Posted on Friday, February 13, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In responding to Todd, I am tempted to make a comment about the church dying from the death of a thousand cliches.  'The story is not the clothes people wear.  It's the lives they lead' is almost as good as 'We have a stance on love, and we have a conversation on everything else.'  Big Eva has found its postmodern Master Po, only with better hair and better eyesight (though no doubt 'it's not about the hair, it's about the journey to the salon....').

Can we expect a 'Farewell, Carl Lentz' tweet?   I won't be holding my breath.

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

Bruce Gordon, the Titus Street Professor of Church History at Yale University Divinity School, has made some wonderful contributions to the scholarly world of church history.  Bruce and I first met at a monastery, of all places, in January 1989, when we were both postgraduates in Church History in Scotland and -- what can I say? -- since then we've been an intermittent double act: being interviewed for, and failing to get, the same job at an institution which shall remain nameless; speaking together at the British Academy on the reception of the continental reformation in the British Isles; and now co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism where he is writing on Calvinism and eternity, and I look at the literary representation of Calvinism in the works of Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg.  Anyway, he recently took time off from being the more brilliant half of church history's answer to Bert and Ernie to give an interview to another friend, Jon Master, on the use of church history to Christians.  It is well worth a listen.  You can find it here.

Posted on Monday, February 09, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

One of the problems with the stadium events of Big Eva to which I have occasionally pointed is that they showcase pastors who by definition do not have pastorates that are in any sense normal.  There is thus a danger that they foster unrealistic expectations among potential pastors and even congregations.  Most seminary students are not going to be the next John Piper, and the Bible church at the corner of your street is not going to be the next Redeemer, NY.  Yet the resistance to highlighting normal pastors and pastorates seems deeply ingrained.  My own plea to the T4G leadership in 2012 to include one unknown and normal pastor in the lineup in 2014 fell on deaf ears.  No-one in Big Eva seems to have the courage to showcase the truly ordinary and normal.

I suspect the disconnect between the gospel grandees and the pastoral proletariat is set to become even more dramatic in the near future.  Bivocational pastoring will be the new normal for churches of, say, 200 members of less.  The cost of salaries, benefits and pensions is such that it will be very hard for such churches to cover all those in addition to the routine expenses which being a church entails.  Add to that the student debt incurred by those who wish to be trained in a manner that reflects the Presbyterian ideal of a learned ministry and the situation is even more pressing.  This all means that bivocational pastoring will become more common, if not standard, in the next decade.

That is my own position.  Some years ago I accepted the call to be pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pa.  For Presbyterian ecclesiology geeks, that makes me perhaps the only person in the OPC who presently has two calls: one as pastor of CPC, one as professor at Westminster.   Of course, I have it fairly easy. I have two jobs which I love, and which have significant overlap. But my church only has a pastor because my main salary and health care are covered by my day job.  The congregation simply cannot afford to pay a living wage.  Still, I may be bivocational but my life is considerably easier than many ministerial colleagues.  I have known pastors who drive school buses or stack shelves or sell furniture in order to put bread on the table and thereby subsidize their pastorates.  They are the ones who have it truly tough.

Yet the advent of bivocationalism, whether of the easy kind I enjoy or the tougher kind experienced by many, cannot stand alone.  It has obvious implications for the church as a whole and requires a change in thinking on the part of congregations.

First, the congregation's perception of the minister’s task must take his situation into account.  The pastor who works another job Monday to Friday is clearly not going to be as available for consistent pastoral work during the week.  Burn out and exhaustion will be potentially far more common.  I am grateful that my elders are increasingly pro-active in making sure I take some rest.

Second, I would argue that the bivocational pastor’s focus must be upon preaching the word and administering the sacraments.  He may not have many hours to devote to church work but what time he does possess needs to be focused on the basics of ministry, especially sermon preparation.  Ruling elders can help on other matters; only the man called to preach the Word can do the sermon.

Third, our understanding of the importance of the ruling elder must change.  If the minister is less available, then ruling elders must be prepared to step in and take on some of the tasks which have traditionally been more the preserve of the minister, such as pastoral visitation.  Ruling elders are vital.  I could not manage if all of the men with whom I serve did not carry significant responsibility for the pastoral care of the congregations.

Fourth, seminaries must start to cultivate an understanding among pastoral students that bivocationalism is likely to be their typical post-seminary experience, rather than a sign of failure or of not being a ‘real’ minister.  At a minimum, this would seem to require that bivocationalism be modeled by some faculty.  It would also entail some kind of education about what bivocational pastorates typically entail.

