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Protestant Theology

I don’t suppose it will be easy for Carl Trueman (“Turning Inward,” December 2019) and me to avoid talking past each other, but let’s give it a try. My book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology, is not an effort to engage with secondary literature. (Gerhard Forde? Never read him; don’t like what I’ve heard about him. R. T. Kendall? Wrote a book I cite once in a footnote in order to correct it. “Law-gospel dialectic”? Not a phrase I use or really believe in. The Finnish School? Them I agree with, though they have been criticized—not “debunked,” as Trueman suggests—­because my own reading of Luther leads in the same direction.) I wish my own reading of Luther, which is at the center of the book, had been at the center of Trueman’s review.

So here are some of the central claims I wish had come up for discussion: (1) that Luther’s great contribution to the Christian ecumene is his concept of the gospel as a word that gives us Christ; (2) that this word has an efficacy like that of a sacrament, because it gives what it signifies to those who believe; (3) that believing this word involves a kind of outward turn to Christ in the flesh; (4) that this outward turn is built into the very logic of Luther’s faith, which contrasts with a logic of reflective faith that is familiar in much later Protestantism; (5) that Luther’s logic does not require a reflective faith, that is, a belief that I believe, but only a belief that the gospel word is true; (6) that Luther thus carries through a characteristically Protestant intention to put faith in the word alone more successfully than later Protestant theologies of sanctification, whose roots can be seen already in Calvin, which find assurance of eternal salvation by perceiving the work of sanctification that has begun in our hearts.

Claims 4–6 have evidently gotten under Trueman’s skin, as I’m afraid will happen with many Reformed theologians reading the book. There is a difficult conversation to be had here, and I wish the review had done more to help begin it.

Phillip Cary
eastern university
st. davids, pennsylvania

Carl Trueman’s essays are captivating—fun even, especially if you’re not on the receiving end of his wit. (A recent favorite: “Cut some of the leading evangelical writers . . . and they bleed Socinus.”) His essays raise hard and helpful questions for everyone.

But his recent review of Phillip Cary’s The Meaning of Protestant Theology raises a different kind of question for the reader: What is a book review for?

A review should do three things. First, it should summarize the book’s big idea such that the author would say, “Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.” Second, it should situate the book in the field of literature. Only then should a review proceed to praise and blame.

Trueman’s review reads like a professor grading a paper. Cary loses points mostly for his bibliography: A few sources by radical Lutherans, the Finnish School, and a longtime pastor of Westminster Chapel in London seem to have irked Trueman. But Cary uses sources critically and constructively. Some of his distinctive readings will draw fire from Reformationists like Trueman (in particular, Cary’s presentation of the ­theology of the cross). Still, the book’s thesis doesn’t stand or fall on these sources.

Trueman goes straight to blame without addressing the core idea of Cary’s book: The heart of Protestantism is “faith in the Gospel as the word of God that gives us Christ.”

Luther is adamant: God has promised to be found in his word and sacraments, so don’t go looking elsewhere. To look elsewhere is sin and idolatry. As he puts it in The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ (1526):

[God] is present everywhere, but he does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of him in the right way. Otherwise you are tempting God and committing idolatry. For this reason he has set down for us a definite way to show us how and where to find him, namely the Word.

This is what Cary wants to show his readers. Don’t peer inside your heart looking for Jesus; instead, gaze on the man hanging on the cross, the baby nursing at Mary’s breast. Both images are found in the word. The word of God gives us Jesus.

Trueman acknowledges Cary is right about Luther and the external word—though not even that without a word of blame: What about Luther and the third use of the law? Valid question, but it’s not what Cary is after in this book.

We are left to wonder why ­Trueman ignores the core of Cary’s book. What is it that bothers Trueman so much? Cary wouldn’t recognize his own work in Trueman’s review, which short-circuits a potentially riveting conversation between an Anglican philosopher and a Reformed historian who both love Luther.

Todd Hains
bellingham, washington

Carl R. Trueman replies:

I am grateful to Phillip Cary and Todd Hains for their responses.

