Carl Trueman at His Best

by Jul 18, 2014Culture23 comments

1624501433_3c2da64d93_bCarl Trueman on the use of natural law in today’s public square:

Today’s world is becoming a colder, harder place. Even so, we have ongoing civic responsibilities. Shaped by our faith, we too can speak to those in power. We must remind them of their responsibilities to protect the innocent and to punish the wicked. We must remind them of the fact that they, the magistrates, will ultimately answer to a higher authority. It is this consciousness of civic responsibility—and of a firm place to stand in Christ—that frames Calvin’sInstitutes and has served to make Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history, from the Puritans to Abraham Kuyper. There have certainly been excesses in the history of the Reformed Church’s engagement with the civic sphere, but Reformed theology at its best is no clarion call for a religious war or a theocratic state. It is rather a call for responsible, godly citizenship.

Here, the Reformed share a great deal of common ground with Roman Catholics. As David VanDrunen has shown, both affirm natural law, a better basis for social thought than the mythological constructions of the American Patriot’s Bible or the belligerent sense of national identity of the old-style religious right. Yet there are differences between the Reformed and Rome. Calvin is no Thomas, and the Reformed faith is not Roman Catholicism. Where Thomas saw sin as exacerbating the limitations of nature in a fallen world, Calvin saw sin as bringing a decisive ethical darkness into the world.

This difference is important and gives Reformed theology a more realistic understanding of Christian life in the public square and thus of the limits to what we might expect to achieve. People do not call evil good and good evil primarily because they are confused or not thinking clearly. They do so because they are in basic rebellion against God. It sounds a tad paradoxical: The Reformed use natural law for public engagement but expect little or no success. We believe that the world was created with a particular moral structure. Yet we also believe that fallen humanity has a fundamental antipathy toward acknowledging any form of external authority that threatens our own ultimate autonomy. This injects a basic irrationality and emotional passion into moral debates. This distortion of conscience and reason explains the apparent impotence of otherwise compelling arguments. And it surely reflects our actual experience as Christians in exile in twenty-first-century America.

Today people describe what was once quite ordinary moral reflection about sex and marriage as a “hate crime.” Do we need firmer evidence that debates about same-sex marriage, as well as abortion and the like, are not reducible to rational discussion? And Reformed theology knows why. Human beings in this fallen world consistently refuse to acknowledge the obvious: that they are creatures of God and thus accountable to him. And thus our moral convictions challenge that most basic belief of the modern world, namely, that the individual is the autonomous measure of all things and accountable to no one. Reformed theology understands this dark fact about our fallen humanity. We do not underestimate the ruthlessness of the opposition. We expect cultural exile. It actually confirms our deepest convictions about the way the world is. (First Things, Aug-Sep 2014, emphasis mine)

Read the whole thing. You really should.

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  1. Scott Aniol

    Now that’s good 2K theology! 🙂

    • Mark Ward

      Where do you perceive Trueman differing from the neo-Kuyperian approach?

  2. dcsj

    This would also be an example of Reformed, hubris, would it not? Note this line for example:

    “Do we need firmer evidence that debates about same-sex marriage, as well as abortion and the like, are not reducible to rational discussion? And Reformed theology knows why. Human beings in this fallen world consistently refuse to acknowledge the obvious: that they are creatures of God and thus accountable to him.”

    The way this is written, the notion that “Human beings in this fallen world consistently refuse to acknowledge the obvious: that they are creatures of God and thus accountable to him.” is the exclusive domain or understanding of Reformed theology. I don’t think that is really true. Many non-Reformed are capable of coming to the same conclusions.

    I don’t want to get into a debate about the merits or not of the Reformed position, but those who are more sympathetic to these views should think about how this comes across.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Mark Ward

    Fair, Don. Non-Calvinists can believe in depravity, too—even if it’s lightened up a bit by their doctrine of prevenient grace.

    But wouldn’t you agree that the noetic effects of the fall are stressed much more strongly on the Reformed side, which is characteristically presuppositionalist—while the non-Reformed side tends to place, at least implicitly, more faith in the power of human reason by favoring the evidentialist approach? Admittedly, Sproul is Reformed and argues for the priority of the intellect, but in my reading he was an outlier.