Bivocationalism is here to stay.  We really do need to accept that and start to think about its implications for biblical eldership.

Posted on Friday, February 06, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Just over a year ago I received an email from one of the Top Men, giving me the routine lecture about how my criticisms of him, his organization, and the culture which he had helped to foster amounted to mocking the work of God and taking a sinful delight in the struggles of the godly.  So far so predictable. But what struck me most about the tirade was a particular comment to the effect that he was telling me this because it was clear that none of my friends would do so.  He did not use the phrase, but clearly he regarded me as having surrounded myself with Yes Men.

That is a serious claim and one not to be dismissed lightly.  I am not sure how many ‘No Men’ the Toppers typically have around them -- not many, it seems, if the significant silences surrounding the various catastrophes of the YRR are anything by which to judge -- but a criticism is not invalidated by the inconsistency or hypocrisy of the critic.

Well-ordered church polity allows for congregational election of elders and this should be a check on the ability of the pastor to appoint Yes Men.  Yet everyone knows that there is a certain culture and psychology to churches.  In some places, the pastor can be treated like a dog, in others like a god.  The mere fact of elders does not mean the pastor hears what he needs to hear.  Only particular elders can do that.

Thus, I was for a while concerned that the Topper’s barb might be true.  Did I have friends with the courage to call me out when I crossed the line or even came close to so doing?

Then, late one evening a few months ago, I received a call at about 11 pm at night from one of my elders.  He told me that at the next meeting of the session a certain matter was going to be discussed and that my emotional involvement in the issue made it certain that I would not think clearly and may even sin in anger during the discussion.  As a result, he was calling to tell me that I should recuse myself from that part of the meeting and that if I failed so to do, he would bring a motion to have me recused.

Initially, I was furious; but then as we talked I saw that he was speaking the truth and doing so because he cared for and respected me.  He did not want me to sin.  Thus, when the meeting did take place, I left of my own accord at the appropriate time.

The elder concerned is fifteen years my junior.  He is a former student.  It took me years to persuade him to address me as ‘Carl’ rather than ‘Dr. Trueman.’  I suspect he called me at 11 at night because it took him all day to build up the courage to confront me.  But I am glad he did.  And I am glad that the congregation of the church where I preach is wise enough to appoint such men to leadership positions.  I need to be held to account for my own good as well as for the good of the church where I am a minister.

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

The Witherspoon Institute has posted a fine article on parenting LGBT children.  You can find it here.

Posted on Monday, February 02, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In a seminar last week on Martin Luther, I commented that a theologian of glory could easily use the theology of cross for his own ends.  He would thereby utterly subvert its purpose while still using its form.  This provoked some discussion and even some resistance from my students but the point is relatively simple. Even the cross can be used as an opportunity for drawing attention to oneself.

Thus, the theology of the cross can be articulated as a set of dramatic statements (‘God is hidden in his revelation and revealed in his hiddenness’; ‘God achieves his proper work through his alien work’ and so on).  In an age of Tweets and Attention Deficit Disorder, these sayings have a certain cool chic to them and give the one using them an aura of profundity, rather like the cod-Confucian gibberish of Master Po in Kung Fu (‘If a man ignores the past, he may rob the future’; ‘To suppress a truth is to give it force beyond endurance’).   But if that is the theologian’s ultimate purpose – to sound learned, to appear profound, to enhance the appeal of his Twitter account, to make himself and his ‘ministry’ the main event – then however cross-centred the words he uses, he speaks as a theologian of glory. 

The real theologian of the cross knows that the theology of the cross exists for him only in the actual midst of the fallen human experience of (to use Luther's own terms) Anfechtungen and tentatio.  It cannot be tritely tweeted or indeed lazily separated from the overall shape of someone’s life and ministry. It is ironic, but just as the crucifix can be an item of costume jewelry, so the theology of the cross can be the tool for bolstering one’s own power and influence.



Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Our Man in Ulster has just brought this 2014 news story to my attention, about a woman charged with assault for taking meth while pregnant.  Setting aside the obvious legal issue about the personhood of a baby in the womb in a nation where abortion is allowed by law, the prize for most astounding statement surely goes to the commenter 'Helicohunter': 'Women who are addicted to meth should get abortions. Every fetus deserves a chance to develop normally. There are plenty of fates worse than not being born.'

Kill the baby to protect the baby from assault.   You know, I'd never have thought of that.

