Posted on Friday, September 01, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I recently had the pleasure of doing a podcast with Tony Payne, of Moore College, Sydney, in which we talked about the piety of the Reformation and Reformers.  You can find it here.  We also chatted briefly about the greatest literary description of the impact of Protestant piety upon the households of ordinary, rural people: Robert Burns's great poem, The Cotter's Saturday Night, a beautiful poetic account of the preparations for the Lord's Day in the house of a poor crofter.  NB: It is not me reciting the poem or playing the bagpipes on the podcast.  But kudos to TP for including both.

Posted on Thursday, August 17, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This week's Spectator has a powerful, if very harrowing, article on prostitution and the harm it does.  All pastors -- all Christians -- should read it.  It reminded me of a podcast interview the MoS team did with Heather Evans, of Valley Against Sex Trafficking.   That too is worth a listen for anyone who wants to grasp the real horror of the sex trade.


Some months ago I heard Leon Kass give a lecture in which he reflected on his time as a teacher.  He recalled how he had once been called out by a student for using the term 'prostitute' instead of 'sex worker.'  He told the student that 'sex worker' was a complete misnomer because it implied the person was being paid for sex.  Prostitutes are not paid for sex, he said, they are paid to go away.  Very true.  One might add that they are also paid to allow someone else to deprive them of their basic identity as human beings.  One of the key quotations in the Spectator article is from a 'john': ‘I like prostitutes cos they do what I tell them. Not like real women.’    Indeed.  As the Spectator says, 'it is not "sex work". Most of the time, it is modern slavery.'


Those who use prostitutes degrade and defile somebody's mother, somebody's sister, somebody's daughter.  They help fund a diabolical industry of vile exploitation.  They are not the victims.  They are really no more than rapists who happen to pay their victims for their silence.  The church -- and society -- should have a zero tolerance approach to such people.

Posted on Sunday, August 06, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This week I am giving the Moore College Lectures in Sydney.  The title of the series (with due homage to the great Peter Taylor Forsyth) is Reformation Preaching and the Modern Mind.  My hope is to use the Reformers, especially Luther, as a source for building a theological understanding of what preaching actually is.


In my first lecture, I concluded by offering the following seven theses which I will be defending (sometimes indirectly) in the remaining five:


Seven Theses on God and Preaching


The Reformation offers the following vital insights into preaching which helps us to understand it (both message and medium) as a theological act:


1. God is a God for whom speech is the primary vehicle of creation, presence, power, authority and new creation.


2. Those made in God’s image use speech in an analogous way to God himself.


3. God exerts his authority through the speech of those made in his image.


4. God builds his kingdom by the speech of preachers.   Preaching offers an alternative and "real" reality to those false realities created by the world, the flesh and the Devil.


5. Speech is axiomatic for both the content of salvation and the means by which salvation is applied.


6. The cross of Christ is axiomatic for both the content of gospel preaching and the shape of gospel ministry.


7. The existential engagement of preacher and congregation with the message is vital, given that such engagement is by its very nature engagement with God himself and with the tragedy of this fallen world.


And I left the final words of the lecture to Peter Taylor Forsyth himself:


“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.”[1]

[1] Positive Preaching and Modern Mind (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1907), 3-4.


Posted on Wednesday, August 02, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at his blog at Patheos, Professor Chris Gehrz has responded to my most recent post at First Things.   Rod Dreher has provided a good reply but I offer here just a couple of brief comments.


First, Professor Gehrz seems on the whole to think that I see the problem with the LGBTQ movement as one of sexual morality.  I certainly do see it as a matter of morality, but then I see the problem of heterosexual cohabitation as one of sexual morality too.  But morality is not what makes this issue so contentious.   What makes the LGBTQ issue interesting and more significant is that it is also a matter of fundamental identity.   That makes the political debates surrounding the issue of profound importance, as anyone knows who has observed how the matter has played out in the public aquare in general and higher education in particular.


Second, and flowing from the first, Professor Gehrz states that he does 'I don’t believe that marriage, sexuality, or gender identity is anywhere near “the heart of the Gospel.”'  This statement would seem to indicate that he does not see the LGBTQ issue as one of identity (unless he wants to argue that identity -- who we are and who we think we are at our most fundamental level-- is nowhere near the heart of the gospel).  But even if it were just about sex, then sexual morality seems to be something about which both Jesus and Paul have many things to say. It is not for us to mark off as irrelevant to the gospel areas about which Jesus and Paul spoke.


