In the recent Nicotine Theological Journal, some of Carl Trueman’s recent comments at Reformation21 are examined. The words I have found curious, keep coming back to and cannot get out of my head is are these:
“It wasn’t the confessional Presbyterians who told me the gospel; it wasn’t the confessional Lutherans who took the time to teach me the basics of the faith; it was the evangelicals. They cared enough to reach out to me and engage me.”
Well, same for me, Dr. Trueman. But I can’t say that I have quite the same conclusion as to what that might imply, specifically that “I owe everything, almost all my theology, and much of my Christian nurture to such people.” That is quite a thing to say.
Maybe his welcome wagon to the Big Tent included a hatchback full of free Willow Creek tapes and complimentary copy of Mere Christianity from a self-described and charming “Jesus-freak” employing “friendship evangelism.” Maybe he, too, had an attractive evangelical of the fairer sex lovingly invite him to a Bible study led by her intensely likable father who ended up joining him in holy matrimony to her. Such things seem only natural to induce such a swooney sense of allegiance. But I have always been more Augustinian-Calvinist than Troubadour, even when I didn’t know it.
While I share with Trueman the experience of evangelicals having “…cared enough to reach out and engage me,” what is curiously absent his sentiment is what exactly it was that retained him. Since he has landed as a Presbyterian, I feel safe in assuming that it probably wasn’t, in Trueman’s words, a movement that “…requires the marginalizing of ecclesiastical distinctives.” I wonder what exactly happened between the Sinner’s Prayer and the affirmation of Dordt for Trueman that he yet feels so beholden. It must be that his trek from the sawdust trail to Geneva was a whole lot less embattled and fraught than mine. I don’t know how that could be. Maybe it just takes a keener skill set.
True enough, I may still smart over the Jesus-freak who notched me up on his spiritual bedpost and evaporated. Even so, I am not sure what I owe to evangelicals, if anything. It isn’t so clear to me what I really owe those who may have gotten me in the door but left me to languish from the very beginning. My mother did teach me to offer thanks even for that which was less than fitting. But am I really supposed to be grateful to those who initiated a steady decline from the start, only to be burned-over by the time I stood at the trail-heads of Rome? Or would it be more appropriate to be thankful to those who were more concerned with keeping me than getting me?
By my lights, it seems one thing to be civil and gracious toward someone, quite another to be so manifestly obligatory. And I am not so sure that withholding warm plaudits is the same as “bashing evangelicals,” as Trueman puts it. After all, as one who places a high premium on maintaining happy familial relations with an extended family made up of evangelicals, I really have no vested interest in bashing. But neither do I feel indebted in a Truemanian sense.
No, as I see it, my undying loyalties really should rest with the confessional Reformed Protestants. If it is all the same to the good doctor, I think that such affinities and seminal allegiance actually should be ascribed to those who provided more gospel than gospel-ese. It may have been the evangelicals who reached out and engaged me, but it was the confessionalists who taught me the basics of the faith and told me the true gospel. Indeed, like someone once said, I owe everything, all my theology, and much of my Christian nurture to such people.