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Another evangelical megachurch congregation has come out in favour of same sex marriage.  This time it is GracePointe Church in Nashville, TN.

The evangelical collapse is coming.   A set of circumstances is conspiring to make it so.  The external pressure is easy to identify: the sentiment, the aesthetics and the rhetoric of the wider world are overwhelmingly on the side of change.  Then there is the fact that so much evangelical Protestantism does not possess the resources to resist this pressure.  It simply does not have the depth of theological anthropology to realise that this is not a straighforward matter of 'love' or 'equality.'   These terms need a wider phiosophical context to have any content.  Then there are the more subtle weaknesses.  It is surely going to be hard for those institutions and those people who have enjoyed a certain amount of wider social respectability to face the rather bleak future of social exclusion which standing firm and clear on this matter will bring in its wake.  Indeed, I noted here the other week the ambiguity at Wheaton College on the issue.

This is not a time for ambiguity. Ambiguity is the luxury of those who do not have to face the immediate harsh realities of life in the real world as experienced by most Christians, or who know that their pensions are safe whatever happens.  Nor is it a time for the evangelical elites to fail to call their own to account and to maintain their usual gentlemanly silence when one of their own steps out of line.  If I have learned one thing from my dealings with the conservative evangelical establishment in the USA, it is that the silence of friends is always more significant and more dangerous than the noise of enemies.

If a major collapse is to be averted, we need strong, vocal leadership from the leaders of Christian institutions -- denominations, liberal arts colleges and the like. And that sentence sums up why I am so pessimistic.

Posted on Thursday, January 29, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

One aspect of Thomas Oden’s life which is both admirable and perplexing is his denominational loyalty.  Oden is a United Methodist and it is clear from his autobiography that he is committed to his church and perhaps even optimistic that she might be rescued from all the liberal nonsense with which she has come to be identified.  In an era when denominational loyalty means little and choice of church is often built on consumerist preferences, such commitment is admirable.  In the case of mainlines, however, it is sadly now naïve and misplaced.

In fact, in perhaps my one major dissent from Oden’s arguments in his autobiography, I believe that it is now clear that the mainline Protestant denominations are lost and irrecoverable for orthodoxy.

Arguments for optimism regarding mainlines generally involve at least one of three things.  First, there is often an assumption that liberalism, because it is ultimately a species of secularism in religious idiom, will simply die away, unable to offer more satisfactory answers to life’s questions than honest, open secularism.  Second, there is the belief that numbers equate to influence and power.  Third, there is failure to see how the battles within the church are now aligning with battles within the wider world in an unprecedented way which is serving to marginalize the orthodox cause in ways previously unimaginable.

As to the first, there is some truth here: as the religious idiom becomes more implausible, so the sale of secularism in religious wrappings is surely becoming harder.  As to the second, this is the Stillite fallacy/fantasy.  William Still, the revered leader of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, led his followers to abandon involvement in denominational structures and believe that simply preaching the gospel would rescue the church from apostasy.  Unfortunately, though, denominational power is a function not of numbers or of which party has the most vibrant congregations; it is a function of who sits on what committee, and which of those committees wields influence.  The Church of Scotland evangelicals learned that lesson in the last decade in way they are unlikely to forget and Still’s legacy is far more ambiguous than he might have hoped

As to the third, it is one thing to be fighting battles within a denomination in which people outside have no interest – on inspiration, or Christology, or supernaturalism.  In such circumstance, the orthodox might appear to those outside to be simpletons or harmless lunatics.  But when the battle lines are over issues such as sexuality, then the outside world has an interest and the pressure from the culture has a more aggressive role.   Harmless lunacy is one thing; bigoted hate is quite another.  The orthodox are not simply opposed by the cuckoos in their own nest; they are facing the fury of everyone outside of the church as well.  It is hard to fight such a ferocious two-front war.

In such circumstances, there is really no hope of really turning the mainlines towards orthodoxy.  I appreciate Thomas Oden’s love for the church and commitment to his denomination but I do not share his optimism for a major change in the theological trajectory of mainline Protestantism.

Posted on Wednesday, January 28, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As readers will know, this week MoS is focusing on Thomas Oden's autobiography, A Change of Heart.  As I have reviewed it for the January edition of First Things, I asked Scot McKnight, as a friend and representative of another stream of evangelical life, to offer his thoughts on the volume, an invitation he kindly accepted.  To coincide with today's podcast on the book, I post Scot's review here, replete with quotations which give the reader a real taste of the book as a whole.

