Wednesday, May 23, 2007

...Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is departmental chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. He is editor of the IFES journal, Themelios, and has taught on the faculties of theology at both the University of Nottingham and the University of Aberdeen. He has authored a number of books, including The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology and The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism. He lives in Oreland, a suburb of Philadelphia, with his wife, Catriona, and his two sons, John and Peter. We caught up last September after the Theology For All conference and he answered a few of my questions.

NATHAN: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It was great to meet you briefly whilst you were with us in Richmond. Remember, as we discussed, I’m not at all discerning and my blog isn’t very popular so feel free to reply with any old tosh! Apologies for the fairly random subjects and order of the questions. Many of the questions I had thought of asking, you answered during the TFA conference and in The Wages Of Spin, which I subsequently read, so I’m left with the somewhat more obscure ones! Firstly, what drew you to study and continue in the field of church history?

CARL: I developed a real love for history while studying at university. My subject was Classics, and so I cut my teeth in the field of Ancient History, Greek and Roman. Then, out of a desire to learn more about my own Christian faith, I started reading church history and was delighted when Aberdeen University granted me a postgraduate scholarship to pursue this interest for a PhD.

Since then, my love for history has grown. In many ways, it is a discipline which is as big as you care to make it: it involved economics, sociology, literary theory, study of ideas, geography etc. Just a fascinating, multi-faceted discipline which holds the interest and never grows dull.

NATHAN: Why do you feel that church history is such a blind spot for the modern Church?

CARL: There are a whole variety for reasons for this: the thrust of consumer culture towards individualism, self-creation, the dominance of the view, fuelled by such things as science, consumerism etc, that the present is always better than the past and that the future will be better still. In evangelical circles, the problem is even worse: many think that the principle of scripture alone allows us to ignore all the church has done theologically in the past. Of course, in practice nobody does that; nobody consciously re-invents Christianity every Sunday; but the attitude is deeply ingrained in the evangelical church and makes her at least highly selective in how she reads and uses the past.

NATHAN: How can we remedy the situation?

CARL: Proper training of pastors in a way that teaches them to love history, and to use it in the contemporary church. History reminds us that we are not the meaning of history, that our moment in time is just that – a moment – and so good training in history will make pastors, and then churches, more modest in their claims about themselves and more appreciative of the great things we inherit from our forebears. Incidentally, the discipline of history also teaches us to think critically about society, beliefs, behaviour etc. Thus, it is also vital for a critical cultural apologetic.

NATHAN: As much as this will smack of post-structuralism, if you could rewrite history, who deserves more attention than they’ve ended up with?

CARL: John Owen! John Webster once said to me that he was the greatest theological mind England ever produced.

NATHAN: And on a similar note, if you had your way, what book would be universally required reading and why?

CARL: Augustine’s Confessions. The greatest piece of Christian self-analysis ever written. Every time I read it, I gain a better understanding of how I think.

NATHAN: I know you mentioned at the TFA conference that you try to keep quiet about the New Perspective on Paul, but I just wanted to clarify a few things with you, if you don’t mind. From a historical point of view, how long will it be before it stops being called the New Perspective? Only kidding. You had some interesting views at the Theology For All conference concerning where it sits historically. Would you mind restating and expanding on those?

CARL: The Reformation, for good or ill, was driven at a theological level by certain ideas: a critique of papal authority, a changed view of sacraments and grace, an emphasis upon assurance, and a reconstruction of justification in terms of faith and imputed righteousness. In many ways, the last point – that of justification – is the foundation for the others. Thus, if you want to reject justification by grace through faith, as articulated by the consensus of the Protestant creeds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you might as well do the decent thing and return to Rome. Being a Roman Catholic is not illegal; it is not a source of social shame; and Rome has the good arguments for historical continuity. Indeed, being a Roman Catholic should be the default position in the West – we need good reasons not to be Catholic!! And when you abandon justification by faith, you have really lost the main reason for being Protestant.

NATHAN: What is the appeal of the New Perspective? Has it really spread outside of the academy?

CARL: It’s new, which always appeals in our modern age; theologically, it gives a higher profile to our works, which makes it naturally attractive; and it is being articulated by some very keen minds and able communicators. It also highlights some serious weaknesses in past theology: for example, the failure in some quarters to take seriously the Jewishness of scripture; and the relative neglect of, say, Rom 9-11.

NATHAN: Do you think it has much of a shelf-life as a theory?

CARL: I hope the church does not overreact to it in a way that we lose the important insights it brings; but in terms of the NP’s grandest ambitions, I hope it passes, and soon. I suspect it will not prove very edifying in the church and that will restrict its lifespan; I suspect its works orientation could lead it to foster the kind of dry moralism which all but killed Reformed theology in England in the late seventeenth century. But, then, church history teaches that errors never go away; they merely transubstantiate into the next big thing.

NATHAN: I seem to remember that you preferred the term ‘protestant’ over ‘evangelical’. Why is that?

CARL: Protestant is a confessional, ecclesiastical term. I can point to formal church documents – creeds and confessions – which identify me and who am I in terms of my theology. Evangelicalism is a transdenominational movement, an umbrella term which covers a variety of groups with certain elective affinities. It has no real or clearly defined ecclesiastical or doctrinal existence, and is thus a term of limited usefulness.

NATHAN: There is a lot of confusion surrounding these terms. Not so long ago I watched a documentary in which pro-anorexia websites were described as having an “evangelical tone”. Obviously this is poor journalism but it does seem to sum up the fear and distain with which the world views evangelicals. Christians should expect persecution in its various forms but why do you think there is such a recent shift against evangelicals in particular? Why now?

CARL: I think the rise of the Religious Right in America, associated with the Bush presidency and unpopular foreign policy decisions is undoubtedly a factor; also, the gay issue is now huge. When any principled objection to homosexual practice can be equated with racism, then evangelicals who hold the line on this are going to be lumped in with the BNP and the Klan as socially undesirable.

NATHAN: Very true. We have to be clear what were are and are not saying with regard to that and so many other issues. Thanks ever so much. It's great to get some clear thinking on these tough areas.