Recently I wrote about an “admission” from Kevin DeYoung of how some theologians run to two-kingdoms theology because it provides a “bulwark against theonomy and reconstructionism.” But that was nothing compared to the level of candor we have now gotten from Carl Trueman. I never expected this. But I have to say, as much as I disagree and even dislike what I read here, I am grateful when our opponents get this consistent and this candid with their consistency. This, my friends, is a unambigious, unapologetic theology of total retreat and surrender. Defeatism never earned the label so fully before.
The title is all you need to read, really: “A Church for Exiles.” And Dr. Trueman wastes no time getting to the point in his first sentence: “We live in a time of exile.” A brief moment later, he makes sure you know what he means: “We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.”
The interested reader need read no further to get his point or understand it. The rest of the longish piece is either variations on a theme, or gentle argument to his First Things audience as to why, in his words, “Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile.” While I share the Reformed tradition with Dr. Trueman, I hardly think it necessarily shares his view on cultural and social exile, although if you listen to many of its leading doctors today you would easily get that impression.
I would like to share with you a few critiques of Trueman’s article, as well as a better way provided by Reformed traditionalists who have gone before us.
Social Cues, You Lose
One of the most disappointing aspects of Dr. Trueman’s effort is that it neglects Scripture, even while using a biblical term as its basis. The language of “exiles” is, of course, taken directly from Scripture, but one would expect—especially from a Reformed theologian in the tradition of sola scriptura—to provide some exegesis or exposition to give substance, context, and clarity to the concept. Dr. Trueman provides none. In fact, in a long essay of nearly 4,000 words (roughly 16 manuscript pages), Dr. Trueman not only provides no exegesis, he does not even cite a single passage from Scripture.
That’s disappointing, because any concerned Christian reader should expect doctrine to come from Scripture in general, but especially in the case of large-swath doctrines such as eschatology, the kingdom of God, social engagement, the interpretation of history, etc., and even more so when the doctrine being advanced demands major alterations in life-stances.
Yet Trueman provides no Scripture, and his analysis that the church is “set for exile” today is not based on Scripture, either. If not Scripture, then what? Dr. Trueman gets his analysis of our imminent exile from the circumstances around him: “The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.” He goes on to detail this discomfort with reference to things like the rise of homosexual marriage, abortion, and pornography in society, and the diminishing influence of Christian values in the face of these.
There are a couple points to be made here. The first is, as I said, the fact that Trueman is taking his cues from society in order to interpret the Bible, instead of vice versa. This is as much “newspaper eschatology” as it is when dispensationalists cite headlines as proof the end times are upon us (once again). We should trust Scripture over and against our senses and above and beyond, certainly, our interpretation of immediate history.
If God made certain promises to the church, then we should look forward to those promises no matter what our perception of the surroundings may be. This is important theologically, for from my experience, when the opponents of optimism (or “postmillennialism”) run out of exegetical arguments (and they always do eventually), then they always retreat to this final refuge: “The world is falling apart around us! So, how is that ‘dominion’ thing working out for you?” In short, they admit that their position is ultimately based on their own eyes and not the eye of faith in God’s promises in Scripture.
What’s especially confusing about this particular fault is that Scripture gives us examples in several places of people who made this mistake ahead of us. To quote Paul: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). While Paul did not list the same examples I will here, the principle still stands: why do we keep repeating the errors against which God has warned us both didactically and through the example of others in Scripture.
Two obvious examples that come to mind are Elijah and King David. Elijah participated in one of the most spectacular miracles in the Old Testament—the fire from heaven—and then presided over the execution of several hundred blaspheming prophets (1 Kings 18:19–40). And yet one single word from the civil government—Jezebel—calling for Elijah’s head was all it took to send the prophet fleeing into the wilderness—“exile”—in fear of his life.
Elijah fled, sat down under a tree, and prayed to God that he might die (1 Kings 19:4). If self-exile were not enough, Elijah sought the ultimate liturgy of cultural irrelevance: a funeral. God confronted Elijah for his defeatism. Elijah promptly responded with an article about his church for exiles—complete with appeal to the declining culture around him:
He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10).
One could hear the pessimillennialists and exile theologians of the day joining Elijah’s refrain. One could hear them rebutting any optimist of the era: “How are those great promises working out for ya?”
But what did God say? God said to look through the decadence, through the great powerful emphases of the world, and focus on the promises of God—even if they seem to be only a still small voice in comparison. God revealed to Elijah that He had reserved 7,000 faithful elect throughout the realm whom Elijah could not even discern at the moment. And what was Elijah to do? He was to go perform his calling: making disciples and preaching the whole counsel of God—and expecting God’s promises to prevail despite the appearances and circumstances.
