Posted on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I’ve spent the last few months finishing up a book with Bob Kolb, the Luther scholar, entitled Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation.  It is due from Baker later next year.  Bob is, for my money, the greatest living Luther scholar in the English-speaking world.  Working with him, I felt rather like this.


The project arose out of a three-way conversation between Bob, myself, and Dave Nelson at Baker.   We were concerned about three things.  First, many Lutheran students do not understand Reformed theology.  Second, as a tit-for-tat, many Reformed students do not understand Lutheran theology.  Third, many Evangelical students do not understand either Lutheran or Reformed theology and tend to identify the bits they like out of both traditions with their own while viewing the bits they don't like as aberrations or of marginal importance.  Something needed to be done.


Both Bob and I wrote the book as catholic Christians – those who hold to the creeds of the ancient church – and as evangelical Christians – those who believe in justification by grace through faith and identify with ecclesiastical bodies which subscribe to Reformation confessions.   To use Bob’s distinction, we do not write as Evangelicals whose movement is rooted in the revivals of the eighteenth century and which draws much of its strength from Baptist and parachurch circles.   Thus, the volume has sections on some things of interest to Evangelicals, such as the doctrine of scripture, but also on matters of comparative indifference to Evangelicalism while yet of great importance to the Reformers, such as the Lord’s Supper.


The joy of the project lay much in our friendship but also in the fact that we allowed the history of our creeds and confessions and churches to guide our priorities and our discussion.   A common commitment to Nicaea and Chalcedon, and a trust in God’s word and in the righteousness of Christ was the foundation which allowed then for substantial engagement.  It also meant that we could disagree while yet preserving a common Christian bond of friendship.   Further, it was good to have confessional history set the framework for our discussion.   If nothing else, the debate over the Trinity of the last six months has pointed to how contemporary economies of power and money, detached from ecclesiastical accountability, profoundly shape the American Evangelical landscape.  It has also revealed how the Evangelical mind is gripped by the notion that, while any deviation on scripture is lethal, considerable flexibility on the doctrine of God is tolerable.   History indicates otherwise and Evangelicals need to understand that. 


So as we head into 2017 and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Bob and I hope that our volume will contribute to mutual understanding between the Lutheran and Reformed heirs of the Reformation. And we hope too that it might encourage Evangelicals to think more seriously about the historical and ecclesiastical implications of the Reformation for the faith today.

Posted on Thursday, December 08, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Todd’s inaugural post as the new editor of this blog (all complaints to Pruitt from now on, please) makes a very good point and also highlights Fred Sanders’s fine review of Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity.  Sanders is witty and sharp as always – and rightly so, for the stakes on the Trinity issue are high, as they are on any matter pertaining to the essence of the faith.


Todd's post, Fred's review, and some of the reactions to it raise the question of how the issue of tone played out historically and theologically in the Reformation.   It looks to be another area, in addition to that of major doctrine, where modern conservative evangelicalism has a rather vexed relationship with Luther and company.  If you are looking for politeness in the Reformers, then you are going to have to buy a microscope.  Courtesy in polemic was a rare commodity, as even the woodcuts frequently demonstrate.  True, there is some evidence that the French editions of Calvin’s Institutes were a little more polite than the Latin but that was less to do with Calvin having second thoughts about his style of attack and more to do with his elitism.  After all, we would not want the Great Unwashed thinking that they can talk about our educated opponents in quite the ways we do….  The Reformation was remarkable for two things in this connection: It engaged in powerfully worded polemic; And it generally played that polemic out in public, eschewing elitism, as Luther did in 1525 when he rudely rebutted Erasmus’s view that the bondage of the will was too tricky and confusing a doctrine to preach from the pulpit. 



Those of us who claim to be heirs of the Reformation should take heed.  Style and substance are not so easily separated as we might like to think.  And the people in the pew have the right -- and the need -- to hear about the whole counsel of God, from his being in eternity to the consummation of all things at the end of time.  For the Reformers, nothing in God's Word was to be the monopoly of a priesthood or a scholarly guild.


We live in an effetely aesthetic age, where taste consistently trumps truth.  In the world of secular politics, concern over tone is often a means by which the elites outlaw their opponents while yet retaining their own right to speak as unpleasantly as they wish about those they despise.  For example, Clinton’s decrying of the aggressive tone of Trump rallies while feeling free to avail herself of terms such as ‘basket of deplorables’ to refer to nearly half of the US population.  It is thus simply a way of polemic by less honest means.  And lower down the food-chain where most of us exist, concern over tone is often nothing more than unthinking capitulation to the tastes of the present day and/or a lazy move which allows us to render perfectly good arguments illegitimate and unworthy of response.  Sharpness of tone is always so much more obvious and unacceptable in those with whom we happen to disagree.


