological grammar of 381 then sets the terms for future debates on related issues.  Yes, the grammar of divine naming in the Trinity is resolved; but that resolution itself raises questions for Christology and shapes how those can be answered. So we then have the debates of the early fifth century and the consequent resolutions of Ephesus in 431 and then Chalcedon in 451.  These in turn create questions which lead to the development of dyothelitism (that Christ has two wills, not one) and other superficially arcane but really very important concepts such as the anhypostatic nature of Christ’s human nature.


This point about the subsequent logic of theological debates after the Trinitarian question has been resolved at Constantinople in 381 has been made (critically) by Brian Daley in his recent volume, God Visible. Nicene orthodoxy sets the terms and provides the foundational concepts of later Christological discussion.  I made much the same argument, though more appreciatively and at a much more popular level, in my book, The Creedal Imperative. 


The same applies to other doctrines.  For example, those of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility can seem abstruse and counter-intuitive in the light of a surface reading of scripture.  Yet far from being some kind of Greek philosophical intrusion onto the Christian faith, as the bogus bromides of a previous era held, in reality these concepts are vitally important to biblical, Christian, Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Reflecting on the patristic development of Trinitarianism, Rowan Williams states clearly what is at stake in his recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation, p. 69:


The logic of creation requires God to be God as much as it requires creation to be finite; without a clear assertion that God cannot be conceived as passive or divisible, we are left with various versions of a universe in which divine and finite being are in some sense understood as univocally related, in such a way that the divine self-subsistence and liberty are put in question.


And what Williams says here applies to the doctrine of God found in all churches and institutions which profess Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or most important from my own ecclesiastical perspective, Reformed.  Even a quick glance at the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, or the Second London Confession makes it abundantly clear that they each affirm that God is simple, immutable, and impassible. This Nicene faith is Protestant orthodoxy too. 


At this point, some may be tempted to ask, But isn’t this all a bit abstruse and irrelevant to everyday Christianity?   Well, whatever the subtlety of language and concepts developed in the course of these discussions about God, I would urge the reader never to forget that the basic motivation which drove creedal development and refinement was this: the church was striving to confess with both humility and precision a God in whose Trinitarian name we are all baptized and a Christ who is both Lord and who saves.  There is nothing more doxological or practical than that.  And (again a theme to which we shall return) it reminds us that the church worships God not only for what he has done for us but also for who he is in himself. 


In my next post I want to turn to the strengths and limitations of the discipline of Biblical Theology.

As a postscript, anyone concerned that the biblical doctrine of God is either unpreachable or unpastoral might want to see how pastor Liam Goligher preaches simplicity in this sermon and how theologian Todd Billings explains in this article how he has found divine impassibility to be vital in his own time of illness.

* I am grateful to Rev. Chad Vegas for reminding me that 'hypostasis' is found in Heb. 1:3.   I should have expressed myself more clearly on this point: the meaning of the term, as debated and used by the Fathers, is not an obvious given in scripture.

Posted on Tuesday, January 15, 2019 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Paideia Center Conference in Orlando, focused this year on the catholic, creedal understanding of God. I also sat on a discussion panel with Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Blair Smith and Liam Goligher, discussing the Trinity debate of 2016. Asked how it all started, Liam mentioned discussions he had had with my good friend and fellow podcaster Aimee Byrd who launched the debate by posting his writings on her blog; and my own mind went back somewhat earlier to an editorial I wrote in Themelios in the early 2000s.


Derek Rishmawy has since found the article and (in addition to using a pleasantly youthful and hirsute photograph of me) commented on it on his blog. The origin of that piece was my concern that Biblical Theology was developing in certain quarters in a manner that so emphasized economic considerations that it was marginalizing questions of ontology. Thus, in the long run it was potentially jeopardizing the categories and concepts of classic, catholic, creedal, confessional theology. Though at the time of writing I had assumed it was an Australian/British problem, in the years since it has become clear that what had alarmed me so long ago was actually part of a much wider problem.


In subsequent weeks, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. But in this first post I want to note briefly some aspects of the culture of contemporary Christian theology which shape the discussion.