There is another outstanding account which I have covered before in my Sermons of 1 Samuel. This is the example of David. This young man had been anointed by Samuel himself to be King of Israel. Yet he was for a space of years hounded and chased by Saul who employed all the machinery of the State to have David killed. In the process, Saul had taxed the kingdom to death, engaged in all kinds of intrigue, lies, corruption, rebellion, and murder, and even annihilated the priesthood in a gruesome mass murder. Only one priest escaped. After so much of this, David finally fled into the wilderness and literally hid inside a cave—Adullam.
One can just hear the Truemans of the day: David, you just need to give up on dominion; you need a church suited for exiles. You should not expect to “win” in history.
One can hear those critics again: Hey David, how’s that kingship thing working out for ya?
And yet what did God do in this darkest of moments? If you discern what is happening in 1 Samuel 22, you will see that in that cave, God orchestrated a renewal of the nation of Israel around that anointed king. God sent him a prophet, a priest, and he was a king. God sent him a remnant of believers and his family. What had God done? God led David in the beginning steps of Christian Reconstruction—of reconstructing the nation around those faithful to His promises despite the outward appearances of history.
And why? Because David believed God and not his circumstances. And these things were written for our example so that we will not repeat the failures of previous saints who did not even have the advent of Christ to focus their efforts.
This particular focus has been lost multiple times in Church History. You would think at some point we would wise up about having our view of Scripture turned on its head. Why do we not demand something better? Dr. Trueman’s specialty in theology is church history. He is a professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary. Anyone who studies Church History ought to know that theologians have made this mistake scores of times throughout history. Eschatological predictions have failed time and again due to this error. Predictions about the total demise of the church and the world have failed countless times. Of all people, a professor Church History should know better.
But there’s a rub here: knowing better would mean embracing an alternative to defeatism. That would mean some view of optimism, be it traditional postmillennialism or even Christian Reconstruction. And that, above all things, is what seems to be off the table without further discussion. Give me closet Christianity and ethereal, ritualistic Sundays punctuated by droning six-day periods of mundane “life” in between. In other words, give me “exile to cultural irrelevance” while I sing songs and assure myself God is pleased with me and I’ll go to heaven.
A second point to be made is that when we do make this vital mistake of Scriptural interpretation, we can end up perverting the Scriptural language we do adopt. In Trueman’s case, as well as in the case of many who share his retreat, the biblical doctrine of “exile” is given a prominence and power, as well as a twist, it does not deserve. I have covered this issue in regard to modern two kingdoms advocates in a previous essay, so I will not repeat it at length here. I will only repeat that the exile motif is misrepresented and misapplied by these opponents of biblical optimism. They turn the biblical idea on its head, making pagans to inherit the earth and assuming the people of God are under punishment. As well, they neglect the New Testament teachings that we have arrived at Zion and are no longer strangers or pilgrims. Again, read my previous essays in this regard.
Finally in this section, I cannot bear not to point out the alarming irony of theologians who spend years and careers denying the need for Christian involvement in society, training waves of pastors for Reformed pulpits expressly to avoid social issues, and criticizing and condemning those of us who do go there, now suddenly lamenting the fact that Christianity has lost influence in society. The contrast here is so stark there must be either blindness or deceit behind it. What? Did they not catch that passage about sowing and reaping? I understand it is doubly-convicting when the reaping is bitter and you are the one who did the sowing, but this is no excuse to act surprised, or to act as if the results of your own negligence were God’s promises all along.
History Neglected and Revised
Along with the neglect of historical lessons already mentioned, our Church Historian has some rather curious historical claims and insights based upon them. First, as part of his argument that the Reformed church is best equipped for the exile he envisions, Trueman makes this arguments as to why the Roman Catholic Church is not:
Catholicism’s institutional footprint is so large—and Catholic theological (and emotional) investment in it 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.
I can understand that writing for First Things may tempt some to greater levels of niceties than normal. FT is, after all, a highly pluralistic forum which, though broadly “conservative,” nevertheless demands its own brand of political correctness. And one may not notice it at first here because this quotation purports to be a mild criticism. But the PC is in what is being assumed and not said—and they are things on which, again, a church historian ought to be most keen. I read this and automatically ask, When has Catholicism not been compromised by humanism in countless ways? When has Catholicism not blurred the clarity and integrity of Christian witness?
I bring this up because historically, the Reformed churches have made largely the same compromises in regard to social theory, law, and government, as has Catholicism; and to ignore the many past compromises of Catholicism is to do the same for the Reformed faith and its traditions. Calvin was great when exegeting Scripture—for example in his sermons on Samuel or Deuteronomy. And he shined quite often in addition to that. But when he arrived at the issue of penal sanctions in his Institutes, suddenly he fell back on his classical legal training—which was traditionally Catholic and Aristotelian, i.e. pagan. There are reasons for this which can be explained and adequately critiqued, but the point here is that when it came to rubber-meeting-road, Calvin at that point in time and on that issue did nothing but recapitulate the errors of Catholicism. And worse yet, to a large degree, this is what became repeated throughout much of the Reformed tradition to which Trueman is appealing.
