Thinking In Public

February 7, 2024

Creeds and the Crisis of Christian Faithfulness — A Conversation with Carl Trueman

Transcript

 

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Carl Trueman is professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He earned the Master of Arts in the Classics from the University of Cambridge and his PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. Professor Truman has a distinguished and well-known career as both a teacher and an author, having published several books ranging from books on Reformation theology and history to biographies on figures such as John Owen and Martin Luther. He's the author of the book entitled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and The Road to Sexual Revolution. It's his newest book entitled Crisis of Confidence: Reclaiming the Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity. That is the topic of our conversation today. 

Carl Trueman, welcome to Thinking in Public. You decided you enjoyed writing this book so much, you'd do it twice!

 

Carl Trueman:

Apparently so, yes! It was actually the publisher's suggestion, but I was very happy to do so. Yeah, I think a lot's changed since I wrote it in 2011, 2012, but a lot has changed to actually make the book more relevant, I think, rather than less so.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I agree. I have much appreciated the book, and as a confessionalist and creedalist I much recommended the book, and I think the second edition, as it is entitled, Crisis of Confidence: Reclaiming the Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity, it does recast. I mean, that's a long enough title and subtitle. It's kind of a narrative in itself, and I do want to catch this here because you just talked about all these developments. You are trying to cover two millennia of Christian history here, and now you've got two editions in about a decade, so there's a lot going on and maybe you should explain what has changed in this period of time.

 

Carl Trueman:

Well, I think the things that haven't changed, I still believe that the best way for churches to preserve the faith and to make sure it's communicated in a stable way, both to the people in the pew today and for future generations, is to have creeds and confessions, or the equivalent thereof, in our churches functioning as a way of capturing the essence, the deposit of the faith. I think what has changed in the last couple of, well really in the last decade, the whole question of identity has become much more pressing, and that's raised a whole host of issues that I didn't anticipate at the time I wrote the first book, but which I think confessionalism also addresses. In addition to the stuff that I did cover, I would use an example, for example, gay marriage that popped up really. It was brewing, but it became a big thing sort of 2013 to 2015 in the United States, and I remember a lot of friends saying, “Do we need to add, say a chapter to the Westminster Confession, or the second London Baptist confession to address the issue of gay marriage?” And my answer was always, I don't think so.

I think what we need to do is first of all use our confessions and apply them to the issues that arise today. But I also became aware in answering that question that way, that one of the things that confessions did that I think has become very, very important is precisely because they give a summary of the faith. They also show how different elements of the faith interlock and interconnect with each other, and they show the broad framework of Christian doctrine that then allows us to address, for example, questions of sexuality or identity by realizing that, well actually, we're not looking for a Bible verse on this. We have to think in terms of holistic structure of Christian doctrine, and creeds and confessions really do help us, I think, see that sort of architectonic structure that is very, very helpful in facing the crazy stuff that we're addressing at the moment.

 

Albert Mohler:

 

Yeah, I'm going to argue with you on one of those points, but we'll save that for a few minutes, and I think it might be helpful for us as two confessionalists, two credalists, one a Presbyterian, one a Baptist, to kind of talk about what we mean by confessionalism or credalism. And I think there's such an important story here, and I don't just mean our stories. I mean the Christian story, the Presbyterian story, the Baptist story. I think we can make tangible why it's in some sense confessionalism or nothing when it comes to long-term Christian faithfulness.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yeah, it's a very good question, a very good point. One of the things that I say right at the start of the book is that there's no such thing really as a creedless or a confessionalist Christian. There are those who would say they have no creed but the Bible or no creed but Christ or no confession but the Bible and no confession but Christ. In practice, everybody believes the Bible means something. There's a whole variety of denominations and churches out there that think the Bible means a lot of different things. We all operate with a functional understanding of what the Bible as a whole means. And what creeds and confessions are designed to do is to try to synthesize or capture in a fairly unified and concise form the overall unifying themes of the Bible, the overall teachings of the Bible, the overall doctrines of the Bible.


So, there's a sense in which all Christians, all Christians do that. The man has no creed but the Bible, does that. He doesn't just read the Bible, he proclaims the Bible. He tells his people what the Bible means. And what the church has discovered over time is that it's very helpful to actually have those themes written down a creed in the early church, say the Nicene Creed, or the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the second London Baptist Confession. We don't claim that these stand on the same level as the Bible in terms of authority. What we do claim is that they represent what we think the Bible is teaching that allows other people from outside to know. It allows people to look at us, for example, to know Truman's a Presbyterian, Al Mohler is a Baptist. This is where they agree, look at their confessions. This is where they overlap, this is where they disagree. It allows us to understand our place within the Christian world. Of course, the real era of production of Christian confessions, the more elaborate credal documents, is the 16th and 17th century where the church, the visible church as such, starts to fragment. And it becomes critically important in those days for Protestants to establish exactly what they stand for and how they connect to the other Christian options that are out there.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, well, we are a Presbyterian and a Baptist, both of us self-conscious confessionalists speaking to one another. And I want to state a certain kind of indebtedness because when it comes to my tradition and my own institution, we just stole your confession and fixed it.

 

Carl Trueman:

Spoken like a true Baptist, yes!

 

Albert Mohler:

Some wonderful things for us to discuss here, but I've–

 

Carl Trueman:

You’ve never heard plagiarism referred to in that way before, but there you go.

 

Albert Mohler:

It didn't work just to steal it. We had to steal it and fix it.

