A Lunchtime Conversation with Carl Trueman

The Orlando campus of RTS celebrated Reformatin500 with a visit from Dr. Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. In addition to four lectures on Martin Luther, he joined the seminary for a community lunch when Academic Dean Michael Allen posed some questions to him.


On the Priesthood of Believers

An idea we often hear about, almost as a cliché or mantra that seems to undermine the confessional teaching on pastoral ministry is the idea of the priesthood of all believers. What is Luther’s real concern and how do we perhaps sometimes misperceive that?


That has an interesting history because Luther certainly drops the rhetoric or at least the rhetoric is somewhat muted after 1525, with the Peasant’s War (with crazy people going on the rampage). Luther becomes much more of a hierarchical elitist after 1525.

The idea first emerges in his writings in 1520 in The Freedom of the Christian Man, where he talks about faith being that which unites us to Christ: that joyful union, like a man and a wife, between the believer and Christ. Luther argues from the universal priesthood of Christ to the universal priesthood of all believers. Because Christ for Luther is both priest and king, and united to him, believers partake of his priesthood and kingship.

For Luther that doesn’t shatter all ideas of competence in the church. In his 1539 treatise, “On the Councils of the Church,” Luther argues for ordination, being set aside to gospel ministry, as a mark of the true church. The church will have those who are in the position of elders or ministers. What it really means for Luther is that every Christian is to manifest in their life the priesthood and the kingship of Christ. As Christ dies for us, so we are to give ourselves sacrificially for our neighbors. As Christ rules the church by serving the church, so we are to demonstrate our lordship over the created realm by serving our neighbors. Luther’s view is being funneled through his theology of the cross, where everything is flipped on its head and is the opposite of what you might actually expect.

The priesthood of all believers for Luther is certainly a powerful idea, but it is also somewhat of a subtle idea. The rhetoric that Luther uses of freedom and universal priesthood is picked up by many in a more raw political sense. There is an interesting shift in political language that takes place between 1500 and 1520. If you were a peasant in 1500 and you were sitting in a pub and someone asks you, “Your life is miserable, what are you looking for in life,” you’d probably have said, “I’m looking for justice. I want justice.” If you’re having the same conversation in 1520, you probably said, “I’m looking for freedom. I’m looking for liberty.” You’d mean the same thing by it, but the language has morphed. In 1520, when Luther uses the language of freedom and universal priesthood, he is drawing on these kinds of impulses in the wider culture in order to make his writings catch the imagination. The problem that emerges of course is that his writings are misunderstood in a very worldly, political way.


Luther’s Sacramental Theology

Thinking about Luther’s view on the sacraments, how much sympathy do you have for him? He may not have been correct on everything, but are there elements of it that are positive benefits?


It is a very good question. The joke at Westminster Seminary is that my Reformation class should be called “Luther and a Couple of Other Guys.” I’m not a big fan of Zwingli for a whole variety of reasons. (Not least, because he thinks Hercules is in heaven!) There are some bizarre aspects to Zwingli’s theology.

But I can’t answer your question without explaining how I understand Calvin historically. When Calvin is in Basel early in his career, he is unique among the young humanists who are reading Protestant literature and getting excited about it, because he is the one who likes Luther. The other men there – Bullinger and company – are all Zwingli men. I’ve tended to think of Calvin as wanting to be with Luther on the Lord’s Supper, but ultimately knowing that Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper pushes you into some pretty terrible Christological problems relative to the ancient church creeds and trajectories of thinking through the Middle Ages. The communication of attributes (which is really elaborated by Luther’s followers, not so much by Luther) certainly from a reformed perspective raises all kinds of Christological problems. And I think that Calvin cannot go with Luther on the Lord’s Supper.

But Zwingli is worse. The pure memorialism just doesn’t make sense of the seriousness that Paul ascribes to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians, for example. Why are people falling asleep if the Lord’s Supper is nothing? Why is it having this devastating effect? And so, my sympathies lie with what Luther is trying to achieve: that the Lord’s Supper is important; that it does strengthen us for our Christian walk; that we’re embodied human beings and God’s grace reflects that. The taking of the Lord’s Supper does seal on our hearts the gospel. So I can’t go with Zwingli.

But I can’t go with Luther’s metaphysics of presence if you could put it that way. On baptism, there is not a lot (other than the fact that I would frame baptism in covenantal categories), on the significance of baptism as Luther sees it, and it seems to me to be compatible with the Reformed perspective – I’d have to think about that more – but on the Lord’s Supper, I can’t go with the Christology. I think what Calvin does is set what Luther is trying to achieve on a sound catholic theological footing.


