Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Of all the advantages of creeds and confessions, the most neglected and yet one of the most important is the element of protest.  Forgive me indulging my Bannermania once again, but The Ecclesiologist puts it this way:

‘In its office to those that are without its pale, it is the duty of the Church, as the witness and protest for truth against the error and unbelief of the world, to frame and exhibit a public confession of its faith.’ (Church of Christ, 317)

Typically, we think of confessions as internal documents, with primary reference to believers.  Yet Bannerman rightly sees them also as being matters of external consequence.  Not only do they identify the church in the public sphere, confessions also give precise and clear expression to the nature of the protest which the Church makes against the beliefs and practices of the wider world.  

This is a point we do well to internalize at this moment in time.  As Todd Pruitt indicated last week, there are those even within the Church who always seem to think the real problem is the church.  That is so often a lazy response, right-on and cool, full of sound and fury but really signifiying nothing.  Long ago, Camille Paglia pointed to the perennial tendency of Christians to read everything, especially the sexual revolution, through a comfy, middle-class lens and to fail to appreciate the radical nature of what drives the overthrow of traditional Christian moral norms.  The naivete of such approaches belies their superficial sophistication, is no respecter of whether you live in the suburbs or the city, and is as foolishly paternalistic and patronizing as ever.  But it is scarcely surprising.   The tendency to assume the basic integrity of non-Christians while selectively hammering the Christian church, has for many generations  been the stock-in-trade of a certain kind of Christian who combines a knowledge of all the answers to our problems today with an Oedipus Complex about the fathers in the faith.

It is not surprising that to such the idea of confessions is problematic, for to them the idea of protest on any terms other than those which the world sets is also problematic.  And, of course, to protest on such terms is not really to protest at all.  It is at best to position oneself above the fray, at worst to join the world in its opposition to the church.

The revival of interest in confessions over the last decade seems to have been preparing us for the times in which we now live.   Those who are not protesting will not be distinctive and will vanish into the cultural fog.  Those who have no confession robust enough to provide an ecclesiastical foundation for a protest rooted in the whole counsel of God will not stand.  Those who have not the institutional fortitude to hold fast to their confessions will be, to quote the famous words of those great American theologians, Kansas,  'dust in the wind.'

Posted on Friday, April 24, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

On Wednesday night, Banner of Truth and Westminster Bookstore finally launched the new edition of Bannerman. Patman from Banner HQ was there in the Bannermobile.  Benny was absent due to illness but the Jets turned up to man the bookstall (yes, we still 'man' things at Westminster). Even the Mad Woman in the Attic was seen lurking in the shadows and was recognized as such by at least one attendee – indicating that it is her evident madness, not her location in the attic, which is her most characteristic feature.

Three of us gave talks. Dave Garner, my WTS colleague chaired the short lectures and the subsequent panel discussion. I spoke on Bannerman on church power and confession as protest.  Jonathan Leeman, of Nine Marks Ministries, addressed the importance of the church as an institution in an anti-institutional age and suggested that polity was both a highly important and much neglected topic among evangelicals – and yet is vital to the church’s health.  Then Nathan Sasser, of Sovereign Grace Ministries, gave a very personal account of his involvement in the development of polity in that organization before launching into a passionate, funny and compelling plea for Baptists at least to adopt Presbyterian polity.   It was a polemic for the ages.  I could have said it but nobody would have listened because the reaction would have been, to quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ That a Credo-Baptist said it was truly magnificent. That he is a former student of mine made me glad to see that he is now not far from the kingdom of heaven.

All three of us agreed on some key fundamentals.  The church is an act of God’s grace and is thus to be governed in form and content by God's Word.  The local congregation is the place for Christian discipleship.  Well-structured polity helps prevent the church from becoming a cult while at the same time curtailing rampant individualism.  Church power is ministerial, rooted in the kingship of Christ and thus limited by his Word.   And that the Bible teaches a polity and thus polity is very important.

Benny and the Jets tell me that the video will be available at some point soon.  In the meantime, what was so clear as the evening drew to a close is that each of us sees self-conscious, well-constructed polity, connected to an elaborate doctrinal confession, as vital to Christian discipleship.  We are moving into an era in America where the gap between Christianity and the wider culture is going to be more dramatic and more hostile than previous generations might have anticipated. Identities are all the rage today; But such is the pressure on Christianity that only a self-conscious understanding of our identity reinforced and cultivated by proper church community, will (humanly speaking) enable us to survive as distinct from the world around us. And as those committed to the supreme authority of the Bible, which teaches both confession and polity, we must realize that our theology, if biblical, must profoundly shape the governance and worship of our churches.

Jonathan Leeman, a congregational Baptist, paid Bannerman the significant compliment of saying that his book is an excellent foundation and guide to the issues and the discussions of polity which need to take place.   Once again, cue Blue Mink and buy the book.

Posted on Monday, April 20, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This weekend I spent an afternoon watching the new DVD from Media Gratiae which is being promoted by Banner of Truth, Logic on Fire.  With this, and the Bannerman volume, in the space of two weeks, the Banner is at the top of its game.