At such a juncture, we need not focus on modern trends. We need further to critique Catholicism and the Reformed doctrines assumed upon it, and then reconstruct those doctrines based solely on Scripture. Neglecting the past social sins in the face of such a need is to sweep the main problem under the carpet.
When we engage in such neglect, however, we tend to start revising later historical phenomenon in light of it. There are some in the Reformed tradition here and there who engaged in the biblical inquiry in the right way, and others who at least made valiant attempts at the question. But the “exile theologians” must paint a different picture of the history. We are left to believe that it is a contemporary development that Catholicism is just too big and too invested in society—it is now facing massive temptation to compromise. The Reformed church, on the other hand (we are told) is small and will not face this problem as it hunkers down for the duration. And those Reformed theologians who did teach otherwise: well, they are either reinterpreted, cherry-picked, or left unmentioned.
Trueman dips into his historical treasury far enough to remember one of these great men: John Winthrop. In the hands of an exile theologian, Winthrop’s tale gets told thusly:
Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.
Aside from the false dichotomy of “messianic destiny” or “exile,” this explanation leaves something to be desired. As with most so-enlightened history, it has a seed of truth. In his famous sermon about the “city on a hill,” Winthrop did give such a warning about the outside world’s scrutiny:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
True enough, but there is enough in just that quotation to show there is much more to the story. The context was not merely living among hostile scrutiny, and not about exile at all. The chief scrutiny at issue as God’s, and the hostility they feared most was His were they not to build a society faithful to His word. “Exile” demanded nothing of them. God demanded everything.
Had Trueman considered just the title of Winthrop’s famous address, he may have recognized the greater context: “A Model of Christian Charity.” By “Charity,” Winthrop was not talking merely about offerings and taking care of the poor. In that 1630 sermon, given aboard the ship before he landed in Massachusetts, Winthrop was talking about how to found the entire new civilization squarely and entirely upon the word of God, so that the civilization would be, as the title suggest, a model of Christian civilization built on loving on another. And in his explanation of Scripture, he was quite explicit that this would involve the reconstruction of society from what they had experienced before. Read this passage and judge for yourself how well this comports with the retreat and defeat of the exile theologians:
It rests now to make some application of this discourse, by the present design, which gave the occasion of writing of it. . . .
First, for the persons. We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, in which respect only, though we were absent from each other many miles, and had our employments as far distant, yet we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love and live in the exercise of it, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ. . . .
Secondly for the work we have in hand. It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical. In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.
Thirdly, the end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord; the comfort and increase of the body of Christ, whereof we are members, that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.
Fourthly, for the means whereby this must be effected. They are twofold, a conformity with the work and end we aim at. These we see are extraordinary, therefore we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go. That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice; as in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.
Neither must we think that the Lord will bear with such failings at our hands as he doth from those among whom we have lived; . . .
[W]hen God gives a special commission He looks to have it strictly observed in every article; When He gave Saul a commission to destroy Amaleck, He indented with him upon certain articles, and because he failed in one of the least, and that upon a fair pretense, it lost him the kingdom, which should have been his reward, if he had observed his commission.
Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.
It is clear that this was to be the establishment and enlargement of Christian civilization upon Christian principles. It is clear that it includes both church and also civil law. It was to be above and beyond the private-confession type of Christianity they had left in England, and instead be manifested in the practices of all of life. It is clear that they expected God’s blessings or curses in history as they either obeyed or rebelled against His covenant.
This is the way Reformed theologians used to think. Used to. Today, we get expressions of faith like this from Trueman:
A marginal, minority interest in America for well over a century, she does not face the loss of social influence and political aspirations that now confront Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. We do not expect to be at the center of worldly affairs. We do not imagine ourselves to be running indispensable institutions. Lack of a major role in the public square will cause no crisis in self-understanding.
There is no crisis in self-understanding in the slave who believes he ought to be a slave, and who in thankfulness bows to kiss the rod of his pagan master. No goals, no disappointments. No expectations, no doubts when they do not manifest as quickly as one feels they should have.
I say this is not merely the avoidance of crisis, it is a faith designed to appease the faithless and lazy. This is lowering the bar of obedience. It is Winthrop’s warning realized: we have been negligent and lazy, and we have received our just reward. The remedy is not to rewrite our theologies and histories to fit or rebellion, it is to repent and return to God and the promises He made.
We’ll return to what Reformed theologians used to believe in just a minute. For now, let us note further the effect that theology culturally defined and misapplied can have on viewing Scripture.
