Posted on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In one of those surreal twists of fate that sounds like the start of a corny joke ('A presbyterian minister, his wife and an Archbishop walk into a bar....), the present Mrs Trueman and I recently found ourselves having dinner in a Philly pub with Charles Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.  Separated by a fair amount of theology, we are yet very much united by concerns over religious freedom and the chaos that is contemporary sexual identity politics.

At one point in the meal, I thanked the Archbishop for the difficult stands he has taken on a host of matters in Philadelphia, especially those on LGBTQ issues.  He paused, looked me in the eye and then commented 'You know, Carl, it is never difficult to do the right thing.  It can be very tiring. But it is never difficult.'

I thought of that comment when I read Todd's post of yesterday and wondered why there is such chaos and indifference in so much of Christian higher education.  It is never difficult to do the right thing.  Only tiring.  That's all.

Posted on Thursday, December 10, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I see there is a book signing in Moscow, Idaho, today and tomorrow.  I wonder, which of the authors will be there to put their John Hancocks on the title page?  Greg Bahnsen and Ellen G. White are both dead so I assume they are unavailable -- but maybe Iain Murray, Paul Rose, Wayne Blank and Tim Challies will be joining the festivities?  As the man says, should be a collector's item before sundown.  But maybe not for the reasons originally assumed.

Some people think I take an overly pessimistic view of the way in which the conservative Protestant world of big gospel business does its work and imposes its agenda.  I think I may ultimately prove to have been a naive optimist. Because it's a very small, self-policing world, as Rod Dreher makes clear in his critique of this mendacious buffoonery at the end of his blog.

But I am sure I can hear the sound of the Idaho wagon train circling even as I write.


STOP PRESS: Looks like the book signing is off.  I guess they just realized White and Bahnsen couldn't make it without somebody breaching Old Testament law.

Posted on Thursday, December 10, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The redoubtable Rachel Miller has found some fascinating instances of what would appear to be plagiarism.  To quote Yogi Berra, 'It's like deja-vu, all over again.'   But Rachel's only a woman, so I guess she has no authority to point this out.  Back to business as usual, then?

Posted on Tuesday, December 08, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Seeing Todd’s post yesterday on adultery reminded me of a conversation I had on Sunday night.  A student (the one who combines excellent taste in dating with an apparent reckless disregard for his own safety -- hey, I'm still watching you, sunshine....) said he had heard of a pastor who had been caught in adultery but had now been forgiven by his wife, reconciled to her, and was back in the pastorate.   His (the pastor’s) argument was that we are all sinners and so why should this sin be more serious than others.  What did I think of such?  Not a lot, as it happens.

The book by John Armstrong which Todd recommends is excellent in laying out the arguments as to why restoration to office is not possible in such circumstances (though restoration to fellowship in the church is, of course, for those who have repented).

One thing I would like to add though is a comment on a particular version of the ‘we’re all sinners, so it’s really ok’ argument.  In one instance, while debating whether a particular individual was qualified for office, a person read to me the list of qualifications for eldership and declared: ‘If we apply those, then nobody will ever be qualified!’

Really?  Is it so hard to be faithful to one’s wife? To be sober minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach?  Not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy for money? A good manager of one’s household, and well-respected in the neighbourhood? The list, as far as it connects to personal qualities, is simply demanding what my father would have called ‘basic decency.’  To use the list as if it demands sinless perfection is perverse.  Ironically, it can then lead to dismissing it as irrelevant in practice.  That actually leads to a lowering of the bar below the level of basic decency, which is clearly an abuse of the text.