 

Carl Trueman:

That’s true, that's true!

 

Albert Mohler:

With a tremendous amount of respect, and I want to tell you, Carl, I think first of all, I read you in this book, and I mean that as a good thing. Because I know what you've been doing for decades in terms of your life and teaching and writing and research. I'm in this book too, in a different way. So, I was raised in a confessional home, in a wonderful Baptist confessional church. I was trained in a catechism that was consistent with the confession, but very quickly I was told that to be a Baptist meant you're not a confessionalist, not a creedalist, no creed but the Bible (which actually is Alexander Campbell, not a Baptist, but nonetheless it's a bad idea made worse by stealing that idea). And I think one of the things that you don't deal with much in your book, because this is not your audience, but I just want to put out there, is when I say it's confessionalism or nothing, I really mean that because I actually think you're overly generous in one point when you say even the non-creedalists have a creed. I just want to tell you I've met people who don't.

 

Carl Trueman:

Okay, yeah. Yeah.

 

Albert Mohler:
I've met people who are complete nihilists in interpretation. I had to confront arguments in my own experience that were basically, I wasn't so much talking with someone who's a fellow Baptist as talking with someone who's a closet unitarian. And so I think one of the things that's in the background of my coming to this issue is the disaster of Protestant liberalism. And the fact that in your tradition, the Briggs trial, the trial of Charles Augustus Briggs, which was a complete failure. The creed liberal professor, undoubtedly liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and the Presbyterians bring him up on charges and they can't make it stick. And thus, the door was wide open for every form of theological liberalism to come in. And I want evangelicals to understand how high the stakes are here. It's not like there's some example we can point to where a denial of confessionalism worked. It's a disaster!

 

Carl Trueman:

Yeah, I think that's very true. And of course, the audience I was pitching to in the book is really the evangelical audience that I think will be sympathetic to all that the creeds and confessions, understood as they should be, are trying to state: supernaturalism, inspiration of scripture, those kinds of things. But you're also touching there on the fact that creeds and confessions are not enough in and of themselves to ensure the purity, the catholicity, the continuity of the church. There has to be a form of church government as well, and there have to be good men of integrity who are willing to act and hold office bearers, particularly office bearers, accountable to a proper and appropriate reading of the confession. So on that level, I don't think there's any major disagreement between us there. Certainly you can find those. who really say, well, we all hold to a form of words. It's just we interpret them in different ways. That's a kind of nihilism in some ways.

 

Albert Mohler:

Alright, so let's go into this for a few moments. So, one of the big issues is whether or not a confession or a creed is merely symbolic, and of course there's a Catholic history to that use of that term, or if it's regulative. And I think one of the most important things in our traditions, and I'll claim it as one tradition with two storefronts, is that our understanding of the orthodox tradition, in Presbyterianism and a Baptist, means that the creed or confession is not symbolic, merely, it is regulative. It regulates our churches, it regulates our institutions.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yes! And there's an interesting distinction made in post-Reformation Protestantism between what we call the normed-norm and the norming-norm. And the norming norm is Scripture. That means that every claim made by any confession anywhere is subject to scrutiny of Scripture. So although I've taken a vow subscription as a Presbyterian minister to the Westminster Confession of Faith, I'm still committed to the hypothetical revision of that confession, if it can be demonstrated that it doesn't actually give an account of what the norming-norm, Scripture, says. Then we have this other phrase, of the normed-norm, and that is the confession. Whether it's the Second London Baptist Confession, whether it's the Westminster Confession or whether it's a statement of faith that a church independent church has decided to put together as its governing doctrinal document. And that means that functionally, when it comes to things like church discipline and pastoral care, we look to the confession.


We use the confession as a useful summary of what the Bible teaches, and unless the confession could be proved to be wrong, then it is that which you say–regulative. So to take a rather negative example, in my experience in Presbyterianism, when we've had discipline cases. Discipline cases usually involve bringing a charge against somebody for a breach of the confession, and in the charge it's laid out in the document that you produce to charge somebody, you'll be pointing to the chapter and paragraph of the confession, which their life or belief is in contradiction to. But then below that, you'll provide Scripture references. So if you like, the confession is regulative and it provides a nice hook onto which to hang the charge. But then you're also expected to provide the biblical background that shows that this regulative statement is actually grounded in Scripture. It does not stand separate to Scripture, or even worse, in opposition to Scripture.

 

Albert Mohler:

Right, and brilliantly said! But as you look at that, that's obviously what they are. In other words, it takes a rather deliberate misconstrual to get to the liberal position that the creed is somehow being held up above the Scripture. I know of no gospel church in which anything close to that is true. Luther responded to that. If we're going to throw around Latin, let's let Luther have more Latin than anyone else. Norma normans non normata, Scripture is the norm of norms that can’t be normed. But there are other norms, as Luther made very clear, that are seeking to make clear how God's people will be faithful to the norming-norm of Scripture.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yeah, absolutely! And I think that's a very important point, and that's one of the most important points I think to make when you're talking to good evangelical brothers and sisters who are rightfully suspicious about creedalism and confessionalism because they're worried that it infringes on Scripture's authority or Scripture sufficiency. So, it's important to introduce these kind of distinctions and discussions in order to help them realize that, actually, we are not claiming the kind of things that you are rightfully worried about. We don't want a kind of Roman Catholic tradition that stands separate from Scripture. On the other hand, we do want to acknowledge that Paul talks about a form of sound words, that there's biblical precedent for thinking about phrases, forms of sound, words that are useful ways of indicating orthodoxy.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, you know Carl, when I was elected president of this institution, I had to lead a complete reformation. And that was only possible honestly, because the founders of this institution were such ardent creedalists and confessionalists, and they borrowed it. Honestly, half of the founding faculty of four were graduates of Princeton. And so the language of our teaching contract from 1859 to the present is actually just pasted out of the original teaching agreement. It was not written at Princeton, in terms of the individuals with the names; it was the board's statement, and the board had the sole power of election and the discipline of faculty. So, for instance, every single person who teaches at this school has to sign that they will teach in accordance with and not contrary to all that is contained therein, meaning the confession of faith, without hesitation or mental reservation. And that logic came directly from someone you do cite in the book, I'm glad to say. Samuel Miller at Princeton, On the Use and Utility of Creeds and Confessions. In other words, that language has been hammered out in the post-Reformation era precisely to avoid someone saying that we're holding the creed or the confession above Scripture or someone else saying, “I have the right of private interpretation.”

