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

On the back of Todd's post yesterday, about Steven Furtick and the Southern Baptist Convention, there comes this from his friend, Perry Noble

In his essay on the Brumaire coup, Karl Marx quotes Hegel as saying that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.  I wonder if the heroic battles fought by a previous generation of SBC leaders over biblical authority will now be squandered by the current generation. They made the ecclesiastical streets safe for... silliness? Perhaps they won the battle for the Bible only to lose the war over trivia.  We have most certainly moved from tragedy to farce.  The question is: Will anyone do anything about it?

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

As Aimee pointed out yesterday, the LORD does act on occasion to teach us a lesson and my confidence that having only biological sons would protect me from having to be in touch with my more tender emotions has proved ill-founded.  Of course, the great thing about being in the OPC is that the only emotions I have really needed to exercise are anger and righteous indignation. The ideal denomination for one such as myself. Yet by grace, the Mad Woman has indeed made me a better person.

Still, the basics of the dating game are fairly simple: Yes, one day, my "son", you may sit by my adopted daughter on the couch.   When is that day?  Well, why not pitch for the tenth anniversary of my death, assuming you live that long -- which on current odds seems somewhat unlikely.  That would seem a mutually acceptable time, I think.

In the interim, I take Cromwell's advice to heart: I'll trust in God -- but, trust me, I keep my powder dry.  Very dry.

Posted on Monday, November 23, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

To begin with a question: What would Gresham Machen think of the current state of the union with regard to sexual ethics and the connection between these and the increasing pressure on religious freedom?  I suspect he would be shocked by the particularities of the case, that the most private of human activities has become the most pressing public issue of the day and the single biggest factor in the challenge to religious freedom in the United States.  Yet he would also surely roll his eyes, for recent changes in America do little more than confirm his belief that the church is a body of pilgrim people, never truly at home in this world prior to the consummation of all things at the end of time.

So far so prosaic and predictable.  The world is going to dogs and, if the church ties herself too closely to it, then she will go to the dogs too.  Everybody knows that all pessimistic Presbyterians – particularly English Presbyterians – hold to some version or other of this basic narrative.  Today it is obvious that conservative Christians placed too much confidence in conservative politics to further their ambitions and now there is a price to pay.  Thus, we are experiencing a kind of spiritual market correction which is exposing not only our latent political weakness but also the fact that the historical norm in America – the cultural dominance of Christianity – is actually to be understood as the theological exception.  The Bible gives no hint that such dominance is ever to be expected or taken for granted by the church.   None of this would have surprised Machen, as can easily be demonstrated in a careful reading of his works, not least Christianity and Liberalism.

Yet, while 'He told you so!' and 'O tempora, o mores!' may well be somehwat self-satisfying responses, there is surely a more interesting question to ask here: To what extent do we find in Machen’s analysis in Christianity and Liberalism an anticipation of the forces which have served to bring about the current chaos in society?  This question is both more challenging and, I believe, more instructive in thinking about a way forward.  Thus, in this brief paper, published here in four parts, I want to highlight a number of interconnected areas where Machen’s analysis of liberalism is relevant to the contemporary world. 

Doctrine versus Feeling

The first area of interest is the point which underlines much of Machen’s analysis in Christianity and Liberalism and that is that Christianity is a religion of dogmatic assertion, while liberalism is a religion of sentiment or feeling.  Machen summarizes it this way:

[I]f any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message.  It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts.  In other words it was based on doctrine.

In speaking of Christian liberalism in this way, we might say that Machen was addressing the specific Christian form of the slow but steady changes in the idea of truth which had most recently drawn much of its impetus from nineteenth-century Romanticism and which, in the twentieth century, was rapidly appropriating the language and ideas of psychology.  The notion that doctrine was essentially an expression of the religious self-consciousness, whether of individual or community, was part of a wider phenomenon.  It represented the appropriation of the Christian idiom for the articulation of an increasingly psychologized understanding of reality.