Had Luther and company conformed to the criteria of politeness which some blog commenters seem to require today, the Reformation would never have happened.   When the faith is on the line, the tone is necessarily strong.  That is biblical.  If you have not gone so far as to call on someone to castrate themselves, you have not crossed any boundary of taste set by the Apostle Paul, Gal. 5:12.  And if you think anger or sarcasm in theological argument are necessarily sinful, you will end up with Christological problems, for Christ exhibited the former and deployed the latter.   No doubt such calls for kindness are well-intentioned, but a sharp, cutting tone is generally necessary when the faith is on the line.  The natural human tendency is towards blurring important distinctions, watering down the faith, and accommodating to the criteria of the world.  Therefore, argument in itself is not enough to communicate the importance of what is being discussed.  Style of argument is important too.  From Athanasius’s talk of ‘Ariomaniacs’ to Zwingli’s salvoes against Anabaptist fanatics, the rhetoric was always as high as the stakes involved, and rightly so.   Indeed, I can think of no cardinal doctrine of the faith which was established through expressions of politeness towards error.  Yes, we must avoid slander and unnecessary meanness.  But we must also make sure that our style and tone reflect the urgency of any given situation.  Fred is quite right to have written as he did.


Nice guys not only finish last.  They also tend to end up heterodox or even worse. 

Posted on Thursday, November 10, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

It's been interesting seeing some of the sharp rhetoric being used about Christian voting over the last few weeks, rhetoric that has if anything become more extreme in the last twenty-four hours. 


But here's the thing: if you are a pastor who thinks an evangelical who voted for Trump has hindered people from believing the gospel, promoted hate or racism or whatever, then you think that person has sinned.  The same applies if you think a vote for Clinton directly promoted infanticide.  As a pastor, you then need to find out who in your congregation voted for the Donald -- or for Hillary -- and discipline them.


Alternatively, if you want to avoid becoming a cult or if you simply do not have the courage of your blog convictions when it comes to actual face-to-face ecclesiastical practice in the real world, you might want to tone your comments down.  You should acknowledge that, while political thinking as a Christian is complicated and nuanced, voting is not, and thus every vote cast represents a trade-off of some set of moral convictions against others. And trade-offs of this kind in a functional two-party democracy are notoriously challenging to parse.   You might also want to acknowledge that dressing up your vote as the truly biblical one and/or others' votes as the sinful ones is often simply a way of pre-empting any real discussion and granting your position the automatic moral high ground.


The Kinks have much wisdom to offer us here.  When it comes to voting, 'I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air' captures the feeling many people have. A bit of political (and Christian) humility at this point might go a long, long way.

(Full disclosure: as a Green Carder, I was thankfully free of any moral dilemma on Tuesday)

Posted on Monday, October 31, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Reformation Day 1516 brings us to the final year countdown to the 500th anniversary of Luther's call for a debate about the nature and scope of indulgences, the event which is popularly seen as the start of the Reformation.


It promises to be a busy year for Luther maniacs like myself and here are two tasters of some of what is to come.  First, a trailer for a movie from the people who brought you Through the Eyes of Spurgeon and featuring myself and my latest partner in crime, the great Luther scholar (we are not worthy!), Bob Kolb, with whom I have just finished a Lutheran-Reformed dialogue book, Between Wittenberg and Geneva which is due out from Baker Academic -- yes, what a surprise -- in 2017. 


The second is a trailer for a PBS movie featuring a cast of characters, from Cardinal Dolan in rather fine surroundings to me, bald and freezing to death, in a Wisconsin church while talking about Luther and the Jews.  The full movie is to be released.... Well, I'm sure you can work that out for yourselves.

Posted on Tuesday, October 04, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville














If reading about Luther’s life is essential as a means of orienting you to understanding his theology, the next thing is to read that theology for yourself.  If you have Latin and German and access to a decent theological library, then the Weimar edition of Luther’s works is an option.  If you lack those languages but still have access to a library or to Logos Bible Software, then the Philadelphia edition of Luther’s works is also very useful.  But with the critical edition of Luther running to over 100 volumes and the Philadelphia edition being not far short of that, the question of where to begin is important and it may well be better to start with a volume of selections.