First, it is important to note that there is an interesting practical tendency in modern evangelical Protestantism to prioritize the doctrines of scripture and salvation over that of God. In part this is bound up with matters of identity, having historical roots in the relatively recent (I.e. last 150 years) Fundamentalist-Modernist debates and the subsequent role of the doctrine of scripture as a key boundary. The same applies with soteriology: the Reformation looms large in the imagination with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith as the defining characteristic of a life-giving Christianity.


Second, to these historical reasons, we might add the simple and intuitive nature of these two doctrines. To say the Bible contains errors sounds intuitively wrong even to the person untrained in theology, and this is also true to a large extent for the claim we are justified by works and not by faith does. Anyone deviating on these two points is likely to find themselves roundly condemned in evangelical circles because the issue is, at least on the surface, something that almost any Christian thinks that they can grasp with little or no intellectual reflection.


When we come to the doctrine of God, however, the defining controversies – those of the fourth and fifth centuries -- seem long ago and far away. The issues they involved also seem somewhat arcane in their careful development of a theological grammar and vocabulary. The result (as the debates of 2016 showed) is that while Christians would of course say they affirm Nicaea, they may actually be clueless as to what Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments really mean. The writings of the Cappadocians and then the later Christological work of men such as Cyril, the two Leontii, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus seem like so much obfuscatory jargon and pedantic hair-splitting. It is also profoundly counter-intuitive in a way that heresy on God typically is not. To say, for example, that God suffers has an apparent biblical simplicity to it in a way that to assert divine simplicity and its concomitants does not. To understand why the claim to divine passibility is deeply problematic requires a depth of reflection on theology and on the history of dogma with which the biblicism of much modern Protestantism has little or no patience and for which much Biblical Theology has little or no tolerance.


What is strange about this situation, of course, is that it is deviation on the doctrine of God, rather than on scripture, which has historically been the more common root of serious theological error in the church -- a notion which we have noted is now profoundly counter-cultural. While today it might end one’s Reformed career if one denies inerrancy or signs an ECT document, it is clear from the Trinity Debate of 2016 that such a black-and-white protocol does not apply to matters of theology proper. Mess up on scripture or salvation and you are finished. Mess up on God and there will be few, if any, consequences, professional or ecclesiastical. As long as one affirms the words of the Creed or the Westminster Confession or the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, the meaning one applies to them is neither here nor there – a liberal idea which enjoys surprisingly great currency in conservative circles on this one issue. Sadly, the doctrine of God simply does not grip the cultural imagination of conservative evangelicalism in the way that other doctrinal loci do.


And at the heart of this problem from the perspective of theological education, at least as it manifests itself in Reformed circles, is the pedagogical (and thereby metaphysical) triumph of Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology as classically understood. It is to that issue I hope to turn in my post next week.

Posted on Monday, August 13, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Three recent books are worth reading. 


The first is Thomas Weinandy’s Jesus Becoming JesusWeinandy is a Franciscan theologian who is well-known in orthodox Protestant circles for his superlative exposition and defense of classical theism, specifically immutability and impassibility.  In this new book he starts what he intends as a multi-volume exploration of New Testament theology.  Here, he engages with the Synoptic Gospels.  He states at the start that it is not his intention to deal in any detail with current New Testament scholarship but rather to read the gospel narratives as a systematic theologian.  The result is often enchanting and frequently intellectually challenging, as any discussion of the mystery of the Trinity must be.  Here is Weinandy on Christ’s baptism: 


[I]n the Father declaring, in the descent of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is his beloved Son, we gain entrance and perceive beyond the torn heaven into the very mystery of the Trinity. The Father reveals himself as Father not by saying that he is the Father, but by revealing his Son by saying in the love of the Spirit, "You are my beloved Son." In this declaration the Father manifests himself as the loving Father of his Son. This is in keeping with who the Father is, for he is only the Father in that he fathers his Son, and so it is only proper that he reveal himself as the Son's Father. We perceive here that the Father is metaphysically incapable of revealing himself as Father apart from his Son, for he is defined as Father only in relationship to his beloved Son. (88-89)  


The manner in which he set the life of Jesus in a Trinitarian context, demonstrating how the identity of the Son is vital to understanding his deeds and his teaching, is most welcome and will help any preacher who has ever faced the question, ‘What difference does classical Trinitarianism make to how I read the Bible?’  Far from being irrelevant, the classical Trinity lies at the core of revelation. 