Luther on Predestination

With regard to Luther and Calvin on election or predestination, is Luther basically similar to the later accounts you find in Calvin, or are they substantively different?


I would frame my answer in this way: Both Luther and Calvin belong to a broad Augustinian tradition that we can trace back through the Middle Ages through Gregory of Rimini, Thomas Bradwardine, and Thomas Aquinas, right the way back to the Pelagian controversies of the early fifth century and then back to the Apostle Paul. So I would approach the question by saying “let’s not isolate these two guys and just do a point by point comparison. Let’s set them within the broader western tradition.”

Having said that, I would say that Luther’s Bondage of the Will is the most radically determinist treatise on predestination written in the sixteenth century. When he makes the being of God the axiom for determinism, then everything is determined. Now, Luther never repeats that and some scholars have said he never repeats that because he never really believed it and he backed away from it.

That’s not necessarily the case. I’ve written a book on history and fallacies and I’ve never written on that since then. Not because I’ve repudiated the book, but I’ve got nothing else to say thus far; I’ve said everything I want to say on that issue. It seems perfectly acceptable to me to think that Luther held to the views he held in 1525 when he died in 1546. Having said that though, this book is the most radically unnuanced, and determinist treatise on predestination. So, an attempt to divide Luther and Calvin on predestination by making Calvin somehow harsher, I think, would fall at the first hurdle. That’s a trendy thing to do perhaps, but the texts don’t say that.

And what does Luther say is his favorite book that he’s written for which he is most proud at the end of his life? Luther said that the three things worth outliving him were The Bondage of the Will and his two catechisms. Everything else could be assigned to the dust bin


Theological Debates Then and Now

If Luther was unduly influenced by some of the many things going on around him, are there parallel instances today, particularly in the Reformed world, where theological debates may be about more than theological debates?


Yes, I’d say theological debates are always more than theology. There are always personalities involved, and personalities shape how things play out. There is clearly a personal rivalry between Luther and Karlstadt. They represent both different theological visions, but also different personal ambitions as well. Are there parallels today? For sure.

I think that American culture is, compared to western European and definitely to British culture, more preoccupied with celebrities and powerful individuals. And you see that in the Christian world. People often tend to identify with an individual or a small group of individuals rather than a denomination or a tradition. That’s not to say that the British approach is any better, it’s just different.

I think there is something in American society that invests a lot of trust and confidence in individuals, even in the political system. In Britain, you don’t vote for the Prime Minister. You vote for the party. And whichever is the biggest party appoints the Prime Minister. I voted conservative, but I never voted for Mrs. Thatcher because I wasn’t in her constituency. In America, you vote for your head of state. And unlike Germany where the head of state is by and large a symbolic/ceremonial position, the American head of state has huge power. I think that’s symptomatic of a particular American pathology, if I could put it that way. And the question is particularly personal to American evangelicalism.


Beyond symptomatic, do you think it is formative for how we think about that in the church?


Yes, I think it can be. I remember a few years ago going around the classroom and asking students to name the pastor who has been most influential in your life. And not a single student mentioned their local pastor (other than those who happened to go to John Piper’s or Tim Keller’s church), but everybody mentioned basically somebody they heard online. That was sort of stunning to me. So the guy who actually cares for you week by week has had no influence on you at all? I think they didn’t mean that, and if I’d framed the question differently or probed further, the local guy would have come to some significance. But the instinctive response to the question of most influence was John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, the big names of the day. It wasn’t Joe Smith who pastors my local Baptist church of fifty people and who’ll be there for me when I’m ill in hospital.


Two Things to Glean from Luther

Quickly: can you name one or two things that Carl Trueman might wish Reformed folks would glean from Luther that often get overlooked?


I think a sense of humor, which is an important thing to Luther for survival. This is a serious point. How does he survive mentally? His sense of humor was a very important way of dealing with danger and chaos. I think it’s also a very good way of not thinking too highly of yourself. Mocking yourself is an important skill to have. Setting yourself up. Luther has it in spades. That would be one thing.

The other thing: Luther has a powerful theology of the Word preached. That I think is important for pastors to grasp. Because having a good theology of preaching should enhance your confidence in the pulpit.

So those two things: a sense of humor and a theology of preaching.