Trueman on Pilgrim Radio Network

August 09, 2010

Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman, prof. of church history and historical theology, was recently interviewed by Bill Feltner on the Pilgrim Radio Network about his book The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism.

Bill Feltner: Dr. Trueman, tell us first about the title of the book.
Dr. Carl Trueman: Well, on one level, it's an attempt to get a cheap laugh on playing on the idea of the “wages of sin” and picking up on the contemporary language of “spin,” but also I wanted to make a serious point that so much of what passes for modern evangelicalism is spin to an extent. It's words being used in a way that they haven't traditionally been used, and it's ideas being twisted, spun, to suit particular agendas. I wanted to probe that a little bit. And in saying that, I'm certainly not exempting myself from doing the spinning, I think it's something that as sinners, if you like, we are all prone to do it to some extent when we talk.

BF: Now as I recall earlier on in the book, you're trying to be something of a provocateur, you're trying to start a dialogue about subjects perhaps that there are different viewpoints in the Christian world?
CT: Yes, one of the things that concerns me I suppose, still concerns me, is the level of indifference that often pervades modern society. We often have passionate opinions about things that don't really matter: sports teams, pop stars, those kind of things. But when it comes down to Christian beliefs, and how you look at the world, often we can be relatively indifferent and relaxed about those things. I wanted to produce a book where even if (if you read the book) you disagree with what I'm saying, you can at least understand that the issues I'm addressing are important. And if you disagree, and disagree strongly, then on one level I feel like I've achieved what I aimed to achieve in the first place, that is, to make people feel passionately about things that really matter and draw their eyes and their hearts away from the trivia that really clogs up modern life, generally.

BF: And it's no surprise that early on in your book, you address what you see as a big tendency in the world, in the culture, and certainly in the church, and that is to be anti-historical. Where does it manifest itself, and why does it matter?

CT: I think the anti-historical tendency is fairly pervasive of the culture as a whole. We live in a world where we're so used to the idea of scientific progress, for example, that we tend to assume that the best is always coming tomorrow or next year, or it could be just down the line; that today is bound to be inferior to the future. And there's good reason on one level for thinking in that way because science has led to great progress. I make facetious reference somewhere in this book to “I don't want to live in a world without antibiotics, pain killers, and flush toilets.” I consider the world today to be a nicer place to live in, from that perspective, for me, than the world that my great-great grandparents grew up in.

Consumerism is another aspect of modern society that in many ways has brought great benefits: I like having a choice of books to buy, I like being able to go into shops and look at the variety of things to choose. The flip-side of consumerism is of course that it's predicated on making me dissatisfied with the present. The trousers (or as you say in America, the pants) of last year, inevitably I get rid of them this year because they look old, passe, they're not trendy, they're not cutting-edge. The computer I had three years ago, probably (considering my limited computer skills) is just as good for me as a cutting-edge Apple Mac is today. But the Mac looks nicer, so I'm going to want it because I'm dissatisfied with the past. So there are these various impulses within the culture that, I think, cultivate a forward-looking attitude, and dissatisfaction with the past.

As I said, that's not an entirely bad thing. Science, consumerism, these things have brought many good things, many benefits, in their wake. The problem is when you cut that across to Christianity. Christianity by definition is a faith delivered in a particular point in history. It's developed through history, there is a deposit of faith. Paul urging Timothy to hold fast to that which he has been taught in the past, to the former sound words that he's been taught in the past. There's an ineradicably historical, one might say traditional, dimension to Christianity. My concern is that consumerism, science, these things, technology, this is the air we breathe today.

The church can unconsciously allow that mentality, that anti-historical mentality that these things cultivate, to bleed over into its own attitude towards the Gospel. So, we see this with, for example, the emphasis upon “management technique” in churches. Now, churches should be well managed, that can't be wrong, but when we decide “well, you know, churches in the past, they just did it all wrong, we need to bring in a new management consultant, and build the whole thing from the ground up;” when we look at doctrine and say “well, you know, people in the past, they were simple folk, they believed in the virgin birth, and quite frankly that won't cut it in the world of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens;” when those kinds of arguments start having perches within the wider church, then I think the anti-historical mindset of the world is starting to bleed over.

