Category Archives: Carl Trueman

Trueman on Bavinck

Made possible by our friends at Themelios, today over on hermanbavinck.org I posted Carl Trueman’s editorial about the enduring value of theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). It was written back in 2000 and has never appeared online. You can download the editorial as a pdf here.

Carl Trueman on Historical Theology (Book Recommendations)

A few years back Carl Trueman provided me with some book recommendations that turned out to have great personal value. During a lecture on church history Trueman answered the following question from the audience:

There was one question that I was asked: Could I recommend a book to read alongside the historical theology module run by Moore College? Two things I would recommend there:

(1) The series being written by a guy named Nicholas Needham. It’s called 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (Evangelical Press) and is proving to be a very good, comprehensive, but easy-to-read account of church history. It comes in several volumes.

(2) And the other book I recommend to students, the best single-volume on the history of theology, written by a Scandinavian Lutheran named Bengt Hägglund, is titled History of Theology. It’s a single volume that takes you from the early church almost down to the present day in terms of the history of theology. So those would be the two books I would recommend.

These would prove to become fruitful recommendations. History of Theology by Bengt Hägglund (Concordia: 2007) is very good and worth picking up. But in this post I want to focus more on the 2000 Years of Christ’s Power series by N.R. Needham (Evangelical Press):

Part One: The Age of the Early Fathers (Evangelical Press: 1998). Paperback, 400 pages.

Part Two: The Middle Ages (Evangelical Press: 2000). Paperback, 460 pages.

Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Evangelical Press: 2004). Paperback, 624 pages.

All three volumes sell for $55.28 at Westminster.

I have read two of the three volumes. Here are my preliminary notes:

• Rev. Dr. Nick Needham is a Baptist pastor and teaches church history at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland. His series of writings are written for a popular audience of modern Christian readers. The back cover notes this series was written “in a style that will appeal to the non-specialist and any modern Christian will find it challenging and stimulating.” I agree. Needham is a lucid author that presents a great amount of detail while keeping me engaged. His masterful use of frequent section breaks, clearly numbered outlines, boldly-fonted names, and visual aids keep me reading long sections very comfortably. These volumes excel in readability.

• In the beginning of Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation, Needham states he is “Reformed by theological conviction” (3:12). On the same page he goes on to say, “I have little sympathy with that form of ‘ecumenism’ which relativises, and thereby trivialises, the convictions for which men and women lived and fought and died in the 16th century. That isn’t to say I disapprove of deeper understanding among the different religious traditions that claim the name of Christian; I approve heartily. But sometimes, deeper understanding will lead us to appreciate just how deeply we do differ on not a few issues, despite surprising measures of agreement on others. Papering over the cracks in the interests of some ecumenical ‘happy family’ game, in which sincerity is more highly prized than truth, is not this writer’s agenda, either as a historian or a Churchman.”

• The publisher plugs these volumes as a series on church history not explicitly a historical theology although it’s pretty obvious these volumes simultaneously cover the historical and theological development of the church. Probably, I find myself engaged by the content because of the author’s obvious interest in theology. Remember Trueman recommended Needham in answering a question about books on historical theology. A fitting recommendation.

• Needham clearly and concretely explains the broad political, social, and economic climate, then weaves in the specific writers, preachers, leaders, and books that shaped the theology. The volume covering the theological developments during the Middle Ages was fascinating, probably because I have previously dissed the era as a theological trifle. It was not. Especially noteworthy was Needham’s chapter on the global rise of Islam and its impact on Christian theology (2:15-45). I was surprised to learn John of Damascus (675-749) ministered under Islamic rule and even acted as a Prime Minister to the local Islamic rule! Within these medieval debates over Islamic theology opened controversies on the Trinity, incarnation, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of worship. These debates were handled by men like John of Damascus and Thomas Aquinas. My point is: Needham’s scope of content expands beyond the walls of the church to provide necessary historical background in the theological developments within the walls.

• Each chapter concludes with a well-selected sampling of original source material.

• Each volume includes a very detailed glossary, an extensive index of names and (best of all) an extensive subject index.

• The covers make for an odd marriage. The bottom 1/3rd is nice, featuring a line of portraits. The upper 2/3rds however are not so attractive. If the bottom appeals to a reader of cultured artistic tastes, I would say the top will catch the attention of roughly the same folks that pack a NASCAR race in the hopes of witnessing an explosion.

• Permit me to construct a hypothetical. What if the title of these volumes was swapped out for something like — The History of the Church and Her Theology — or something to highlight the excellent historical theology? What if they were reprinted as hardcovers with clean and classy dustjack design? Perhaps some light ornamentation on the cover like Yale’s Gombrich? What if the pages featured the torn, antique paper edge like you see in popular historical volumes like 1776 and Alexander Hamilton? And what if the text font was changed from Times New-Roman to a more graceful Garamond? These volumes may not carry the narrative and dialogue intrigue of books like 1776, but a new format would more accurately capture the history contained in these volumes and would perhaps appeal to a larger audience.

