Guest Post by John Inglis Re: Carl Trueman’s First Things article “A Church for Exiles”
From Roger Olson: I agree with those who have suggested that frequent commenter John Inglis is an excellent and insightful writer. I asked him to work one of his recent comments into a guest post for this blog and below is his response. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Carl Trueman’s “A Church for Exiles” and Roger Olson’s response are worth working through carefully: if Christianity is at the margins, and is a church in exile, then how we deal with that issue is very important. Consequently, I contributed a number of responding posts to professor Olson’s lead post. In my posts I have tried to elaborate on what I see as deficiencies in Trueman’s approach to being a church in exile as well as point to other theological traditions (particularly anabaptist) which have riches that are needed by a church in exile. In what follows I discuss two further inadequacies of Trueman’s article.
Trueman’s emphasis on “the Word” and his lack of emphasis on Jesus bothers me quite a bit—and more each time I read his article. Trueman writes that the church draws its strength from, ” the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions” and corporate performance of that “Word” in liturgy. Throughout his article, Trueman unreflectively uses “Word” with reference to the Bible as if that is its only reference. But for New Testament writers the Word is primarily Jesus.
Does Paul write that he preaches the Bible (the OT)? No. What does Paul write? “I preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). He and the other writers focus on Jesus, on the good news of Jesus Christ—the gospel. It is not the Bible that saves, but Jesus. Of course Paul will refer to the witness of scripture to support his argument (1 Cor. 1:19, 34) and he does correctly note that people must hear about Jesus in order to be saved (Rom. 10:14, 1 Tim. 4:13), but Scripture is not life in and of itself.
The automatic emphasis and primacy of Trueman’s references to the “Word” (a.k.a. Bible) strikes me as symptomatic of scholasticism, which has been a perennial problem of the Reformed. I am reminded of T.F. Torrance’s stories of encounters with people who asked him, “is God really like Jesus?” That repeated question greatly troubled him, and drove part of how he worked out his ministry of Christ to others. That question is the sort that comes out of a church that is too scholastic and too confident in its theological answers, and not sufficiently focussed on Jesus and on his very practical commands to live out true religion.
With Barth’s critical abandonment of older theologians, I turn now to Truman’s unuanced blanket approval of Puritan theology, and his implicit assumption that if we returned to that theology we would have the wisdom, knowledge and strength to live in exile. But while there is good in Puritan theology and theological writings, there are also great and grave defects. These defects warrant developing a new theology for our time in exile, a theology that draws on other faith traditions that actually spent all or most of their time in exile (I’m thinking primarily of anabaptists here, but the experiences and theology of pentacostals and baptists are also very important).
Surely something is fundamentally wrong when a theology doesn’t provoke its followers to continual and deep self-critique and to deep change, and to a confrontation of what is evil in themselves and their culture. Their cultural milieu was one of enslavement and killing of heathens and non-whites and they theologized in a way that supported rather than critiqued it (there were very few contrary voices, and they got the boot).
Even though Puritans knew that slaves were captured in Africa by slavers, and did not willingly become slaves or enter it because of debt, the Puritans did not as a rule question their right to buy such captured slaves (the 1641 Massachusetts Bay law referring to slaves resulting from war was soon expanded to allow slaves of all kinds). Indeed, they often argued that black skin was connected to sin and that slavery was a blessing to the enslaved.
A blessing?!? Beginning with South Carolina in the 1690s, laws were passed that punished runaway slaves with branding (hot burning steel on facial skin), and severing of body parts (without anaesthetic): cutting of ears, castration. It is even recorded that a slave was driven to suicide by his Puritan master. (An excellent reference work is Richard A Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England). We should instead cry with Barth, “Humanity that is not co-humanity is inhumanity.”
Reformed theology needs a very serious log picking, and we need a very different proposal for a church in exile.