Logic on Fire consists of three DVDs dealing with the life and ministry of Dr. Lloyd-Jones.  The centerpiece is a documentary of ca. 100 minutes of the same title.  The extras consist of further material relating to the Doctor’s ministry and to the new series on discipleship, Behold your God.

The documentary is reminiscent in style of the work of Ken Burns.  Photographs and video footage are accompanied by thoughtful commentary from family members, colleagues and others influenced by the Doctor’s ministry.  Iain Murray is predictably the most insightful into the history of his public ministry.  Geoff Thomas is marvelous as usual, with the typical look of permanent slight pain on his face that we have come to know and love.  Lloyd-Jones’ daughters, Elizabeth and Ann, along with various grandchildren, offer moving personal anecdotes of the man in private.  Who would have thought he enjoyed playing billiards and snooker?  Though I confess when I heard he was a ruthless croquet player, I found that completely plausible. 

Various British churchmen also offer reflections on his influence on their lives.  I was a little puzzled by the presence of a number of Americans with no personal connection to the Doctor and whose contribution seemed to amount to nothing more than elaborate ways of saying ‘He was a great preacher’ – but, hey, if that means the disks are more marketable over here (which I guess was the reason for their inclusion) then that is a good thing.  Ben Bailie was a signal exception to this transatlantic rule: his comments on the impact of the Doctor’s medical training on his preaching were fascinating and left me wanting more.  If he reads this review, there is book there somewhere which would sell at least one copy – to me.

While I was a little disappointed there was not a great deal of deep analysis in the movie, three things struck me as important for Christians, especially pastors, to reflect upon.

First, Lloyd-Jones' seriousness with regard to preaching was deeply rooted in the fact that God had dealt seriously with him.  The Doctor knew the glory of salvation in Christ because he knew the depth of his own depravity.  I was convicted by this.  Too often I think I approach preaching as a technical exercise.  While I do not find the Doctor’s theology of unction and revival compelling, there is a personal component to preaching which is important.  Knowledge of one’s own sin is what helps to magnify Christ in the heart and this has to shape how one preaches.  You cannot learn that from a textbook or a class.  You learn that from sitting under the Word and being convicted yourself.

Second, upon retirement, Lloyd-Jones spent a lot of time traveling to small churches to preach and encourage the brethren.  I know too many Toppers in the US who will only speak to crowds of a certain number, lest their gifts be wasted.  One friend was told by one such that ‘Last time I spoke at your church, you only got me 800 people.  I don’t speak for that small a crowd.’  The Doctor was a delightful contrast.  But then his ministry was not about the Doctor or about the paycheque.  It was about the gospel (see the first point above) and its impact upon the saints.

Third, the most moving part of the documentary deals with the period leading up to the Doctor’s death.  At some point, he is asked whether he is upset that he will never preach again.  His response is that it was never about his preaching in the first place, it was about Christ.  He rejoiced not in the influence of his ministry but in the fact that his name was written in heaven.   There is a lesson for every single one of us there.

Iain Murray and I have clashed in the past over the interpretation of the Doctor’s role in the events of 1966-70, and his dealings with Dr. Packer.  But Iain’s biography of the Doctor, especially the first volume, remains a source of constant inspiration to me as a pastor and preacher.  And in this documentary, he and all those involved have given the church of today a real gift for which we should all be grateful.  I will be watching this documentary, alone, with my elders, and with others, many times in the years to come.  It is humbling, challenging, and inspiring. 

Posted on Friday, April 17, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Paul Levy has a penetrating review of Paul’s Tripp’s Dangerous Calling over at ref21.  He rightly sees the problems with the dangers of detachment of well-known conference speakers from everyday life, of continual self-reference (naming ministries after yourself simply proves the point that celebrity culture fuses both brand and personality), and of an evangelical industrial complex where the most banal observations on life can be marketed as if they are the most unique and sophisticated insights.

Levy might also have pressed forward on the issue of the use of the term ‘ministry.’   Rereading Bannerman, it is clear that in the context of Christianity, the word ‘ministry’ is best restricted to that pertaining to Word, sacrament and discipline. That keeps it connected to biblical qualifications, office-bearing, and accountability. The danger, of course, is that this could fuel the rise of a new priestly caste within the church, though that seems hardly the most pressing problem today.  Rather, the failure to restrict the term has led to a democratic free-for-all where anybody doing anything for the church (i.e., anybody who professes to be a Christian) has a ministry.  And when a word means everything in general, it means nothing in particular.  Thus, the linguistic stage is set for the downplaying of word and sacrament.  And when we name ‘ministries’ after ourselves, we surely point back to ourselves and not to the one in whose name we claim to minister.

Maybe we can start to address the problem by having capital M Ministry for church office and small m ministry for everything else.  And as ministry is by definition ministerial (authorized and regulated by the one in whose name we minister) maybe we can stop naming them after ourselves.  In addition to the obvious confusion that creates about who is the authority in our ‘ministry,’ it might also reflect more accurately biblical notions of appropriate modesty.

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).