Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The Banner of Truth’s retyped and reissued edition of James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ is, like so many of their books, beautifully produced.  It is also most timely.  Reading this book and putting into practice its basic theology will set your church in good stead for handling the contemporary cultural storm.  Other than the arrant nonsense about the Establishment Principle being biblical (I'm sure Nero would have loved the idea) it has to be my favourite book on ecclesiology. If evangelicals buy it and read it, I think it will strengthen us immensely for a time when knowing what the church is is going to be crucial if we are to remain faithful and distinctive.  Here's why:

Evangelicalism as a movement is ill-equipped to handle the questions which current sexual identity movements are posing, and that for several reasons to which Bannerman provides biblical answers.  And these questions, even more than, say, abortion, are going to be pressing issues for church members in every place of work they find themselves.  Christians are going to need to know what they believe on these issues and why they believe the way they do.  Yet evangelicalism is, as I say, ill equipped as a movement to do this.

First, evangelicalism’s transdenominational approach to theological testimony may well help foster broad alliances on ethical matters but there is always a danger that in doing so ethics becomes detached from an elaborate theological framework.  This may well be an unintended consequence but it will prove unfortunate.   How we understand sexuality and its implications is not an isolated theological matter but connects to our anthropology and thus to our doctrines of God and sin. Nor can ten or twelve point doctrinal statements provide such a framework.  Only the more elaborate documents -- for example, the Westminster Confession, the 1689, the Savoy, the Three Forms -- do so.

Second, evangelical love of the Bible is a good thing but love of the Bible is not enough.   On its own, it can lead to a piecemeal approach to ethical situations where the Bible is interrogated for its views on a matter upon which it does not opine directly but only be legitimate inference from its wider theological framework.  This is where the first point becomes important: churches need to have elaborate doctrinal confessions so that specific issues can be dealt with in terms of a broader theological framework.

Third, without a developed confession of faith faithfully taught and articulated by the church, a piecemeal approach to ethics leaves significant opportunities for subjective and emotive responses to specific situations.  If we are not constantly reminded of the bigger theological framework for making ethical decisions, we will be vulnerable to subjective, emotive, aesthetic responses driven by the immediate circumstances before us.  Watch for the language of emotivisim and situational ethics in current evangelical discussions of sexuality.  That language is significant for understanding a whole theological and church culture, not just attitudes to sexuality.

Fourth, influential strands of evangelicalism remain wedded to the idea that a few powerful personalities are signally important in keeping the movement strong and influential.  But the Top Men fail too.  My own experience of controversy indicates that, when it comes to the Toppers, those who really have nothing to lose, whose pension funds and bank accounts are already well-filled, are always paradoxically those who are willing to risk the least in times of conflict.  We fool ourselves if we think that the great and the good will fight for us.   As things hot up, watch for early retirements and sudden unavailability to speak to key issues among the evangelical elites.

So why is Bannerman important?  Because for him, navigating the complexities of this life in a way that is biblically sound and glorifying to God  is all tied up with a proper understanding of Christ’s body, the church.  The church is not a response to God’s grace, the creation of man.  The church is the creation of God, an act of God’s grace.   As such, she has the promises of God to guarantee her survival and ultimate success – not necessarily the survival of my congregation or of yours, but the church as a whole. And the church has officers -- ordinary, godly men who can take care of business -- and should have a thoroughgoing confession of faith which can withstand the ephemeral ethical and intellectual shifts in the wider world.   These simple things are what the Bible points to as the necessary tools for discipleship and for the ongoing health of the body.  If it worked in the time of Nero, it can certainly work in our day.

I shall offer more posts on Bannerman in the coming days.  But better to read him for yourselves.  Cue Blue Mink soundtrack.  Yes, I sure wish that I could be a Bannerman.

Postscript: Westminster Theological Seminary is hosting a discussion of Bannerman’s book next Wednesday night, when I shall be in conversation with former student Nathan Sasser and Jonathan Leeman.  And you can buy the book there for half price.

Posted on Tuesday, April 07, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Scot McKnight has written a concise and clear post, arguing against the common claim that Jesus did not speak about the issue of homosexuality.  One for pastors (and indeed everyone) to keep on file as this is a point we will have to face again and again in the coming days.

