Protestants need a positive reason not to be Catholic: Reflections from Carl Trueman


H/t to friend and former student Matt Crutchmer for this:

I have had occasion to appreciate Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman before (to be precise: here and here). Now I find myself nodding in appreciation as I read Trueman’s side of a thoughtful conversation with a Roman Catholic, Bryan Cross.

Though this appears on the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals–a group that gives me the willies–I find Trueman’s even-handed discussion of the links between the two great confessions a breath of fresh air, if a bit too focused on the importance to the church of confessional theology for my taste.

Certainly Trueman identifies the chief malaise of modern evangelicals: our amnesia. But of course, that’s what a history professor would say (and another history professor appreciate!) That does not make it any less true. (And one more note: I too, like Trueman, owe the provocative D. G. Hart a debt of gratitude for helping me sort through some of these questions.)

Here’s a taste of Trueman’s reflections. You might want to trace it back and see how the conversation between Trueman and Cross has evolved:

Over at the webpage Called to Communion, Catholic convert from Protestantism Bryan Cross has written a a very kind and thought provoking assessment of my comments on Roman Catholicism over recent years.

Bryan picks up on a point I have made numerous times, both in print and in the classroom, that Protestants need a positive reason not to be Catholic.  This is a conviction I share with Catholics such as Francis Beckwith and, apparently, Bryan Cross.  I cannot speak for them, but my conviction on this point derives from a number of conclusions I have drawn as a result of my academic research in sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestantism.  First, it was clearly inconceivable to the typical theologian at the start of the sixteenth century that the church in western Europe would not be one.  It had been so for centuries and, when the great rifts of the sixteenth century happened, it was truly something which shattered the established categories for thinking about the church.  This is why both Protestants and Catholics spent much time and effort, at least until the Council of Trent, in trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.  Anyone who has ever read Martin Bucer will know of the pain he felt at the breach with Rome and then at the subsequent rifts in Protestantism.

Second, those familiar with recent scholarship on the development of Protestant thinking, Lutheran or Reformed, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, know that Protestant theologians were careful readers and appropriators of Catholic theology, exegesis, philosophy, and casuistry.  For some years now, I have considered that it would be not only academically nonsensical but also an act of a curmudgeonly ingrate to refuse to acknowledge such debts.  This is not to say that there were not — and are not — fundamental differences in key areas, not least those of authority, justification, and sacraments; but it is to point to a heritage which both orthodox Catholicism and orthodox Protestantism holds in common.  I would not go so far as to say that the Catholic Church is my church, as Bryan argues, but I would say that the true catholic tradition is my tradition — essentially Calvin’s point in his reply to Cardinal Sadoleto.  Yes, yes, I know that that raises a whole set of Newman-style questions about how one recognises the true tradition, but that is a discussion for another time.  My point here is simply that I repudiate the kind of Protestantism that claims it has no connection to past tradition.  Pace such claims, only heretics reinvent the faith every Sunday.

Third, and deriving from this latter point, as a churchman in the contemporary context, I am aware, often embarrassingly aware, of how much of my theology is closer to that of orthodox Catholic friends, particularly in the area of the doctrine of God, than to many of those with whom I am supposed to have an affinity — open theists, emergents, radical anabaptists, to name but three — because somebody, somewhere has decided that there is such a thing as `evangelicalism’ in the abstract — a point which I dispute, at least from the perspective of doctrine, regarding it now rather as a merely institutional phenomenon.

The issue here is that there is a difference between evangelicalism, broadly considered, and a Protestantism defined along more narrow, confession, ecclesiastical lines.  Credit where credit is due: that is an insight which I owe to the provocative writings of D G Hart . . .

You can finish the article here.

5 responses to “Protestants need a positive reason not to be Catholic: Reflections from Carl Trueman

  1. Trueman is a rare specimen. Eloquent in how he writes, firm in what he believes, generous to his opponents. Maybe it’s because he’s a Brit (think Chesterton) or maybe it’s because he studies the history of the Church which broadens his perspective on our narrow contemporary issues. I’ll wager it’s a little bit of both. :)

    • Ryan, that seems a spot-on assessment of the man. I would modify your characterization of Brits: generous to opponents, generally yes. But quite ready to shred, disembowel, and crush their opponents’ arguments, as opposed to at least the most recent crop of American grad students and young professors, who I find much too passive, indeed generous to a fault, in their academic discussions. And I am probably guilty of this too.

      It is possible to have robust and even heated arguments over things that matter without resorting to ad hominem attacks. But it seems this generation has been emasculated by the p.c./multiculturalist/postmodern bent: everyone has a perspective, and they’re all equally valid, and it’s unkind, un-neighborly, and quite possibly racist/sexist/ageist, etc., to pursue truth in an argumentative way.

      Result: blandness and confusion. And Trueman clearly eschews both, even while stating his “firm beliefs” in strong, categorical ways.

      • I agree with your modification. I, too, fall into the overly-passive category, which is why Chesterton has been so influential on me as well as enjoyable. Like Augustine upon discovering that God is Spirit, my thinking was dramatically changed when I read “Heretics.” You can disagree with someone, tell it to their face, and then toast them in the pub an hour later. Maybe the problem with American theological discourse is that we’ve taken out that last part.

  2. Bryan Cross is probably the most formidable yet irenic proponent of Catholicism I know of. The feature articles at their site Called to Communion reflect the fundamental questions Protestants need to ask themselves about what and why they believe what they do. Some of the articles generate hundreds of comments which makes for fascinating discussion and quickly showed me that I could not just dismiss Rome with an arrogant wave of hand anymore. Some significant Reformed theologians have commented and responded to the work they have done there.

  3. As an Anglo-Catholic who is mulling over whether or not to make the jump to the “non-Protestant” side, I find this to be very thought provoking.

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