An Arminian-Anabaptist Response to “A Church for Exiles” by Carl R. Trueman
The August, 2014 issue of the journal First Things (online) contains an article by Westminster Theological Seminary church history professor Carl R. Trueman entitled “A Church for Exiles: Why Reformed Christianity Provides the Best Basis for Faith Today.” I suggest you read it before reading and considering my response here. (Simply “google” the title to find the article online.) I suggest reading the last paragraph of the article and then reading the entire article. The last paragraph sums up the article very nicely.
Here is a portion of the last paragraph: “Christianity is moving to the margins of American life, and Christians are heading into cultural exile. The question is: How will we survive? … In short, we will survive—indeed, we will thrive—through a vibrant commitment to exactly what the historic Reformed faith has emphasized.”
Among the features of the “historic Reformed faith” Trueman recommends for life in this cultural exile are: following the examples of the great heroes of Reformed Christianity such as Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, the Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritans, the “Pilgrim Fathers of New England,” and Abraham Kuyper, rediscovering and proclaiming the Reformed doctrines of providence and predestination, and a renewal of the “simple, practical pedagogy of worship: the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions around the family dinner table.”
I agree with Trueman’s basic thesis that Christianity is being pushed into an “exile of cultural irrelevance” in today’s America. But I would like to push back at his argument a bit with these points: 1) True Christianity has always been on the margins of American culture and true Christians have always been exiles here (as everywhere), 2) Reformed Christianity is part of the problem even if it also has some parts of a solution, and 3) Trueman’s prescription neglects important features of the needed life-in-exile that can best be provided by those with real exile experience among Christians—Anabaptists (by whatever label).
First of all, what I consider true Christianity is always and everywhere counter-cultural and marginal to “mainstream culture.” I am not saying ONLY those on the margins are Christians; I am saying that the best expression of New Testament Christianity always has been and is and always will be resistant to mainstream culture. It will always swim against the cultural stream—until the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness. The idea that true, New Testament, authentic Christianity ever was “at the center” of American society and cultural life is part of the problem Trueman is wrestling with, but I’m not sure he’s aware of that. We need to shed that image of America and Christianity.
Second, and closely following on the first point, in my opinion Reformed Christianity in the form of Puritanism (even when it was no longer called that) set the stage for the false idea that Christianity is at the center of American society and cultural life. Reformed Christians have always tended to think that one task of Christians is to Christianize society and culture. When that seemed to have failed in England, the Separatist Puritans came to the New World (mainly New England) to do it here. It has remained a driving mythos of American culture ever since—that we, America, are somehow God’s “city set on a hill,” a “light to the nations.” Our treatment of Native Americans, however, proves that to have been a myth. Wherever Reformed Christianity has gone and had political influence it has tended to set up an ideal of “Christendom” that lures people into thinking Christianity and the nation-state (or city state in the case of Geneva and other Swiss cities during the Reformation) go together.
Anabaptists (whether going under that label or not) have always recognized that real Christians, New Testament Christians, are always strangers and exiles in every country, society and culture—outsiders inside. They have never labored under the illusion that any humanly constructed culture or society is even an approximation of God’s kingdom. That is not to say they/we have abdicated all responsibility for witness. Indeed, Anabaptist have always regarded the church as the “city on a hill,” “light to the nations,” whose primary task is witness to the yet-to-come kingdom of God. Anabaptists have a long history of being exiles.
Trueman seems to think that America’s current obsession with sexual freedom and “liberation” and adjustments of public policy to advance that obsession is evidence of Christianity’s marginalization and reason for Christians to regard ourselves as exiles. Anabaptist would say America’s forever obsession with violence and domination and power is evidence of true Christianity’s marginalization throughout American history. Christian voices for peace and justice have always been marginal in the overall scheme of things. America’s obsession with guns of all sizes and kinds is long-standing and deeply ingrained and, unfortunately, Reformed Christians (along with many other kinds of Christians) have seldom raised voices in protest against that obsession.
Third, Trueman’s recommendations for Christian life-in-exile notably neglects the dimension of discipleship according to the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it reeks of dead orthodoxy and formalism. Where is any mention of personal (not individual), inward transformation into people living like Jesus in a hostile world? Where is mention of intentional Christian community along the lines of the New Testament church as described in the Acts of the Apostles? The problem is not with what Trueman prescribes but with what he doesn’t prescribe—concrete, daily discipleship shaped by the life of Jesus historically and among us.
Finally, I can’t help but mention the disjunction between Trueman’s Reformed doctrine of God’s providence and his decrying of the state of American culture. If the classical Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereign providence is correct, the sorry state of American culture is designed, ordained and governed by God. So why complain about it? Since whatever God does is for his glory, and everything reflects God’s sovereign will, even America’s decline into decadence is ordained by God for his glory. Celebrate it.