The Trueman Doctrine image

The Trueman Doctrine

Thanks to a tip from my friend John Starke, I came across Carl Trueman's outstanding lectures on church history recently. Hosted at iTunesU, and available for free download to anybody, are eleven lectures on the medieval church, and thirty-one on the Reformation, courtesy of Westminster Theological Seminary. They are an astonishing resource, and over the next couple of weeks, through a series of excerpts and highlights, I'm hoping to persuade you to download them and listen to them in the car. Or something.

This shouldn’t be a difficult case to make. The vast majority of us do not know much church history, and what we do know is often anachronistically framed, blissfully free of social and historical moorings, beholden to the Great Man reading of history (everybody blunders around in darkness for centuries until A Brilliant Thinker comes along and leads them into the light), and in many cases, narrated with ourselves as the telos of the story: the church started well, then lost the Holy Spirit, then lost mission, then lost the Bible, then recovered the Bible, then recovered mission, then recovered the Holy Spirit, and then our team showed up, and there was much rejoicing. So learning more about church history, with the aim of deepening our understanding of who God is, who we are and why, should be a far better use of time in the car than listening to Radio 1, Heart or whatever. In principle, at least.

The problem is, studying church history is a bit like eating your greens. You know it’s probably something you should do, but it’s often quite boring. It seems distant, inaccessible, a fog of names and places and dates and controversies that concatenate in your head, creating strange hybrid scenes in which Athanaquinestine gets burned at the stake for eating a sausage on a Thursday while children sing “take up the lego.” Audio lectures on church history, frankly, sound like the sorts of things that would cause dust to come out of your speakers.

Which is why Carl Trueman’s lectures are such a gift. He is not just an expert on the material; he has an interesting voice, a fluent and animated way of communicating, and (presumably because he is speaking to seminary students) he peppers his lectures with amusing anecdotes, bizarre and intriguing historical details, comic insults, punchy contemporary applications, impassioned rants, and occasionally ghastly vignettes about peripheral characters. Luther’s barber killed his son-in-law in a drunken fight - on hearing him claim that he was invulnerable to wounds! - and only escaped jail because Luther intervened on his behalf. Martin Bucer was a serial matchmaker. Theodore Beza used to write erotic poetry. Philip Melanchthon refused to attend an English council because he was scared of water, having been told by his horoscope that he would die from it. The man who killed Zwingli was called [**unprintable**]. The consistory in Geneva had to deal with some extraordinary cases, including a lactating woman who was caught breastfeeding a puppy (they advised her, very wisely, not to be so antisocial in future). Servetus may well have been the guy who discovered how blood circulates around the body. And so on, and so on.

It’s not just a mound of historical trivia, though. Trueman not only narrates the history with creativity and coherence; he also models historical criticism for us, walking the fine line between undue naïveté (these guys were Christians, so their version of events is surely true) and undue cynicism (these guys were all exaggerators and liars). He is sceptical, on historical grounds, both of Luther’s account of his famous “tower experience”, and of Calvin’s description of his call to Geneva through Guillaume Farel, both of which he thinks have been significantly distorted in the telling. He gives a full account of Luther’s anti-Semitic arrogance, Cranmer’s compromise and John Knox’s thuggishness, and admits that it is the Jesuits, rather than any Protestant group, who were the most impressive missionaries of the period. Theological explanations (this was a sovereign act of God) and socio-historical ones (this happened because of urbanisation, humanism, geopolitics or whatever) are held together, rather than played off against each other. Even if someone wasn’t especially interested in the history of the period - may it never be! - they would learn a lot about historical method simply from listening to Trueman handle the material.

The most striking point, from the perspective of historical method, is the principle he refers to (with all due facetiousness, it should be said) as the Trueman Doctrine. “Ordinary things do not require an explanation,” he says. “Extraordinary things do.” As obvious as this may be, I had never really thought about it - and it is hugely significant when it comes to some of the more intractable historical problems, like Luther’s view of the Jews, or the ease with which men of God burned each other, or went to war over theological disputes. From Trueman’s perspective, as troubling as these things are, they do not require particular explanations: sixteenth century Christians scapegoated the Jews, regarded theological deviance in much the same way that we regard terrorism, and assumed a relationship between church and state that most of us would find astonishing, so when people in the sixteenth century do these things, they are doing precisely what we would expect. What requires an explanation, rather, is (say) the positive way in which Luther spoke about the Jews in his early work, or the fact that Henry VIII didn’t burn Thomas Cranmer for plotting against him. It seems far more reasonable, to us, for Luther to have written That Jesus Christ Was Born A Jew (1523) than On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), but in many ways it requires more explanation, historically speaking. In that sense, the Trueman Doctrine is simply taking the fallacy of anachronism and applying it, not just to the sifting of evidence, but also to the subjects worthy of study.

In any event, I think everyone should go and download Trueman’s lectures, unless they have at least a degree-level knowledge of church history already. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post a handful of excerpts to try and give you a flavour. If you’re already convinced, you can get the lectures here.

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