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Shall we cancel the theologians?

Dealing with the sins of men like Luther and Edwards

Portraits of Martin Luther (left) and Jonathan Edwards Photo illustration by Mickey McLean/Portraits: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Shall we cancel the theologians?

Cancel culture shows no signs of abatement. The Spectator in Britain ended the year speculating on whether comedy itself will now be a thing of the past. Cancel culture is incompatible with comedy and humor. Meanwhile, the venomous reactions to those who dare to affirm the importance of biological sex, such as J.K. Rowling, continue unabated. Even the word “mother” is under attack from the highest levels of government. It is hard to imagine that a society can survive long term that denies reality and reinforces its lunacy with an adamant refusal to laugh at itself.

Yet there is a form of cancel culture emerging within the ranks of Christians. It operates with selective pieties drawn from the wider woke culture and reflects, whether by accident or design, the same self-righteousness that marks the secular world. Two obvious examples are current attitudes toward Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards owned slaves and was thus a part of America’s original sin, the consequences of which we still live with today. Luther is worse. He is notorious for the violently anti-Jewish nature of some of his later works. In a post-Holocaust world, that is highly problematic. Some years ago, while working on a book on historical fallacies, I did considerable research on the Jewish question in Luther and was distressed to find that his anti-Jewish works had been reprinted by the Nazis as part of their own propaganda and were also available today on viciously anti-Semitic websites.

The question—and it is a very legitimate question—is whether we should continue to take seriously such men who failed so signally to conform to moral positions that we now regard as self-evident and, indeed, a consistent application of the Christianity into which they both had such signal insights. Should we cancel them?

If we set the bar at sinless perfection, or even at constantly consistent outward holiness, we will have nobody left upon whose wisdom we can draw.

There are two obvious responses to this: Christians can excuse their sins as irrelevant to their contribution and celebrate them as heroes, or Christians can dismiss these men because of their complicity in evil. In our woke and polarized times, the temptation to address the matter in one of these two ways is powerful.

Yet, neither approach is ultimately appropriate. The former runs the risk of trivializing sin or of tilting toward a hagiography that fails to see the full, fallen humanity of these men. They are flawed and marked by sin. And that means that Christians must approach their works in the spirit of the Bereans: searching the Scriptures to see if their writings are consistent with the Bible. Just because Luther said it does not mean that it is true. His later writings on the Jews prove that.

The latter, however, runs the risk of legitimating the Pharisee’s prayer: “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men—like this Saxon Reformer or New England Puritan—over there.” Of the two, I fear it is the latter that is the most tempting in this woke age, marked as it is by angry self-righteousness and demonization of all deviation from the social justice code. That Luther and Edwards sinned, and sinned in ways that contemporary society considers especially egregious, is a fact that cannot be denied. But Christians must resist the temptation to use this as an opportunity for self-righteousness. All our heroes had flaws. Should we ignore John Calvin because of the way he sometimes treated his opponents? Martin Luther King Jr. because of his abuse of women? If we set the bar at sinless perfection, or even at constantly consistent outward holiness, we will have nobody left upon whose wisdom we can draw. Cancel culture, Christian-style, logically ends with the canceling of all Christians from all times and all places.

Contemporary Christians need to remember that our hands are not so clean. Anyone who uses a computer or smartphone to decry racism or call for reparations for American slavery can only do so because of contemporary slave labor in China. Does the fact that others own the slaves who make the goods we buy make us less guilty than Luther or Edwards? Are the past sins of long ago, committed by others, more heinous than the contemporary sins of far away to which we are all now connected? Does geography wash away our complicity in wickedness that chronology serves only to magnify with regard to others? That is worth remembering before we decide to take strong and self-righteous stands about the sins of our forefathers. Our prayer should always be less “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men” and more “Is it I, Lord?”

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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