 

Carl Trueman:

We have the equivalent in Presbyterians, and we take what we call ex animo vows, which roughly translates as, “From the bottom of the heart, and in all sincerity.” And I think that's very, very important too.

 

Albert Mohler:

We borrowed that language too.

 

Carl Trueman:

Okay! It's good language. It's good language. Yeah, and of course, what you're pointing to there is many of the problems that have occurred in confessional churches have not occurred because they're confessional. They've occurred because people have crossed their fingers when they've subscribed. People–

 

Albert Mohler:

That's exactly right.

 

Carl Trueman:

That's the real problem. It's not the confessions that bring churches down. It's the failure of, sometimes good but weak, men who fail to hold people accountable to that, to which they've subscribed.

 

Albert Mohler:

So I've got to tell you, Carl, sometimes God just gives you delicious, unexpected gifts. And one of them was when I was assigned to a Southern Baptist–Roman Catholic dialogue meeting, and you can imagine what those meetings are kind of like. So, now that conservatives are in control of the SBC, we don't have them. That doesn't mean we don't have conversations with Roman Catholics. We have many of those, but we don't have these dialogues, which were just ridiculous. But anyway, it was actually in one of those that I endured— and by this I mean conservative Catholics didn't like it and conservative Baptists didn't like it. We want to have conversations that are honest conversations, but dialogue is just, it's ecumenical mush. That's why it's gone. But I had a gift in one of those.

When I was dealing with all these things and was talking with a very prominent Catholic historian I won't mention, and he looked at me and he said, because I was talking about confessionalism, the Protestant formulas, and all the rest, he said, “You need to look somewhere you're not looking.” And I said, “Well, where?” And he said, “Spain.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I'm going to give you a reference.” He gave me a reference, and it was some of the original documents of the Spanish Inquisition. The thing is I did not know until he pointed me there where two of those phrases came from, but it really helps. And so without hesitation or mental reservation, that's language from the Spanish Inquisition.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yeah it’s the Jesuits as well, yes!

 

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely! Well, it was against the Jesuits, in other words, although you have to watch the historical dots here, but it was against what would become Jesuitical logic.

 

Carl Trueman:

Casuistry, very interesting!

 

Albert Mohler:

The casuistry. So this idea of hesitation, so someone who's being charged with heresy could be told they have to assert the creed, and then some of them would do so by saying, “I do so with hesitation,” which means, here you say, “I believe in the virgin birth.” Here you say, “I do not believe in the virgin birth,” or “Jesus was born of a virgin.” “I do not assert that Jesus was born of a virgin.” And then you say that, like an atomic particle, you're hesitating between the two opinions. You really can't answer the question because you're in a position of atomic hesitation. And you think, “That's nuts!” But I face down human beings who basically made that argument to me. And then the mental reservation is just precious because that could cover everything including the entire doctrine. So even some of the documents of the Spanish Inquisition (And I'm not holding up the Spanish Inquisition. Some anti-creedalists are saying, “Well, that's exactly our fear.”). But I'm just saying that the language, we're all trying to get to language that matters. And if you can assert, “I believe that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but I have mental reservations about whether it actually happened.” I mean, sadly, in the 19th and 20th centuries, you had Protestant denominations that said that that was an acceptable position.

 

Carl Trueman:

And the Scottish Presbyterian tradition had a lot of debates about what they called declaratory acts, (which essentially) one of the most infamous of them said, you have to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith to the extent that it touches on the substance of the faith. Well of course, if you don't think the confession is the substance of the faith, there's a real problem there. And effectively what the Declaratory Act did was allow for these mental reservations in many ways. Well, if you don't think that the virgin birth is part of the substance of the faith, then you can subscribe to the Westminster Confession, but you're not bound to that section. And of course, the history of Presbyterianism relative to these kind of acts is a disastrous one. The church ultimately collapses into a kind of secularism expressed in a religious idiom. That's the ultimate outcome of these things.

 

Albert Mohler:

And a lot of these modernist heresies actually emerged not in a secular context but in a Christian context. You know Carl, we share the common hero of Martin Luther, and it's really interesting that in the Diet of Worms, Luther's confronted by the accusation, and he's called to answer. And in an English translation I guess the most literal translation would be, “Answer without horns and without teeth.” And so what's really interesting is that the Roman Catholic prosecutor against Luther tells him, “You can't be a Jesuit here. You've got to actually answer without hesitation or mental reservation.” I think that just shows you how convoluted all of this was. And Luther wasn't about to answer with hesitation or mental reservation. He gives it back to them in full.

