Carl Trueman and I go way back. He doesn’t probably know it (or care), but his writing style and point of view tend wake me from my dogmatic slumbers. The first things I read from him were Wages of Spin and Minority Report, both checked out from the DTS Library. Around this time, Republocrat came out. Later, I’d come across Histories and Fallacies, and it was one of the first book reviews I did on this blog. Then another collection of essays emerged, Fools Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread, which like the first two Trueman books I read, was really a collection of blog posts and short essays.
All of that is to say, I’ve been reading and enjoying Carl Trueman’s thoughts for a while now. Even though I don’t always agree with him (nor would he want me to I think), he stimulates conversation better than most. So, it was with significant anticipation that I pre-ordered and then read shortly after arrival Luther on The Christian Life. At this point, I have read all but one book in this series, though I own them all. The series itself I would highly recommend, and while this book ranks high, several others, on the whole, are more commendable. But this one affected me in a different way than the rest.
Historically, I haven’t been a fan of Luther. I realize he is important and all, but I just wasn’t interested in reading much of his writings based on what I knew from a distance. While I recognized his role in starting the Reformation, he was a bit reactionary for my taste. Granted, at the time, that’s what the church may have needed, but I tended to view it as a potential pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction.
This seemed to be confirmed by the way the semi-recent debates on sanctification and Christian growth went on between Tullian Tchividjian and Kevin DeYoung, Tchividjian’s point of view is more less also articulated by Gerhard Forde in Christian Spirituality: Five Views. That view is the Lutheran view, in contrast to the Reformed view, and from my point of view, was more or less antinomian. I say “more or less” because Tchividjian might not outright deny the third use of the law (a rule of law for believers that reminds them of their duties), but his rhetoric makes it seem at times that obedience and the law are in antithesis to the gospel and grace. I’m not alone in that assessment, as another author has pointed out that Tchividjian’s views are more at home in post-Reformation antinoniamism than the casual reader would guess (see also).
The problem with Tchividjian’s formulations, I think, is trying to drive too sharp of a wedge between law and gospel. Treating them as radical disjunctives is a theological presupposition that won’t bear the weight of the available exegetical evidence. I tend to avoid anyone who is real big on this type of thinking, and from what I knew, Luther was the one primarily responsible for it.
But then I read Trueman’s book.
As Trueman notes early on, “An understanding of Luther’s approach to the Christian life is fundamental to understanding the varieties of practical Western Christianity over the last five hundred years” (21). Also important to note is that Luther’s thought developed over time. Trueman explains:
One of the interesting things about the reception of Luther in contemporary evangelical Protestant circles is that it is entirely the early Reformation Luther – the Luther of the Heidelberg Disputation, of The Freedom of the Christian Man, and of The Bondage of the Will – who generally provides the quotations, the sound bites, and the cliches. Thus, it is the Luther of 1525 and earlier who receives all the attention (24).
But, as Trueman goes on to explain, it is the post-1525 Luther that is vital for actually understanding Luther on the Christian life:
In 1522, Luther could lightheartedly explain the success of the Reformation by commenting that he just sat around in the pub drinking beer with Amsdorf and Melanchthon while God’s Word was out doing all the work; the years after 1525 taught Luther that it was a whole lot more difficult than that. The Peasant’s War of 1525 and the dispute with Zwingli throughout the latter half of the 1520’s demonstrated how illusory was the Protestant consensus and how socially dangerous were the times. The rising antinomianism in the parishes showed how the preaching of the Word needed to be set within a more disciplined pastoral and ecclesiastical framework. The failure of the emperor to subscribe to the Augsburg Confession, of the pope to acknowledge the correctness of Luther’s stand, and of the Jews to convert to Christianity all indicated that the Reformation was going to be a long haul (24-25).
In a later chapter, Trueman expands on this. After the Reformation had moved into consolidation phase (by 1526ish), Luther received word back from Melanchthon’s Visitation Articles what parish life was actually like. Trueman notes,
What is clear from the Visitation Articles is that there were serious weaknesses in the effects of Reformation preaching stemming from imbalances in the way Luther’s teachings were being received and transmitted by parish priests. The tendency noted in the articles to preach gospel without law and to try to cultivate faith without repentance had led to behavior that could in no way be considered Christian. Jesus plus nothing was proving to be problematic, and Luther and his colleagues understood that and wished to address it. The law needed to be given its place as that which drives one to repentance. In a subtle way it also needed to be given a role in shaping exactly what the Christian response of love to God and neighbor should look like (169-170).
Trueman goes on to explain Luther’s response to this and how he actually battled antinomianism in his later writings. What this helped me to see is that Luther himself was not the cause of what might be considered antinomian thought. Rather, a misapplication of his thought and an over-emphasis on his earlier writings can, but doesn’t have to, lead in that direction. As a result of reading Trueman’s book, I have a much higher respect for Luther and an interest in actually reading more of his writings myself over the summer. While I don’t have find the law-gospel dialectic helpful, Luther can’t be reduced to that. He may not be the most careful exegete or gifted preacher, he was a great theological mind that I can learn from if I’m willing to take the time. Thanks to Carl Trueman, I’m now ready to do just that.