Regarding Cary, let me first make clear my general concern lest, as he fears, we talk past each other: Responsible theologians must engage the past. But they must engage that past accurately or else they will undermine their own systematic conclusions, however true those conclusions in themselves might be. This Cary simply has not done. His reading of Luther—central to the argument of his book—is a misreading; and that is what makes engaging with the systematic conclusions pointless. Those conclusions may well be theologically correct; but here they are surrounded by solecisms that undermine Cary’s argument at every turn.

Cary does not “really believe” in the law-gospel dialectic? Then I am left confused as to why he would find anything of value in Luther. If ­Luther’s views in the 1525 treatise On the Bondage of the Will are normative—and this was one of his only works that he regarded as worthy of outliving him—those who do not understand this distinction do not ­understand the gospel. Given all this, it comes as no surprise to find that Cary considers the Finnish School persuasive. It is marked by similar errors in historical and theological analysis of Luther’s life and works.

This touches on Hains’s point: To misread the notion of the theologian/theology of the cross, as Cary does, is not the equivalent of misreading Luther on beer or banking or stamp collecting. It is to misread him at the most fundamental level ­possible. Concerning Luther’s theology, go wrong here, and you go wrong ­everywhere.

I am indeed irritated by 4–6 of Carys claims, but not because of their theological content. It was their hackneyed caricature of the Reformed tradition. Cary’s correction of Kendall is a case in point. It serves merely to press Kendall’s simplistic misunderstanding of Puritanism back into Calvin himself. Cary has therefore done that which I previously thought impossible: He has resurrected a long-discredited, bogus thesis and made it even worse. 

Hains uses the analogy of paper grading. Well, it is true that I expect my students to read the sources and present them accurately rather than bend them to fit some larger thesis (even if that thesis itself is correct). How much more should we expect that from a scholarly book? And if that is lacking, it is the reviewer’s task to point that out.

Carl R. Trueman
grove city college
grove city, pennsylvania


Theodore Dalrymple (“France Fractured,” December 2019) has taken the occasion of a review to engage in the customary comparison of France and Britain. Naturally, for ­Dalrymple, the British must come off better. They are in a bad state, but not as bad as the French; they, unlike the French, are not yet completely under Brussels’s yoke (though some in the British political elite yearn to be).

But Dalrymple’s account understates the problem of the British political elite. Consider his own assessment of David Cameron’s memoirs at Law & Liberty:

For a man to have been at the peak of political power for six years and to have written a 700-page memoir without a single ­arresting thought or amusing anecdote, without giving any insight into the important people he has met, and without displaying any interest in, let alone knowledge of, history, philosophy or higher culture, is an achievement of a kind. If banality can startle, Mr. Cameron’s banality startles—because of the position he once occupied. The average barroom bore is Doctor Johnson by comparison. It is only in its vacuity that David Cameron’s memoir achieves significance. It thereby tells us something about both modern politics and the state of education in Britain: for in the latter respect, Mr. Cameron is the product of the elite of the elite. This in itself is reason for the profoundest pessimism. . . . The most that can be said is that very occasionally his banality rises to the level of vulgarity, which he employs principally for effect: to demonstrate that, though of ­privileged background, he is no snob.

Cameron personifies the crisis of the British political elite, whose members do not even want to pretend they have culture. In that respect, the French political elite is better off. The best education in France churns out European federalists, but these federalists know and respect their country’s past achievements. Macron, also “the product of the elite of the elite,” is neither banal nor vulgar.

This difference has political consequences. The British political elite aspire to erase their past and project their banality onto Europe. For them, Europe is about nation-states getting along nicely and quietly, resigning themselves to the absence of power. But the French, respecting their past, project their aspiration for greatness unto Europe. In the words of historian Stanley Hoffmann, they look “back to the days when Europe held the center of the stage and forward to a time when Europe might again be an actor.” For Macron and the French federalists, Europe shall achieve greatness by becoming a new ­national superstate. What the British (and liberal Americans more generally) do not understand about Europe is that for the French, the European project is about having more power than ever before. The French ­federalists have the culture and ambition to play the vulgar and banal British elite for fools. Toward this project Albion can no longer even attempt to be perfidious; it is only oblivious.