Format issues aside, Needham’s works are readable and provide us with a nice contribution to church history and historical theology. Thank you Carl Trueman!

Blunt Force Trueman: Facebook

“…the church should show this generation of text and web addicts where real friendship and community lie, not with some bunch of self-created avatars on Facebook but with the person next to them in the pew on Sunday, with the person next door, with the person they can see, hear, touch and, of course, to whom they can talk, and who is created not in webworld but by the mighty Creator.”

Ouch. The ever honest Carl Trueman.

Classic Trueman

“A world, and a church, which is hooked on novelty like some cultural equivalent of crack cocaine needs the cold, cynical eye of the historian to stand as a prophetic witness against it. And make no mistake, when it comes to my approach to trendy evangelical claims to epoch-making insights, beneath the cold, cynical exterior of this particular historian beats a heart of stone.”

-Carl Trueman, Minority Report (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008), p. 26

2000 Years of Christ’s Power by N.R. Needham

I enjoy reading. I enjoy devotional works, some biographies, systematic theologies, and technical commentaries (some of which I have read cover-to-cover!). But unlike a good systematic theology, church history books — even the best ones — never grabbed me with two-hands on the collar, pulled me to my feet, looked me in the eye, and captured my attention.

Often “church history” books contain too little personal information to understand the characters or too little theological development to understand the contemporary importance of the ancient debates. Sometimes church histories include too many loosely-connected people that they become a mess of names, dates, and cities far disconnected from my Christian experience and theology.

But over the past year I think I’m growing in my appreciation for church history through a growing interest in historical theology. Historical theology being the discipline of tracing events, controversies, personalities and books over the centuries that have shaped the church’s theology.

Historical theology is hard on the collar.

But excellent books on historical theology are a rarity. The most commonly recommend is the standard work by Alister McGrath’s, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Wiley-Blackwell: 1998 ). And there are some systematic theologies with an awareness of historical developments (like Culver and Akin). But my radar is always on the lookout for other volumes.

Carl Trueman

Enter Carl Trueman. Recently, I listened to Trueman’s lectures on church history from the Fulwood Conference (Nov. 8-9, 2007; Christ Church Fulwood, U.K.). At the beginning of his second conference address, Trueman recommended some books and I scratched them down in a notebook. I’m glad I did.

Here’s what Trueman said:

“There was one question that I was asked. Could I recommend a book to read alongside the historical theology module run by Moore College? Two things I would recommend there: (1) The series being written by a guy named Nicholas Needham. It’s called 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (Evangelical Press) and is proving to be a very good, comprehensive, but easy-to-read account of church history. It comes in several volumes. (2) And the other book I recommend to students – the best single-volume on the history of theology – written by a Scandinavian Lutheran named Bengt Hägglund, titled simply, History of Theology (Concordia: 2007). It’s a single volume that takes you from the early church almost down to the present day in terms of the history of theology. So those would be the two books I would recommend.”

These would prove to become fruitful recommendations. Here are more details:

History of Theology by Bengt Hägglund (Concordia: 2007). The fourth revised edition of this volume was published in the Spring of this year. I’m awaiting a copy of Hägglund’s volume and I’ll pass along more detailed information soon.

But in this post I want to focus more on the 2000 Years of Christ’s Power series by N.R. Needham (Evangelical Press). The series will total five volumes, and to date three have been published.

Part One: The Age of the Early Fathers (Evangelical Press: 1998)

Part Two: The Middle Ages (Evangelical Press: 2000). Paperback, 460 pages.

Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Evangelical Press: 2004). Paperback, 624 pages.

I’ve read through several chapters in Needham’s two newest volumes (Part Two: The Middle Ages and Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation). Here are my preliminary notes:

