Countercultural rebellion

Carl Trueman is the Academic Dean and Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, as well as a Consulting Editor for Themelios. Paul Grimmond caught up with Carl when he was in Australia in 2009.

Paul Grimmond: I understand that one of your great passions is the importance of the local church and the significance of the local church in God’s plans for the world. What is so important about the local church?

Carl Trueman: I think the local church is the unit of countercultural rebellion today. It’s the place where Christians draw aside from the world, where they hear the word of God preached, where the gospel is brought home into their lives, where they connect with other likeminded believers, where they take the Lord’s Supper together and where they worship in fellowship together. The local church is the place where the normal Christian life takes place.

PG: You describe that as “countercultural rebellion”; what’s so rebellious about a bunch of people gathering together and reading a 2000-year-old book?

CT: There are numerous countercultural aspects to it—not least, I think, the statement about history that it makes. When you gather together on a Sunday, you’re not reinventing the faith; the faith is not reinvented every Sunday. You stand self-consciously in a tradition that goes back 2000 years, and that, in a day and age when we’re constantly looking to the future for the best things—when we’re constantly looking for the new and the novel. Taking joy and finding peace in tried, tested and established truth is very countercultural.

PG: So the local church is where the action is. Yet your life is occupied with teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary. How does the Seminary connect to life in the local church?

CT: The primary purpose of Westminster Theological Seminary is to train men for gospel ministry—to train men to go out and preach in local churches and pastor local churches.

PG: In Sydney, there’s been a lot of discussion recently about the importance of theological training versus the cost. There’s a world out there that needs to hear the gospel. In your experience, what are some of the benefits and pitfalls of theological education in terms of preparing people for a life of teaching the word and evangelizing their world?

CT: Theology is about precise expression of truth, and in order to do that properly and competently, you need to be well trained. I don’t think that because people are suffering from cancer in the world around us, we think that it’s better to send people straight out to be cancer surgeons without them actually having gone through the requisite training beforehand. So I see theological training as taking up a relatively short period of somebody’s life to provide them with the precision and the skills that will allow them to do the job of being a pastor and a church leader properly and effectively when they get out into the wider world. Paul says not to make a new convert into an elder (1 Tim 3:6). That’s because an elder has to be somebody with a proven track record. The elders who teach are worthy of special honour, and teaching is something that requires learning, practice and training. So I would say that the whole “We need to get out there and do it straight away” line firstly represents something of a capitulation to a very pragmatic spirit, and secondly, it potentially makes the church vulnerable to promoting men to positions of authority who really aren’t competent to hold those positions.

PG: Moving in a slightly different direction now, you’re an Englishman, you’ve worked in Aberdeen in Scotland, and you’re now ensconced in Philadelphia—an Englishman almost in New York. You’ve seen quite a bit of evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. What are some of the bright spots on the horizon for evangelicalism in the western world?

CT: I’m very encouraged by the quality of students coming through the Seminary and by the commitment I see in them. It’s humbling to go into a classroom at half past eight in the morning to teach, and see a guy there dressed in a night watchman outfit: he’s come straight in off his night shift to get two hours of Ancient Church before he goes home to rest. That kind of commitment is encouraging.

I’m encouraged by the tremendous amount of good Christian literature available now. The internet has made access to good teaching much easier for people.

I’m encouraged by what they call the Young, Restless and Reformed movement. There seems to be a real hunger for the Reformed faith growing among younger people, particularly in the United States. I am concerned that the movement tends to focus around strong personalities, and I also wonder if some of the popularity of the movement isn’t rooted in the fact that it seems to work, rather than because it’s true. So I have concerns, but I think that, overall, it is an encouraging movement, provided it’s channelled in the right direction. Those would be the things that I find encouraging at the moment.

PG: On the flip side, as you look over the evangelical world, what are the pressure points? What are the problems that we might face in the next 10-15 years?

CT: I think internally, within the church, clearly liberalism and error are always problems. There are always people who are being put into positions of teaching authority who shouldn’t be there.

I also think church discipline is a problem. I’m not sure that the church has ever come to terms with the invention of the motor car. How do you exert proper restorative pastoral discipline in a situation where somebody can just get in their motor car and drive to the next town if they don’t like your church? So there is an anti-discipline/consumerist mentality in the church that is facilitated by the ease of transport.

In the wider world, I think that the flashpoint is going to be homosexuality. It’s very clear it’s not going to be long before having a principled objection to homosexuality will make you the moral equivalent of a white supremacist in the eyes of the wider culture. That, I think, will pose a peculiar challenge for the church in many, many quarters—particularly for those churches that not only like to preach the gospel, but also like to be socially respectable. I think the day is coming when it’s not going to be possible to hold those two things together.