At this point, the thinking of modern psychological sociologist, Philip Rieff, is a fruitful source of reflection.  Rieff famously saw history as involving a series of changes in the understanding of human beings.  Political man, who found his meaning in the life of the classical polis, gave way to religious man who found his meaning in the religious rites and structures of the  Middle Ages.  Religious man then gave way to economic man, who understood life’s meaning as intimately connected to economic relations of production and exchange. This economic man was, in fact, something of a transitional phase, bridging the way to the Last Man.  The Last Man was psychological man.  

Psychological man was a category he first introduced in the final chapter of his book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, and which he then went on to describe in great detail in The Triumph of the Therapeutic.  One of the primary characteristics of psychological man, and the culture which he represented, was the repudiation of any notion that external authority might be a means of liberating that which is internal, subjective and, to use modern parlance, truly ‘authentic.’   Indeed, Rieff described the personality of this modernity in the following way:

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.

As an example of this, we might point to prevalent attitudes to transgenderism which is the species du jour of the repudiation of external authority.  In its radical separation of sex from gender, it repudiates the authority of social conventions and of sexual physiology in order to set the psychological forth as the only ultimate authority which cannot be subject to any other.

My grandfather, for example, would not have had the categories which would have enabled him to understand the phrase, ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’   The idea that such a psychological conviction might override a physical reality would have been bizarre to him.  Indeed, had he heard such a statement, he would have assumed that it was the brain, not the body, which was dysfunctional.   In the world of psychological man, however, where the will determines the reality, then such a statement becomes authoritative and unchallengeable.   To constrain such a will by external means is not to liberate but to oppress, for the inner psychological life is where truth and authenticity are to be found.

What is interesting is that Machen’s particular theological point regarding doctrine and Rieff’s general sociological point regarding culture are two aspects of the same basic phenomenon, the rejection of external authority and of anything external as being fundamentally definitive of what it means to be human.  To be human for Machen is to understand oneself in terms of revealed biblical categories that exist independently of the individual and which, in a very deep sense, refuse to acknowledge the particularities of the individual as being of ultimate significance.  It is not who I think or feel that I am that makes me who I am.  It is what God says I am that makes me who I am.  And that judgment is external to me and independent of me.  Doctrine is not a communal language for expressing my individual identity.  

The current anarchy of identity in our culture – indeed, the current anarchy of identity which defines our culture – is predicated on precisely what Rieff claims: a radical voluntarism underpinning a form of nominalism which is rooted in making psychology – feelings and sentiments – the basis for truth.  And that is precisely what Machen identified in the liberalism of the churches of his day.

Posted on Thursday, November 19, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This week, Team Spin gatecrashed the ETS annual conference at Atlanta where we did some interviews and I sat on two panels, one for the Colson Center, on Christianity and culture, and one for President Al Mohler, on Christianity after the sexual revolution.  Odd places for someone whose only academic qualifications relate to the reception of Luther's writings in the English Reformation, but strange times breed strange callings.

Anyway, Todd, Aimee, myself, and the ever-present Mad Woman in the Attic, interviewed Tom Schreiner, John McLean, Scott Manetsch, and Kelly Kapic.  And, most exciting of all, we did this in the no-expense-spared, Big Eva professional standard, legendary Studio 832, aka, the twin bedded room where I was sleeping, temporarily fitted out with four mics, not enough chairs, limited wireless connectivity, and two hand-sized digital recorders. The Mad Woman, a Covenant grad, even makes a cameo appearance on the Kapicast. All we lacked was a couple of bottles of bourbon and permission from the Front Desk to chain smoke, and the environment really would have been as 'sketchy' as a very nervous looking Kelly K claimed it to be.

My paper, 'On Reading Machen's Christianity and Liberalism after Obergefell versus Hodges,' will be published on this blog in four parts over the next two weeks, beginning on Monday.