 

Carl Trueman:

To reduce this to really simple moral categories, it just comes down to honesty or dishonesty. And that's what we're really looking at here. Do you subscribe honestly or dishonestly? The beauty of living in a place like America, of course, is that it’s a free country. Nobody has to subscribe to these confessions. You're not going to be locked up in prison if you don't subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the London Baptist Confession of Faith. So there's a real moral issue involved, I think, with what I would describe as sort of phony or false subscription that we're really touching on here.

 

Albert Mohler:

I'm kind of leaving your first chapter to the end of our conversation, but I want to jump into your second chapter and beyond, because you do, I think, something that few evangelicals do very well. And that is you go back to the Patristic era, to the early church, and I think you do a very good job of simply and straightforwardly but quite faithfully kind of walking through some of the theological crises and the creedal formula that emerged from that. And I think this is something that's in our lifetimes, Carl, is very, very happy. The students at my school and no doubt at yours, they want to know what the fathers of the church believed. They want to hold to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They don't see them as the authority or the norming norm, but they do see them as progenitors of the faith in such a way that they were struggling with these issues. So just walk us through how you came to appreciate these creedal debates, conciliar events in the early church.

 

Carl Trueman:

In some ways, it's an example of where my own personal Christian walk and my academic interests ended up sort of feeding off each other in some ways. I was converted my first year at college. I [unintelligible] Billy Graham while at school, got interested in Christianity, really came to faith, I would say, my first year at university. I was very much involved in a kind of what I would describe as a broad conservative evangelical kind of milieu. I don't mean that as a criticism at all. My friends were great Christian friends. They nurtured and mentored and pastored me really well, so I don't mean this in any bad way about them at all. But one thing that was lacking in that was didn't really get any historical grounding. And there was always this niggling thought at the back of my head, did the faith just drop from the sky?

 

How does what my pastor tells me on a Sunday or preaches on a Sunday, how does that connect to the church of the last 2000 years? And it was while I was doing my graduate work on the reception of Martin Luther and then my post sort of doc work on John Owen that I came to realize that the Reformers and the theologians who succeeded the Reformers in the 17th centuries, they thought very highly of the ancient church. They were constantly interacting with early church sources, medieval sources. They didn't even think about the history of the church in the way that we now routinely do in terms of a discreet patristic era then a medieval era then a reformation era. They saw continuities all over the place. And I began to read the ancient fathers and the medieval theologians, some of them for myself, and realized, “Wow, so much of what they're saying, particularly in the prayers actually, when you read the prayers of these guys, so much of what they're saying is entirely consistent with the Christian faith that I know and love.” And of course the obvious reason is because the great fathers of Protestantism stood on the shoulders of the medievals and the early church. 

 

Albert Mohler

And they knew they did.

 

Carl Trueman

They did it self-consciously. In fact, one of the most obvious things, if you ever study the Reformation, is nobody wants to be original in the Reformation. 

 

Albert Mohler

Sure.

 

Carl Trueman


Richard Muller makes this, so I suppose, people might describe as an off-color joke, I don’t know. But I've heard Richard Muer joke on a number of occasions, “There's only one original theologian in Geneva in the 16th century, and they burned him because of the originality.”

 

Albert Mohler:

Servetus, that's right.

 

Carl Trueman:

So none of the reformers want to be original. They all want to faithfully carry the faith of the fathers through their generation and onto the next.

 

Albert Mohler:

Which we both believe they did.

 

Carl Trueman:

I think now clearly, that's not to say that the reformers aren't saying things that weren't said in the early church. I think we allow for deeper insights into scripture, deeper insights into the implications of Christian doctrine. But it is to say that they thought of themselves as on the same team, essentially.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, but the fathers of the third century were saying things the fathers of the second century weren't saying.

 

Carl Trueman:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

 

Albert Mohler:

It's a question of continuity and discontinuity, which is central to church history.

 

Carl Trueman:

Absolutely. And I think there's a question of, there's a sense in which one, we need to be charitable always with the past to some extent, but we also need to realize that when one doctrinal problem is solved in a particular way, it sets up the vocabulary, grammar and syntax for solving the next doctrinal problem. So it's hard, say, to jump into fifth century Christology and understand it without understanding what's gone on in the fourth century with regard to the Trinity.

 

Albert Mohler:

I think that's exactly right. And this is going to get us in just a minute into some really deep water, which I'm looking forward to going into with you. But even in this theme of continuity and discontinuity, one of the key questions for a Protestant and evangelical is whether the reformers got the argument right. And the reformers made their first argument on scripture, sola scriptura. But even in, not just in their political writings but in their systematic writings. I mean, after the Scripture the person most often cited by John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion is Augustine. And then people can often go with me there, but I tell them, “You'll never guess who number two is after Augustine. It's Bernard of Clairveaux. So, I mean, you have Calvin of all things, or of all people I should say, who is making very clear it's the Catholic Church in this sense that has run off from the teachings of Augustine and the other fathers.

 

Carl Trueman:

And, I mean, you get that very clearly if listeners have not read Calvin's Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto.

 

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. 

 

Carl Trueman:

Sadoleto is the man who writes to Geneva and tells them to come back to the Catholic Church. And Calvin, who's in exile from Geneva at the time, writes a response to him. And Calvin in that little work makes the argument that, it's interesting from an evangelical perspective because it’s a little bit jarring, he sort of makes the argument that we Protestants are the inheritors of the true tradition.