The idea that adultery is not disqualifying for office because all are sinners is a silly, self-serving argument.  The options are not ‘sinless perfection’ or ‘nothing really matters.’ Basic biblical decency is the standard.  Not hard to achieve.   And the argument for permanent disqualification for adultery rests upon the peculiarly heinous nature of the violation of the marriage bond.  The unique significance of physical, sexual union, the depth of betrayal of trust involved, and the mockery of the relationship of Christ to the church which such constitutes, all serve to make this particular transgression exceptionally serious.  Not the unforgiveable sin by any means but certainly irreversible when it comes to its significance for office-bearing in the church.  That is what I have told my own elders should apply to me if ever I commit adultery.  And I pray – and take practical steps -- every day to make sure that I do not do so.

Posted on Monday, December 07, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Four or five years ago, I pointed out that a certain well-known sociologist who had built his career railing against Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was reviewing his own books on Amazon and giving them five stars.  I indicated that I was a bit old fashioned when it came to book reviews and still held to the prehistoric, unenlightened notion that they were best done by people who were not actually the authors.  Amazing to tell, said book reviews vanished within 48 hours.  Payback came in the form of an email from this sociologist who told me that I 'would be pitiable' if I 'were not so annoying.'  That's what I call a result.  And I'm saving that particular comment for a book commendation at some point.

Well, looks like the PCA are in on the act -- Sean Lucas giving two of his own books an 'honorable mention' in the year's Top Ten. 

As an immigrant, I want to be culturally sensitive. I really do -- you know how much such things mean to me. Perhaps reviewing and recommending your own books is an American thing? 

Posted on Tuesday, December 01, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

In reflecting on Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism after nearly a century, it is very clear that it is a work which presents in particular Christian form the pathologies of the modern age.  In its prioritizing of experience and psychology, its disdain for history, and its practical suspicion of institutional authority, the ‘Christian’ liberalism of Machen’s day was scarcely unique.  The question then comes: What is to be done?  How can the church today, surveying the landscape that has been so utterly changed by the cultural trends which Machen so feared, respond?

It seems to me several points suggest themselves.

First, the church needs to understand that the forces pressing for her theological and moral dissolution are deeply embedded in the currents of the modern world.  It is not simply that the church needs to guard the teaching office through appropriately orthodox training for pastors and elders, though she certainly needs to do that.  The church must realize the size of the task that lies before her.   The forces Machen saw at work in the church of his day continue to shape the hearts and minds of congregants six – perhaps even seven – days a week.    And we need to understand that these forces operate in a manner which is not primarily argumentative.      Truth is conceived of in aesthetic terms and what constitutes virtue is a function of taste. This is because people are watching soap operas and sitcoms and commercials, not because vast numbers of congregants are reading Wilhelm Reich or tomes of post-Freudian theory.  
We need to understand that Biblical illiteracy is no longer simply an informational issue, a lack of knowledge of the biblical text and story line.  The problem is not simply that people have never heard of Noah or even perhaps Jesus. It is the fact that they do not even think any more in terms of the most basic categories with which the Bible operates, perhaps most fundamentally the idea of human nature as a given.  And they do not even realize that the way they think now is not the way it has to be.  The task that lies before the church is thus much vaster and more difficult than we could ever have imagined.

Second, history as an authority needs to be regained Christianity is as an historical religion in terms of its institutions, its creeds and confessions.  It rests upon a fundamental assertion of the importance of history as the means by which God works.  Machen’s analysis of liberalism resonates with Rieff’s analysis of the great intentional forgetting of the past.   The cultivating of an appropriately historical mindset is crucial; but the manner in which this is to be done is not immediately obvious, given the pervasive impact of the anti-historical  nature of the new barbarism.  

Take pornography, for instance, which is probably the number one pastoral problem within the church today.  We tend to think of it in terms of lust, objectification of other people etc.  Yet lust is only part of the issue.  Pornography divorces sex from real relationships, and thus from any kind of personal narrative or history.  It thus cultivates a mindset which is, in a sense, profoundly gnostic and ironically so – one of the most basic bodily functions, one of the most powerfully physical activities, is effectively disembodied.  And that which is meant to connect the individual to a much larger personal narrative and history is abstracted from any kind of relationship whatsoever.   Porn does not simply cultivate lust and the objectification of sexual partners.  It quietly erodes and destroys the authority of history as well.   Such is just one example – consumerism, the entertainment industry, and the basic psychologizing of life all cultivate patterns of thought that see history as at best irrelevant, at worst something that needs to be overcome.  That is lethal to an historical religion.