  4. Scott Aniol

    Among other things: “Reformed theology at its best is no clarion call for a religious war or a theocratic state. It is rather a call for responsible, godly citizenship.” His advocating using natural law rather than Scripture in the public square and rooting it in good citizenship rather than cultural transformation is very 2K. Plus he quotes VanDrunen, and I’ve seen him articulate and defend 2K at Ref21.

  5. dcsj

    Well, I am not well read enough in theology to comment on the trends of non-Calvinist theology. I will point out that not all non-Calvinists believe in prevenient grace.

    What I am primarily reacting to, I suppose, is that often Reformed types react to non-Reformed types when the “nons” make some statement that seems to exclude the possibility that Reformed types could actually hold the same position. From my reading, it seems that the Reformed are at least as guilty of this as those they accuse.

    But, as I said, don’t want to get into a debate on the merits of either view, just throwing a little radical reactionaryism into the mix!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  6. Scott Aniol

    Hey, Don, I’m actually with you on this one, too. I really think that the kind of points Trueman is making is inherent to, and most consistently applied within a dispensational framework! 🙂

  7. Brian Collins

    Regarding the Reformed vs. Non-Reformed thing, it seems that Trueman was explicitly comparing and contrasting Reformed and Roman Catholic theology throughout the article. I’m not sure he was intending to imply that Lutherans or Baptists couldn’t hold the same position as the Reformed on the points he was discussing.

    Regarding 2K, Trueman seems consistently favorable to the 2K position than otherwise in the various writings that I’ve seen. And the fact that I like so much of what he says indicates that at their best these positions are not really as far apart as they might seem. I guess my question for the 2Kers is that if secularists are no more inclined to admit the existence of a natural law than they are the authority of Scripture, why should Christians be prohibited from saying in the Public Square: “I’m a Christian. I’m opposed to abortion because of the Bible’s teaching about the image of God in man here and its prohibition of murder there and so forth. I know that others don’t hold the Bible to be authoritative, but this reason, this reason, and this reason explain why it is for the common good that the Christian position receive a fair hearing and even influence public policy.” Why depend so heavily on natural law arguments that I as a Christian don’t always find convincing when divorced from Scripture when Scripture clearly speaks to an issue?

  8. Mark Ward

    I’m with Brian on a willingness to see overlap in the 2K and neo-Kuyperian positions, and yet there’s enough of a difference that, though I know of Trueman’s 2K leanings, I still didn’t read him as Scott did. “Reformed theology at its best is no clarion call for a religious war or a theocratic state. It is rather a call for responsible, godly citizenship.” I can say all that despite not siding with the 2K folks. And I thought Trueman’s whole point—that natural law arguments aren’t working and can’t work in our current situation, was not a very 2K thing to say. My admittedly paltry reading in Van Drunen (I’m still hoping to remedy that!) leads me to think he wouldn’t be as pessimistic about the power of natural law as Trueman is in this piece.

    Correct me, please!

  9. Scott Aniol

    Actually, it’s exactly the expectation concerning what “good works” in society will accomplish that distinguishes 2k from transformationalism. Trueman represents what transformationalsts caricature as a “pessimistic” attitude about the power of Christianity in society. But I think both Trueman and Van Drunen would say that is perceived “pessimism” is actually a realism that avoids the “triumphalistic” expectations of the Neo-Calvinist. Interestingly, as I noted above, dispensationalists are also charged with pessimism because they don’t believe that we can ultimately make things better in this world. But that doesn’t mean individual Christians shouldn’t be good citizens; both 2K and dispensationalism says that they should; they just shouldn’t expect “cultural transformation” to any significant degree. Indeed, that’s not why they do good works; they do them simply because they bring God glory and for the good of their neighbor. We do good works because that’s what Christians do.

    The other big difference, I think, involves *whose* responsibility such good works are. The transformationalist says, “The Church,” while the 2K is careful to say, “individual Christians” and limit The Church’s role strictly to making disciples. Thus, the church makes disciples, and individuals be disciples in society.