 

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

 

Carl Trueman:

And Protestants, we often don't like to talk about tradition, but Calvin's happy to do so. He says the problem with the Catholic Church is not that it's carrying on with tradition, it's that it's deviated from the tradition in these areas.

 

Albert Mohler:

That’s right.

 

Carl Trueman:

And Calvin, for anyone who wants a brief snapshot of a Protestant methodology relative to historical sources, Calvin's Reply to Sadoleto is a very, very concise and very accessible text on that front.

 

Albert Mohler:

One of the most important documents from the Reformation, I believe, and I enjoy reading it because it's also where you see more of Calvin's personality than in some of his other writings, which is also fun. So let's go back to the early church for a moment, and I said we're going to get in some deep water. Let's go ahead and do that. As you look at the 19th and 20th centuries and the development of liberal theology and the takeover, frankly, of so many historically faithful denominations by theological liberalism, one of the arguments they made is that there was no doctrinal stability in apostolic Christianity. And in fact, some of them went so far as to say there's no doctrinal stability in the New Testament. There's no doctrinal stability in the apostolic preaching. There's no doctoral stability in the early church. And along came a German scholar named Walter Bauer who wrote a book basically saying that the categories of heresy orthodoxy don't even fit the early church, or if they do, it was more marked by heresy than by orthodoxy. And, Carl, as a doctoral student in systematic and historical theology, that was one of the biggest issues for me to wrestle with. And so I'd like to talk about it just a little bit, because I mean honestly a lot of people, they're downstream from that debate. They don't know that that argument is what is behind so many people telling them to be dismissive of the cradle history of the church.

 

Carl Trueman:

And you get versions of that, of course, popularized by people like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. So it's still sort of the air that is breathed, and you buy books like that at Barnes and Noble. This is not the preserve of scholars. It's something that any pastor's going to come across, somebody whose congregation who says, “Hey, I picked up this great book by Bart Ehrman, and what do you make of it?” I think there's a sense in which you can always find what you look for. And I think if you go in looking for a mess and you go in looking for chaos, you can certainly piece together enough there to persuade you that you went in looking for the right thing. I think if you go in more with a fairer mind saying, “What's going on here?” We can look at the, for example, the question of, one of the big questions, the question of the canon, right?

 

Is the canon a fourth century invention, or when does the canon come about? If you look at the writings that we have from the early church from the second century, I think you find there are references to an awful lot of the books that now form the New Testament canon, and they're referenced in a way that is authoritative. It's not as if somebody quotes Paul to the Romans and then has to justify Paul as an authority. It seems Paul carries that off. Just quoting Paul is enough to, bam, settle that issue. So I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Bauer’s thesis is greatly overstated on that kind of front. And of course, Paul himself is wrestling with heresy in the early church. When you look at the letters of Paul, the categories, he may not use the language of, the word orthodoxy there, but you find the concept, that there is a stable content of the faith, and that this person, Alexander the Silversmith or the Nicolaitans or whatever, these people stand outside that. So I think Bower's thesis assumes that there cannot be a stable content.

 

Albert Mohler:

That was such theological ammunition for theological liberalism.

 

Carl Trueman:

As soon as you assume that's the case, then you can certainly find that that's the case. But I would say if you don't assume that’s the case, the evidence tilts strongly in the other direction.

 

Albert Mohler:

One of my doctoral professors handed me the assignment to read Bauer and respond to it, and I didn't have any background in the argument. So reading Bauer was, I have to tell you, it was a kind of shaking experience for a young scholar. I was 22 years old, 23 years old, and I'm trying to wrestle with this. And so anyway, I came out of it with Mohler’s thesis as a response to Bauer’s thesis, and I've really stuck with it for 40 plus years. And so I'm going to share it with you because this is what you've been waiting for. No, the Mohler thesis is this, in response to the Bauer thesis, that orthodoxy is merely an imposition of order upon the natural disorder of the church, which was heresy, in other words it was theological confusion, the presence of so many different things being said about the person and work of Christ, for example, what we would call Trinitarian issues.


There was no stable orthodoxy. The achievement of this orthodoxy was simply a political act–an arbitrary political act–which was probably explainable by even earthly political rationale just to take Constantine at Nicea in 325. So Mohler’s thesis, however, is this, because I think evangelicals are in danger, Protestants in general are in danger, of missing the fact that Bauer was onto something, and I'm just going to give him a 5% credit here. He's onto something, which is if you create a timeline, heresy often does become the occasion for the articulation of orthodoxy. So the way I put it, because, I mean, here I'm writing a seminar paper, I’ve got to do it just starting out as a doctoral student, but I responded by saying, it seems to me that what is true is that so many of the great creeds and confessions of the church were made necessary by the articulation of heresy that the faithful church had to answer.

 

Carl Trueman:

I like that idea. And it reminds me of a quote, a statement by John Henry Newman. He made it before he became a Catholic, so I can sort of mention it here, but in his sermon on doctrinal development, not the big book, but his sermon on doctrinal development, he makes the comment that every heresy is one aspect of the truth pushed to the exclusion of all others. 

 

Albert Mohler:

That's right. 

 

Carl Trueman:

When you think about that, that ties in nicely with the Mohler thesis there and the idea of, think about in the early church of Docetism: the denial of the physical reality, the human flesh of the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, that captures something. It captures the fact that he's God, but it demands that the church address what is different? What is wrong with this? What is the overemphasis here? So I like that idea. I think yes, there is a kind of almost a dialectical relationship, you might say, between heresy and orthodoxy or truth that drives the thing forward. Yes.