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). 382 pp. with index.

The tension in Thomas C. Oden’s memoir, tension between a socialist-absorbing and avant garde theology and established reputation among America’s academic elites and (his now well-known) paleo-orthodoxy and refusal to say anything new in theology and disestablishment in the same academic community mirrors the history of the American church in the 20th Century. One might sketch that history with varying trajectories – from orthodox evangelicalism into liberalism in all its forms is a stereotyped story of a slide – but Oden’s story turns that story around for he moved against the grain into a robust embrace of orthodox Christianity.

I first became aware of Oden in the mid-90s when I read both After Modernity … What? (1992) and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (1995). Oden tells his story of participation in the two ends of America’s theological spectrum with candor, humility – confessions about his own culpability for his previous beliefs and teachings and wishes that he had been more firm in rearing his children – and restraint, but nonetheless a baring of his soul:

My past visions of vast plans for social change had irreparably harmed many innocents, especially the unborn. The sexually permissive lifestyle, which I had not joined but failed to critique, led to a generation of fatherless children. The political policies I had promoted were intended to increase justice by political means but ended in diminishing personal responsibility and freedom. Many of the seemingly humane psychological therapies I had supported may have made people more miserable, less able to choose wisely or to seek the virtues required for happiness (145).

Through his own church setting, education and theological studies Oden became a paradigmatic social justice advocate in a mainline church increasingly being shaped by political activism as the core of gospel work.

As it turned out, my church sent their youth to summer camps more to gain a vision of social justice than of personal religious experience (47).

My job as regional youth leader was to take the Social Gospel message to the other district and state camps and gatherings (48).

There I was introduced to a left-leaning political agenda blessed by the church youth leaders I trusted. I was challenged to enter the ministry, but not to a ministry of Word and sacrament or of evangelization or soul care (48).

Youth ministry, it ought to be underlined in red twice with an exclamation point in the margin, charts the future path of the church and his Methodist youth experience, both as a youth himself and as a teacher and leader of the youth movement, turned him into a socio-politico-theological activist. He makes this confession:

I went into the ministry to use the church to elicit political change according to a sort of Marxist vision of wealth distribution and proletarian empowerment (50).

This occurs today at both ends of the spectrum, both by right- and left-leaners, and it has marked the American church in ways that are now destroying the credibility of the gospel and making some of our most gifted youth doubly hesitant about church ministry.

In Oden’s religion-as-political-activism life was a theology at work, one in which he was a well-known author, lecturer and church politician. Here is how he himself describes what he believed:

I habitually assumed that truth in religion was finally reducible to economics (with Marx) or psychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche). It was truly a self-deceptive time for me, but I had no inkling of its insidious dangers (51).

In other words, theology was all about power. The premier inspiration behind his hermeneutic of suspicion and power was none other than Saul Alinsky.

I learned from Alinsky to think of everything in terms of class conflict. … He taught me how to distinguish liberals from radicals. I preferred the radicals. Liberals talk. Radicals organize (54).

In fact, one can draw a line in some ways from Alinsky to Hilary Rodham Clinton to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, and Oden knows that line is straight – for he and Hilary were living in the same ideological world:

I was a writer for her core curriculum. Our trajectories mirror the same story of many Methodist social activists. We shared the same working sources, which were Tillich’s cultural analysis, Bultmann’s demythology, early feminism and especially Saul Alinsky (86).

Oden’s political and ideological theology, which he taught at Southern Methodist University, Phillips University and then Drew University, had another deep theme – Rogerian psychology.

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy (89).

He doesn’t quite say this, but one has to wonder if Oden knows it was he who established the entrenched idea of God’s “unconditional love” for every human being.

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity (89).

This part of his story is told well, revealing what he now sees as the theological underbelly of the circles in which he moved. He admits candidly and tragically that,

In my seminary teaching I appeared to be relatively orthodox, if by that one means using an orthodox vocabulary. I could still speak of God, sin and salvation, but always only in demythologized, secularized and worldly wise terms. God became the Liberator, sin became oppression and salvation became human effort. The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity (81).

What it all came down to was a kind of existentialist or even situationalist ethic:

To listen to the need of the neighbor who meets me concretely is to listen for the call of God. That was the basis for a situational view of ethics. The requirement of God was discernible in the present since the neighbor always meets us with genuine needs.  … That was my credo in my early thirties. It was new birth without bodily resurrections and forgiveness without atonement. Resurrection and atonement were words I choked on (86).

