Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Trueman: Is The Courage to Be Protestant Too Optimistic?

In the OPC's Ordained Servant Carl Trueman reviews David Wells's The Courage to Be Protestant.

After summarizing the argument of the book, Trueman gives his positive assessment, namely, that the book is "a compelling analysis of the problems facing the church in the modern West, particularly America" and that "the answer to these problems has to be a return to the great solas of the Reformation, to a church practice built around word and sacrament, and to the practice of church discipline."

He then expresses two concerns in conclusion:

First, I fear that many in OPC type circles will read this book and have the reaction so ably exposed by Jesus Christ in one of his most devastating parables: "I thank you Lord that I am not like other men." It is easy to take pot-shots at Willow Creek and emergent excess, but the problems of American culture which they variously represent—cults of personality, worldly conceptions of success and power, standing on one's rights to the exclusion of everybody and everything else, radical individualism, eclecticism, iconoclastic views of the past—can sit very comfortably with Reformed, confessional theology. Such theology can just as easily be turned into a commodity as anything else out there in the marketplace. That is, after all, the American way! We confessional conservatives too like our superstars, our celebrities, our glossy magazines, and our mega-conferences. With all of this to take into account, we need to realize that theology is not enough; that theology needs to challenge many of the things that are so dear to American culture that, spiritually speaking, they are virtually invisible to the naked eye.

Second, while agreeing wholeheartedly with David's call for a return to church discipline, I am very pessimistic about that happening for the reasons outlined above: ease of travel; multiplication of denominations; and arrogant, anti-authoritarian individualism and libertarianism that spill over from politics into church life. Discipline is a wonderful ideal. I am just not sure what it looks like in the contemporary world. And to the extent that we all, conservative Protestants and otherwise, are part of this wider culture, so we are impotent to resist its forces.

David is right: it is a time for a courageous Protestantism. But sadly such may be too little too late. Like the charge of the Light Brigade, a courageous Protestantism on the attack might find that it merely goes down in a spectacular, brave defeat rather than actually achieving any of its desired goals. The analysis in this book is superb; the proposal—a return to classic Protestantism—is sound. Yet, only a dramatic transformation not simply of church theology and practice but also of church culture and the hearts of individual members of the church will be able to effect any of this. It is hard to believe, but I suspect I am accusing David of being too optimistic, something which is rarely alleged against him. But, then again, there is hope: with God, all things are possible.