 

Albert Mohler:

For instance, and this gets to another issue I want us to discuss, but it explains why the confessions get longer, and there are more propositional phrases that are required, say, in the 16th century than were required in the sixth century. And you have entire new chapters or sections or statements in the creed such as justification. I mean, in the 16th century, now all of a sudden you have justification in some of the historic Protestant creeds pulled out as an article.

 

Carl Trueman:

And it reminds me of the debate between John Owen and Richard Baxter in the latter part of the 17th century when they're debating, “How do we get nonconformists in England together now that we've been sort of booted from the corridors of power? Can we find a document that will allow us to have a consensus among non-conformists and provide some sort of unity?” And Baxter wants it to be the Apostle's Creed. He thinks the Apostle's Creed, because it's suitably, we might say, vague, that would be a negative way of putting it, or suitably undetailed would be another way of putting it in order to allow everybody in. And John Owen opposes this on the grounds that, “No, there's actually a reason why we have the Nicene Creed.” And one of the reasons we have the Nicene Creed is that that detailed language in the Nicene Creed is necessary in order to keep out the Unitarians and the Socinians who might be able to sign a vaguer formulation relative to God and the Godhead. So I think your point is absolutely on target there, Al, but documents get longer for a reason, and that's because as soon as you have a document, somebody starts to try to twist it or pick a hole in it or something else pops up that needs to be addressed. And that's why I like more thorough rather than less thorough documents on that front.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well said by an English-speaking Presbyterian, so that's good. Again, and we are grafted onto your tree, so we're pleased with that. About this issue, as you think about what can be assumed and what must be articulated, that just gets longer and longer over church history. But it also gets to the fact that the Church is quite regularly faced with the fact that it has to answer a question, not just on the basis of advisable and inadvisable but on the basis of true or false. Part of the rule of faith or not part of the rule of faith. Consistent with the scripture, inconsistent with the scripture. I think a lot of younger evangelicals think that all of that is in the past. I don't think it is.

 

Carl Trueman:

No. I think, for example, all of the issues relative to sexuality and identity, they're certainly being posed in new and pointed ways that the Church has not seen before. And that raises the interesting question of, “Do we need to expand our creeds and confessions to allow for that?” My gut instinct on all of these questions is we mustn't do that until we've really decided that the documents we have are inadequate to the task. So I used the example of gay marriage earlier. It seems to me that the positive teaching we find in traditional Protestant confessions about marriage, be they Lutheran Baptist or Presbyterian, is quite adequate for dealing with gay marriage, because it sets forth what the truth is and therefore by implication excludes all of the false claimants to marriage. But I wouldn't want to rule out the possibility of something emerging that might require at some point an addition to a confession. I'd rather not go there, because the history of confessional revision is not generally an encouraging one. Confessions tend to move away from orthodoxy rather than deeper into it when they're revised. No necessary reason why that should happen. It's just the sinfulness of the human heart, I think, in play there. But I think if you're a confessionalist, you have to be committed to the idea hypothetically that the Church–and I do stress the Church and not any individual–the Church may wish to modify or add to its confessional statement.

 

Albert Mohler:

So this is the only point at which I think you're just wrong and dangerously wrong. And I say that with a smile, so we are friends talking here. But I think it's also because you're a Presbyterian and I'm a Baptist, partly. And you're probably thinking, “Well, you're absolutely right about that.” But anyway, and I've had some discussions of this over the years, and maybe part of it is the difference, as you might articulate in terms of why you wrote the second edition with identity politics, maybe it's because of standpoint epistemology. Or maybe it's because of the difference in social location. I'm President of an institution of a theological seminary and a college. I am a leader in an evangelical denomination, and I'm very, very active in the legal defense of Christian institutions, Christian schools, Christian ministries. And the listeners know how friendly this is. But I do want to say that we are going to be in a increasingly vulnerable situation if, when it comes to something like gender claims made by the LGBTQ movement and all the rest, we can't say this is a matter of explicit creedal authority.


I have a way of resolving that. And so I think you are right, and you and I have had lots of discussions, which we can just say in a friendly way, we discussed this before, but I've been a part of developing such statements as the Nashville Statement, and I wasn't there to form the Danvers Statement, but in affirming it I can tell you that legally and procedurally I could not have led to the reform of this institution without those documents having creedal status. But I just want to say this, and I want to turn it back to you. I believe the right way to deal with that is not to revise the historic confession, but rather for a governing board or for the elders or the congregation, depending on the polity, to adopt this statement as a necessary creedally binding interpretation of what was meant by the historic confession.

 

Carl Trueman:

And Presbyterians, we have a sort of equivalent of that. I think I'm right in saying that the PCA adopted the Nashville Statement not on the same level as the Westminster Confession, because there's a sense in which the issues the Nashville Statement addresses, I don't think they will but may disappear one day and become sort of like a statement on lobotomy as might've been a hundred years ago or so, we'd be scratching our heads now wondering why, but adopted it as you say, as a kind of, this is what we see the clear implications of our confessional position being. And in the OPC, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, my denomination, we, like the PCA, also produce these General Assembly reports that are not considered to be confessional, but are ways of, you could produce a report on sexuality, which essentially says, “These are what we think the implications of the confession are, and this is how we think our ministers should operate.” So we are getting towards the kind of thing I think that you're pointing to there. I certainly don't want to say that a confession written in the 17th century can do everything for the church today. I think it provides a good document for defining the church doctrinally, but it can't carry the weight of everything that the church needs to do doctrinally within the context in which we find ourselves.