While Weinandy’s Roman Catholicism is evident in his treatment of the Lord’s Supper, this is a book that Protestants will otherwise find most helpful. I for one will never be able to preach the gospel narrative in quite the same way again.   And we will be interviewing Dr Weinandy about his book, and his contributions to classical theism, on a future MoS podcast. 


The second book is the first volume of the translation of Petrus van Mastricht’s great work, Theoretical-Practical Theology.  Van Mastricht (1630-1706) was one of the last great representatives of Reformed Orthodoxy before the project began to crumble due to the impact of Enlightenment patterns of thought in the late seventeenth century, with their accompanying revisions of classical metaphysics.  He was also a huge influence on Jonathan Edwards.  For these reasons alone we should welcome this translation project.   


In this volume there is some preliminary material (a biographical sketch, van Mastricht’s essay on preaching) and then the prolegomenal discussion which lays the foundation for the theology proper of the next volume.  Consistent with his belief that theology is a mixed discispline both theoretical and practical, van Mastricht constantly takes the reader from doctrinal truth to practical application.  In an era when both are at a premium, he offers a valuable model. 


This book arrives at a time when the historical work of Richard Muller, Willem Van Asselt and others on post-Reformation Reformed theology and its confessional development is being developed in important systematic ways by theologians such as Scott Swain and Michael Allen at Reformed Theological Seminary.   The realization that some influential strands of modern Reformed theology are actually outside the boundaries of the confessional consensus has reignited interest in the great theologians of the seventeenth century and this volume will therefore be a joy to those whose lack of Latin would otherwise prevent them from seeing what their spiritual forebears actually taught. 


The third book is from my fellow countryman, Melvin Tinker, vicar of St John, Newland near Hull: That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost.  Melvin has fought a long and often lonely battle against various strands of lunacy in the Church of England and in this brief book he attempts to explain how and why the tide of what he denotes ‘cultural Marxism’ has carried all before it, not simply in the world but in the church as well. At a mere 117 pages of text, this is a remarkably concise analysis of our current ecclesiastical malaise. 


I should come clean at this point and admit that much of my delight in this book stems from the fact that Melvin would appear to be something of a fan of Camille Paglia, whom I have not mentioned for a while but for whom my own love remains strong and is indeed no secret. Melvin even quotes with approval my article where I confessed to such.   Citing Paglia’s astute analysis of the gullibility of the trendy Christian approach to sexuality, he makes the laconic and devastating comment; ‘Sometimes non-Christians on the outside seem to be more insightful about the Church than Christians who are on the inside.’ (82).  Yes they do.  Oh yes they do.   That is why books like this are important because they actually help us to think about the Church rather than simply capitulate to the trendies or merely shout Bible verses louder at them.


Three very different but very useful books.  And it’s good to have my radical feminist heartthrob back on the blog. 





Posted on Tuesday, August 07, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I taught ministerial candidates for 25 years at three separate institutions and, during that time, came across one question in relation to doctrine more than any other: “Is it preachable?”   In fact, I suspect it was often not really a question -- more an implicit objection to a doctrine merely couched as a question: “BUT is it preachable?” 


This question reflects an understandable concern, given the centrality of the Word preached to Protestantism.  But it is mischievous in its implications, smuggling into the theological task criteria for doctrinal truth which are little more than matters of personal taste or cultural plausibility.  And it has a long and inauspicious pedigree. 


Historically, it was one of the objections Erasmus made to Luther’s doctrine of the bondage of the will.  How could it make sense to preach the law when nobody could fulfill its commands?  Or predestination when it would only subvert any notion of real moral accountability?  But this kind of objection to certain doctrines – we might call it the kerygmatic fallacy – is no monopoly of Luther’s nemesis or of anti-Protestants.  His own friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon also thought preaching predestination was a bad idea, a position for which he was implicitly slapped by his Reformed contemporary and friend, John Calvin, in his Institutes.  For Calvin and Luther, the presence of a doctrine in God’s Word meant that it must be preached.  God knew best and therefore no matters of human taste or misplaced concerns about its impact could silence a biblical doctrine.  The kerygmatic fallacy was just that – a fallacy. 


