A Talking Contradiction

Carl Trueman is a man I deeply admire, and I've long considered it a blessing to call him a friend. In addition to being my professor during my seminary days, he is a fellow University of Aberdeen alumnus; in fact, he is largely responsible for my own sojourn there.

I was delighted when last year Princeton University appointed him the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life, where he is taking a year to study and write a new book on the rough topic of "Christianity and its discontents." I can think of no one better suited to the task. Trueman is brilliant, engaging, and articulate in both the spoken and written word. I have always dreaded the idea that he would ever write a negative review of something I've written, because he is the world's single-most devastating book reviewer. I await the results of his year at Princeton with great anticipation.

Last week he gave a sneak peek at an event hosted by Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. (I will embed the videos below). With typical Trueman verve, he titled his two lectures, Acknowledging the Unacknowledged Legislators: From William Wordsworth to Kim Kardashian, and True Life Among the Death Works: Christians and Contemporary Identity Culture. In these lectures he lays bare the roots of our current cultural dysfunction around the issues of identity and sexuality, and you will find no more compelling (if pessimistic) diagnoses, from anyone, anywhere. 

In the second lecture he offers his solution(s), of sorts. All of what he says is worth hearing and considering, and I can issue a hearty “Amen” to most of it. I tasted a dash of James Davison Hunter's "faithful presence," along with a splash of Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option." And (the reason I am writing this) I heard a fairly firm resistance to any sort of Neo-Calvinist "transformationalism," (although, we'll see, he walked this back a bit during the Q&A). Having just published a tiny book on recent Reformed "Two Kingdoms Theology," and as a card-carrying Neo-Calvinist, this portion of his remarks were of particular interest to me.

There are discordant threads running through this second lecture that beg for some resolution.

On the one hand, he rightly says that contemporary culture is an

anti-culture, not just a bad idea that can be exposed as such and then replaced by a good idea on the basis of an agreed common discourse in the public square. As the anti-culture embraces all of life, so our response must be equally comprehensive” (italics added).

Later he emphasizes that there is to be no dichotomy whatsoever between Christian faith and practice: “The key to the church's culture is that truth and action go together.” Our foundational commitments are to shape our every activity.

The church has largely failed, he judges, by accommodating rather than resisting ideas like the therapeutic definition of “self” and the wholesale erosion of marriage—things he calls “Death Works,” transgressive acts designed to overthrow the values of the established culture. We have, in other words, allowed the anti-culture of the “City of Man” to dictate ethics in the City of God.

He closes the lecture with a passionate appeal for the church to engage the deep questions of anthropology, identity, the significance of the body, complementarity, etc., over against the anti-culture of our age. That is, in other words, to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ over these crucial topics of our day in a thorough and wholehearted way.

So far: 

  1. Christianity is to be equally comprehensive as the anti-culture opposing it. 
  2. Our orthodoxy demands orthopraxy in all areas of life. 
  3. The church must openly resist the values of the opposing anti-culture. 
  4. The church must wrestle with and proclaim an alternative anthropology.

On the other hand, in the middle of all this there is a curious twenty minutes spent arguing that the Christian church has little, if any, role to play in influencing and transforming the wider culture. It is hard to say how sharply he wishes to draw the line between the church and the world because he uses language of degree rather than principle: As in, 

[The church] is not the means by which God infiltrates the wider culture. She is not foremost a means of transforming, let alone redeeming, the culture. Rather, the church is first and foremost a culture in and of herself. 

The first sentence is simply wrong, and the rest depends a great deal on what he means by that “foremost.” I readily grant his major point: the church is a culture in and of herself. But what does that have to do with his first sentence? 

It is a simple non-sequitur to conclude from “The church is a distinguishable culture” that therefore “The church does not influence or transform the dominant anti-culture.” 

Trueman invokes Augustine’s two cities, and suddenly gives the impression that these two realms do not actually intersect, but rather run on parallel tracks: indeed, on his reading, now the church is something quite less comprehensive than the anti-culture opposing it:

Or to use Augustine's favorite terminology: she is the City of God, alive and well in the midst of the City of Man, witnessing to and waiting for the establishment of the New Jerusalem at the end of time. Here and now, Christians are members of both cities. Most of us have mortgages, bank loans, etc.; we are deeply embedded in the City of Man, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It is part of life in a fallen world. 