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

One of the strangest aspects of American Christian culture to a foreigner like myself is the popularity of dispensationalism.  There are probably many reasons for the large numbers of supporters this system commands in the New World but high among them is surely the role of the Scofield Reference Bible.   There is, after all, a psychological aspect to the book: the notes are printed on the same page as the biblical text, which thereby gives them an (almost) inspired authority, at least from the point of view of the reader.

It is one reason that I have become gradually less and less keen on Study Bibles.  King James I was right when he knew that the Geneva Bible's marginal note on Exodus 1, justifying the deception of the Hebrew midwives, was profoundly seditious.  A tough exegetical issue was rendered simple by the editor and the rest, as they say, was history.  Or radical Presbyterian history, at least.   The visual impact of the aesthetics and arrangement of the page does have theological significance, for it can capture the imagination of the reader in unhelpful and damaging ways.

My heart thus fell when I saw that yet another study Bible has recently emerged, this time from Zondervan, under the general editorship of D. A. Carson.  Coming on the back of Ligonier’s rehashed and repackaged Reformation Study Bible, I kept getting flashbacks to a childhood Christmas where I received the same unwanted present from two different relatives.  And then I thought of all the innocent trees that have died to make all this possible.  Think of the trees, people. Does nobody think of the trees?

There are many comments one could make about the plethora of such Bibles.  The most obvious is that, to any with eyes to see, it is a publishing racket, designed to reinvent markets and thus invigorate income streams.  It helps establish the dominance of particular individuals within the evangelical world. It meets no real need in the church.  It is simply a part of the economy of finance, control, and promotion that characterizes today's Big Evangelicalism.  Study Bibles create a need which they then generously fill, a bit like the Apple iPhone, whose constant but trivial evolution keeps the gullible customer permanently dissatisfied and thus willing to shell out cash for whatever comes next.   But perhaps that is too harsh.  At least this one is ‘centered on the gospel message’ which is good and praiseworthy, if completely inane as a statement.  In my experience, the best Bibles I have ever read have generally been centered on the gospel message.  Indeed, if you have a Bible in your possession which is not centered on the gospel message, I suspect you may find that it is not actually a Bible at all but something else entirely -- a novel by Tom Clancy, for example.

It also seems that there is a certain oddity to the endeavor, a kind of incipient megalomania, even if such is not actually intended.  I used to take a copy of whatever Study Bible came immediately to hand into my Reformation class, the one on the Protestant notion of the uniqueness and sufficiency of scripture, open it up to the inside page and say ‘The Holy Bible: Written by God.  But edited by Top Man.’

Well, perhaps I am being too harsh after all.   I have to admit -- I’ve never been edited without improvement.  So maybe there is a place for such things.



Endnote: I am grateful to Phil Johnson for pointing out that the Geneva Bible justified the disobedience, not the deception of the midwives.  I was aware of this but regard the distinction made at that point as rather specious, and certainly lost in the way the note was received.  In any case, the larger point about marginal notes still stands.

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

Todd’s post of last week points towards an important aspect of the YRR movement which explains the ubiquitous multitasking of key figures: the highly limited gene pool of its self-perpetuating leadership.  For a movement beset by scandals among some of its key players over the last few years, from those who do not understand the importance of the Trinity through to abusive leadership practices and adultery, it has proved remarkably resilient.   Even when leaders have had to go because of terrible public scandal, they have simply vanished with no subsequent public soul-searching by the organizations who made them great or who were happy to ride on their reputations until such time as that became uncomfortable.


Two factors seem key in this.  First, the major organizations involved in spearheading the movement, such as TGC, Desiring God and the CBMW, tend to have significant overlap in top leadership personnel.  This makes problems in one branch of the movement less likely to be critiqued by others.  Silence on key issues is easier to maintain when different groups share a common pool of leadership.  They thus have both a vested interest in that silence and a means of enforcing it: a virtual monopoly on the trusted media outlets where such critique might appear, and a powerful framework for keeping discipline among the lower orders -- platform patronage and jobs for the boys.  Break ranks and you lose your potential place at the table/conference/blog/bookstore.