In more recent times, the Dutch theologian, G.C. Berkouwer, increasingly made preachability an axiom for dogmatic formulation.  In his volume on predestination, Divine Election, his discussion of the divine decree perturbed John Murray. Later volumes only sharpened the problem, as he moved more towards the actualism of Karl Barth as a means of avoiding what he regarded as the static objectivism of classical orthodox formulations. 


In my experience, the ‘But is it preachable?’ question/objection has come most recently to be lodged against those centre-pieces of classical Christian Trinitarian theism, divine simplicity and divine immutability and impassibility.  Can notions as apparently arcane as the first and as allegedly static as the second have any place in the pulpit?  Indeed, can they be preached? 


It would take a fat volume to offer anything approaching an adequate answer to that, but a number of preliminary responses might at least give pause for thought to those swept up in the kerygmatic fallacy. 


First, and most obviouslyit must be possible to preach these doctrines for the simple reason that they have been preached for many centuries.   The Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Perkins, Goodwin, Voetius, Owen, to name but a representative handful, all did so.  The Westminster divines seem to have known a thing or two about the preacher’s task and clearly codified these doctrines in Chapter Two of the Westminster Confession.  If the doctrines were preached then, at the risk of tautology, they were obviously preachable. 


Second, if these doctrines were preached and believed until relatively recently by orthodox Christians everywhere, why do some no longer think they can be?  When did these teachings start to be ‘unpreachable’?  It is doubtful there is a single cause but some aspects of the current context suggest themselves: the idea of process has gripped philosophical imaginations since the era of Hegel and Darwin; post-Auschwitz many theologians have argued that identification in suffering must be a foundational part of the divine answer to suffering, a tendency which has not abated in our own era of cheap victimhood; and (within the evangelical Protestant camp) a skewed understanding of what the Reformers meant by scripture alone has often fueled a biblical theology pursued in detachment from historic systematic theology.  The immutability of God has thereby become the victim of the mutability of the world.  


But the preachability of a doctrine is determined by its truth, not vice versa, a point made forcefully by Luther in his response to Erasmus.  It is also exemplified in the negative by the history of doctrine where the abandonment of the classical doctrine of God has typically led within a generation to doctrines that truly are unpreachable because they are so far detached from historical and biblical Christianity.   History seems to suggest that the kerygmatic fallacy ironically lays the foundation for kerygmatic failure. 


So the only evaluative question to ask about any doctrine is this: ‘Is it historic, biblical Christianity?’ And if the answer to that is yes, then the next question is not ‘Is it preachable?’ -- by definition it must be -- but rather ‘How then should I preach it?’   And, whatever the doctrine may be, a brief but humble glance at the great theologian-preachers of the past will almost certainly help you answer that.


Posted on Tuesday, July 31, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

With moving job and house in the last two months, I was only vaguely aware of the Revoice Conference until a few weeks ago.  Then suddenly my phone started to light up as friends forwarded me tweets and blog posts and interviews, pro and con.  Finally, at the weekend a whole pile of very disturbing soundbites landed in my inbox from various sources.  I have yet to listen to the talks so cannot offer any criticism of them but I have noticed that, in all the critiques I have seen, a couple of key dots have not been connected: those between Revoice and the general culture of Big Eva.  (For new readers, if any such exist, Big Eva is not a large German who works in border control for the Bundesrepublik but my term for the network of large evangelical organizations and conferences that seeks to shape the thinking and strategy of the American evangelical churches.  She used to be a regular in this column but has been away on an "extended furlough" for a couple of years). 