Two classics of this genre are those by John Dillenberger and Timothy Lull.  I prefer Dillenberger but Lull is now the standard textbook which I use in my Luther class.



Tappert’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel is an old classic, focused on the pastoral Luther.



Of all the 1517-2017 anniversary projects I have seen, the publication of a six volume set from Fortress Press entitled The Annotated Luther is the one that has excited me most.  The six volumes are: The Roots of Reform, Word and Faith, Church and Sacraments, Pastoral Writings, Christian Life in the World, and The Interpretation of Scripture.  I have been buying volumes as they come out and have not been disappointed.



The texts in these volumes are often light revisions of earlier translations but what makes the set so delightful (in addition to the superb production standards) are the new introductions and marginal notes.  Much of Luther has to be set against a technical medieval theological background in order to understand him.  That was, after all, his own background and his Reformation theology is developed in relation (negative and positive) to his medieval training.  Even the fabled Ninety-Five Theses contain many references which require knowledge of the theology of the late Middle Ages.  This set (of which four volumes are already available) offers excellent commentary on each text.



Once you have your Luther books, what should you turn to first?  Here is a brief suggested reading list:



Early in his reforming career Luther produced three sets of theses for disputation that show the rapid development of his thought between 1517 and 1518: The Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (September, 1517); The Ninety-Five These Against Indulgences (October, 1517) and the Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518), in the latter of which he developed both his notion of the bondage of the will, the antithesis of Law and Gospel, and the distinction between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross.



The three great treatises of 1520 (The Freedom of the Christian Man, The Bablyonian Captivity of the Church, and An Appeal to the German Nobility) lay out in detail Luther’s program for ethics, sacraments, and politics.  Readers should also look at the later sacramental work, That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (1527) to see how his earlier emphasis on Chrost’s promise is somewhat supplanted by an emphasis upon Christ’s presence under the pressure of the conflict with Zwingli.



On a darker note – the reader should also look at both On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), a notoriously anti-Jewish work which had an afterlife as propaganda in Nazi Germany and continues to find audiences on various racist and anti-Semitic websites today.   But the text should be read alongside his earlier work on the Jews, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523).  I tell students all the time that the expected never needs explanation.  It is the unexpected that the historian has to strive to explain.  And this earlier treatise is very much an oddity because it is a relatively positive text about the Jews written by a sixteenth century Christian.  The question about Luther and the Jews is thus not ‘Why did he hate them in 1543?’ since that was the conventional attitude.  Rather it is ‘Why was he favorable towards them in 1523?’



The only works which Luther himself considered worthy of outliving him were his Catechisms and On the Bondage of the Will, his famous – and devastating 1525 riposte to Erasmus. I would not reduce his useful canon merely to those items but it is hard to argue that he himself had no highlighted the most important texts.



To these I would add two other works: the Lectures on Genesis, for their remarkable theology of the creative Word of God, and the late work On the Councils of the Church for its mature ecclesiology. 


If you read all the above, you will have a good basic grounding in Luther’s thinking.



Next week I will suggest some books which discuss Luther’s theology.










Posted on Monday, September 26, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As October looms, so does Reformation season.  And this year, of course, we stand on the threshold of the 500th anniversary of the posting by Luther of his Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences.  Next year will no doubt bring a bumper crop of Lutherana in its wake but in a series of posts over the coming weeks I want to make suggestions about books that anyone who wants to know more about the great Reformer should own right now, in order to understand what all the fuss will be about in 2017.



To be tired of Luther is to be tired of life.  And I am convinced that with Luther, the best way to learn about his theology is first of all to learn about his life.



The classic life, and the place for to start your Luther studies, is still Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand.  It was the book which first ignited my own interest in the Reformation, not simply for the clarity of the prose but also because Bainton (himself a somewhat radical figure) had an unerring ability to sympathize with the marginal and the outsider.  It is no coincidence that one of his other classic biographies was that of Michael Servetus.   Of all Luther's biographers, Bainton captures the fast-paced action of so much of the Luther story.



After Bainton, Martin E. Marty’s short biography, is also quite superb.  Marty is a scholar of real stature but he wears his learning lightly.  This book is an easy read and contains many anecdotes which reveal the humanity of Luther in all of its amusing ordinariness.



The gold standard for sheer detail is the biography by Martin Brecht, translated into English in a  very readable three-volume edition.  Do not be intimidated by the work's daunting size.  Luther’s life was full of excitement and drama and these massive volumes carry the reader along.  Brecht has read deep and wide in the Luther corpus and the great events of the Reformation are blended here with many anecdotes which reveal Luther the man.