Third – and I know you are all just waiting for me to say this -- churches need elaborate confessions.  Just think of how the evangelical penchant for brief doctrinal statements has undone so many churches recently?  After all, how many home-made  12-point doctrinal confessions ever dealt with marriage?  The great confessions of the Protestant church generally did so.  Those churches that combined a Biblicism with an ignoring of history and the simple dogmatic aesthetic of the modern age often abandoned these historic confessions, in a manner I would argue has more to do with the spirit of the age than with actual biblical teaching.   And now they are about to pay the price, maybe even legally.

Ironically, confessional churches are in a much stronger position both pedagogically and indeed legally, relative to developments surrounding issues such as same sex marriage.   When marriage is confessionally defined as between one man and one woman, all other permutations are ruled out of bounds.  Thus, even a document whose authors could not even have conceived of gay marriage has in practice addressed the matter quite adequately in terms of confessional function.   That makes pedagogy and legal defense of a refusal to countenance gay marriage somewhat easier.

Nevertheless, there is a price to pay here: to return to the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is inevitably to return to the divisions of that era.  The challenge which Machen poses to the church is, on one level, the challenge to take the particularity of confessional subscription seriously.  And doing so may well militate against significant co-belligerence in the secular sphere.  Though perhaps Machen’s view might be that such co-belligerence, when it has taken on a quasi-ecclesiastical hue, was always actually an ironic part of the problem, rather than a stepping-stone to the solution.

Fourth, the church as an institution needs to be reasserted, and that with consistency and integrity.   Mere paper orthodoxy is not enough.  The church has to be what she says she is; and that will require tough decisions by those in leadership, and sometimes decisions which may involve some sacrifice.    Only when the church takes heterosexual marriage seriously, for example, will she be able to be the aroma of life to life, or death to death, to the world to whom she witnesses.  And that means not just complaining about society marrying gay couples.  More than that, it means taking appropriate pastoral and disciplinary action against those who engage in adultery and cheap divorces.   If such actions have no consequences, then the church has no moral authority at all.

This is also surely the only way of pursuing Christian discipleship.  The purpose of the church is not to facilitate the self-realization of psychological man but to turn psychological man, the man who claims absolute sovereignty over himself, into the servant of the God who is sovereign over all.  And that requires nurture within a social environment whose culture is the very antithesis of the world around, an environment where the Word stands over against the individual’s autonomy and calls men and women to obedience.  Only in an organized community shaped by that Word will individuals truly come to know who they are and to be what they should be.   The church as institution is the necessary corollary to the Word as external authority.  Thus, a repudiation of the church as a confessing and confessional institution is a repudiation of the very means for human beings to be truly human.

Finally, as I looked again at Machen’s work, I was struck by how he saw in an infant form the very pathologies of the modern age which led to that which Rieff calls ‘the coming barbarism.’  Perhaps I might close by suggesting that were someone to write the equivalent today they might think of giving such a book another title.   Indeed, in its repudiation of all forms of external authority and its exaltation of the individual, the modernism which Machen critiqued has become something much more obviously antithetical to the faith and something much uglier and much nastier.  Given this, an appropriate title might well be not Christianity and Liberalism but Christianity and Barbarism.

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Paul Helm dropped me a note to comment that, although it is true that we live in a world which fears exclusion, there are still many socially acceptable voluntary organization which do exclude people: political parties, for example.

This is a good point.   I would respond by saying that a full account of the unacceptability of church discipline, theological and ethical, in today’s society would clearly need to take into account not simply the fact that it involves exclusion but also the specific reasons for such. In the eyes of the world, for example  discipline for adultery or for denial of the resurrection would seem to be self-righteously countercultural in the first instance and somewhat pedantic in the second.  