Nathan Pinkoski
st. michael’s college, 
university of toronto
toronto, canada

Theodore Dalrymple replies:

I thank Pinkoski for his letter, but he is mistaken if he ascribes to me the view that everything is better in Britain than in France. In fact, many of their problems are surprisingly similar, though often they do not realize it.


Thank you for the meditation on the Extraordinary Form (“Failed Leaders,” December 2019). A few months after Pope Benedict XVI gave priests permission to celebrate the old Mass, a group of people approached me and asked for it. There were two obstacles: (1) I had no Latin; lots of Greek but no Latin. (2) According to Summorum Pontificum, they needed to become part of the parish. I studied, and they registered. The TLM grew, but it never became the hoped-for landslide. It was, however, a stable core of several hundred people gathered each Sunday to pray according to that venerable liturgy. 

I had studied patristics in ­graduate school and saw at once that ­ressourcement was incarnated in the old Mass, but I was never able to articulate it. I had never read anyone making that connection before. Thank you.

A young boy (ten years old) started attending, and when I asked him why, he said, “When I go to the ‘regular’ Mass, I focus on you; when I go to the Latin Mass, I focus on Jesus.” That says it all.

Rev. Jerry Brown
oakland, california

R. R. Reno recently offered readers a litany of reasons to worship in the Extraordinary Form. I can only say “Amen.” However, there is ­another usage within the Roman Rite: the Ordinariate Form. This variant of the Western liturgy, colloquially known as Anglican Use, is the form of the Mass that ex-Episcopalians and ­ex-Anglicans have brought into the Church. This form of Divine Worship has its origins in the Sarum Rite and the many Books of Common Prayer, and was invited into the Church by John Paul II. In 2009, ­Benedict XVI ­provided for the creation of non-­geographical hierarchies in his ­Apostolic Constitution ­Anglicanorum ­coetibus; parishes around the world have recently ­celebrated the tenth anniversary of this unprecedented document. The Ordinariates are now homes for former Anglicans who, seeking refuge from the leftward and Protestantizing turns of the Anglican Communion, have been ­welcomed into the Catholic Church with their liturgical and spiritual patrimony ­intact.

The Ordinariate Form has the benefit both of being a vernacular liturgy and of partaking in the “beauty of holiness.” Like the Ordinary Form it restores an Old Testament lesson. Unlike the current translation of the Ordinary Form, the text of the Divine Worship Missal preserves the sacral register and Renaissance-era poetry of prayer book English, from “and with thy spirit” to “plight my troth.” The text thereby indicates that it is sacral even while retaining the benefits of the vernacular. Priests celebrate ad orientem; communicants receive directly on the tongue while kneeling. The Roman Canon, with its purposefully ­mysterious evocation of saints thronged in festal gathering, is the standard Eucharistic prayer. Incense is used liberally. In other words, the Eucharistic mystery is encountered with all its Tridentine magic, yet with a vernacular summons to enter into that mystery.

Likewise, the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, the non-­geographical diocese for Divine Worship parishes in North America, is a repository for the musical heritage of Anglicanism. The classic English hymn tradition of Watts, Wesley, and Vaughn Williams, together with the fine tradition of Anglican chant set to the Miles Coverdale Psalter, is thus entering into the life of the Catholic Church. The great service of ­Choral Evensong has become a feature of parish and community life; Pope Francis has rightly encouraged Ordinariate parishes to celebrate this uniquely Anglican treasure as a particular charism in carrying out the New Evangelization. Indeed, the sacred harmony of the Anglican patrimony within the Catholic Church has proven critical in my ongoing journey from Lutheranism toward full communion. In her perfect blend of enchantment and accessibility, the Ordinariate Form should provide a guiding light for Ordinary parishes.

William Rhea
san antonio, texas