Turning Psalms into Lamentations
You’ve heard of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Exile theologians have the tendency to turn psalms of victory into notes of lament. This is literally what Trueman does. Once the exile mentality is established and Christians are led to embrace cultural irrelevance, they’ll need a weekly liturgy to match. Trueman finds defeatism in the Psalter:
This is why the Psalter has been so central to Reformed worship. The Psalms’ many notes of lament, of longing for future rest, and of present discomfort and disillusion with the status quo reinforce in the minds of the Reformed that our citizenship is not ultimately in this world. It provides realistic horizons of expectation for this world—and for the next. It gives us a vocabulary with which to praise God in the midst of the contradictions of life lived out under the burdens of the Fall. It reminds us that, whatever good things this world has to offer, they can only be of passing value. And when suffering comes, we acknowledge and sorrow over its reality but regard it as nothing compared to the weight of eternal glory that is to follow. Every time we gather for worship in church or around the family Bible, the very songs of David we sing speak of exile—and of hope for the better country we seek.
No doubt, the Psalms do highlight suffering and longing in places—but these are mainly prophecies of the suffering Messiah as viewed through David’s life lived typologically foreshadowing him. This is important, but to make this aspect too central is to ignore so much of the optimism and vision the Psalms offer in addition. Did Trueman not consider these parts of the Psalter?
Now therefore, kings, be wise; be taught,
ye judges of the earth:
Serve God in fear, and see that ye
join trembling with your mirth.
Kiss ye the Son, lest in his ire
ye perish from the way,
If once his wrath begin to burn:
blessed all that on him stay. (Psalm 2)
For those that evil doers are
shall be cut off and fall:
But those that wait upon the Lord
the earth inherit shall.
For yet a little while, and then
the wicked shall not be;
His place thou shalt consider well,
but it thou shalt not see.
But by inheritance the earth
the meek ones shall possess:
They also shall delight themselves
in an abundant peace. (Psalm 37)
This Psalm was quoted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:5).
What of Psalm 119 and its multiple delights and admonitions for the Law of God? And what of the notes of outright triumphalism of that Psalm which has the most quoted verse in the New Testament, Psalm 110?
The Lord did say unto my Lord,
Sit thou at my right hand,
Until I make thy foes a stool,
whereon thy feet may stand.
The Lord shall out of Zion send
the rod of thy great pow’r:
In midst of all thine enemies
be thou the governor.
A willing people in thy day
of pow’r shall come to thee,
In holy beauties from morn’s womb;
thy youth like dew shall be.
The Lord himself hath made an oath,
and will repent him never,
Of th’ order of Melchisedec
thou art a priest for ever.
The glorious and mighty Lord,
that sits at thy right hand,
Shall, in his day of wrath, strike through
kings that do him withstand.
He shall among the heathen judge,
he shall with bodies dead
The places fill: o’er many lands
he wound shall ev’ry head.
Are these the “notes of lament” which “speak of exile” and conform us to endure mediocrity and failure in history? Are these the notes of lament that inspired Reformed theologians to brave all conditions, evangelize worldwide, build cities on hills?
Let me be clear: it is a mockery of a significant portion of the Reformed heritage to represent it in this way. This is to stand on the shoulders of giants only to wet upon their heads.
And it is a mockery of Scripture to build a church only on the sour notes of Psalms and neglect the victory, triumph, vision, mission, and thanksgiving.
But what else does the faith of defeat and retreat have to offer its followers except for a Christian ghetto? And in such a ghetto, what shall be the service of this marginalized faith? You shall have a denuded liturgy to match. Ghetto faith, ghetto liturgy. Culturally irrelevant faith, culturally irrelevant liturgy.
In this regard, Trueman returns to the buzzword “realistic”—as defined by the doctrine of cultural irrelevance with no expectation or hope otherwise. He writes,
Christianity needs to be realistic both in its theology and in its liturgy. With the central place it gives to the singing of the Psalter, the Reformed tradition ministers to the hearts and minds of Christians set for cultural exile. The transitions through which we are living are confusing and at times painful. The Psalms offer us a means of expressing that confusion and pain in our praise to God, and no tradition has so placed their corporate use at the heart of its worship as much as the Reformed.
Now the Reformed tradition is not just pitiful, it is the most pitiful ever devised!
Or is it? I think Trueman senses some of the disconnect to which I have been pointing—in both Scripture and the Reformed tradition. Thus, in what follows, he briefly mentions the historical discord with his particular rendition.
Real reality sets in
What follows here is an interlude of denial and lack of self-awareness. About to change his tune a bit, Trueman writes, “The argument so far has been that Reformed worship can sustain the believer in a time of trial.”