Further, the traditional image of the church and much of the rhetoric of the church is that of inclusion. Come all you who are burdened etc.   Thus, there is a dramatic dissonance between the public perception of what the church seems to be saying she is and what, by excluding certain types of people, she actually is. 

Finally, we might add that the failure over many generations of the church to implement proper discipline has left even those within the visible church somewhat confused as to who she is, what she should believe and what behaviors she should tolerate.    When the question, Who owns the church? (or more likely, Who owns this particular congregation/denomination?) has been made practically unclear over time, then the general cultural fear of excluding people combines with dissonant rhetoric and ecclesiastical chaos to create significant unpleasantness and further confusion.

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The third area where Machen anticipates the kind of dilemmas now faced by the contemporary church is in the matter of discipline.  In a post-Freudian, post-Foucaultian world, the very notion of discipline sounds repressive and abusive, yet Machen clearly understood that this is vital for a healthy church.

Machen grasped the basic Pauline point that the primary area of combat for the church is the church itself.   Writing in the midst of the Roman empire, Paul has almost nothing to say about the empire; instead, he focuses his attention on the doctrine and discipline of the church.  The war will be against those who have an appearance of godliness, yet who deny its power.  

Sound teaching and sound behavior are thus the two focal points of Paul’s thinking regarding the church.  It is arguable that the church, at least the conservative Protestant church, has generally done a better job of promoting the former than the latter.

Thus, in his own day Machen stated the following in Christianity and Liberalism:

The greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core.

There is no doubt that Machen was thinking here primarily of liberal theology and the way in which the church had allowed its exponents into the ministry and onto the mission field.  Yet notice that he cites not only faith but also practice.   The principle to which he points – the sheer lack of discipline – is surely an essential component of our current situation.  It is also one for which conservatives need to take proper responsibility.   Many churches have done a decent enough job of maintaining an orthodox confession of faith on paper; but practice has undone them.  The battle against liberalism has been generally conceived of as a doctrinal struggle.  And so it is.  But in the current climate, the connection between doctrine and ethics is critical; and practical failures are proving lethal.

It is very clear that the ethical practices – or lack thereof – of the church has fundamentally weakened her testimony not only externally before the world but internally before congregations.  The Roman Catholic child abuse scandal has shattered her testimony on matters of sexual ethics.  Many of the best writers on sexual ethics and identity are Roman Catholics but their crediblity in the wider world is undone by the past behaviour of their church.

Yet conservative Protestants should not think that they are really in a any better position.  The easy evangelical acceptance of no-fault divorce and other unbiblical criteria for the dissolution of marriages, as well as (anecdotally) frequent failure to hold adulterers, spousal abusers and the like to account, has left her compromised with regard to maintaining the idea that marriage should be for life and between one man and one woman.  Marriage was not redefined in 2015.  It was redefined the moment that Christians decided to accept the legitimacy of no-fault divorce and thus turned marriage into a temporary contract of convenience rather than a lifetime covenant to be broken only under the most extreme conditions.  Every time an unrepentant adulterer takes communion, every time a session or an elder board lack the courage to stand up to those who have violated the marriage covenant, then they witness to the church's redefinition (and thus rejection) of the Bible's teaching on marriage.

We might express the issue this way.  A church’s creed, what she actually believes, is embodied in the range of beliefs which she allows to be expressed from her pulpits and  a church’s ethics are embodied in the range of behaviours in which she allows her members to engage.  Failure to make the official paper standards of confessional orthodoxy into the actual practical standards of belief and practice in the church is lethal.

Two subsidiary points are important here.   First, Machen’s chapter in Christianity and Liberalism on the church is also an implicit polemic against broad-based, minimal creed orthodox churches.  The historic confessions were elaborate and they were elaborate for a reason: in institutional practice, Christian orthodoxy contained a certain level of ineradicable complexity such that, if this was lost, the institutional maintenance of orthodoxy would be nigh on impossible.  The doctrine of, say, the Lord’s Supper, stands in positive connection to a network of other doctrines.  To change one often requires modifications of others.