And that's worldliness. We often identify worldliness as “it's sex,” or “it's entertainment,” or it's something, “it's this, or it's that.” Worldliness can be the attitude of the world towards the tradition of the Church, to put it in sort of a broad term.

BF: And it manifests itself also in the church gathered, the preaching and the worship too, right, that anti-historical thinking?

CT: It can do. I want to be careful here, though, I want to say my instincts are aesthetically pretty conservative. I like the old hymns, I like the old Psalms, I don't want to come across as somebody who's saying contemporary worship, because it's contemporary, is a sellout to an anti-historical mentality. But I do think the best contemporary worship builds positively on the heritage of the past. The great contemporary songs and hymns, that I can think of that are sown in worship services, are often those that are not iconoclastic towards what has gone in the past, but those which build very positively on it.

I think of Graham Kendrick's “The Servant King,” which is 20-25 years old now so it's contemporary for me, but probably not for our younger listeners. There's a hymn or a praise song that builds very positively on the Bible, and on the Church's teaching about the servanthood of Christ manifested in his kingship, and the kingship of Christ manifested in his servanthood. A great modern praise song that is connected to the doctrinal teaching of the church and to the great tradition of Christian psalmody and hymnody.

BF: Let me ask you this, Dr. Trueman, I think some people might ask, and throughout the book, you're making a case for the reformed faith, that's of course is your orientation teaching there at Westminster Seminary. Some might ask “well, didn't the reformed faith, in a sense, disparage tradition because it reformed what came before it?”

CT: Indeed, there is a sense in which the reformation marks a break with tradition, but when I teach the reformation at Westminster, I make a couple of qualifications of that.

One, I think that the attitude of the reformers to tradition was very different to that which we have today. Today we have, I would say, culturally a suspicious attitude to tradition. We speak of tradition as the high-bound thing that constricts us, it stifles freedom, it stifles creativity, and therefore tradition is something that needs to be shattered, broken, dispatched. Again, there's much truth in that in the business world and places like this, I can understand that model works very very well. But the reformers' attitude towards theological traditions was different. I think if you look at how Calvin and Luther connected to the tradition of the church—which to an extent as young men they inherited, and then they reformed, or critiqued and interacted with it—they have what I say to the students is a “hermeneutic of trust.” Today we have a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” we are naturally suspicious, if you like, of traditional things, of anything that comes from the past. At the reformation, they had what I call a hermeneutic of trust. In other words, they assume that the tradition was correct, unless scripture absolutely demanded that it be changed or thrown out.

So for example, reformers, Luther and Calvin, are really pretty comfortable with early church formulations of the person and work of Christ, or the Trinity as manifested in the Nicene Creed, or the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's person. They didn't dispose of those things, they thought that they were good and accurate summaries of the Bible's teaching, and indeed, they thought they were extremely helpful as models to use when they approach scripture for interpreting scripture. Not that those models stood above scripture in some way, they can certainly be corrected as they were proved wanting in the light of scripture's teaching, but they were helpful as models of getting to grips with what scripture said. Come to something like the immaculate conception of the virgin Mary, the idea that Mary was conceived herself without original sin, then that is going to be much more firmly critiqued, as with the whole tradition of devotion to Mary, because those things cannot be sustained by scripture.

So the reformers didn't simply pick up their Bibles, read them, and formulate their theology. They read their Bibles in very close relation to the exegetical and doctrinal history of the church and of Christianity, but always aware that that tradition, while helpful, may need to be corrected. So, yes there was a reforming of tradition, and at points there was an abandonment of certain aspects of tradition, but contrary, quite different to today.

That's where I would begin with the second point I would make is about the evangelical rallying cry of “No creed but the Bible.” There's a very good sense in which that is true, the Bible is to be our ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice. But that shouldn't be taken to mean that that's the only book we need to read. I often find it quite amusing that people who make that claim often can't read Greek and Hebrew, so they're dependent, not upon the Bible as such, but on a translation of the Bible, and they're dependent upon a tradition of translation, and linguistic study and scholarship, and textual scholarship. So “no creed but the Bible” is a great rallying cry emphasizing that the Bible has unique authority, but it shouldn't mean that that is the only thing for thoughtful Christians, that we ever read or interact with. The reformers were much more sophisticated than that.