No, it hasn’t. The argument so far is that Reformed worship can do so, but that we are entering a period of “exile” involving the “cultural irrelevance” of the Christian faith, and that the Reformed faith is the best tradition so far suited to that condition. Let’s not short change ourselves here. And let’s not back off so quickly from what has already been argued.
It is bad enough when we do not represent Scripture or tradition correctly, but it is the mark of confusion when we cannot even represent our own arguments from the same article correctly.
Trueman continues the paragraph, here acknowledging that, well, perhaps the Reformed faith has not been the standard-bearer of cultural irrelevance after all:
Yet in the past the Reformed faith has been a dynamic force in the public square. Reformed theology contributed to the rise of the theory of just rebellion, played a role in the English Civil War, inspired the Scottish Covenanters, and gave John Winthrop a vision for building a city on a hill in the New World. The Reformed faith resists being reduced to a type of private pietism. On the contrary, it has often proved a potent social force, even in situations of marginality and exile. . . .
Today’s world is becoming a colder, harder place. Even so, we have ongoing civic responsibilities. Shaped by our faith, we too can speak to those in power. We must remind them of their responsibilities to protect the innocent and to punish the wicked. We must remind them of the fact that they, the magistrates, will ultimately answer to a higher authority. It is this consciousness of civic responsibility—and of a firm place to stand in Christ—that frames Calvin’s Institutes and has served to make Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history, from the Puritans to Abraham Kuyper.
Suddenly, Winthrop is a visionary champion. Past Reformed guys have championed not retreat but rebellion in the face of bad law and persecution. Earlier in the article, Calvin was a model exile. Now he is a “powerful force for change in history.” Witness the head-of-state work of so many in the Reformed tradition, like Kuyper.
I got one question: Do you think our exile theologians will follow in their footsteps?
Of course not. So why this about-face in the article? For one reason: to cover the base. Trueman knows for a fact that the Reformed faith historically does not champion retreat and defeat, and cultural irrelevance. Give me a break! Trueman knows all the great Reformers upheld social involvement, social theory, and social change. He knows he has to deal with this reality somehow. What he does is the standard tactic of all those who wish to marginalize the radical elements of the faith they wish not to hold: you affirm the rhetoric, but you dilute the meaning and especially the practice (if you practice it at all).
As proof that I am right about this, all you have to do is go read all the works where these exile theologians expound the practical outworking of biblical law for government, civil law, politics, economics, welfare reform, social theory, etc.—in short, all the works outlining those “civic responsibilities” Trueman mentions. Hint: it will be a short read. They do not write about it much because they do not really believe it, and they are not really serious about practicing it. And they don’t want anyone else practicing it, either—it makes them look like naysaying pietists.
This is always what modern two kingdoms theologians do: they admit what they have to admit in a limited way and only because they know they cannot get away with denying it. But they have no intention of acting upon it.
Above all they must head-off this objection: that exile theology turns the faith into a type of private pietism. And this is why Trueman gives lip service in this couple of paragraphs. It is to deliver to you this sentence: “The Reformed faith resists being reduced to a type of private pietism.”
Sure, the Reformed faith resists this; but the exile wing of the Reformed faith does not resist. This brief disclaimer in the midst of Trueman’s theology of woe is there to distract readers from the conclusion to which the rest of the piece points. Do you think that having a faith custom-designed for cultural irrelevance and a liturgy designed to reinforce this mentality sounds a bit like a type of private piety? If so, that’s because it is.
Not only does this particular quack fit that particular duck, but Trueman returns to his candor fairly quickly. He reminds his First Things readers of their common natural law tradition (remember what I wrote earlier about what was left unreformed during the Reformation?). But he is quick also to add that this commonality bears a slight distinction within it. In this, it is only the Reformed faith that can properly understand the reasons why their natural law theory must always fail: because sin is more powerful than redemption in history.
Where Thomas saw sin as exacerbating the limitations of nature in a fallen world, Calvin saw sin as bringing a decisive ethical darkness into the world.
This difference is important and gives Reformed theology a more realistic understanding of Christian life in the public square and thus of the limits to what we might expect to achieve. People do not call evil good and good evil primarily because they are confused or not thinking clearly. They do so because they are in basic rebellion against God. It sounds a tad paradoxical: The Reformed use natural law for public engagement but expect little or no success. We believe that the world was created with a particular moral structure. Yet we also believe that fallen humanity has a fundamental antipathy toward acknowledging any form of external authority that threatens our own ultimate autonomy. This injects a basic irrationality and emotional passion into moral debates. This distortion of conscience and reason explains the apparent impotence of otherwise compelling arguments. And it surely reflects our actual experience as Christians in exile in twenty-first-century America.
