Carl Trueman recently wrote A Church for Exiles for First Things, which you may read here. If you would like, a good response from Joel McDurmon can be found here. But my response to Carl will be a tad shorter than Joel’s — just enough to register a few basic concerns.
First, it is undeniable that exile is a strong biblical motif, and it is one that Christians do need to draw on. But in Scripture, it is always a paired motif — like salt and pepper, or ham and eggs. We find, all through the Bible, the patterns of death and resurrection, exile and return, cliffhanger and helicopter.
There is both a cross and a crown. Triumphalists are those who just want the crown. Defeatists are those who just want the cross. Trueman is a defeatist — for all his Reformed credentials, his faith is a crucifix faith. Note that both the defeatist and the triumphalist are partly right, but in such a way that their partial truths undo the point of the whole thing. “Jesus died” is true, but is not gospel apart from resurrection. And “Jesus rose” is meaningless nonsense if there had been no death.
Carl says this: the Reformed tradition “possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment.” I believe this is quite true. In fact, I agreed with many of the points that he made throughout the article — but he left out one crucial thing. Let me insert that missing element. “The Reformed tradition possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment, while preparing for our inevitable comeback.” Why? It is not just exile. It is exile and return. Nehemiah rhymes with Jeremiah after all.
The second problem is that Carl does want us to engage with culture, and be responsible citizens, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with the possibility of everything going terribly wrong, and we win or something. And he is enough of a church historian to know that things have gone wrong for us in just this way any number of times.
“There have certainly been excesses in the history of the Reformed Church’s engagement with the civic sphere, but Reformed theology at its best is no clarion call for a religious war or a theocratic state. It is rather a call for responsible, godly citizenship.”
Responsible, godly citizenship therefore has to be impotent by definition. We tell the pagans what we think they ought to do, and hope to God that they refuse to do it. If they listen to us, then the triumphalist doo doo will hit the hermeneutical rotating device. If we take it too far, there could be conflict, and that might lead to religious war. Or worse, we might prevail in the conflict and find ourselves the proud owners of a theocratic state and having to grow our beards out. No, no, not like the ayatollahs. More like the guys pictured at the top of Carl’s article.
Last thing. Carl is giving us his read of our current cultural moment. It is true that prior to the resurrection he believes that the church is in exile all the time, but in our day it kind of looks culturally like what it theologically is. That make sense? When Christians have been in the ascendancy, Carl believes it to present the temptations associated with all such optical illusions. When we are overtly in exile, which is about to happen, he says, we will then have the pleasure of not kidding ourselves anymore. In times of gospel prosperity, we are looking through a glass darkly. In times of exile, we are seeing things as they really are, and yay, finally!
But if this particular exile occurs, it will be with the cooperation of millions of Christians. And that means that this cultural moment is not the result of their theology, but rather the result of ours. We cannot be exiled unless we all show up at the train stations as ordered. But suppose most of us just didn’t? What then? Somebody would have to cancel the exile — but “exiles-are-always-permanent” theology has no category for the prospect of such cancellations.
In order to pull a Christ-honoring no-show, we have to have a theology for it. That theology we so desperately need is the theology of the actual Reformation, but not as it trickles down through the approved filters of North American Reformed seminaries. We need the Calvinism of our fathers, vertebrate Calvinism. We need testosteronic Calvinism, beards and all. Once we have put our foot through the side of R2K crucifix theology, we should go rollicking down the highway of cultural engagement, with boisterous and ready laughter, and our little Reformation reenactor hats set jauntily on the sides of our heads.
All this is because I would rather walk out of exile with a handful of my friends than take a train with millions into it.
We do not need pan-fried fillet of Calvinism, with all the bones gone. Nor do we need Calvinism pâté, suitable as a spread for our two dollar crackers at the faculty soirée.
Like all my French? Calvin was French.