  10. Brian Collins

    But are Neo-Calvinists necessarily triumphalists? Consider Wolters and Goheen’s characterization of the present age:

    The history of this ‘time between the times,’ then, will not be one of smooth progress or an incremental linear development of the kingdom towards its consummation. Neither will our mission be one that resembles a steady victorious march toward the end. Rather this redemptive era is one of fierce conflict with many casualties. Our mission will be one that is costly and will involve suffering. Paul states that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim. 3:12, NIV; cf. Acts 14:22). . . . To be sure it is important to highlight the teaching of the Bible that the ultimate victory is assured. The book of Acts pictures the progress of the Word through the Roman empire as the church embodied and announced it. Luke says that ‘the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power’ (Acts 10:20; cf. 6:7, 12:24). There is certainly a danger of taking these words in a triumphalist way, but this danger must not cause us to neglect the Scripture’s teaching about ultimate victory. . . . If we as the church want to be faithful to the equally comprehensive biblical story we will find ourselves faced with a choice: either accommodate the Bible’s story to that of our culture, and live as a tolerated minority community, or remain faithful and experience some degree of conflict and suffering. . . . We announce and embody a victory that remains hidden until the final day. And so the embodiment of that victory often appears in what appears to the world as weakness, even foolishness. (Creation Regained, 133-35.)

    Again, I think at their best Neo-Calvinist’s and 2Kers are not as far apart as might seem. That’s not to say there are no differences. My major objections to VanDrunen are (1) I don’t find his exegesis of the Noahic and Abrahamic covenant sustains his distinction between a common kingdom and a religious kingdom. (2) I’m especially concerned that this distinction leads him to conclude that the common kingdom is ruled by natural law apart from Scripture. I think Van Til is correct that natural law was never intended to function apart from special revelation. (3) And while I am sympathetic to his argument that, contrary to a culture wars emphasis, believers and unbelievers work together in the common kingdom, I’m concerned that the thrust of VanDrunen’s presentation is to minimize the antithesis that exists between Christians and non-Christians in the cultural realm, thus opening the door to worldliness.

    What’s interesting to me is that we’re in agreement with you, Scott, about eschewing triumphalism and rhetoric about redeeming this or that in the culture, and I suspect that you’re in agreement with us about the importance of the antithesis and the danger of worldliness, and yet you’re drawn more to the 2K position while we’re more attracted to Wolters.

  11. Brian Collins

    I should add that I agree with your final paragraph about distinguishing the institutional church’s rule from that of Christians in the workaday world. I tend to find myself more sympathetic with 2K writings when they are talking the church and worship. I firmly disagree with the segment of neo-Calvinists who hold that all of life is worship to the diminishment of the uniqueness gathered worship. If 2K opens the door for worldliness my diminishing the antithesis in the common kingdom, I think the neo-Calvinist may open the door for worldliness at this point. Bavinck perceptively warned about ‘the danger of losing ourselves in the world. Nowadays we are out to convert the whole world, to conquer all areas of life for Christ. But we often neglect to ask whether we ourselves are truly converted and whether we belong to Christ in life and in death. . . . What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, even for Christian principles, if he loses his own soul?’ Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith, trans. Harry der Nederlanden (St. Catharines, Ont.: Paideia, 1980), 94.

  12. Scott Aniol

    Very true! I still think we all need to get together (with Snoeberger) and hatch some of this out.

    I’m not fully comfortable with all of how 2Kers articulate things, either, for some of the reasons you cite. That’s why in my dissertation (and forthcoming book), I root cultural activity in sanctification rather than redemption or a stricly divided 2K theology.

    Thanks for this stimulating discussion. You guys really do need to read VanDrunen, and I need to read more Bavinck.

  13. Philip Larson

    As a transformationalist, I do not hear my position represented here. It is rather caricatured. And the rhetoric of “transformationalism” is rarely used honestly.

    Perhaps the major point is who is Christ, and what has he has already accomplished. Certainly we see now that not all things are under his feet. And yet he has been elevated over all things, all things, all things, and to the church.

    So if Christ is presently elevated over all things, nothing on earth excepted, and he reigns, and to the church, what are we to make of this? I seem to hear far too much dedication to human traditions to celebrate this.

    I say this in faith. I know that lots of lousy stuff still happens, even within me. Nevertheless Christ reigns over all things. Please do not deny the black and white of NT scriptures.

  14. Brian Collins

    Phil, it’s good to hear from you again.

    I would agree that Christ is reigning over all things (Acts 2:34-36). But Psalm 110 says that at present he rules in the midst of his enemies (v. 2). Only at his return will “he shatter kings on the day of his wrath” (v. 5). This is not to deny that the gospel turns the world upside down by transforming individuals, local assemblies of believers, and even by having far-reaching cultural effects. And yet, in the present evil age all that live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. It seems that in the present age we live in a tension in which gospel advance and evil and suffering both happen.