  • Rev. Dr. Nick Needham is a Baptist pastor and teaches church history at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland. His series of writings are written for a popular audience of modern Christian readers. The back cover notes this series was written “in a style that will appeal to the non-specialist and any modern Christian will find it challenging and stimulating.” I agree. Needham is a lucid author that presents a great amount of detail while keeping me engaged. His masterful use of frequent section breaks, clearly numbered outlines, boldly-fonted names, and visual aids keep me reading long sections very comfortably. These volumes excel in readability.
  • In the beginning of Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation, Needham states he is “Reformed by theological conviction” (3:12). On the same page he goes on to say, “I have little sympathy with that form of ‘ecumenism’ which relativises, and thereby trivialises, the convictions for which men and women lived and fought and died in the 16th century. That isn’t to say I disapprove of deeper understanding among the different religious traditions that claim the name of Christian; I approve heartily. But sometimes, deeper understanding will lead us to appreciate just how deeply we do differ on not a few issues, despite surprising measures of agreement on others. Papering over the cracks in the interests of some ecumenical ‘happy family’ game, in which sincerity is more highly prized than truth, is not this writer’s agenda, either as a historian or a Churchman.”
  • The publisher plugs these volumes as a series on church history not explicitly a historical theology although it’s pretty obvious these volumes simultaneously cover the historical and theological development of the church. Probably, I find myself engaged by the content because of the author’s obvious interest in theology. Remember Trueman recommended Needham in answering a question about books on historical theology. A fitting recommendation.
  • Needham clearly and concretely explains the broad political, social, and economic climate, then weaves in the specific writers, preachers, leaders, and books that shaped the theology. The volume covering the theological developments during the Middle Ages was fascinating, probably because I have previously dissed the era as a theological trifle. It was not. Especially noteworthy was Needham’s chapter on the global rise of Islam and its impact on Christian theology (2:15-45). I was surprised to learn John of Damascus (675-749) ministered under Islamic rule and even acted as a Prime Minister to the local Islamic rule! Within these medieval debates over Islamic theology opened controversies on the Trinity, incarnation, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of worship. These debates were handled by men like John of Damascus and Thomas Aquinas. My point is: Needham’s scope of content expands beyond the walls of the church to provide necessary historical background in the theological developments within the walls. [In contrast, note McGrath's Historical Theology makes no mention of Islam].
  • Each chapter concludes with a well-selected sampling of original source material to reinforce the chapter contents.
  • Each volume includes a very detailed glossary, an extensive index of names and (best of all) an extensive subject index.
  • The covers make for an odd marriage. The bottom 1/3rd is nice, featuring a line of portraits. The upper 2/3rds however are not so attractive. If the bottom appeals to a reader of cultured artistic tastes, I would say the top will catch the attention of roughly the same folks that pack a NASCAR race in the hopes of witnessing an explosion.
  • Permit me to construct a hypothetical. What if the title of these volumes was swapped out for something like — The History of the Church and Her Theology — or something to highlight the excellent historical theology? What if they were reprinted as hardcovers with clean and classy dustjack design? Perhaps some light ornamentation on the cover like Eerdmans’ Machen or Yale’s Gombrich? What if the pages featured the torn, antique paper edge like you see in popular historical volumes 1776 and Alexander Hamilton? And what if the text font was reformatted from the lifeless Times New-Roman to a graceful Garamond? These volumes may not carry the narrative and dialogue intrigue of books like 1776, but with the rising interest in historical non-fiction volumes, a new format would more accurately capture the content of these volumes and would perhaps appeal to a larger audience. I would love to see these volumes in the feel and smell of the history books so popular today. You know what I’m talking about (and that’s my point).

In the end, these volumes by N.R. Needham are a nice find for the historical theology buff! I’m glad Carl Trueman recommended them, because likely in my search for good historical theology I would have shrouded them under my suspicion of anything “church history.”

Is the Reformation over? ‘Absolutely not’

Happy Reformation Day everyone!

What better way to celebrate this sacred day than to listen to Carl Trueman being interviewed by Al Mohler over the question: Is the Reformation Over?

The interview can be heard between the 11:02-19:40 mark.

Trueman: Where’d the Psalms go?

tsslogo.jpgIt is quite obvious in Scripture that Psalms are to be sung in the corporate life of the church (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Scripture assumes continuity between the life of the Psalmist before the Cross, and the life of the Christian after the Cross. Yet, this emphasis on relating to the Psalmist – not to mention the direct singing of the Psalms – seems to be largely missing from the contemporary church. I wonder why?

Let me make my own confession. As a non-denominational reformed Christian, I’ve never sung from a Psalter. In fact I’ve never held a Psalter in my hands. In my circles, I would have a hard time finding people who even know what a Psalter is! (One close friend suggested it must be something like a salt shaker!)

I am thankful that Scripture calls us to sing Psalms, and also opens the door to hymns and various other spiritual songs. I am deeply grateful for the corporate freedom to sing a variety of worship songs.

But a big question in my mind over the past year is, simply, why have the Psalms been disconnected from the corporate expression of the church? In the past I have suggested that perhaps part of the reason Puritan spirituality seems so foreign to us today is because the Puritans used the Psalms to interpret their life experiences. But this does not get us closer to a contemporary answer.

Recently I read Carl Trueman’s collections of essays, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004). These essays provoked stimulating thoughts in a number of areas. Trueman is the Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) of the contemporary church and if you want a great read, Wages of Spin is it. (Catchy title, isn’t it?)

In his chapter “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” Trueman also takes note of the disappearance of the Psalms in corporate worship. While I am no closer to an answer, I have benefited from his insights:

Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.

Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament — but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps — and this is more likely — it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one — and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably I creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies. By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?

- Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) pp. 158-160.

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