We Need to Listen to Carl Trueman

Matt Pinson

Carl Trueman, who teaches at Grove City College and is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is an increasingly rich source of wisdom for evangelical Protestants. A recent piece I read of his in First Things is very good and can be found here. While readers of this blog will, like me, find important things on which to differ with Trueman, in this First Things article and in his other books and articles, his basic instincts are right.

His most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution is one of the most important books thus far in this century. Recently that book’s arguments have been summarized in the briefer book, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.

Those books are on the Christian view of the broader culture, but they flow out of Trueman’s confessional Protestant view of the church and its teachings. His views on these things are seen in books like The Creedal Imperative. His podcast The Mortification of Spin is also worth listening to. He and his co-host Todd Pruitt are a lot like orthodox Presbyterian versions of us Free Will Baptists.

That very sentence is complicated—I can’t go into all the ways that I disagree with Trueman here. But Trueman is in many ways a kindred spirit despite those important denominational (and other) differences. I’ll never forget when he and I were on a panel at Southern Seminary with J. D. Greear, Josh Harris (who has since apostatized), and another minister, and we just happened to be sitting on one side of the platform and were the only ecclesially confessional people on the panel. It was funny that, even though he was the strictest Calvinist on the panel—and I was the only Arminian!—we came down on the same side of most of the issues.

Two Observable Shifts

His writing and podcasting about the church dovetail with what I tell my students: Recently there are two observable shifts in some quadrants of evangelical Christianity:

  1. From theology to experience
  2. From tradition to culture

These shifts don’t always represent a complete disregard of theology or tradition. They represent a move away from theology and Christian tradition being the solid “place to stand” from which many evangelicals see their faith and how it connects with the world around them. Thus the shift to experience and culture as the main reference point of many evangelicals can be subtle. But Trueman clearly picks up on this phenomenon.

Trueman, like the stock-in-trade evangelical Protestantism we all inherited, strongly affirms that the New Testament vision of the church’s doctrine and its practice, as mediated by the Protestant Reformation, is normative for the church of the present and the future just as it was in the past.

Yet many evangelicals have moved from having two feet firmly planted in this broadly biblical-Reformation theology and practice that has dominated the consensus of evangelicalism up until now. They’ve moved at least one foot—and in some cases both—away from the consensus of Christian tradition to the consensus of modern popular culture in things that don’t violate the Ten Commandments. And they’ve moved away from theology to subjective experience as the primary reference point from which to evangelize and disciple non-believers in an increasingly secular age in the West. Thus they’ve whittled down their message to what it takes to be converted and to keep moral commands (the Ten Commandments).

In our case, a lot of the issues of “what do you teach in church,”  “what do you do in church,” and “how do you conceive of spirituality” are obviously tied to the consensus of the Protestant tradition. Of course Trueman would be Calvinist Presbyterian and I would be Arminian Baptist. But we would both share the same basic convictions on the importance of maintaining the normativity of New Testament doctrine and practice.

So, while we would maintain our denominational distinctives, neither Trueman nor I would find ourselves in serious disagreement with the best-selling commentaries and Bible study resources and homiletical resources from the Reformation through the mid-twentieth century on the most basic principles of how to teach and practice the Christian faith in the context of the local church.

Church and Culture

But I also sense in Trueman that he sees these shifts in some quarters of evangelicalism as affecting their views on culture and society as well. One sees that in this most recent First Things article. These moves in the church—from a privileging of theology toward a privileging of experience, and from a privileging of Christian tradition toward a privileging of contemporary culture—are bleeding over into how Christians approach culture.

Trueman talks a lot in this article about Friederich Schleiermacher, one of the poster boys of Protestant Liberalism. One of his most famous books was On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Liberalism started out finding ways to make Christianity more palatable to “polite society” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At first these ways did not seem to threaten the “core” of the faith—how to be converted or obey the Ten Commandments. But eventually Christians like Schleiermacher grew so accustomed to accommodating Christianity to the tastes of its “cultured despisers” that that accommodation starting subtly bleeding over into areas that did violate conversion and the Ten Commandments.

Trueman thinks this is happening again. Evangelicals have gotten into the habit of accommodating Christian faith and practice to popular culture to make it more attractional. Now in bigger questions like race, sex, and gender, they’re trying to find ways to frame their Christian commitments in a way that is more acceptable to modern culture. He gives one example of framing the correct Christian opposition to racism in terms of contemporary critical theory, which rests on foundations in postmodernity that are poles apart from Christian theology.

So the “core” of Christian faith is becoming smaller and smaller as evangelicals hungry for cultural approval do everything in their power to adjust their Christian faith to make it more attractive to what Paul calls “the natural man” (1 Corinthians 2:14). But Trueman agrees that this seems like a poor strategy for spreading a countercultural gospel that operates on a completely different set of rules from secular culture. Attractional Christianity—trying to make the Christian religion seem appealing to secular culture—is doomed from the start because, as Paul says, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

I think we need to listen to Trueman. We’re not going to agree with everything he says, but his basic instincts, informed as they are by the Bible and the Reformation, give evangelicals much-needed wisdom in an increasingly bewildering age.

*9Marks recently had an edition of their ejournal that was entitled “Expressive Individual in the Church,” a subject inspired by Carl Trueman’s recent books. Readers can find it here


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