That’s right: this is the Reformed faith in which the doctrine of total depravity trumps the doctrines of atonement, redemption, resurrection, ascension, empowerment with the Holy Spirit, sanctification, and everything else flowing from the doctrine of redemption. We must ignore all of this and focus only on total depravity and its pervasive victory in the public square. We must wallow in the power of total depravity.
And it is in this context of theological exile—the triumph of sin—that the clearest note of defeat sounds. Despite whatever boasts about the need for civic responsibilities or confronting rulers prophetically came only moments before, here we find that retreatism ends in nihilism: “The Reformed use natural law for public engagement but expect little or no success.” There is no better description for this: it is Reformed nihilism.
And one cannot help noticing the repeated refrain at the end: “it surely reflects our actual experience as Christians in exile in twenty-first-century America.” Which is to say, “How’s that dominion thing working out for ya?”
David? Elijah? Speak up. How’s it working?
In the minds of the exile theologians, there is no way God can keep those promises in history. Why not? Because in their minds, sin will dominate this world until some day in the future, and any attempt at actually discipling the nations must fail. Trueman concludes,
Reformed theology understands this dark fact about our fallen humanity. We do not underestimate the ruthlessness of the opposition. We expect cultural exile. It actually confirms our deepest convictions about the way the world is.
This means the Great Commission must fail. This means the Dominion Mandate is a history-long illusion. This means that the whole scope of the Bible and Reformed theology for these guys must be made to bend and serve this one proposition: “We expect cultural exile.”
What Reformed theologians used to sound like
One irony that stands in all of this is expressed in this question: Why did Trueman seek to publish his article about cultural irrelevance in a venue that bills itself as “America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”? Apparently, the path to cultural irrelevance these days must be sought through the channels of cultural relevance.
According to its own “About” page, First Things and its parent institution were created “to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be ‘naked,’ and that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.” Yet we have prophets like Trueman with full white flag announcing full surrender.
Something ain’t congruous here.
But I’ll take him at his word. He expects cultural exile. I just don’t accept that this is by any means what the Reformed tradition ought to expect, and even more, I don’t think this is what a biblical view should accept. Earlier I used John Winthrop to show that Trueman’s exile theology is not how Reformed theologians used to think. I would like to conclude with one more shining example. This example, as you will see, is shining not only for its clear affirmation of biblical optimism, but for doing so precisely at a time in which historical conditions would have made it seem silly to do so.
In discussing the matter of “The Gospel and the Second Coming,” old Princeton theologian Benjamin B. Warfield covered differing views of the “Millennium.” He wasted no time getting to the point. This is not exile, but rule and conquest under Christ, and it is going on now. First, as the Christmas hymn says, there is a “golden age”:
The Scriptures do promise to the church a “golden age,” when the conflict with the forces of evil in which it is engendered has passed into victory.”
Warfield describes two views of this golden age: one in which the age is established at a future coming of Christ (pre-millennialism), and another in which that victory is progressing now and in which a future coming of Christ will occur only to crown the fulfilled achievement of that age. Warfield argues for the latter, often termed “post-millennialism.” He specifically argues that this golden age is taking place now:
[P]recisely what the risen Lord, who has been made head over all things for his church, is doing through these years that stretch between his first and second comings, is conquering the world to himself; and the world is to be nothing less than a converted world. . . .
And he argues for this view not from historical consequences, his own interpretation of history around him, Supreme Court decisions, or newspaper headlines, but from Scripture:
Paul puts the whole matter in a nutshell. What has been given us who are charged with the preaching of the gospel is, he tells us, distinctively the ministry of reconciliation, and it is the ministry of reconciliation for the specific reason that God was reconciling the world with himself in Christ (2 Cor. v. 19). Every word here must be taken in its full meaning.
You have to love how Warfield counsels us to pay careful attention to every word of Scripture! Modern Reformed theologians should listen up.
The ministry which Paul exercised, and which everyone who follows him in proclaiming the gospel exercises with him, is distinctively the ministry of reconciliation, not of testimony merely, but of reconciliation. It has as its object, and is itself the proper means of, the actual reconciliation of the whole world. That its full point may be given to this great declaration, we should go on to observe that Paul proceeds at once to proclaim that therefore—because it is this ministry of reconciliation that has been committed to us—the period of the preaching of the gospel is “the acceptable time” and “the day of salvation” predicted by the prophets. His meaning, when he cries, “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation,” is not, as it has sometimes been strangely misunderstood, that the day in which we may find acceptance with God is swiftly passing by, but rather that now at length that promised day of salvation has fully come. Now, this time of the preaching of the gospel of reconciliation is by way of eminence the day of salvation.
With this reconciliation itself being complete a full already in Christ, the ministry of reconciliation can and will be effective: “It is not a time in which only a few, here and there, may be saved, while the harvest is delayed. It is the very harvest time itself in which the field is being reaped. And the field is the world.”
