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Lessons from Luther

From doctrine to how we see the church, Luther remains a vital figure.

-Carl Trueman talks to Peter Barnes-

Dr Carl Trueman is a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He is married to Catriona, who is from the island of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland. They have two sons, John and Peter. Carl was brought up in a very supportive but non-religious home, and was converted to Christ at a Billy Graham rally when he was 17. Soon after he became a Christian, he went to study at the University of Cambridge. It was there he came under the influence of Dr Roy Clements, the minister of Eden Baptist Chapel.

Through this ministry Carl began to develop growing convictions about the truthfulness of the doctrines of grace and Reformation theology. On completing his studies at Cambridge he went to the University of Aberdeen to study for his PhD in Reformation church history. In Aberdeen he began attending a Presbyterian Church (Church of Scotland). It was here that he first encountered Reformed Presbyterianism that drew its strength and vitality from the doctrines outlined in the Westminster Confession.

Welcome to Australia again, and I trust the visit has been fruitful, for you as well as for those who have heard you. For those who don’t know you, can I begin with the predictable question: how did an Englishman get to be a Church historian and Orthodox Presbyterian minister in the USA?

That’s a long story which includes me losing a key family vote. But to keep it short, I trained to be a straightforward academic and then taught at two British universities – Nottingham and Aberdeen – but then about 2000 Westminster asked me to consider applying for a job there. The rest, as they say, is history.

How did you become a Christian?

In 1984 a school friend of mine took me to hear Billy Graham. That sparked an interest in Christianity and I started going to church. When I left for college a year or two later, the local Baptist pastor gave me a copy of J. I. Packer’s God’s Words. It was through reading that book that I finally came to understand – and be convinced of the truth of – the gospel.

You did your doctoral work on Luther’s legacy in the English reformers. What was his impact, compared to the Swiss influence? And how might this help the modern Church in England?

My doctoral work demonstrated that Luther certainly had an impact upon the English Reformation, and not simply as an inspiring figure. His writings were widely read by the intellectuals who headed up the Reformation. What I noticed, however, was that his thought was often adapted to the English context. Thus William Tyndale used Luther as the textual basis for a number of his works (we call it plagiarism today but back then such “borrowing” was acceptable!). Yet each time he took a passage from Luther he would modify it – for example, he would add a section on the Holy Spirit or emphasise the role of good works.

As far as today’s Church in England, Luther would be useful both as a model of biblical (albeit at times very flawed) leadership and as a good guide to the most foundational biblical doctrines: Trinity, incarnation, law, gospel etc.

You have favoured the word “Protestant” over “evangelical”, and written of “the creedal imperative”. Why have you said this?

Evangelical, particularly in the American context, is a term defined more by sociology than theology. Protestant is a little clearer and at least has the advantage of connecting us to the Reformation. As to the creedal imperative, I believe that a healthy church must have both a sound, biblical polity and a clear confession of faith. Both are taught in principle by Paul in his pastoral letters, with his emphasis on elders and on a “form of sound speech”. There are many reasons for this but perhaps the most obvious is that creeds facilitate the stable transmission of the faith from one generation to another.

In a recent blog you rather provocatively say that Marcion is one of the most influential thinkers so far as the modern evangelical Church is concerned. What do you mean by that?

I think that was some years ago, maybe a decade! But it seems to have been rediscovered. I was trying to make evangelicals think about what role the Old Testament plays in their life and worship – particularly the latter. I love singing the psalms (while not being an exclusive Psalmodist – I love singing hymns too!) and yet these great songs of God’s people have dropped from view in many churches. That says something about how we view the relevance of the Old Testament (as well as the cries of lamentation and imprecation which mark many Psalms).

While you have a declared tendency to take aim at everyone, you clearly have a special appreciation of Martin Luther (as well as John Owen). What is the disconnect between the modern evangelical Church and the great Reformer?

There are so many. I would say the most obvious, however, would be his high view of the visible church and his emphasis on the importance of the sacraments. So much modern evangelicalism sees the visible church as almost an optional extra and the sacraments as something we do without really understanding why.

How can we be helped and encouraged by the Reformation without distorting it?

First, by reading some good accounts of the life and times of the Reformers. Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, Here I Stand, remains an excellent place to start. Then by learning the great theological insights of the Reformation. Here I would suggest reading some of the confessions and catechisms of the era – Luther’s Small Catechism, The Heidelberg Catechism etc. Finally, I would suggest thinking through the practical implications of this theology – thus reflecting on justification by grace through faith should lead one to see the vital importance and centrality of preaching to the Church.

Do you think the study of history may give us insights into the contemporary world? Since, as you acknowledge, there are historical fallacies on our right and our left, what are the dangers?

History done well is a critical discipline. It forces you to understand a different time and a different place, and to come to grips with how people addressed the challenges and the conventions of their own time. By doing so, you develop patterns of thought that can then be applied to current society. You learn what is transcendent and what is culturally conditioned.

And yes, there are fallacies and errors into which all historians can fall – but if you read widely in history and expose your own ideas to the searching criticism of others, the chances are that you will be less prone to such than might otherwise be the case. The best way to become a historian is to read lots and lots of good books written by good historians – not simply for the information such books contain but so that you can see how good historians select and interpret evidence.

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