    Since you agree that lousy stuff still happens and that we see now that not all things are under his feet while also affirming that Christ reigns over all things, where would you pinpoint our disagreement? What would non caricatured transformationalism be?

  15. Scott Aniol

    And this is where dispensationalismm fits in as well since, as a traditional dispensationalist, I don’t believe Christ is reigning over all on the Davidic throne yet (sitting at the Father’s right hand is not the same as reigning on David’s throne). That won’t happen until the Father (not the Church!!!) puts everything under his feet and he returns to set up his Kingdom on earth.

  16. Brian Collins

    But that’s where traditional Dispensationalism strikes me as exegetically weak. I don’t know how to even conceptualize Christ–the Messiah–reigning in a non-Davidic reign. Of course the Son has always reigned as God over all things. But all promises the Christ’s reign, of a Messianic reign, are tied back to a Davidic Covenant. Psalm 110 states that the Messiah’s present reign in the midst of his enemies involves a scepter going forth from Zion, which would indicate a Davidic reign. Acts 13:33 says that Psalm 2’s promise, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” was fulfilled in the resurrection, and that is a Davidic kingship promise: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam. 7:13-14). Indeed, Acts 13:34 links Ps 2 to the Davidic covenant by saying, “And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.'”

    I would check a triumphalism not by denying the present Davidic reign of Christ but by distinguishing between his present reigning in the midst of his enemies and a future shattering the kings in the day of his wrath. In other words, Christ presently reigns, but there is a distinction that the Bible between the nature of the present reign and the nature of the future reign.

    • Scott Aniol

      Right, I don’t think he’s “reigning” in a sense related to the Davidic Covenant.

  17. Philip Larson

    Brian, I see biblical transformationalism as sanctification across Christ’s church. In my local church, that includes professionals and academics, the plumbers and HVAC men, and housemaids and mothers. It seems that you aren’t of an entirely different opinion.

    I aim to live out my life in love to God and to neighbor; frankly, I don’t count myself as an example. But I seek to follow the Lord. Some can’t conceive that this includes loving God in the structures that pervade my life. In my case, that includes mathematics and the field of education. For me to love God requires that I seek, in my limited intellect, to shape (or re-shape as necessary) every structure in these fields. So while I am no Copernicus or Newton or Milton, every fiber of my being longs for the complete transformation of all creation, and I try to push for that every day.

    Whether Christ reigns “in a sense related to the Davidic Covenant” isn’t a useful question: Christ reigns “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” I just don’t see exceptions here. Yes, there’s a “not-yet” component. But apparently the legal right over all nations is presently and fully established (Isa. 53-54).

    I take issue with the anti-rhetoric of “triumphalism” since Christian orthodoxy is committed to the full triumph of Christ’s kingdom over all the kingdoms of the earth. It’s a done deal since Christ endured Calvary, although it has not fully been realized. We do not triumph in today’s secular America, but the doom of today’s Amorites is sealed, short of God’s mercy.

  18. Philip Larson

    Who claims that the Church ever puts anything under Christ’s feet? Has anyone ever claimed that? “What do you have that you have not received?”

  19. Brian Collins

    Phil, I’d agree with your first paragraph. I want to see professionals, academics, plumbers, mothers, et al. to be sanctified in how they think about and do their work. I also like your emphasis on love to God and neighbor and good works in every aspect of life.

    That does mean, at times, that disciplines are in need of reshaping in light of God’s word. It strikes me, however, that the language of tranformationalism can sometimes sound more confident than we can be that we can bring about this kind of transformation. I think this summary of Klaas Schilder’s thought is more accurate:

    “While living on this earth, they should labor in God’s service on God’s earth. But many do not work in this way. This is one reason why cultural development, the development of this world, will never be completed. Those who reject God use the materials that God has created and work with the abilities that God has given them, but without obeying God. As a result of this disobedience much of their cultural work will be spoiled. In the end it will become evident that their cultural achievements are only torsos, truncated pyramids. Of course, there are also the regenerated. With them a beginning of obedience in cultural work should become visible. But this, too, will not lead to a completed cultural development. Christian culture, too, is left with truncated pyramids. Several reasons can be given for this. First is the fact that they are a minority. Only a few people are left to do a work that was to be performed by all. They simply do not have enough manpower to do what should be done in this world. Another reason is the sin that is still present in them. It can be duty for a Christian not to engage in a certain type of work, because his eye or hand can lead him into sin.” N. H. Gootjes, “Schilder on Christ and Culture,” in Always Obedient: Essays on the Teaching of Dr. Klaas Schilder, ed. J. Geertsema (P&R, 1995), 43.

