Carl Trueman on the Protestant use of tradition



“Ask a thoughtful Protestant about where Protestantism and Catholicism most significantly diverge, and it is likely that he will mention the closely related areas of tradition and authority. Now, Protestants tend to be very suspicious of any talk of tradition as playing a role in theology, as it would seem to stand somewhat in tension with the Reformation’s view of Scripture alone as the authoritative basis for theological reflection. In fact, the Reformation itself represented a struggle over two types of tradition, that which scholars call T1, tradition based on Scripture as the sole source of revelation (the position of Protestants such as Luther and Calvin, and some pre-Tridentine Catholics), and that which they term T2, tradition based on two sources, namely, Scripture and an oral tradition mediated through the teaching magisterium of the church. This latter was arguably the position codified at the Council of Trent, although it would seem that the boundary between T1 and T2 is in practice often blurred, and very difficult to define in any formal or precise sense; nevertheless, as a heuristic device the distinction is useful, and it is really only as Protestants come to understand exactly what is the Catholic view of tradition (i.e., T1 plus T2) that they can come to properly understand how tradition (T1) does not subvert the notion of Scripture alone.

A moment’s reflection on Protestant practice should demonstrate the truth of this. Every time a Protestant minister takes a commentary off his shelf to help with sermon preparation, or opens a volume of systematic theology, or attends a lecture on a theological topic, he practically acknowledges the importance of T1, whether he cares to admit it or no. A belief in Scripture as a unique and all-sufficient cognitive foundation for theology does not, indeed, cannot, preclude the use of extrabiblical and thus traditional sources for help. Protestantism and Catholicism both value tradition; the difference lies in the source and authority of this tradition: Protestant tradition is justified by, and is ultimately only binding insofar as it represents a synthesis of the teaching of the one normative source of revelation, holy Scripture.”

– Carl Trueman, Fools Rush In where Monkeys Fear to Tread: Taking Aim at Everyone, p. 151-153

Carl Trueman on theological priorities


Food for thought:

“It is not only the less doctrinally informed areas of evangelicalism that have been impacted by the priorities of Oprah and company. Ask yourself this: if my church put on a conference about how to have a great Christian marriage and fulfilled sex life, would more or fewer people attend than if we did one on the importance of the incarnation or the Trinity? The answer to that question allows an interesting comparison between the priorities of the church today and that of the fourth and fifth centuries.”

– Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, p. 37

Carl Trueman: The gospel is a message, not a feeling or an experience


I am currently reading Carl Trueman‘s book The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism and thoroughly enjoying it. Part I, chapter 3 is titled “Theology and the Church: Divorce or Remarriage?”, in which (among other things) he critiques the contemporary church’s emphasis on experience. Below is an excerpt:

“…the gospel is a message with content and not simply a case of one person communicating an experience to a group of others. That is, after all, the essence of old-fashioned liberalism – Christianity is the feeling, not the doctrine, and theology is simply reflection upon religious psychology not upon the revelation of God

This has ramifications for various aspects of church life, not least in the realm of attitude toward learning. How many times have you heard the comment, ‘Old Mrs Jones has walked with the Lord for fifty years and knows more of God than any professor with a PhD.’ On one level, the comment might well be true – walking with the Lord in faith will get you into heaven in a way that mere possession of a PhD certainly will not. Nevertheless, when we grasp that the gospel is first of all a message, a proclamation of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and that experience comes as a response to that message, it is quite clear that a professor with a PhD may well have certain insights into that gospel message which Mrs Jones, for all her practical godliness, does not. Much of the anti-intellectualism which pours from pulpits in churches, from Reformed to charismatic, is the result of precisely this confusion between gospel as message and the believer’s response in experience – a confusion which has just enough appearance of truth to be superficially plausible while resting on a fundamentally skewed understanding of what the gospel actually is. Only when the church comes to acknowledge in both belief and practice that the gospel is a message, not a feeling or an experience, will such fuzzy thinking (and much else) finally be put to rest.”

– Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism, p. 71-72

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) on the role of Creeds


Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) gave a series of 24 lectures around the year 350 to those about to be baptized, the first 18 commonly known as the Catechetical Lectures, in which he explains various aspects of Christian faith and practice. Below he explains the origins and role of creeds, noting their importance as summaries of Scripture:

“This synthesis of faith [the creed] was not made to be agreeable to human opinions, but to present the one teaching of the faith in its totality, in which what is of greatest importance is gathered together from all the Scriptures. And just as a mustard seed contains a great number of branches in its tiny grain, so also this summary of faith brings together in a few words the entire knowledge of the true religion which is contained in the Old and New [Testaments].”

– Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386), Catechetical Lectures, Catechesis V. 12

For more on the importance of creeds, you may want to check out this earlier post from Carl Trueman‘s book The Creedal Imperative:

Carl Trueman: The gospel is for Christians too


“Let us never forget that the gospel is for Christians too. We need to hear the Word preached to us, whether from the pulpit on a Sunday or in conversation with other believers. If a brother or sister is mourning, then let us not simply tell them that the death of their loved one is all within the will of God.

Let us not even stop with simply feeling compassion and sympathy for them. Let us also point them to the Lord Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. Death is an outrage, an illegitimate boundary. It is nasty and brutish. But the captain of our salvation has burst through that boundary and come out on the other side.

He is risen from the grave. And in His resurrection we see that, though we live in a vale of tears and agony here and now, where death seems to hold all the trump cards, there is a day most certainly coming when we know that we too, and all the loved ones who have gone before us in Christ, will rise to be with Christ.

His death was agonizing but it could not hold Him. Ours will no doubt be terrible and traumatic. But because of Christ, death will not hold us either.”

– Carl Trueman, Minority Report, p. 202

Carl Trueman: “Their desire is not to teach but to be teachers”


“I am increasingly convinced that pride is the root of problems among students. I was convicted recently by a minister friend quoting to me 1 Timothy 1:5-7 (ESV): ‘The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.’

My friend made two observations about this passage. First, the drift into dubious theological discussion is here described as moral in origin: these characters have swerved from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith; that is why their theology is so dreadful. Second, their desire is not to teach but to be teachers. There is an important difference here: their focus is on their own status, not on the words they proclaim. At most, the latter are merely instrumental to getting them status and boosting their careers.

Thus, what concerns me most is that students may simply desire to be teachers. If that is their motivation, then they have already abandoned a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith, and their theology, no matter how orthodox, is just a means to an end and no sound thing. It is why I am very sceptical of the internal call to the ministry as a decisive or motivating factor in seeking ordination.

Nine times out of ten, I believe that the church should first discern who should be considering the Christian ministry, not simply a rubber-stamp act as a putative internal call which an individual may think he has. Further, such students whose first desire is to be teachers are more likely to try to catch whatever is the latest trendy wave.

Orthodoxy is always doomed to seem uncreative and pedestrian in the wider arena; if the aim is to be a teacher, to be the big shot, then it is more likely that orthodoxy will be less appealing in the long run – though there are those for whom orthodoxy too is simply a means to being a celebrity.”

– Carl Trueman, “Sin in High Places” in Martin Downes (ed.), Risking the Truth, p. 31-32

Carl Trueman: Advice to seminarians and PhD students – be humble servants of the church


“Too many theological students come unstuck not because they do not master the sophisticated intricacies of their chosen fields of specialization but rather because they failed their apprenticeships in the basics, the corporate disciplines of church attendance, submission to elders, hard work for the local body, and the individual disciplines which flow from these: private prayer and Bible reading, a crying out to God for his mercy, and a burning desire to be mastered by the Word of God.

Successful theological students are never the subjects in theological study; rather they are always the objects of God’s grace. And the church is the place where they will be held accountable for these things. The church, not the seminar room, provides their only true home, their best classroom, and their best form of strenuous spiritual rest. Theological study at the highest level is a high calling indeed; but just for this very reason those who pursue it need to make especially sure that they truly are humble servants of the church.

“The simple way for theological students to resist both the temptation to pontificate beyond their pay grade and the temptation to pride and the moral and intellectual problems that inevitably come in its wake-fall is to find the proper context for accountability, to find their true home; and the good news is that this true home is easy to find—simply join an orthodox, gospel-believing and proclaiming church as member, submit to the elders, attend the corporate worship services, fellowship with the saints on a regular basis, get involved in the day to day work of the local body, even if it is ‘only’ the cleaning rota (and, hey, worshipping in a dirty church quickly reveals how important that is), and pursue a disciplined life of private devotion.”

“Church involvement is absolutely critical for any healthy Christian life because it constitutes a basic reality check. Most Christians spend their weeks surrounded by people who are not Christians, being exposed to ideas, images, and values which are antithetical to Christianity which sell us myths as if they were reality, which teach us that madness is sanity and sanity is madness. Time spent with brothers and sisters in Christ on the Lord’s Day is thus time spent resetting your moral, spiritual, and intellectual bearings.

Whether you are a banker being tempted to greed by life during the week or a New Testament PhD student being bombarded with scholarship that mocks God’s word in the classroom from Monday to Friday, meeting with the people of God, singing his word, hearing his word read and preached and, indeed, meeting with the Triune in the awesome context of a worship service, is vital to your well-being.

You need to be there; and in nearly two decades of teaching, I have never yet met a student who messes up badly at an intellectual level who did not first mess up at an ecclesiastical level, whether through wrong choice of fellowship or no choice of fellowship at all. Put simply: if you are not involved in a church, then do not look for sympathy when your life leaves the rails and dives into a ditch.”

– Carl Trueman, “Minority Report: A Question of Accountability,” Themelios 34.2 (2009): 158-161.