 

Albert Mohler:

Which is one of the reasons why I think so. In other words, I wouldn't have done this if it wasn't a friendly conversation, but I hope it's really helpful to listeners. And I'm in constant conversation with headmasters of Christian schools, with pastors of Christian churches, presidents, CEOs of Christian organizations, and with the lawyers that are helping us in this. And there are generally applicable principles of law that, for instance, how do you assert that your church properly on the basis of an exercise of religious conviction asserts this to be true? How do you prove that to be true? Well, in court, it certainly helps, if you're having to defend yourself, for instance, against charges that you're violating civil rights by saying that a boy's a boy and a girl’s a girl in your school, that's not hypothetical anymore, it certainly helps if you go into court to say, “Here is where there is a Christian statement consistent with the creedal and confessional history of our church. And one of the ways you can do that is I think by saying this statement helps us to understand and is a necessary implication of this historic creed. I think you've made the point very well–and I thank you for making this point–that the best way is not to go back and say, take the formula of concord and revise it, but rather to say, if you're Lutheran, that this is a necessary implication of what is asserted there.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yes, and I think just sort of bouncing off that, again, for anyone listening, if you're a member of a church or a pastor of a church with a 12 point doctrinal statement as your standard, I mean, don't get me wrong, it's great to have a doctrinal standard. I don't mean to sort of dismiss that, but you probably need at this point to consult lawyers because almost certainly your 12 point doctrinal statement will not give you the kind of foundation that you've been pointing to there is very important. And I'd urge pastors, elders, elder boards, get some legal advice. 

 

Albert Mohler:

That's right.

 

Carl Trueman:

Relative to your confessional document, however big or however small it is, to make sure that you are anticipating potential problems that could be coming down the line. I think a lot of churches did that with gay marriage, but the gender thing, that's the new thing on the horizon.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, and this is where things are more difficult, and I'm kind of in deep water on this in terms of my personal involvement with the churches, institutions, denominations in the courts, and that is that there is a statement concerning marriage in a lot of the historic Christian creeds and confessions. And just to take, for example, if you're in the Anglican tradition, you have everything you need in the Book of Common Prayer. You have everything you need, except courage to apply it in the present, by the way. But that's another story.

 

Carl Trueman:

Ouch.

 

Albert Mohler:

But at least in the documents, you have everything you need. But on the question of gender, because of the way it's being asserted, and I think this is to lead into the final part of our conversation, I think that's a part of the reason why you wrote this book is because of the ideological contaminants and expressive individualism and all the rest. But our creeds, even when it asserts male and female, were not written to defend against someone saying, “Well, I declare myself to be female.”

 

Carl Trueman:

Yes, and that's where you really need to, the areas of the creeds and confessions that need to be scrutinized in this particular context are those dealing with creation and anthropology. And at the moment, when I look at the Westminster Confession, I feel, I think we have enough there pastorally at least to govern our churches and to pastor our people. But not to put too fine a point on it, it is impossible to predict the next level of craziness that could be hitting the beach.

 

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

 

Carl Trueman:

And that's where I think we need to be constantly vigilant and leave, as I say, hypothetically, we have to allow that revisions or supplements could be made or added to our confessions. I don't like the idea of doing that. As I say, it's not an unproblematic thing to do for a number of reasons, but as you say, when all of the classical categories, which are in many ways assumed by the confessional documents, are now being dismantled and thrown away, it does raise a new level of urgency in terms of looking at our confessional documents and thinking about them relative to that.

 

Albert Mohler:

Carl, I think one of the great points of value in this new book, which is basically a continuation of your argument The Creedal Imperative, but there is a different ideological context in which you've written this new edition or this new book. And at least a part of this is that the entire first person pronoun issue has become so convoluted. So who is the I who says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” or the we, who are the we who confess this faith together? How have all these contaminants really messed up the picture?

 

Carl Trueman:

Well I mean that's a huge story. I mean, essentially over the last three or four hundred years…

 

Albert Mohler:

Someone should write a book on that. I think you did.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yeah, a big book on that. I think the rise of what we might call subjectivity over the last four or five hundred years has had a dramatic effect. And it's interesting that you talk about the first person there. Absolutely. One of the things I don't mention actually in the big book on expressive individualism, but I've come across since Montaigne the great French essayist. He's the first man really in literature who starts to use the I consistently. It's all about him. And what Montaigne as an elite cultural figure did in the 16th century has really become the default for us all now, that we tend to think that we are the center of the universe, that our feelings are authoritative. And as Philip Reef would then argue, therefore, all institutions and all realities need to reconfigure around that. Now, I think as Christians, we certainly accept the importance of the I, we regard ourselves as responsible before God for our actions.


We have to answer for our sin. We have to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for ourselves. We can't let the priest do it for us. Having said that, Christianity really has a view of the I that is constituted self-consciously by externals, ultimately by the external reality of God. And the place I point students to continually, because I often get the question, “So are our feelings not important?” Which my answer is, “Our feelings are very important, and what we do with them is very important, and we need to do with them what the psalmist typically does with them.” Take for example, Psalm 73. He's very disturbed at what he sees as the unfairness of life and the unfairness of the world. He almost slipped. He was that distressed. He almost fell away completely. But then he goes to the sanctuary and everything makes sense to him.