Posted on Wednesday, March 25, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at ref21 the other week, Jonesy and Levy upset the Big Eva establishment by decrying the strange American habit of clapping after Christian conference addresses.  Well, it seems that these two estimable champions of stadium modesty are also in the vanguard of contemporary feminism. For it is reported that the National Union of Students' Womens Conference in the UK has decided that clapping causes anxiety (and not inflated egos, pace the Jones-Levy Hypothesis).   Instead, approval and affirmation are to be demonstrated by the use of the much less aggressive and intimidating cultural phenomenon of jazz hands.

What can one say?  Good to see that the priorities of the Sisterhood remain in touch with real life even as Jones and Levy connect with their feminine sides by championing the cause of women's lib.

I would applaud Levy, Jones and all the Sisters out there, but lest such an act of micro-aggression cause anyone anxiety, you'll simply have to take my word that I am at this very minute demonstrating my jazz hands. 

Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Todd’s Eva Fever pinpoints a significant problem within the evangelical culture today.  And there is more.

First, parachurch organizations themselves – including the Alliance – also need to act responsibly.   Those which exist to replicate or supplement that which the church offers – especially preaching and teaching – need to understand that they are not the church.  Such quasi-church groups can be useful but they can also end with disproportionate and inappropriate power and influence, especially in the USA where for some reason charismatic individuals tend to be trusted more than institutions.  This goes some way to explain the weird ecumenism and the highly selective outrage I noted at First Things last week.

Second, such organizations need to make sure that the reason they continue is not simply that of self-perpetuation.   Eric Hoffer once wrote that “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”  Religious organizations seem particularly prone to this.   Evangelical racketeering, whereby people with little or no church accountability wield huge church power, is a positive menace.

The passion that drives the early formation of a parachurch group soon requires organization.  Organization, of course, demands the development of a staff and a payroll.  That then brings temptations: the bigger an organization, the more influence it can wield and the more money it can command.  It also brings obligations: livelihoods come to depend upon the group’s continuing success.   The need to reinvent the market to which the organization appeals, whether through the creation of new products or the constant repackaging of old ones, quickly becomes the driving force.  Once the addiction to influence is economically predicated on playing the market forces, the end is always nigh as regards integrity.   

In Reformed circles evangelical racketeering is more common than many of the evangelical public realize.  Huge money is being made behind the scenes, which helps to explain the manner in which even friendly critics are often treated by such organizations.  It also explains the comparative silence about these things in the public sphere: the men of stature who could and should speak out are often invested in the racket themselves and thus co-opted for the cause.  Their presence on the payroll both reassures the public that all is well and precludes any possibility of appropriate scrutiny.

In such circumstances, it can be very easy for both producers and consumers to fall for the propaganda and believe that what is being done by the group is vital for the church.   But no quasi-church group actually does work that is truly vital to the church in any long-term way.  If they did, then the Bible would have made it clear that such was the case and that such groups were necessary.  Instead, the Bible just talks about the church and only makes promises to the church.

And, of course, where huge money is being made outside of the church for functions that fit best within the church, the church’s polity is ultimately damaged.  When the papal structures of parachurch organizations have in practice the final say on who has the right to speak and what they can legitimately say, then biblical order and priorities are jeopardized.

When it becomes clear that such organizations now exist purely for the sake of existing, then it is time for them to close down.  Once the same book has been written several times by the same man (or his ghost-writing team), that is a sure sign that what is happening is market reinvention.  The larger purpose has gone and it is thus time to go.   The same applies when someone’s every spoken word is marketed, where no thought appears to go unpublished, or where there is no subject on which the person or organization does not opine, regardless of the contribution’s value or competence.  When these things happen, let the consumer understand: the third and final dispensation of Hoffer’s eschatological analysis has arrived and the day of judgment cannot be far off.

Posted on Monday, March 16, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Rusty Reno at First Things has now published the reflections on Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  You can find Mark McDowell’s introduction and rationale here, Timothy George’s piece here, Thomas Guarino’s here, and mine here.

My approach is slightly different to what might be expected. While I make it clear that I do not agree with the sanguine conclusions of the other two authors, I focus more on the kind of ecumenism which the vested interests, powerful personalities, and big money organizations of the reformed evangelical world tacitly pursue.  This is an ecumenism on the quiet. It is hugely influential but with little or no external or ecclesiastical accountability and the financial and corporate power to operate with impunity. Those who wish to engage with the theological and political complexity of the current reformed evangelical world will hopefully find the piece helpful. Others who prefer their theological and cultural analysis in 140 characters or less will have to look elsewhere. 