Heiko A. Oberman is without doubt the most important Reformation scholar of the last one hundred years.  His work on the intellectual background of the Lutheran Reformation in late medieval nominalism fundamentally transformed our understanding of how Luther should be understood.  Indeed, Oberman, perhaps more than anyone else, made the compelling case for understanding Luther as a premodern figure, a man of the Middle Ages, and thus to be distinguished from almost every other Reformation leader.   His Luther: Man Between God and Devil is perhaps his most brilliant and most speculative book.  Blending insights from his own late medieval studies with some of the psychological insights of Erik Erikson, this is a work to be read for its mastery of the subject, its interdisciplinary brilliance, and its (sometimes implausible but always breathtakingly brilliant) conclusions.



Finally, two very recent biographies are worth reading.  Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer is a fine work of scholarship, the culmination of a lifetime of study and reflection on the subject.  Then there is distinguished historian Lyndal Roper’s excellent Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, which is already available in the UK but not scheduled for the US until March, 2017.  



Of these two, Roper’s perhaps has the edge.  A feminist, she is not naturally sympathetic to Luther but has produced a remarkably nuanced and insightful work.  What she does is present a Luther unaccommodated to modern sensibilities by pressing particularly on the issue of his eucharistic thought, a point which divides him decisively from strands of modern Protestantism which try to claim him as forebear.   This is both theologically and methodologically important.  Theologically, it presents the real Luther, the Luther who abominated Zwingli for his memorialism.  Methodologically, it requires that the modern reader face Luther as he really was and not make him the comfortable companion of contemporary American evangelicalism – a move that can be made far too simply when his gospel of justification is abstracted from the doctrinal matrix within which it must be understood.



So that should provide some ideas for how to approach Luther through his life.  Next week, I will offer some thoughts on where to start reading his voluminous theological writings.

Posted on Thursday, September 15, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As 2017, the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to that infamous door, looms, we can expect a deluge of Luther materials.  It is going to be the nearest thing to church history heaven on earth for those of us who love the Doc.


Almost first out of the blocks, it seems, is an excellent webpage and accompnaying materials co-sponsored by the Imperial Grand Black Chapter and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland: Luther 500.  The project is the brainchild of my friend, Robert Campbell, and consists of a series of great booklets -- attractive in hardcopy and free for download.  I was invited to write the biographical essay in the booklet on Luther as Theologian of the Cross.


I have to say -- of all parachurch organizations, I never expected to be writing for the Lodge.  To be working for First Things and the Grand Black Chapter is pretty -- ahem -- ecumenical.   Yet the younger leaders, like Robert Campbell, are focused not on politics but on articulating the evangelical faith to a new generation.  And the result is really extremely helpful and I recommend the series to anybody who wants to introduce Luther to Christians who may not be aware of him, or indeed for the purposes of evangelism.  And I'll back anything that promotes further knowledge and appreciation of the Doc.

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

A few weeks ago I received a small package from a man announcing himself as the father of one Wendell Kimbrough, and containing his son's new cd of Psalms.   I always wince at such arrivals on the grounds that I fear I am going to have to come perilously close to breaking the Ninth Commandment when I write back expressing my thanks and appreciation.


I've always been an advocate of psalm singing.  Yes, I know that it has to be done well.  Flat acapella singing of the whole of Psalm 137 to the tune 'Smallpox' is not going to lift many people's hearts heavenwards.  But the Psalms do articulate a range of human emotion in response to life and to God which are rarely found elsewhere.  They allow us to mourn and they allow us to rejoice, and all points in between, in songs of praise to our Lord.  So I am always interested in anybody doing anything new and interesting with them.


Well, the cd sat on the passenger seat of my car, unlistened to, for some days until my wife and I were traveling to church.  My usual preference is nothing at all or a bit of The Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies on a Sunday morning (not a particularly godly choice, I confess, but definitely very English).  My wife being somewhat more sanctified than me picked up the Psalm cd, ejected Ray and the boys and inserted it into the player.  All without asking my permission, mind you -- that's how far I've slipped down the egalitarian road.  She'll be wearing trousers, cutting her hair, and wanting the vote next.  Where will it end? 