The modern age showed a remarkable distaste for the precision and elaborate nature of traditional confessions.  This connects to the aesthetics of our age.  The repudiation, for example, of scholastic theology was as much the result of a dislike of the kind of objective doctrinal elaboration which scholasticism represented as it was of any deficiency found in scholastic systems.  This is a pity, as precise definitions often allow charitable nuance between differing positions.  Take, for example, that between heresy (something which if consistently and persistently maintained denies the gospel) and error (something which merely represents some aspect of biblical teaching in a faulty way but which does not contradict the gospel).  Deny this scholastic distinction and one has no choice but to characterize those with whom one disagrees on almost any point, however minor, as being always heretical.

Practically, we might also note that an institution such as Princeton Theological Seminary was not undone so much by direct liberalism as by the piety of a tolerant orthodoxy which manifested itself in precisely the kind of practical laxity relative to precision and complexity to which I have alluded above.  In my experience, churches, institutions and organizations do not go bad because of coups by liberals.  They go bad because otherwise orthodox people sit on their hands – hands of whose cleanness they are always so very proud, yet hands which are clean only because others have dirtied theirs by taking the tough decisions and putting their careers and reputations on the line.  The spineless orthodox sleep safe at night only because the very people they so often despise have first made the ecclesiastical and institutional streets safe for women and children.

Second, Machen’s argument points to the failure to connect the church as institution to the church as confessional body which is itself the function of a suspicion of traditional institutions.   In an era where, to use Rieff’s taxonomy, we see the rise of psychological man and thus the downgrade of forms of external authority, it is inevitable that institutions become increasingly implausible to the extent that they represent external authority rather than means of individual self-realization.  In short, the decline in church authority is simply the institutional manifestation of the general decline in forms of external authority in our society.

In Machen’s day, these two combined to create a situation where there was a deep fear of excluding anyone from the church, even those who had ceased to believe in her confessional standards.  And if that fear of exclusion and dislike of dogmatism was pungent in Machen’s day, then today, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Balkan crisis etc., the cultural fear of exclusion has become all pervasive.  Combined again with the psychologizing of identity and thus the location of oppression in the psychological realm, this has placed confessional Christianity in a beleaguered position, both culturally and institutionally.  Yet exclude we must, at local and denominational levels, for if we fail to draw practical and doctrinal boundaries, then we abolish doctrinal and moral boundaries and thereby abolish Christianity.

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I recently had the pleasure of doing a double act with my old friend, Bruce Gordon, of Yale Divinity School, at the launch of the new journal, Unio cum Christo.  Bruce's lecture (on Calvin and Bullinger) and mine on Benito Mussolini's little known biography of the Bohemian reformer, John Huss, are both available here.

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

On Monday, I offered some reflections on Machen's analysis of liberalism in terms of Philip Rieff's arguments about the rise of psychological man.  Another theme in Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is liberalism’s functional abandonment of history as a source of any authority.  This is again quite consistent with the Romantic/psychologizing trajectory of the modern age, for history too is a kind of external authority.  Where once history and tradition might have been seen as liberating, as giving an identity to people and thus a place from which to engage the world, history is now seen more as something oppressive, something to be overcome, if we are ever to be our true selves.   Indeed, Karl Marx captured the attitude of the modern world quite brilliantly at the start of his 1852 essay, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

Men make their own history, but they do not make the history that they choose; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

That history is a nightmare is surely one of the defining convictions of this present age.  Yet this was not the position of Machen and this is a vital part  of his rejection of liberalism.