 

And I say this just, what is he doing there? He's going to the objective revealed presence of God and reconfiguring his notion of himself and his notion of the world in light of that. And I think what creeds and confessions do, they're preoccupied with God first and foremost, and they show us a way of thinking about God and ourselves where everything flows first of all from who God is. And that's where I think creeds and confessions fulfill a useful function in what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary. Is the social imaginary of your church, is the ethos of your church that shapes the way you think, is it preoccupied with the objective, glorious reality of God or with the feelings you happen to have? And I think a church that makes a confession or a creed a central part of its life naturally tilts towards the former, towards really focusing our minds upon the external realities that ultimately determine who we are and how we are to understand our feelings.

 

Albert Mohler:

Carl, every once in a while, I've reached the age where every once in a while you realize I'm going to be even more careful when I speak about this thing, this issue, this truth. And so I made a statement and have made a statement often when teaching about these things that I've never known anyone who has converted by the creed, but I know many people whose faith has been just greatly strengthened, built up, deepened, made more courageous. So then I had a dear friend come up to me and say, I want to tell you that my parents took me to a very liberal Presbyterian church, and I got dragged to church because my parents, just, it is a thing you did. It was a very liberal Presbyterian church, no gospel in it. He said, however, the Apostles Creed was recited every Lord's Day in every service.


And he said, “I was converted by the creed.”

 

Carl Trueman:

Interesting. 

 

Albert Mohler:

As a 15-year-old boy, he said, “I started listening to what we were saying, and I realized at the end of every sentence, I really do believe that at the end of the next sentence, I really do believe that. I really do believe that. I believe it's true because it's revealed in scripture to be true. And so I'm saying the Lord actually used this as a means of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ into a 15-year-old boy who was in a liberal church where no one was preaching the gospel. And that has just chastened me and encouraged me in a strange way. Obviously, that's not the main way we believe people become Christians, but it is a powerful testimony.

 

Carl Trueman:

It reminds me 10 years ago, I took my son who was just about to go up to college. I was teaching in Cambridge for a week, my alma mater, so I took him over for a week's holiday in Cambridge, and I was teaching, and he was hanging out. And on the Friday evening, I did something I didn't do. I'd never done this, even as an undergraduate. We went to Evensong at King's College Chapel, and I sat next to a girl wearing a hijab. She was a young Muslim girl, and I'd say, you'll appreciate this, thankfully there was no sermon. All we had was the Book of Common Prayer sung and recited. And I remember thinking leaving that evening that, whatever else has happened this evening, that young woman with the hijab, she heard the gospel because we recited the creed. We used the Book of Common Prayer. Whether she believed it or not I don't know, but she left that church with, and I almost hesitate to say this, but having heard more scripture read and probably more gospel proclaimed than in many evangelical churches. 

 

Albert Mohler:

Oh, absolutely. 

 

Carl Trueman: 

We need to examine ourselves here. But that's what you've just said about that young 15-year-old boy, so moving from that perspective.

 

Albert Mohler:

And just to amplify and confirm what you were saying, I take people regularly to Westminster Abbey for choral Evensong. And I don't tell them anything about it other than the historical context before we go in. And then afterwards, we have some phenomenal conversations among fellow believers. And one of the things I say is you realize, because I time it every time. And so just a matter of weeks ago, we were at choral Evensong at Westminster Abbey, and honestly, the sermon was an atrocity. But forget that for a moment, I fully expected it would be.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yes, yes.

 

Albert Mohler:

But we came back and as we were talking the next morning, I said, “Do you realize there's 23 minutes of scripture reading? 23 minutes of nothing but scripture being read? Do you realize that's we spent another 14 minutes reciting truths of the Christian faith in terms of creeds and in other of the acts?” And that's an astounding indictment of evangelical Christianity.

 

Carl Trueman:

I mean, we sometimes go to churches, churches that I've been associated with, and you read a few verses of scripture on a Sunday, and that's it. The Anglican Church, God bless her. If you go to every service you're going to get through the Psalms. You have a tremendous richness.

 

Albert Mohler:

You have a gospel reading, and sometimes it's considerable.

 

Carl Trueman:

Yes. We need to be very careful before we criticize others that we are doing well in these areas ourselves first.

 

Albert Mohler:

Like I say, the sermon was a disaster, and that's where you realize, to use the category with which you began us, there are things necessary but not sufficient. It's not sufficient to read the Scripture and have a horrible sermon. We need churches that read the scripture, spend a lot of time reading the scripture, recite the creeds, confess the faith, confess our sins, and preach the gospel.

 

Carl Trueman:

Absolutely.

 

Albert Mohler:

Alright, Carl. So by the time this will hit the bestseller list, you will have already been deep into something else. So what's the next thing?

 

Carl Trueman:

Well, I've just wrapped up my introduction to critical theory, Frankfurt School stuff. That's with Broadman and Holman. I'm working on the proofs now, and I'm finishing up another manuscript looking at what the loss of the sacred has done in our culture in various ways. So those are the two things that I'm working on at the moment.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, Carl, I'm so thankful for you. If you didn't exist, we'd have to invent you.

 

Carl Trueman:

Likewise, always love chatting to you, Al. It's been fun.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, look forward to the next time I get to see you in person. Until then, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

 

Carl Trueman:

Thanks very much.

 

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guest Carl Trueman for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find about 200 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking In Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. 

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public, and until next time, keep thinking.

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