Second, the powerful personality-driven nature of the movement also makes it hard for the rank-and-file to offer criticism.  Over recent decades, psychologists have noted a strange phenomenon relative to some financial scams: when people have invested so much in them, it becomes virtually impossible for them to stop giving money, even when they know they are scams, because the emotional cost of accepting that fact is simply too high a psychological price to pay.   It seems that a similar thing happens in religious movements when people invest in a particular organization or person: what has been notable about the various scandals surrounding the YRR is not that these have led the rank-and-file to a more sober and modest assessment of the movement’s leadership but that they have frequently generated even more passionate uncritical devotion to the cause, as anyone who has ever dared blog a criticism will know.


The YRR started with high hopes and did much good.  But the interconnection of its various parts and the clear emergence of individuals in the movement as brands has served to foster a leadership with a very skinny gene pool which cannot serve the church well in the long run.

Posted on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This autumn is proving a vintage season for books on ministry.  Jason Helopoulos’ book arrived a few weeks ago, and Kent Hughes’ massive tome is about to be published.  Plus the redoubtable Jim Garretson has another gem on a Princetonian due for publication in October.  If it is anything like his work on Samuel Miller, it will be well worth a purchase.


The team at Banner of Truth has added to this crop with a great little book by Allan Harman, Preparing for Ministry.  Harman writes as someone who has been a pastor, a seminary professor, and a principal.  Thus he knows all about ministerial training from all angles.


The book is delightfully simple.   The two opening chapters address conversion and call.  Then subsequent chapters look at pre-theological study, how to choose a seminary or college, what to expect from a theology course, early ministry, and staying fresh.


Perhaps the most perennially valuable parts of the book, however, are the appendices.  Three in particular make the book worth a purchase.  One is a basic guide to sermon preparation which contains a remarkable amount of sound practical advice in just four pages.  Then there are reprints of a chapter, ‘The Minister’s Self-Watch,’ from Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, and of Warfield’s The Religious Life of Theological Students.  I have both of these texts in other volumes but it is great to have them in pocket size form – and great to have them cheaply available for giving to students and friends.  (I might add that Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students is in itself a wonderful volume which should be in every minister’s library.  Regular Sunday afternoon reading in my house.)


Once again, Banner has proved that you do not have to be cool or glamorous or recruit the hippest names to be incredibly helpful for pastors and ministerial students.

Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

“It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” Thus did the Scottish theologian, Peter Taylor Forysth, begin his Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale in 1907.  The book that emerged from those lectures, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, for all of its flaws, remains a -- perhaps the -- classic on the theology of the proclaimed Word in Protestantism.


What Forsyth does so well in that book are two things.  First, he makes it clear that the direction of the action in preaching is from God to the person in the pew.  Preaching is not a conversation.  Preaching is not a lecture.  Preaching is not primarily the imparting of information.  Rather, preaching brings a word from God to bear upon the people of God who have gathered in His name. 


It is only a few years ago that one of the then most influential preachers in North America was recommending a study of stand-up comedians as good preparation for the preaching ministry.  That this comment on its own did not immediately destroy his credibility is an indictment on the state of the church, for it represented a confusion of preaching with (at best) communication and (at worst) entertainment.  Forsyth, by way of contrast,  makes this comment:


The Christian preacher is not the successor of the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet. The orator comes with but an inspiration, the prophet comes with a revelation. In so far as the preacher and prophet had an analogue in Greece it was the dramatist, with his urgent sense of life’s guilty tragedy, its inevitable ethic, its unseen moral powers, and their atoning purifying note.


The understanding of any task is important to its proper execution.  To see stand-up as analogous to preaching is to misunderstand the task.  It is to fail to see that the message of preaching cannot be accommodated to a flippant medium without loss of a significant part of its substance. Of course, humor can be deployed pedagogically in a sermon; but if the content is supposed to be prophetic, the medium must reflect this at some profound level.


