21 July 2014

Life in the Not-Yet: Carl Trueman's "A Church for Exiles"

In the August/September issue of First Things magazine, theologian-professor Carl Trueman published a superb piece titled "A Church for Exiles." You can read it online here for free even if you're not a First Things subscriber. And by superb I mean just that. Trueman is an excellent writer whose passion for the Church and its people is matched by his insight, historical awareness, and clarity of expression. (You can read my comments from several years ago about Trueman's conference remarks here, here, and here. A comment about an earlier First Things piece can be found here.)

To summarize: for its professed beliefs regarding matters most particularized in sexual ethics, the Christian Church in the West, and more immediately America, is about to experience exile, "though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It's an exile to cultural irrelevance." If that's the case, Trueman goes on to ask, what currently subsisting form of American Christianity offers its adherents the best kit for dealing with life in a world in which their beliefs and practices are particularly unwelcome?

Trueman quickly disposes of the bulk of American Evangelicalism because a large majority of Evangelicals have tied themselves to the idea of America as a providentially significant key in the growth of God's kingdom on earth. Other than anger and bitter resentment, Evangelicalism won't have much to offer as America morphs from the Chosen nation into a low-intensity version of the Beast. And if that's not bad enough, Evangelicalism's individualism and capitulation to the forms of the market have gutted the Church as Church, the body of Christ. Evangelicalism's retreat to Moral Therapeutic Deism will continue as its number dwindle.

Trueman next evaluates the wherewithal of the American version of the Church of Rome to deal with its impending exilic marginalization. One might think Roman Catholics, who until well into the 20th century were marginalized by the Protestant Establishment and who have withstood significant attacks by anti-clerical forces in Europe and oppression in Communists-dominated countries and survived with its witness intact, would be able to do so here. Not so fast, concludes Trueman,
When opposition to gay marriage comes to be seen as the moral equivalent to white supremicism, it is doubtful that the Roman Catholic Church will be able to maintain both her current position on the issue and her status in society. She too will likely be shunted to the margins. ... Catholicism's institutional footprint is so large--and Catholic theological (and emotional) investment in [America] so significant--that the temptation to preserve the Church's place in society will be very great. This preservation will require compromise, even complicity, and it will very likely blur the clarity and undermine the integrity of Christian witness.
Well, where does that leave us? If, as Trueman believes, neither of the two largest institutional forms of Christianity in America will be able to flourish when circumstances become less amenable, is there another live option? Is there another form of Christian life and identity in the United States that is prepared to exist and perhaps even thrive in the coming hothouse of social exile?

In fact, there is: "Reformed Christianity equips [its adherents] well for exile because it was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles." Two facets of the Reformed expression of the Christian faith make it well-suited for an exilic existence. First, Reformed doctrine with its emphasis on God's sovereignty come what may provides a secure source of hope for the faithful. Our present salvation and future destiny depend neither on personal success nor institutional prestige. It is grounded rather in the certainty of God's promises to his people individually and corporately.

Second, Reformed worship's Word-centered simplicity and simplified but disciplined (and disciplining) liturgics orients the attention and longing of its worshipers away from this-worldly success in politics and cultural transformation and toward the world-to-come's blessings in Christ. Regularly rehearsing their union with Christ in worship, neither mediated by a priesthood nor atomized by a market-centered Evangelical individualism, provides Reformed folk with a "robust confidence [that] will serve us well at a time when the indifference or hostility of the world presses upon us and encourages crises of self-confidence."

One might uncharitably characterize Trueman's take on the dialectic of Church and world and the former's impending exile within the latter as deliberately setting the bar low so as not to be disappointed. Alternatively, it could be construed as merely a prolix description of Trueman's micro-sized ecclesiastical home, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Not only would such characterizations be uncharitable, they would not take into account the cogency of his arguments for which I recommend ad fontes; follow the link above and read them for yourself.

Nonetheless, I believe Trueman's account omits in turn both a theological and a phenomenological consideration. The exilic motif draws its narrative, ethical, and theological description of our current/impending situation principally from the account of Israel's Exile from the Promised Land. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well as the writings of Daniel provide the Scriptural foundation for exilic analysis. Certain New Testament writings, particularly the epistles of Peter, pick up the theme of exile for the nascent Church. But as Oliver O'Donovan has observed, the theme of exile does not exhaust the New Testament understanding of the place of the Church in the world. The resurrection and ascension of Christ, not only his sojourn on earth, are relevant to the Church's life here and now.

While I appreciate Trueman's desire to avoid the simple-minded triumphalism of some Reformed (!) one-kingdom transformationalists, it seems he fails to to give sufficient regard to the more-than-millennium-long positive cultural trajectory of the West. Not that Trueman ignores the social effects of the Christian faith, but his weighing of them against the coming exile seems unbalanced. (For some insights on this topic see my piece, Looking for Bedrock: Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition, which you can download here.) Such cultural transformation has had serious downs as well as ups and Trueman is likely correct to predict the coming social exile. Yet even that truth should not blind us to the possibility of yet another reversal in the course of God's providential ordering of history.

Trueman's omission of the phenomenon of the contemporary charismatic movement means he has left off another plausible response to the Church's coming exile in American society. I have commented on the need to addresses the charismatic movement on its own terms here. To be sure, the place of the "modern day renewal movement" can largely be subsumed within contemporary Evangelicalism when it comes to social and political matters in the United States. Largely but not completely. Pentecostals and to a lesser extent charismatics survived on the fringe of American society throughout much of the twentieth century. To a certain extent the current efflorescence of this branch of Christianity has coincided with its "mainstreaming" into an ever-more flexible Evangelicalism but charistmaticism's inherent ability to pivot quickly should not be disregarded as a source of strength if Trueman's predictions come to pass.

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