    In think of creationary science in light of Schilder’s first fact. The paradigm of science needs to be reshaped away from an evolutionary paradigm. We, and other organizations seek to do this as much as we can, but since we are a minority (and a despised one at that), it seems unlikely that we’re going to bring about the kind of paradigm shift needed to really get the best minds in the world (and the funding) that should really be devoted to the starlight and time problem, to give one example.

    I’m in agreement with your third paragraph. What’ interesting about your citation of Ephesians 1 is that it picks up on Ps 110 language and cites as true of the present (cf. 1 Peter 3:22). 1 Corinthians 15:25, however, indicates that this promise won’t be fully fulfilled until after the Millennium, when death is destroyed (cf. Heb. 2:8). I’ve just recently noticed this.

    I think my main disagreement would be with your final paragraph. I agree that Christ’s final triumph is assured despite not triumphing in secular America today. But that’s not where the critique against triumphalism is raised (see the Wolters & Goheen quotes in the previous post). The concern is when there is unfounded confidence of triumph in the present. It seems that this concern is real and the triumphalism is an accepted label for that. If triumphalism means that Christ finally triumphs, then all Christians would be triumphalist.

  20. Scott Aniol

    Phil, what you describe as “biblical transformationalism” doesn’t appear to me to be consistent with what most Neo-Kuyperians argue. If you are simply talking about Christians progressing in their sanctification by living out their Christianity in whatever vocation God has called them to, you seem to describe ideas fully consistent with 2K! 🙂

    Classic Neo-Kuyperians appear to argue for something much more than that. They suggest that they are somehow participating in the “mission of God” to “redeem” all creation. Thus for them the Great Commission is simply an extension of the so-called “Creation mandate” (which I’m not so sure is a mandate, by the way). Doing good in society is more than just an outgrowth of sanctification for the Neo-Kuyperian; it is “kingdom work.”

    But I agree with the general direction of this conversation. Although I lean more toward the language of 2K rather than transformationalism, both positions as they are traditionally articulated have problems. That’s why I like how you described things, Phil; it’s exactly how I do.

    I prefer to root good works (and culture and education and . . .) in the realm of sanctification, avoiding the transformation/redemption/kingdom language of the Neo-Kuyperians and the natural law/”common ground” language of 2K while retaining the Kuyperian categories of antithesis/common grace/worldview along with the 2K distinction between what the church has been called to do and individual Christians in society.

    I call it the “Sanctificationist Approach” in my upcoming book with Kregel. 🙂

  21. Jeremy Larson

    Re: Trueman’s differing from the Neo-Kuyperian approach, he’s pretty open about it. And in the section quoted here, he specifically shows his departure in his language of limiting expectations. One could say that here is Trueman at his worst:

    Expecting cultural exile is not distinctively Reformed, despite our understanding of the extent and power of sin. The end of Trueman’s quoted section here mentions “the way the world is,” as if Christ’s first advent did nothing to change that. Calvin was much more optimistic, 1 Timothy notwithstanding. Furthermore, if Christians in this present age will necessarily endure persecution, there are far fewer Christians in the West than we think, since most of our persecution consists of sitting in traffic and other minor discomforts.

    Neo-Kuyperians view Christ’s work as a seed that has been planted. In the comments to a post by Mark a few years back, Mark mentioned his difficulty in understanding cultural activity apart from a transformationalist view, because it seemed pointless; there’s no teleology, but you just live as a good citizen out of obedience, expecting nothing to happen. Mark, maybe you’ve come to a different understanding since then, but as a “transformationalist,” I can understand the difficulty. Neo-Kuyperians see obedience as a way of cultivating the planted seed.

    This has obviously not been an exegetical approach. For that (and for what I would consider to be “required listening”), check this out: