Carl Trueman is the very gifted and distinguished professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. From what I have observed over the years, Professor Trueman is a godly Christian who has used his intellectual and communication gifts for the glory of God and for the good of God’s people. I appreciate him. I have benefited much from what he has written. I will doubtless continue to benefit from his ministry. But not this week.
In a recently published article titled “A Church for Exiles” Professor Trueman argues that the church in the West (he especially addresses the church in the USA) no longer has any significant voice in the public square. But further—and this is the point of his article—we should not ever expect to have one. He writes, “We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.” In other words, the church should abandon any hope of having an impact outside of the church. We should not expect to influence the worldview-shaping institutions of our day. He then argues that the Reformed Faith (he is a Reformed Presbyterian) is the best expression of the Christian Faith to support us in this exile until Jesus comes.
He argues that, while we are in this “cultural exile,” we should especially focus on corporate worship. He emphasises the need for ongoing faithfulness to the simple elements of corporate worship, such as the reading and the preaching of the Word, praying, the proper observance of the ordinances (sacraments) and the singing of the Psalms. To his credit, he puts significant emphasis upon the necessity of Christians gathering weekly for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. He is to be rightly commended for this emphasis, particularly in a day when evangelical activism all too easily displaces the centrality of worship and the need for dependence upon God. I am persuaded that if local churches would embrace this biblical approach to worship, then we would be so much more ready to engage the spiritual warfare that confronts us each Monday morning. But alas, it is at this very point where Carl is no longer true—man!
Unfortunately, he sees such weekly worship as necessary to merely bolster us for another week of cultural failure and irrelevance. It would seem that he advocates our corporate gathering so that we can have a “holy huddle,” lamenting how we are getting stepped on for Jesus and how we should be prepared for more of the same. He seems to have misunderstood the prophecy of Psalm 110 and he sees Christ and the church as being the footstool rather than the enemies of Christ being a stool for His feet.
Trueman attempts to prove from history that the Reformers themselves did not expect to be relevant and that men like Calvin were literally exiled for the faith. Calvin did in fact live for nearly thirty years in Geneva as an exile from his homeland of France. This is the framework from which Trueman advises us to view our current situation. Like Calvin, he argues, we are living in exile—cultural exile.
What Professor Trueman fails to note is that, while Calvin was politically and geographically exiled, he was far from culturally exiled! If any Christian was culturally relevant in the sixteenth century it was John Calvin. It was because he worshipped God in the manner that Trueman advocates that Calvin and his Christian brothers and sisters did have an impact in their culture—both then and even now. Yes, as Trueman points out, Calvin did not win all the battles, but he most certainly made a huge difference in the war. He did not allow the hostility of political exile to silence his voice in the public square.
Trueman’s article is disturbing because it reveals the unbiblical tendency of the postmodern Christian to raise the white flag of surrender while Jesus commands us, “Onward Christian soldiers.” I am concerned that many will read it and say, “See, all of those optimistic Christians are wrong; listen to this scholar.”
The kind of unbiblical defeatism in this article is usually the result of accepting the news as our authority rather than the good news of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is highly significant, as I see it, that, in a four thousand word essay, Mr Trueman does not mention one Scripture in defence of his position. If Scripture is not informing your thinking in this area then it is small wonder that a defeatist mentality will envelope your outlook. Joel McDurmon, in his rebuttal of Trueman’s position, calls this approach “newspaper exegesis.” It is as faulty when used by Carl Trueman as it is by such popular pessimists as Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye.
Trueman argues that the Psalms are our mainstay in these days because they reveal the lament of God’s people who faced such difficult times, especially in their Babylonian exile. But he seems to be guilty of cherry picking the evidence.
Consider that the Babylonian exile was limited to seventy years. And even though the next four hundred years were followed by some pretty difficult days of spiritual darkness, nevertheless the silence was broken with these words: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Yes, Jesus will save all His people from all their sins. Exile will be followed by great expectations. And since Jesus has not yet returned, we should continue to have great expectations. We should not expect perfection until Jesus comes, but neither should we expect to be exiled to cultural irrelevance. Rather than simply settling for having a piece of the pie, the church should rather expect, pray, labour, trust and sacrifice in order to secure what Jesus purchased: the entire pie! After all, He came to save the world (John 3:16–17; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 2:1–2). A cursory look at passages such as Isaiah 11:1–10; Micah 4:1–5; Daniel 2:40–45; Acts 2:14–21, 34–39 and 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 give the church every reason to expect and to therefore attempt great things for God. We have many Scriptural reasons to expect to be culturally significant because of the power of the gospel.
Trueman fails to give full weight to the Psalms. It is true that they contain much lament, but they also contain great promises. As we recently saw in a study of Psalm 37, David was confident that the meek will inherit the earth. And if you won’t take his word for it, take it from Jesus (Matthew 5:5).
Harry Truman became the President of the United States upon the unexpected death of Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. Truman put a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” It was a statement of leadership. It was a declaration that he was not afraid to lead. He was not afraid to take responsibility and was not afraid to make difficult decisions. He was willing to go against the flow of popular opinion. It was this kind of resolve that enabled him to make one of the most controversial decisions in all of history: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day he is criticised, but rarely by those who witnessed the horrors of war in the trenches. One of the soldiers on the plane (dubbed Engola Gay) that dropped the atomic bomb recently died. In an interview before his death he said that that Truman’s decision is to be credited with the ending of the War and the saving of millions of lives.
The church of our day needs a similar decisive wartime mentality. Motivated by the reality that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning, we should say, “The buck stops there and therefore it stops here.” That is, “Empowered by the Spirit, we will embrace our responsibility to enter this spiritual war, wielding the sword of the Word of God and marching on our knees in prayer. We will go forth making a difference in this world by the power of the gospel to the glory of God. No more excuses, no self-pitying exile; rather, we will apply the Word in every area of life under the lordship of Christ for the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
I agree with Carl Trueman that Christians are to gather on the Lord’s Day to hear the Word, to confess our sins and to experience covenant renewal by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to feast at the Table and we are to sing the songs of Zion. But we do not do so circling our wagons as we await the onslaught of the enemy. No, rather we corporately rest in Christ on the Lord’s Day to renew our strength to mount up with wings as eagles in order to clutch the victories that Christ has secured for the week ahead. We are not a beleaguered people licking our wounds in exile on Sunday. Rather, we are an army that God has provided a weekly day off to recoup for the victories that lie ahead. Yes, we will experience setbacks and will be wounded along the way. Yet as Judson so faithfully asserted, “the future is as bright as the promises of God.” And so, with all due respect to my brother Carl Trueman, that is the truth.