What Big Eva has done is create an economy of power, people, and indeed money which is non-ecclesiastical but highly influential within evangelical churches.  It is a populist movement of tremendous influence and minimal accountability.  It provides an identity for its most passionate acolytes.  And because it promises rewards to individuals and organizations – influence, students, platform – it is both very hard to criticize and functionally unaccountable to any but its own. The Trinity controversy of two years ago was a case in point: no church creed had ever taught the nonsense that had become so pervasive in evangelicalism.  Quite the contrary – the creedal history of the church was arguably constructed to exclude precisely the kind of views that were being espoused.  But key conferences and key organizations had a vested interest in sidestepping orthodoxy and demonizing any who pointed that out.  


There is an important distinction to be made here.   Discussion of matters of note in the public square is a good thing, whether by books, articles, blogs or, for those who prefer their arguments unencumbered by polysyllabic words, long sentences and, well, argument, Twitter.  But provoking people to think about issues by offering forthright opinions is one thing.  Aspiring to be a movement, to direct and shape the policies and testimony of the church is quite another.   That should be done through the appropriate ecclesiastical bodies – whether sessions, consistories, elder boards, presbyteries, synods etc.   


And this brings me to Revoice. Setting aside the content and specific intention of the conference, it is surely unexceptional on one level: it is just another example of that culture whereby a non-ecclesiastical movement incarnated in an online network and now a conference strives to speak to the church in a very directive manner and thereby to drive the church's confession.  The big question for Big Eva then becomes 'How can we respond to these people when the kind of non-ecclesiastical, populist, celebrity ecology of power and influence we have created and harnessed is the same in principle as that which makes them so significant and potentially influential?'  Or perhaps more bluntly 'What have we done?'   


To give an example: A couple of years ago, I was asked to respond to what was arguably a pro-gay article written by an ordained minister in the PCA.  My ministerial credentials are in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church but I agreed to write the piece and afterwards received words of thanks from colleagues and friends in the PCA.   But none of those who expressed gratitude brought charges against the individual concerned.  Thus, while I had addressed the theological and ethical problems with what he wrote, the ecclesiastical problem remained.   That is ridiculous: you cannot solve an ecclesiastical matter via a blog post.  Only ecclesiastical process will do that.   


Such process is rightly hard, with the onus to prove the case placed on the accuser.  Paul was well aware of the existence of wicked slanderers within the visible church.  That is why he made it clear that no accusation against an elder should be taken remotely seriously without evidence from two or three eye-witnesses, 1Tim. 5:19. Hearsay or gossip is irrelevant.  To act on such is simply not Christian and those who do so should hang their heads in shame for the malicious harm they do.  Mob rule by the (self) righteous is still mob rule.


Now, if someone has taught falsely at a conference or in writing, the provision of witnesses should be no problem.  But Paul's point is not simply about evidential criteria for action.  He is clearly indicating the need for due process: the presumption of innocence and the need for proper ecclesiastical adjudication.  Even the worst heretic, we might say, is entitled to a fair ecclesiastical trial.  And the people who make up the congregations in our denominations week by week are entitled to be protected by their elders and ministers not by blog posts or conference speeches but by holding ministers accountable for what they teach and how they act, and that in accordance with biblical, ecclesiastical process.  To state the obvious: it is part of what elders and ministers have solemnly vowed to do.   More importantly -- it actually deals with the matter in a biblical way which therefore has an impact upon the church which no blog or conference, let alone tweet or hashtag, could or should ever have.


Unfortunately, the culture of Big Eva both facilitates the influence of a conference such as Revoice and makes an effective response unlikely.    To repeat one of my mantras, Big Eva is built around big conferences and big personalities.  Neither need to be problematic.  I have enjoyed attending the occasional big conference and have profited from books by big names.  What is problematic is that some of these conferences and their concomitant celebrities have an intentional significance beyond offering a time for some fellowship and some good teaching.  They are a movement.   Revoice is only playing the same populist, extra-ecclesiastical game as Big Eva -- building momentum via conferences, networks and its own stable of celebrities.   And if Big Eva responds as it usually does – with an alternative conference or some blog posts or yet another statement/petition -- then boundaries will for sure be more sharply drawn, it will be clearer who plays on which team, and maybe some laity will be genuinely helped to think more clearly about the issues -- but nothing of ecclesiastical substance will really be accomplished. 