PG: I’ve heard that another concern of yours about evangelicalism in the US is that it’s extremely closely tied to conservative politics. Tell us a bit about what you think the issues are there and why they are issues.

CT: It’s certainly the case that in the US (unlike the UK and probably Australia), if somebody is theologically conservative, then they are probably politically conservative too.

The real break point in the US is abortion because this has become a highly politicized issue. Broadly speaking, the Republican Party, at least on paper, oppose it or want to see restrictions placed upon it, and the Democratic Party, broadly speaking, want to push for a more liberal position. That has tended to define how Christians vote.

I’m not sure how you address that because abortion is a hot button topic. Again, like homosexuality, it’s not really something that Christians can compromise on. I do think that the record of the Republican Party on abortion is very different from the rhetoric of the Republican party on abortion: it’s a lot more pragmatic in practice than it is when it’s trying to get elected with a good vote from the evangelical Right. I also think that Christians have to understand that politics is not about theocracy; politics is about good stewardship, and it inevitably involves pragmatic compromises. When you go into the voting booth, you put your tick in one box or the other; that doesn’t mean that you agree fully with the stand of either party, but voting does not allow for subtle distinctions. Political philosophy is nuanced; voting is not. I think Christians need to think long and hard about the real impact of their vote. That may well diffuse some of the moral conflict that currently polarizes political opinion for Christians in the States.

At a deeper level, I get concerned that Christianity and evangelicalism in the States simply come to embody the American dream. You look at the titles of books that are considered ‘evangelical’ in the US—for example, Your Best Life Now, by Joel Osteen. I noticed that TD Jakes has got a weight plan diet book—which is interesting coming from TD Jakes because he’s actually quite a big fellow! I’ll need some convincing to follow his diet plan!

This is all evidence of a very pragmatic ethos, and it even seeps into conservative Christian quarters. When you go into conservative evangelical bookstores, you often find books on how Christianity can help you improve your sex life, your marriage or whatever. One would hope that Christianity does have a practical impact in all areas of your life, but ultimately the gospel is a declaration of what Jesus Christ did on the cross. It’s not a pragmatic thing; it’s a declaration of a state of affairs. I’m concerned that evangelical theology is being transformed by the very pragmatic, optimistic spirit of American life. I’m concerned that it’s becoming a religious idiom for the expression of secular American values.

PG: Another ongoing concern is obviously the doctrine of Scripture. That’s been an issue of significant controversy at Westminster in recent years, with Peter Enns’s book, Inspiration and Incarnation. Tell us briefly, if you’re able, what issues were at stake there.

CT: I’d like to preface what I’m going to say now by stating that theology is a great hobby, but when it’s your profession, it can often be very difficult and very unpleasant. Furthermore, all I’m going to say now really needs to be read against the background of the last two to three years at Westminster. Those years have been extremely unpleasant and hurtful for everybody on both sides. Nobody should engage in controversy lightly or take any pleasure in it. If they do, then I think there’s a moral problem.

Having said that, there are principial issues at stake, and when principial issues are at stake, stands need to be taken. People get battered and people get hurt; that’s collateral damage in a controversy that nonetheless needs to take place. In the fourth century, it was debates over the nature of the Trinity; in the fifth century, it was debates over the person of Christ. People were badly damaged in those debates, but the debates were still vital. So for all the trauma at Westminster and the angst it caused the Seminary community, it was an absolutely crucial debate to have, and we took an extremely important and necessary stand.

What were the fundamental issues? Again, it’s difficult to digest hundreds of hours of both personal and formal discussions of the matters into just a few paragraphs. For me, it came down to where does the uniqueness of the Bible lie? Indeed, is the Bible unique? Is the canon of biblical books exceptional in a way that sets it apart from all other ancient near-eastern literature? Is the Bible inspired? Is the biblical text something that, albeit written through human agents, is actually the word of God? Or is it merely human reflection upon human experience of God? To what extent can one find Christ in the Old Testament? How does the New Testament use the Old Testament? All of these were central questions in the debates that went on at Westminster. For me, I suppose, if I were to sum it up very simply, the main questions were “Is the Bible inspired?” and “How do you understand inspiration?”

I didn’t object to everything in Peter’s book; I read Peter’s book and I learned much from it, and appreciated certain sections. The fundamental problem I had with it was I could not see that the account he gave of inspiration allowed for a rigorous understanding of the uniqueness of Scripture over against ancient near-eastern alternatives. Authoritative Scripture was essentially relativized, and there were times when I felt that he presented the problems of Scripture as if they were actually the solution.

PG: Are there areas that we evangelicals need to do more work on in terms of thinking about our doctrine of Scripture and understanding how to articulate what the Bible says about itself as the authoritative word of God?