We need not wait any longer to declare any aspect of Christ’s rule in this world, for God has already completed it. Warfield writes:
The implication of a declaration like this is, of course, that God’s saving activities have now reached their culmination; there is nothing beyond this. This implication is present throughout the whole New Testament. It pervades, for example, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the burden of which is that in this dispensation the climax of God’s redemptive work has been attained, and there is nothing to be hoped for after it. In his Son and in the salvation provided in his Son God has done his ultimate. This note is already struck in the initial verses of the epistle and swells thence onward. . . .
And this view of the victory of Christ over all the world, and the need for the proclamation of it now, has tremendous import for understanding the Great Commission:
Let us turn, however, to the Great Commission itself (Matt. xxviii. 19, 20). From it surely we may learn the precise nature of the mission that has been committed to the Church of our age. The task laid upon it, we note, is that of “discipling all the nations,” and the means by which this discipling is to be accomplished is described as baptism and instruction—obviously just the ordinary means by which the Church is extended through the ministry of the gospel. The full point of the matter comes out, however, only in the accompanying promise: “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” The promise, of course, must correspond with the command. The Lord would not encourage his followers to fulfill his command to disciple all nations, by promising to be continuously with them (“all the days”) while time lasts (“even unto the end of the world”), unless the process of discipling the nations here commanded was itself to continue unbrokenly to this end. . . .
By Warfield’s standard here, the exile theologians must think Jesus would in fact give a command for which he intended not to empower His disciples for success. And in fact, they must think Jesus’ promise of His presence throughout the endeavor was only for something akin to spectatorship. Perhaps Jesus is only coming along to laugh at His disciples when they fail for not accomplishing the goal for which He did not empower them. Or, Jesus’ promise and command have some other meaning together. At the very least, Warfield argues, it denotes the scope of the command:
It cannot be said, indeed, that the mere command to the Church to disciple all nations carries with it as a necessary implication that, before time ceases, all the nations shall have been actually discipled. This much, however, is certainly included in the command: That the goal set before the Church in its evangelistic work, the object for which it is to labor, and the end by the accomplishment of which alone its task may be fulfilled, is “the discipling of all nations.” Under this commission the Church cannot set itself a lighter task or content itself with a lesser achievement. . . .
Further Scripture does give us assurance that the Church shall not fail in this task:
And elsewhere we are given firm ground for both the hope and the assurance. Even in the Great Commission, the promise annexed, “And lo, I am with you,” surely implies something more than that the power of the Lord will sustain his followers in the trials and disappointments of the heavy task laid upon them. There certainly throbs through it an intimation that because he is always with them in their work, they shall meet with some measure of success in it. What this measure of success shall be, we are told elsewhere. There is the parable of the mustard seed, intimating that small as it was in its beginning, the Kingdom of Heaven is to grow into a great tree in the branches of which all the birds of heaven shall lodge. And there is the parable of the leaven, which declares that though it was at the first but a speck of leaven, apparently lost in three whole measures of meal, yet by its power at last shall “all be leavened” (Matt. xiii. 31-33).
If this were not enough to lift even the modern Reformed bunch out of the ghetto-mentality of exile, Warfield concludes with an argument I’ve often repeated: Scripture makes clear that Christ shall not return one moment before the last enemy of God is defeated in history—and this must come while He is seated on His heavenly throne, and we on earth as His vicegerents:
Let us look for a moment at another line of representations. What do the Scriptures teach us of the time of our Lord’s return? Those men in white apparel who stood by the disciples as they gazed into the heavens into which their master had disappeared assured them that he would come again, but said nothing of when he would do so (Acts i. 10; cf. 7). But Peter who witnessed this scene informs us in his very first sermon, the great Pentecostal discourse, that Jesus, having, unlike David, ascended into heaven, has there taken his seat on the throne of the universe, at the right hand of God, and that he will remain in heaven upon his throne until all his enemies have been made the footstool of his feet (Acts ii. 35; cf. Heb. x. 12, 13; 1 Cor. xv. 25). All conflict, then, will be over, the conquest of the world will be complete, before Jesus returns to earth. He does not come in order to conquer the world to himself; he comes because the world has already been conquered to himself. . . .
So we might pass from representation to representation until well nigh the whole substance of the New Testament was reviewed. Enough has doubtless been said to show that the assumption that the dispensation in which we live is an indecisive one, and that the Lord waits to conquer the world to himself until after he returns to earth, employing then new and more effective methods than he has set at work in our own time, is scarcely in harmony with the New Testament point of view. According to the New Testament, this time in which we live is precisely the time in which our Lord is conquering the world to himself; and it is the completion of his redemptive work, so sets the time for his return to earth to consummate his Kingdom and establish it in its eternal form.