Those concerned that ministers in their denomination were involved in Revoice and who believe that they have thereby crossed theological and ethical boundaries have a duty to prove that in an ecclesiastical context and not simply offer critical tweets or mint new hastags.   They should look at their books of church order and, if the evidence warrants it, they should file disciplinary charges in accordance with the processes outlined therein.  Blogs, articles, and alternative conferences may all have their legitimate place in helping the laity think through the matters Revoice and its critics have raised.  But every minister has the right to due process.  More importantly -- only decisive ecclesiastical action will actually deal with the problem.  And if Revoice is a Rubicon and no such action comes, then, to quote Julius Caesar, the die is cast.  Those whose orthodoxy lives by the dynamics of the Big Eva economy will find that it dies by the very same.


Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

It was some six years ago that I accepted the call to become Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ambler, Pa., as a bi-vocational appointment.  I had been on the session there for two years as Teacher and took the call because it was clear that finances meant a full-time pastor was not then an option.  At the time, I speculated on Reformation21 that bi-vocational pastoring might be the wave of the future.



Six years on, I am not so sanguine.  A few months into my pastorate, an academic friend who had done the same thing for nine years wrote me a letter and urged me to be careful – as soon as I ceased to enjoy the hobbies and casual pleasures of life, he warned, I would be close to burn-out and would need to step down.   I was glad of the warning – every minister I have ever know who has burned out has told me that there was no obvious warning: one day everything seemed fine, the next they were barely able to get out of bed.



Thankfully, I never reached the crisis point, but in retrospect I see that I came close.   And that is why I have stepped aside and why I think bi-vocational ministry, if it is the wave of the future, is more complicated as a concept than I envisaged all those years ago.



When I took the call in 2012, I told the congregation that I would commit to five years in order to make the church beyond the immediate financial and numerical challenges she faced.  Thus, five years later, at the annual session strategy meeting in the spring of 2017 I indicated that I would be stepping down from the pastorate by June 2019 at the latest.  I then informed the congregation at the annual meeting in June of last year that I had become convinced the church needed to move towards a full-time pastor and that I was not that person. I am an academic who happens to pastor, rather than a pastor who happens to be an academic, I wanted to go back to the classroom and my writing.    The call from Grove City College merely brought the decision forward by twelve months.



As I look back on the last six years, I am struck at how tiring it became.  Three brutal discipline cases took hundreds of hours and a huge toll on energy levels.  Few if any Saturdays – or any other day – off was hard on my wife.  And even with an excellent part-time co-pastor, a stellar session, and a conscientious diaconate, and a largely supportive, low-maintenance congregation, it was hard to do everything that needed to be done.  And, as usual, it was the miscreants whom we had to discipline who devoured the little spare time that there was, not the people who actually worked hard as volunteers week-by-week to make sure the congregation kept going.  The decent people had to settle for whatever time was left over after all the necessary unpleasantness.  And slowly but surely I ceased to enjoy those hobbies and casual pleasures of life which used to mean so much.  Even writing – a matter which has typically been a weird and pleasurable psychological compulsion for me – became something of a chore.  Time was up.



And so I now wonder about bi-vocational ministry.  Given that it was comparatively easy for me, since my other job – seminary professor – co-ordinated nicely with my pastoral calling, how hard would it be for others?  What about those who drive buses or work in factories or call centers and whose employers might not be as flexible and whose work routine does not translate easily into sermon preparation?  If bi-vocational ministry is the wave of the future – and finances and church size may well dictate that it is – a whole host of expectations need to change.  And the human cost on ministers will likely be brutal.



A number of people have asked if I intend to demit the ministry.  At the moment, I am a minister without call on the rolls of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.  My role at Grove will likely involve regular chapel preaching.  A conviction Presbyterian, I believe that one who regularly preaches the Word needs to be under presbytery oversight and so it is likely that I will ask my brothers in presbytery to call me as Teacher to Grove.  But in the meantime I am looking forward to sitting through whole worship services with my wife, hearing the Word preached, taking the Lord’s Supper, though probably not serving on the refreshments roster -- for which any who have ever tasted my attempts at baking can give hearty thanks to God.