The second thing which Forsyth does, and that with a refreshingly cavalier brashness, is dismiss the notion that the preacher should worry overmuch about the tastes and convictions of the world which he is addressing.  As he himself puts it, ‘[t]he preacher has to be sure of a knowledge that creates experience, and does not rise out of it.’   The preacher takes his cue from God’s Word, not from the world around him.  This is the sole basis upon which he can speak with authority, for to do otherwise would doom him to preaching nothing but social work or psychology. By starting with God’s action, with God’s revelation, he speaks for God.   His task is not to improve this world or my experience.  It is to confront this world and my experience with the claims of the God who speaks and acts.


With all of the current discussion of how the church should face the challenges of this new era, where sexual politics dominate the landscape and the gap between a Christian ethic and what the world considers ethically plausible is as great as it has ever been and growing greater, the temptation is to panic.  Yet what we now see before us is merely a more accurate representation of what has been true all along: the gods of this age and the God of the Bible are not the same and are indeed opposed to each other as they always have been.  Thus, even as circumstances change, we must not allow ourselves to be mesmerized by this change into thinking the odds are any more insurmountable for the church today than at points in the past.


Only the incidentals of our current situation have changed.  The underlying principles remain always the same, and thus  the church’s task remains the same: to declare with a ‘This saith the Lord!’ that this age is passing.  Now is not the time to lose confidence in the very mode of God’s action in this world, nor is it the time to put men in pulpits who lack the conviction, the calling, and the skills for the task.  Now is the time to focus more than ever on the training of those who can speak with authority from the pulpit because they speak with the authority of God himself.


It is surely not an overbold beginning for how we might face the current challenges by suggesting that we do so by preaching the Word, in season and out of season.



Posted on Monday, October 05, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Anyone who has a child at a college or university will know the huge pressure that is put on students these days to conform to the sexual mores of the age.  The Love and Fidelity Network is an organization desgined to promote sane views of sex on campuses, with an appropriately thoughtful philosophy of sex and sexuality.  Their website is here.  I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with two of the leaders at a meeting in New York last year.  It is good to know that there some young people flying the flag for sexual sanity in some of the most difficult and yet influential places in society.

Posted on Monday, October 05, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Yesterday I was given a copy of Jason Helopoulos's new book, The New Pastor's Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry.  It looks excellent, with short chapters on a whole collection of important themes, from the nature of a call to the difference between lectures and sermons.  It seems like a great book to buy, to read, and to discuss.  With this and the imminent arrival of Kent Hughes' The Pastor's Book, it is going to be a bumper fall for good books on pastoring.   There are some easy Christmans presents out there.


While it does appear very good, I have not (thus far at least) been able to find one important topic in Helopoulos's new book: Bivocational pastoring.  I have mentioned before that I believe this will become more of the norm for churches in the future, especially those in the USA with congregations of, say, less than 200, where health care etc., is often punitively expensive and thus greatly increases the amount of money a church needs in order to have a full-time pastor.  My church averages about 160 on a Sunday morning.  The people give generously.  But we cannot fund a full-time pastor and keep the roof over our heads.


If this is the case, then we need more discussion on what bivocational minsitry might look like.   I am fortunate: my 'day job' is something which pays a living wage, which I love doing, and which offers significant overlap with my pastoral work.  Most other bivocational pastors I know do not enjoy such privilege.   They drive buses or work office jobs or even (in one cae) run a ranch in order to put bread on the table.  They have to fit pastoral life and sermon preparation into otherwise difficult schedules.  I also have some solid elders who understand that their job description is somewhat expanded in practice from what it might be at other. wealthier churches.


With the rise of the bivocational pastor, numerous questions must be asked: What does ruling eldership look like in such a context?  How do congregational expectations of pastoral care need to change?  What form should pastoral education take?  Should seminaries be starting to address the matter of bivocationalism in their curricula, both in terms of content and delivery?  The end of Christendom does not simply change how the church will relate to the wider world.  It is changing how the church relates to herself.


I first raised this matter some four years ago, when I took the call to Cornerstone.  It seems that the discussion still isn't happening in any significant way. It really needs to start soon.