Now, while he dealt with doctrine in a specific chapter, this theme is not singled out in such a way but rather pervades much of what he says on other topics.  Thus, for example, throughout the book it is the fact that Jesus Christ actually happened, was an historical person, really did live, die, and rise again, that underpins the truth value of doctrinal formulations.  To reject the authority of history is thus to engage in a form of Docetism.  It is also to reject the authority of doctrine or to turn doctrine into the psychological constructs which undergird liberalism and make Christinaity into nothing more than a religion of sentiment and feeling.  As Machen eloquently expresses it:

From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened.  And from the beginning, the meaning of that happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine.  ‘Christ died’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine.  Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.

History therefore has authority, external authority, which makes demands upon the present.

Machen’s concern for history, however, is broader than just the biblical story and its importance for doctrine.   Because he held to a high view of the church as an institution, and of her offices, officers and confessions, history was inevitably of vital importance to the particularities of Christian belief and practice in the present.

Thus, the history of confessional and denominational divisions also carries an authority for him.  This is not because he thinks divisions are in and of themselves a good thing.  Far from it.  He regards them as in one sense disastrous.  Indeed, the failure of Luther and Zwingli to agree at Marburg was a catastrophe.  Yet he does not regard it as being as catastrophic as a doctrinal indifferentism that would simply ignore or minimize the differences that exist between, say, Reformed and Lutheran or Calvinist and Arminian.  Such divisions are to be taken seriously because they represent disagreement on substanive issues. One of the things we can learn from church history is therefore what is and is not of critical importance.

The same can be said for Machen’s respect for creeds and confessions and for the church as an institution.   While he is a good Protestant and thus gives no ultimate authority to such things, yet he clearly has huge respect for historical tradition.  And that is because he acknowledges that history possesses authority of a sort.   We are who we are, we worship and speak as we do, because we inherit the language and the liturgies of previous generations.  History gives us our place to stand as Christians in the present.

Again, we can now turn to Philip Rieff and see that Machen’s particular point about Christianity finds a more general expression in his writings on culture.  One of the inevitable concomitants of psychological man is his repudiation of history.  History, after all, along with its concomitants – law codes, institutions, traditions etc. – is an obvious form of external authority which hinders self-realization and authenticity.   In a posthumously published work, My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Rieff writes of what he calls ‘the coming barbarism', describing it as a radical severing of the present from the past in order to repudiate any authority which the latter may possess.   To quote him at length:

Cultures are constituted by the union of the living and the dead in rituals of living memory.  Never before, in our late second world, has the authority of the past been sacrificed with a more conscious effort of forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness is now the curricular form of our higher education.  This form guarantess that we, of the transition from second to third worlds, will become the first barbarians.  Barbarism is not an expression of simple technologies or of mysterious taboos; at least there were taboos and, moreover, in all first worlds, the immense authority of the past.  By contrast, the coming barbarism, much of it here and now, not least to be found among our most cultivated classes, is our ruthless forgetting of the authority of the past. [MLATDW, 106]

The specific example Rieff then goes on to highlight is that of abortion.  To borrow his language, abortion is the flushing away of human identities down the memory hole. It is not just the slaughter of a person.  It is the eradication of history.

We can see how this principle applies to recent marriage debates.  That gay marriage is historically unprecedented in an absolute sense has ultimately carried no weight whatsoever in the interpretation of the Constitution.  Of course, we must acknowledge that lack of historical precedent should not be an absolutely decisive factor in legal judgments; but that such now carry so little weight compared to the tastes and predilections of the present moment is a stunning and significant cultural development. History as history carries no positive authority at all.  Our culture is such that precedents, legal, moral, social, must all fall before the devices and desires of those who would make us no more than the sum of our present pleasures and personal satisfactions.

The idea that history is oppressive is deep in our culture and it is part of the essential Gnosticism of the postmodern world.   And Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is undergirded by the belief that theological liberalism is itself a species of such anti-historical sentiment, both in its rejection of the connection of history to doctrine and in its lack of concern for the historic testimony of the church throughout the ages.