The problem here is clear: he thinks I'm talking about sexual behavior/morality and he sees that as being of little importance, at least when it does not fall outside the boundaries of morality as society currently constructs them. But I am talking not so much about morality as about identity and the politics that flow from that.   And his failure to realize that this is the nature of the debate over LGBTQ rights etc., or perhaps his eliding of the matter of identity and morality in a manner which minimizes the significance of the former, means that he is completely underestimating the nature of the political problem. 


And, of course, we get the usual coda (using the military images of which he apparently disapproves when utilized by Rod and myself): "Conservative Christians have long waged culture war on sexual minorities, with precious little of the mercy, love, and grace that are actually at the heart of our Gospel."   Such an unqualified statement has a rhetorical force and no doubt plays to the progressive gallery but it actually slanders the many conservative Christians who have worked with grace, love and patience in this area, often in anonymous, local contexts.   Indeed, such a sweeping generalization from one who professes not to be able to see into the hearts of others nor to jump to cynical conclusions regarding those with whom he differs on these issues is quite remarkable. I wonder what he counts as 'waging war'?  As little as believing that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, and that sexual activity is to be restricted to that relationship, and that one has the right to say that in public perhaps?   Because that is certainly how the liberal culture now defines it.



Posted on Saturday, July 01, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

For me this summer is to be one of engaging Martin Luther.   Next Friday I am to be the token Schwaermer at a conference on the Word of God for Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors and theologians.  In August I am giving the Moore Theological College Annual Lectures on ‘Reformation Preaching and the Modern Mind,’ in which I will attempt to articulate a theology of preaching by drawing extensively on the writings and insights of the Doc.  Luther’s concept of the theology of the cross and of the theologian of the cross was, and remains, one of the most powerful articulations of the connection between the content of the gospel and the form of gospel ministry as set forth by Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians.  It is note the church needs to hear struck again and again.


Then, in the autumn Baker Academic will publish Between Wittenberg and Geneva, the fruit of the last few years of theological, historical, and ecclesiastical conversation between myself and my friend, the great scholar of the Lutheran Reformation, Bob Kolb. 


This latter work has a deeply irenic character.  I have made no secret over the fact that I believe confessional Lutherans are the more natural partners for ecumenical dialogue for the Reformed than are the Evangelicals.  We hold a similar attitude to church, confessions, the classical doctrine of God, and justification.  When Luther’s pastoral thought is studied carefully, the distance between Lutherans and Reformed on ethics is negligible and his model of ministry is exemplary.  Preaching is central to both communions.  Sacraments are important and, although the historic point of dispute, I find Luther’s Small Catechism on the Lord’s Supper to be an acceptable way of describing the matter.  Further, we have a common belief in a connectional polity which sees true church unity as more than merely a matter of spiritual affinity between autonomous congregations.  In short, we can have real ecumenical discussion with Lutherans that we cannot have with Congregationalists of whatever stripe because congregational polity rules out by definition any real churchly ecumenism.  Informal friendship is all that can ever be achieved.


2017 is a significant anniversary.  Hopefully it will be used by Evangelicals to re-engage with historic Reformation Christianity, including its polity and priorities.   For the Reformed and the Lutherans it offers the opportunity of re-engaging in full and frank discussion of both our shared creedal heritage and our principled confessional differences.  Luther has much to offer the Reformed, especially on the issue of the theology of the Word, the Cross


As a postscript, I spoke at a Reformation conference with T. David Gordon last week.  To celebrate the occasion, the church brewed a special beer. But it is pointless to check your local beer store.  Only 24 bottles exist, shared equally between the two men on the label…….



Posted on Tuesday, March 07, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I have received unexpected and unsolicited gifts of two drinking vessels recently.  The first, from the person we at the Spin know simply as Evil Amy the Less, the author who last year had the slanderous temerity to base (and indeed name) the character of an alcoholic priest in her novel of medieval times upon a distinguished and universally loved and respected church historian, needs no further comment.


The second, however, provoked more substantial historical ruminations.  It arrived yesterday and is a beer glass with one of my favourite Luther quotations inscribed upon it, taken from one of the Invocavit Sermons of 1522.  The curvature of the glass means that the picture is not entirely legible but the whole statement reads as follows:


“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no price or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.”


I love this quotation, mainly because it references beer and thus clearly indicates that no Southern Baptist leader could ever claim Luther as an antecedent (and that is even before we touch upon his theology of baptism, the Lord’s Supper etc etc etc).  Bear that in mind during this 500th anniversary year....  But I also love it because it rests upon Luther’s supreme confidence in the proclamation of the Word.