CT: It seems to me that in the coming decade, the key question for evangelicals is going to be the New Testament’s use of the Old; there’s much discussion and debate about that going on at the moment. I also think the whole issue of the cosmology of the Old Testament is a hot button issue, and there’s still work to be done there.

But I think what one cannot challenge is the presupposition that Scripture is the word of God—that Scripture is as God intended it to be, and that the Spirit of God does speak in and through Scripture. Having said that, of course, there are areas of interpretation that need to be investigated, explored and hashed out, but this theological point must be held as basic.

PG: You’ve only been in Australia for just over a week. But in your brief experience of evangelicalism over here, how different is it from evangelicalism in other parts of the world?

CT: I guess one of the big differences I notice between, say, Moore College and Westminster would be Westminster’s greater emphasis on confessions and the doctrine of the church. I had a great conversation with the faculty at Moore on Tuesday morning during which we had coffee and talked about the differences between the two institutions, and it was interesting to me that the Thirty-nine Articles and the homilies don’t play a significant role at Moore the same way the Westminster Standards do at Westminster. So there’s a big difference between the world I live in back home, where we’re very conscious of the confession and the catechisms, and what seems to be the Anglican world here. From my perspective, you’ve given up the crown jewels—the Book of Common Prayer, the Homilies and the Thirty-nine Articles. These are beautiful documents, and you need to make more of them!

PG: For many Christians out here, we would say that part of our strength is letting the Bible speak and not being tied up in the history, while at the same time acknowledging that the history exists and that it was significant in our formation. What are the strengths and weaknesses on both sides of that coin?

CT: I think the way you put it there is exactly what we try to do at Westminster. In practice, what I’m always conscious of in a confessional environment is want­ing to listen to the voice of the church over the ages in order to relativize my own day and age. And so, certainly at Westminster, when it comes to teaching, the fact that we have the confessions and the catechisms gives us a public standard by which to measure our faculty. Every evangelical says, “The Bible is the word of God”. Well, that’s true, and therein lies the problem when it comes to teaching at a seminary. There’s a Dutch saying that my colleague, Professor Richard Gaffin, often quotes: “Every heretic has his text”. There’s a sense in which, sure, the Bible is sufficient, but then there’s also a sense in which the Bible teaches a system of doctrine, and it’s very helpful to have that system of doctrine expressed as a system by the church in order to be able to judge teaching in and for the church.

That seems to be underlying what Paul says to Timothy about qualifications for an elder and how you spot false teachers (1 Tim 3-4); he’s clearly operating with a summary of the faith in his mind. That’s all a confession is. So cut to Moore College and Sydney Anglicanism today: I think you have this great resource. The church has been thinking about these things for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Why do you want to reinvent the wheel?

When it comes to public prayer, the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are wonderful. I’m not saying that you should necessarily read them out loud. But look at them as models of how to pray. The language is beautiful. You’re being led into the presence of God. The phrase “we just” doesn’t occur once in a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer! “Oh Lord, we just …”—I can’t find it anywhere there. The prayers are wonderful models of how to approach God—particularly in public. So I would say that the confessional tradition of the church provides us with public statements and confessions by which we can express our faith, and by which we are able to assess our faith, if you like. And then the great liturgies of the church (and I’m not a great liturgy man in terms of wanting it formally in my own church)—they provide us with great models and treasure chests of language and terminology that help focus our minds when we come into the presence of God.

PG: Don’t they cut us off from the non-Christian world, though? Doesn’t the language of the Book of Common Prayer make it almost impossible for the average non-Christian Australian to walk into church and make sense of what’s going on?

CT: Yes, absolutely, and I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. I think when Paul describes the non-Christian coming to church, he indicates that they’re awed, overwhelmed, uncomfortable. They know there is something strange and awesome going on there, and it’s a scary experience. Now, I’m overstating it in saying that I want church to be almost incomprehensible to the outsider. But I’m not sure that the church should tailor the way it expresses itself in a worship service on the basis of what the world around will and will not understand. The cross is foolishness. Where are you going to end when you say, “Well, they’re not going to understand the language”? They’re not going to understand the content either, whatever language you use, so do you water the content down? I think the role of the gathered worship of the church is to praise a holy and awesome God. When the unbeliever comes in, obviously you don’t want people babbling on in tongues; Paul doesn’t think that’s good because it just sounds like nonsense. But I think you can still use what I would describe as ‘exalted prose’ to indicate that something special is going on when you pray to the Lord. Maybe you don’t want to use the Book of Common Prayer, but I’m not sure that you want to begin every prayer with, “Oh Lord, we just want to” either. I’m not convinced that that communicates any more effectively.

PG: It sounds to me like you almost want to become an Anglican, Carl!

CT: No! [laughs] Absolutely not!

PG: Carl Trueman, thank you very much for your time.

CT: It’s been a pleasure.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview in The Briefing Lounge (MP3 32:26 min).

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