Anyway, we listened.  And I was impressed.  This is a musician with talent, a great voice, and a feel for what contemporary tunes fit with the words.  I would say that there are touches of American folk -- perhaps particularly tones of Dylan and also The Band -- and some traditional country and western (a style of music which is not one I typically appreciate but does seem to be OK here).  And I lack the ability to know whether all or any of the compositions would transfer to congregational singing.  But this is good.  Really good.  And I would recommend it to anyone who loves the Psalms and simply wants to hear how these old songs can be set to attractive and varied contemporary arrangements.


The album can be ordered from here.  I hope that in coming years we will see Wendell Kimbrough doing much more of the same with the Psalter.  And, for the record, I did not need to worry about breaking the Ninth Commandment in my note of thanks.

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I use the ESV and so does my church.  I enjoy it as a translation, though sometimes prefer the TNIV for narrative sections.  I am no biblical linguist, so that is a purely aesthetic judgment based upon readability.


Scot McKnight just posted an interesting and typically provocative analysis of the change to the translation of Genesis 3:16 in the new ESV that is coming out -- what will be the definitive text.  Again, I am no linguist but it seems that the post by Scot provides an excellent starting-point for those who are competent in the field to launch constructive discussion on the translation and its proposed changes.  This debate looks set to be fascinating.

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Why has this Trinitarian issue generated such passion?  Given the fact that the EFS/ERAS/anti-eternal generation view has been shown to be wrong, why has there been no ‘We’re sorry we misled the church for so long.  We recant our errors. We resolve to do better in the future.’?  Why are we witnessing instead an attempt to re-write history, as if there had never been a problem, and the silencing of those who point this out?  Doctrinal debates happen all the time but rarely generate this degree of passion and bizarre  subsequent behavior.  And Todd’s post last week was scarcely polemical.  Come on -- he is the nice guy on the MoS.


Is it money?  Well, I guess some have certainly made good royalties from advocating EFS but not as many as have furiously attacked Todd and others.   Is it platform?  This probably plays into it more, as so many high-profile leaders either bought into it or have important links with those who do.  But even so, the violence of the reaction has been extreme.  Is it some theologian’s concern for his legacy?  I have been told that is the case but, if so, that is really rather sad.  A legacy is only worth preserving to the extent it is true.  Who wants a legacy of error? And to the extent a legacy is true, it is not really the property of any one person. The truth pre-existed him after all.  I do not think that any of these things account for all of the widespread anger at the whistleblowers.


I would suggest another angle: that the reaction is so strong because, unlike some other theological disputes, this one is an issue of identity.  When groups root their identity in a specific narrative, then a serious challenge to that narrative will be greeted with real hostility, for such a challenge is not simply a disagreement over details.  It is a denial of personal legitimacy.   Those being critiqued will interpret their critics in very negative moral terms, and the normal rules of decent procedure and public debate will not apply. 


Now, when your movement is built upon the notion that you have saved historic Christian orthodoxy from liberalism and you are the last best hope of the gospel and of Christianity in the present, then the validity of that narrative is basic to the legitimacy of your identity.  And when somebody comes along and points out that your understanding of the doctrine of God stands outside the historic parameters of orthodoxy, it is not the equivalent of being told that your view of baptism is defective.  It is far more offensive.  It is being told that you are not who you think you are.  Your self-understanding is being utterly delegitimized.


When I started writing about the problems with Big Eva some six or seven years ago, I was working on the assumption that appropriately critical voices would be heard.  At that time I was friends – good friends -- with many in the leadership of the movement and thought we were on the same side and wanted the same things. Events since then have shown that I was hopelessly naïve. Early on one senior leader called to tell me in no uncertain terms that none of my critiques would make him change anything about his organization except perhaps the use of the term ‘VIP Seating’ for the area reserved at conferences for the speakers.  That told me that there was more at stake for some than ‘the gospel.’ But I do confess that in the years since I have been overly cynical in thinking that change has not occurred simply because of money and platform.  The problem is deeper.  It is one of identity. So it is not just those with money or platform to lose who become angry with the critics.  It is everyone to whom these groups give a sense of belonging.


These mass organizations will start to fracture and dissipate in the next five years.  There is now too much of a distance between the left and the right in some groups for them to hold a coherent identity together other than by an act of sheer will.   Others have been exposed as being indifferent to seriously deviant theology.  And now the donor-base public is beginning to see something of the sharp practices that operate out of sight, as with the backroom bullying and browbeating of Todd Pruitt  -- a minister of the gospel, for pity’s sake! The language of gospel piety always drips very easily in public from the lips of those who know that the iron fists of the Machine are quietly crushing critical windpipes off camera.  


As Liam Goligher said to me the other week, ‘Evangelicalism is broken beyond repair.’