In the popular imagination, it is the Diet of Worms where Luther is at his most vulnerable, standing before the massed elite of the Holy Roman Empire, to defend his theology (and I have a porcelain beer growler commemorating that scene).  In fact, other moments were equally risky – Augsburg in October 1518, for example.  And we also know in retrospect that Frederick the Wise had instructed his equivalent of the special forces to make sure Luther was kept safe.  Hence, his ‘kidnapping’ and subsequent sojourn in the Wartburg Castle under the pseudonym Junker Georg.


But while Luther stayed at the Wartburg, leadership in Wittenberg passed to his colleagues, the non-descript but radically inclined Konrad Zwilling, the young and gentle Philip Melanchthon, and the passionate Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt.


Karlstadt had been Luther’s senior colleague.  He was part of the Wittenberg faculty theological discussions driven by the rediscovery of the works of Augustine.   He had stood shoulder to shoulder with Luther at the Leipzig Disputation in April 1519.  Yet he was flawed.  Too verbose for his own good, it was inevitable that he would be literarily eclipsed by the talented pen of Doctor Martin.  And he tended towards a transformationist theological vision.


Late in 1521, Karlstadt and Zwilling started to drive the Wittenberg reformation in a radical direction.  Stirring up iconoclasm and riots, Karlstadt took to walking around Wittenberg dressed as a peasant and officiating at mass in a plain robe.   Then three individuals arrived, the Zwickau Prophets, who believed in the continuing direct leading of the Holy Spirit and thereby neglected the crucial centrality of the Word and the inseparability of Word and Spirit.


Wittenberg looked set to descend into chaos.  Luther returned incognito in December 1521 and, while pleased at the strides the reforms were making, he was deeply disturbed by the chaotic atmosphere and the iconoclasm.  Then, in early 1522, the Elector recalled him to the town permanently.


This was the moment Luther was most vulnerable.  Like Will Kane in High Noon, he was now totally alone.  His theological allies were either too timid or had gone over to the charismatic lunacy of the men from Zwickau.  The knights were conspicuous by their absence.  And the Elector was waiting to see what would happen: he knew that if the reformation in Wittenberg could not be brought under control, he risked invasion from the Emperor; if Luther failed, Frederick would have to reimpose the old ways.  Luther had no decisive allies.  It was all down to him.


In this context Luther quite literally preached the reformation back onto a stable footing in a remarkable series of pulpit performances which come down to us as the Invocavit Sermons on 1522.  By the time he had finished, the Zwickau whackos were gone, and Zwilling and Karlstadt had had to leave Wittenberg.  Luther was back in control with Melancthon as his gentle second-in-command.  Others, like Justus Jonas, who had been swept up in the madness had returned to sanity.  All was well.  Luther had preached God's Word and God's Word had done it all. And it is from these – and from that crisis moment – that this quotation is drawn.



So every time I sip the amber nectar from this wonderful glass, I will thank God that I am not a Southern Baptist and then I will praise him for the power of his Word as so admirably demonstrated in Wittenberg in the dark months of early 1522.


POSTSCRIPT: The glass is produced by Reformation Glass whose products are available via Amazon but not through the SBC.


Posted on Tuesday, March 07, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Reading Augustine's De Trinitate this semester with a group of students, I was struck by this brilliant analysis of the way that sin operates.  It comes from Book XII:


"For just as a snake does not walk with open strides bur wriggles along by the tiny little movements of its scales, so the careless glide little by little along the slippery path of failure, and beginning from a distorted appetite for being like God they end up by becoming like beasts."


Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Donald Macleod has written a moving obituary of the Rev. Dr. Iain D. Campbell.  You can find it here.

Posted on Friday, December 30, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

‘To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.’  So wrote John Henry Newman in his famous essay on doctrinal development.  I have critiqued this comment from a confessional Reformed perspective in First Things and will do so again in a forthcoming collection of essays on the Canadian Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan, to be edited by the philosopher R. J Snell.  I believe that confessional Protestants do have a good response to Newman on this issue.  But after the last six months, I am not sure that the same can be said for Evangelicals.  Given all that has emerged in the course of the Trinity debate, the question for them is: Is to be deep in history to cease to be Evangelical?


That is why I want to point Evangelicals towards Stephen Wellum’s new book on Christology. I would say that this is easily the Evangelical book of the year if one is looking for a volume that both makes an important contribution and is likely still to be read with profit ten years from now.   Wellum is not one of the high profile Evangelical leaders but, for my money, he is one of their best systematicians and deserves to be widely read and listened to.   If one of the key weaknesses with contemporary Evangelicalism is its detachment of biblical theology from dogmatic history, and notions of orthodoxy from church history, then Wellum’s approach is a welcome and necessary corrective.   