But once an activist always an activist. Oden had a “change of heart” and a change of mind and a change of ecclesial associations. What happened? Better yet, who happened? The irony’s name is Will Herberg. But it was set up by his experience of the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1966 and then Earth Day in 1969, in Dallas, where he had nothing less than a crisis experience in the depth of his soul that led eventually to a new kind of activism. First, Geneva:

The more I watched the spectacle, the more I knew I was coming to a fork in the road. The road was modern ecumenism, born in 1948 in Amsterdam in the time of my youth and recklessness before 1966, which virtually ended for me on those Genevan streets. I was finally coming to understand that my generation of ecumenists had deeply disrupted the fragile unity of the body of Christ in an attempt to heal it. I felt to some extent personally responsible.

I had been party to tearing down church institutions that could not easily be replaced and moral traditions that would take decades to rebuild. What was replacing the received ecumenical confession was a diffuse vision of supposed positive political change built largely on a Marxist view of inevitable historical change, proletarian revolution and crony wealth redistribution. My generation of idealists had been uncritically convinced we could build something better, more faithful, more humane than all that we had received from all of the previous generations. I could see that what was emerging was nothing like what we had anticipated (114).

Second, Earth Day.

The zenith of these popular movements for naturalistic idealism was for me the first Earth Day in Texas, which happened in Houston one year before Earth Day went national. … I sat on a park bench near the outdoor amphitheater read a handout copy of Socialist World—a propaganda piece of which I hadn’t seen a copy in several years, but its themes were all too familiar to me. The paper was saturated with labor-left messianic rhetoric. I thought back two decades to my Norman Thomas days, when I actually was a socialist (125).

He continues:

For some reason I had in my pocket that day my India paper edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which I had purchased at Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford. I turned to the collect for the day. Under the shade of a majestic gnarled tree I read out loud: “Almighty Father, who has given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” My eyes filled with tears as I asked myself what had I been missing in all of my frenzied subculture of experimental living (126).

That crisis led him back to Drew, to conversations – yea, arguments and diatribes – with his good Jewish scholar friend and colleague, Will Herberg, and here is the highlight of A Change of Heart:

Herberg became a Jew by listening to a Christian [Niebuhr had urged him to learn his Jewish history]; I became a Christian by listening to a Jew (134) … Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes [Herberg] said, “You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.” In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition (136).

As Niebuhr pushed Herberg into Jewish texts, so Herberg pushed Oden to the sources of orthodox Christian faith.

I plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers: Polycarp, Ignatius and Justin Martyr. I wanted them to feed my soul (137). … I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year stable memory (140) … In the season of Epiphany 1971 I had a curious dream in which I was in the New Haven cemetery and accidentally stumbled upon my own tombstone with this puzzling epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology”. I woke up refreshed and relieved (143).

From those days on Oden became a new kind of orthodox activist, and he began to develop nothing less than a breath-taking, unrevised paleo-orthodox Christian theology that showed up time and time again in his works over the last thirty years, and a few deserve to be mentioned: Systematic Theology (3 volumes, 1987-1992) reduced eventually to one Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (2009), John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (1994), The Justification Reader (2002), One Faith (with J.I. Packer), and the incomparably valuable and successful Ancient Christian Commentary and its various offshoots.

Oden moved from a politico-theological orientation to a classic, creedal orthodoxy and in so doing made new friends and offended old ones. His continued experience at Drew is the all-too-common story of intolerance by those who affirm tolerance most vocally and who, in effect, suppress voices of conservatives.

In the 1980s it seemed that almost every decision had a politically correct component. I valued the attempt at fairness in language and correctives to racism and sexism, but if those correctives were made disproportionately at the cost of quality in basic Christian teaching, I was concerned. I supported affirmative action but resisted its abuses. I could not have predicted the high price I would pay (183).

But Oden’s account is not embittered or embattled; the man is gracious through and through and found new friends – like Richard Neuhaus, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, J.I. Packer and other evangelical luminaries. What he lost he gained.

His rather idyllic country boyhood where family was everything, the Methodist church the center of his community, and hard work and responsibility the air he breathed, led him to a life shaped by needing and finding one’s calling. Thus, “All Methodists back then knew that everyone had a calling that would have purpose and meaning to their lives, but I wasn’t sure what mine might be” (23). He found it in paleo-orthodoxy. A calling more need to heed.


Scot McKnight

Professor of New Testament

Northern Seminary