Posted on Tuesday, March 10, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As the church in the West faces social marginalization unknown for over 1500 years, the question of the marks of the church, those identifying features which she possesses, is likely to become more pressing.  Standard Reformed approaches tend to offer three marks: Word truly preached, sacraments properly administered, and church discipline correctly applied.  There was always some flexibility within the Reformed tradition on these points.  Calvin argued for only two explicit marks, Word and sacraments, while the Westminster Assembly put worship in the place of discipline.  Luther, however, offered seven: 1. The Word, 2. Baptism, 3. Eucharist, 4. The keys exercised publicly, 5. Ordained ministry, 6. Prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God, 7. The possession of the sacred cross.

We can, of course, see points of fundamental overlap between Luther and the Reformed here (e.g., Word is primary), and also reduce his number by counting baptism and eucharist as one.  Where he makes his major contribution is in the final point, possession of the sacred cross. 

By making possession of the sacred cross into a mark of the church,  Luther does three things.  First, he offers a polemical counterpoint to the Roman Catholic cult of relics, at the centre of which lay pieces of the true cross and vials of Christ’s blood.  Justification by grace through faith has no need of such things.  Second, he connects his view of the true church to the standard idea of the trail of blood, whereby outward persecution validated the truth of the church’s testimony, given that darkness will always persecute light. This is why martyrologies such as those of Foxe were so important at the Reformation.  They offered an answer, albeit simplistic and often tendentious, to the question of where the church had been between ca. 500 and ca. 1500.   Third, and most importantly, by focusing on the cross Luther picks up on the Pauline notion of the cross as the revelation of God’s purposes and as the criterion for truth in theology and church life.   This last point is arguably his most important and original contribution to the doctrine of the church.  It connects to his understanding of revelation, of the gospel, and of the church’s embodiment of those two things prior to the Second Coming and the Final Judgment.

Paul's teaching on the cross in 1Corinthians and on the church in 2Corinthians points to the fact that the kingdom is by its very nature currently hidden under suffering and contradiction.  That ought not to be a source of despair for the believer, for God's power is actually manifested in and through such weakness.   By picking up on this Pauline note and making it into a mark of the true church, Luther surely adds a dimension to our understanding of ecclesiology which standard Reformed taxonomies missed. It is also one that we should recapture, for by placing weakness in its proper theological and ecclesiological context, it provides a frame of reference for understanding the difficulties which the church now faces and is likely to face with increasing frequency and intensity for the foreseeable future.  For Luther, as for Paul, the church reflects the cross: power made perfect in weakness.  And, like the cross, the church thus reveals those who are being saved (they who understand her weakness) and those who are perishing (they who despise her because of her weakness).

Posted on Thursday, March 05, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at Jesus Creed, Dave Moore has some interesting observations on the current state of reformed evangelicalism, on my own happy exile from the Beautiful People (not enough hair, Dave, nothing to do with my writing), and on the need for the occasional whistleblower to indicate that in the Land of Oz, the man behind the curtain is precisely the person to whom one should be paying attention.

Posted on Wednesday, March 04, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Yes, indeed, rumors of my celebrity have been greatly exaggerated.   True, I have met many MoS listeners at the Shepherds Conference but nearly all of them have commented on how great it is to have Aimee on the show as this means it is something their wives will listen to as well.  And then there was the now-traditional humiliation at the hands of Steve Nichols®  (pictured right).This time Fred Butler came up to the two of us, briefly shook my hand, and then turned to Steve Nichols® and told him he writes the most interesting and useful church history books in the world.  I politely coughed and gently corrected him -- 'I think you mean "the second best most interesting and useful church history books in the world."'  No, said Fred, looking somewhat puzzled, Steve is the number one!

So there you have it.  Not much to show for a life, is it?  Late forties and known only as La Diva's sidekick and the second best church historian.  As I have thought for quite a while now, Todd and I are merely the Supremes to Aimee's Diana Ross.  What can I say to all these people, Steve Nichols® included?  Stop, in the name of love, before you break my heart.

Posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

David Mills has picked up on the in-house Protestant exchange at Ref21 on Lent.   He offers some Roman Catholic thoughts here.  We disagree on a lot of very important theology but on this issue, we are in agreement: Be one thing or the other; Don't try to have your catholic cake and eat it too.

Meanwhile, I'm off to don my leathers and ride off into the sunset on my Harley.

Posted on Monday, February 16, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Mark McDowell persuaded me to return briefly to Ref21 on the promise of pre-empting the annual TGC/YRR Ashandlentfest and, as a side attraction, the possibility of arousing the Anglicans from their dogmatic slumbers.  It plays out here:

The trap baited.

The bait taken.

The trap sprung.