First, he sets out the challenges to traditional Christology today by looking at the significance of trends in biblical studies since the Enlightenment, and the epistemological and metaphysical challenges that modernity posed for orthodoxy.  He also outlines postmodern and postliberal critiques.  Second, he discusses the biblical material relevant to Christological discussion.  Third, he offers an account – and a remarkably succinct yet thorough account at that – of the development of Christological dogma in the church, culminating in Chalcedon (451) but also addressing post-Chalcedonian developments.  This is critical for understanding why the church thinks the way she does.  The failure to understand the logic of the historical development of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine is why so much Evangelical theology of the last thirty years has been so poor.    Wellum offers a superb example of how a truly Christian theology must address the issue of development.  Finally, he looks at modern Christological revisions, particular the kenoticism of Forsyth and others.


Readers may not agree with all of Wellum’s arguments or conclusions but all will come away better informed about the history of Christology and why, for example, dyothelitism, as strange as it first sounds to untrained ears, is so important (p. 348: ‘What is ultimately at stake is the full humanity of Christ and whether Jesus is our all-sufficient Redeemer.’).  They will also have seen how systematic theology can be done in a manner which is biblically, theologically, historically, and ecclesiastically responsible.


If Evangelicalism is to have a future connected to historic Christianity, then it will have to do a number of things.  It will need to break the nexus of non-ecclesiastical and unaccountable platform, power, and money which currently appears to determine the boundaries of orthodoxy; it will need to recognize that errors on the doctrine of God have historically proved just as lethal to orthodoxy as those on scripture – if not more so; it will need to set its biblical theology in positive relation to systematic theology and the creedal and confessional heritage of the church; and it will need to think long and hard about how orthodoxy is transmitted from generation to generation. As a Brexiteer from the Evangelical world, I myself doubt that it can be done.   But if Evangelicals start looking beyond the lighted stage to those like Stephen Wellum, I might well be proved wrong - and happily so, I might add.  May his tribe increase.

Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

My favourite church history book of 2016 is Bruce Gordon’s John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.   I confess to being a little partisan: Bruce is my oldest scholarly friend since we were both postgraduates in Scotland in the late 80s and denizens of the Scottish Church History Reading Group that met under the learned authority of scholars such as Ian Hazlitt, Andrew Pettegree, and David Wright.  A scholar and a gentleman, and now Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale, Bruce is one of the finest church historians of his generation.


In particular, Bruce is an outstanding Calvin scholar, with his biography of the Reformer being now perhaps the standard in English.  This small volume is part of Princeton University Press's outstanding Lives of Great Religious Books series.  This is a new twist on the biographical genre, looking at the reception, interpretation, and influence of  key religious texts.  Others in the series that I have read have all been excellent: Paul Gutjahr on the Book of Mormon, Alan Jacobs on the Book of Common Prayer, and Garry Wills on Augustine’s Confessions all represent fine marriages of authors and topics.  Bruce and the Institutes is another.


Much important work has been done over recent decades by Richard A. Muller to relativize the significance and status of the Institutes.   It is no longer feasible to see this work as a kind of systematic theological Colossus bestriding the Reformed world.  Reformed theology was more eclectic in its origins and its formation.  Indeed, Bullinger’s Decades  were arguably as important in the late sixteenth century on the formation of English Reformed theology as anything Calvin wrote.


And yet…. And yet….  The Institutes  does have a literary quality to it that was frequently lacking in other tomes of the same period.  And, however one relativizes its importance in its own day, the book did come to dominate the Reformed imagination in a way that no other has ever done.  Who outside of scholarly circles reads Bullinger or Peter Martyr today?  Yet Calvin’s book sits on the shelf of many a thoughtful layperson.  This is what Bruce teases out in this great little volume, showing how the book was appropriated and read by later generations and how it achieved the status which it now enjoys among friend and foe alike as setting the standard for Reformed theology.


For a book of just over two hundred pages, the reach is remarkable, from Switzerland to China by way of the Netherlands and South Africa, from Servetus to Mark Driscoll (whom Bruce dismisses with a casual but appropriate wave of his scholarly hand) by way of Toplady, Barth, and Brunner.   At the end of the work, the reader knows that, while the Institutes is not the uniquely authoritative text that has sometimes been claimed, it has nonetheless enjoyed a remarkable, fascinating and at times convoluted history.  It not only helped define Protestantism; it also shaped cultures, for good and for ill.


This is a book – and a series – to read and to enjoy.