Well, now. Am I to understand by this that Christian identity (our orthodoxy) has nothing to say about the orthopraxy of finance, mortgages, or economic obligations? Are those aspects of the City of Man suddenly in some kind of neutral zone or No Man’s Land and are not themselves influenced by the very anti-culture Trueman is just now railing against? Wouldn’t Trueman condemn, in no uncertain terms, the frighteningly popular practice of “strategic default” (i.e., walking away from a mortgage you can pay just because you owe more than it’s worth) that plunged the world into economic catastrophe a decade ago, and which is itself a prime example of the new autonomous sense of “self” he’s decrying? I daresay he would.

So on the one hand, says Trueman, our response to the anti-culture must be equally comprehensive; on the other hand, there are just certain things Trueman doesn’t want the church to talk about. That is a lacuna that must be addressed. 

And I get it. I don’t think the church should be issuing dogmas on speed limits or the pay rates of public employees, or the “biblical” extent of individual carbon footprints, and lots of other things. I have written on this topic for the Journal of Christian Legal Thought here (p.17ff). My point is that I believe those sorts of questions are pragmatic, wisdom-oriented ones, not some hard-and-fast principle, which is always what Two Kingdoms advocates try to make it (This is a church topic; that is a “City of Man” topic, as if there were a divinely-revealed flowchart somewhere). The lines are not hard and fast; they are blurry and permeable, based on a whole host of contextual and historical factors.

Trueman himself, for over two hours, argues passionately and persuasively that the church must engage the transgender moment. Why? On what grounds? Because in our current context it is critical that the church do so. And guess what? In the 1850s it was critical that the church engage the slavery moment. In the 1930s it was critical that the church engage the Nazi moment. And in those times, too, the church had voices saying “It isn’t the church’s job.” Who draws these lines, and why?

As I mentioned, in the Q&A Trueman walked back his anti-transformationalism a good bit. He landed on the fact that he isn’t a “macro” transformationalist. After all, "if Abraham Kuyper couldn’t do it, nobody can do it." To that I say: Carl Trueman is in no position to say who God will use or when and where. Plenty of people told William Wilberforce, “Give up. It cannot be done,” and, "this isn't the church's job." On the other hand, Trueman's “micro” transformationalism is precisely mine: the church shapes and forms God’s people who, in turn, transform their own surroundings. But to do this requires the church to form and shape in a way that is, to use his phrase, “equally comprehensive” as the anti-culture we inhabit Monday through Saturday.

This impulse to rope off certain areas as “outside the church’s job” is convenient and understandable, and sometimes even wise; but as a principle it is not well-grounded at all. This was made manifest in the final question of the Q&A on the topic of capitalism. I sympathize with his lament about churches being coopted into “crazy politics” right and left. I really do. But to say that addressing something like capitalism or free markets “isn’t the church’s job” cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny. Were his church in South Africa, which just passed a law confiscating wide swaths of land and property from a class of people solely on the basis of their skin color, I daresay he’d have something to say to his congregants about economic property rights and injustice.

I will close this (don't get me wrong: overwhelmingly appreciative and friendly) critique with this: Trueman grounded his seemingly sharp dichotomy between church and world in the doctrines of God and of Christ. I quote:

This point is grounded in the Christian doctrine of God. He is the creator of all things, both the first creation of the world and the new creation that is the church.

Yes. And a robust Christian engagement with culture, the kind Trueman has just given us in two hours of lecture, rests on the understanding that one of these two “creations” shines light into, illumines, and transforms the darkness of the (now-fallen) other. He himself is a dynamic living, breathing, and talking confirmation of that fact. And, thus, he is a talking contradiction of his anti-transformationalist alter ego. 

It is also grounded in the Christian doctrine of Christ. He is the head of the new creation, the church.

Yes. Let’s see how Colossians 1 finishes that thought: “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” 

Carl Trueman has just powerfully argued for two hours that Jesus Christ is Lord of human identity, sex, gender, marriage, relationships, and much more. 

He claims to not like the Kuyperian approach to Christianity and culture, but he seems well on his way to “every square inch.”

Brian Mattson