This is how Reformed theologians used to think. Granted, not all have been postmillennial like Warfield, and in fact I have disagreements with him on certain passages; but the point remains that Warfield’s arguments in the main accurately derive from Scripture, and that as far as representatives of “Reformed tradition” go, there are few finer.
It is of particular note here at its end that Warfield holds this view against premillennial assertions and against the view that “the dispensation in which we live is an indecisive one.” This latter is a classic tenet of amillennial perspectives as well. Either way results in a form of exile theology—shriveling in fear and paralysis at the encroachment of the world upon us, and the gradual marginalization of the faith into cultural irrelevance. What Warfield shows is that the Reformed tradition, and certainly Scripture, is not wed to retreat and defeat, nor even necessarily suited for it. In fact, we ought to be think the opposite on all counts.
Warfield and the Great War
There is yet another dimension to the importance of this particular article. It is one thing to have a theoretical theology of victory and optimism. It is quite another to maintain that view in the face of cultural hostilities. And the greater the hostility, the longer it tends to persist, and especially the further it spreads throughout society—the more difficult it is to maintain the stance of optimism.
I may scoff at the idea that defining Scripture by circumstances is “realistic”—it is not—but I certainly understand how realistic the temptation is to do so. This is why I mentioned the examples of Elijah and David earlier. They show examples of when men of faith were helpless in the face of cultural hostility, and yet their faith was sustained through even the bleakest period, unto their obedient callings, and toward righteous victories in history.
To these examples we can add Warfield as well. Here was a guy who continued to publish his postmillennial view even in the face of social chaos. What happened?
The turning point historically for the popularity of postmillennialism is almost universally accepted as World War I, or The Great War. It was this outbreak across the globe, particularly in Europe, that shattered the optimism of many that the gospel would Christianize the globe. The horror was far too great, and human nature seen far too depraved for there to be anything like a world safe for democracy, let alone gospel freedom.
But what is a postmillennialist to do who keeps their eye focused on the promises of God, who judges history by Scripture and not Scripture by history? Just as all the faithful of God all through history: keep preaching the truth even in the darkest of governments and even caves.
The strikingly optimistic quotations from Warfield above all come from a single article published in 1915. The beginning events of the Great War had already taken place, and news spread the globe, in the previous year. Much of the war was underway, and much of the Allied and Axis powers were already engaged by 1915—including Britain and Germany. In short, Warfield would have seen the world already undone by the Great War, even if not in its fullness. He would have seen what destroyed the postmillennial convictions of so many already.
And yet he published. He did not call for retreat. He did not call Christians into exile. He did not demand a faith and liturgy custom fit for cultural irrelevance. He preached the optimistic, postmillennial hope of Christ’s current reign in history despite the dark circumstances.
That is how Reformed theologians, and indeed all biblical theologians, ought to think. And it is really such a basic aspect of biblical faith, I really have to say that the avoidance of it bespeaks a loss of it to some degree. When Christians begin allowing cultural shifts and historical circumstances to define their faith and their interpretation of the Word, it is a weakness analogous to apostasy, only a step removed.
The challenge to us today is that the theology of exile is as powerful as the illusions of defeat. That is one reason why cultural irrelevance seems so relevant. And yet it is helpful because it motivates exile theologians like Trueman to be candid with their beliefs.
If, however, we dare to follow a Winthrop or a Warfield, or even a Calvin or a Knox, and champion worldwide influence, social change, and victory in it, then let us look past the mere circumstances that bend the knees and wills of lesser men, and stand fast. For we are no longer strangers, pilgrims, or exiles. We have come to mount Zion. We are here. The law shall flow from Zion and all nations shall come to it. It may not look like it right now, but by all accounts that is what they eye of faith is for: believing the promise of the One who calls things that are not as though they were.
Choose ye this day: the eyes of faith, or the blind and their ditch. Choose ye this day: the promises of the God who brought us out of exile, or the theologians who work so hard to keep us in it.
Notes: See chapter “ .”  http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/08/a-church-for-exiles (accessed Aug. 13, 2014).  In the Midst of Your Enemies: Exposition and Application of 1 Samuel (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2013), 293–308.  See the chapter, “The Great Omission,” particularly the section, “Are Christians Pilgrims in Exile?”  John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” (1630); http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html (accessed Aug. 13, 2014).  John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” (1630); http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html (accessed Aug. 13, 2014).  I know that many of my higher-church brethren will object to the idea that liturgy flows from belief. They are taught the concept of lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of praying is the law of believing. Without entering that debate here, it is at least ironic that they need first needed a propositional creed to teach them that, isn’t it?  The quotations that follow are from B.B. Warfield, “The Gospel and the Second Coming,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield—I, ed. by John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 348–355.  B.B. Warfield, “The Gospel and the Second Coming,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield—I, ed. by John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 348–355.