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Shall we cancel the theologians?

Carl R. Trueman | 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?
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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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VVAN8867

Did we do this to Rev. Martin Luther King?

Allen Johnson

So we can cancel out most of the biblical heroes. Certainly need to cut out the Proverbs and Song of Solomon books in the Bible, after all, Solomon had lots of wives and concubines. David did dastardly deeds to Bathsheba and Uriah. The list can go on...

Salty1Allen Johnson

First time I’ve seen a post of yours that I agree with. Well stated.

Allen JohnsonSalty1

Thanks for "left-handed compliment." We can always agree that grass is green (except during drought). Okay, try again, we can at least agree to disagree with charity and civility.

Salty1Allen Johnson

Thanks my brother! I appreciate you and God bless. I am sure we would find some common ground if we could sit down for coffee- or tea in my case. Blessings to you!

COOPERHICKS

Good flashlight upon us all! I subscribe to the wisdom that when one points at someone, look at your hand and see those three fingers pointing at you? Yep, always true. Humble reminder. Thank you, Jesus!

ormondotvos

I'm prone to seeing the concept of sin as the poor fit between our rapid cultural change, and the very slow changes in our genes, which leaves us floundering in a conflicted world of greed, lies and savage competition at every level of society.
This isn't some invented mythical original sin, but I think those who invent religions with sin in their pantheon of social controls likely just figured out the above and used it, relabeled, for (possibly necessary) social control.
Someday, humanity won't need myth for social control.
Presuming we don't nuke ourselves back to the stone age.
Or extinction.

not silentormondotvos

Thanks for sharing your views. I am rather curious about certain aspects. If I may, I have a few questions: 1) If “sin” is the poor fit between our cultural change and genetic changes, etc, how would you define “virtue”? 2) What is your solution to the problem as you defined it (I.e., how do we “catch up,” as it were?) 3) Humans have been trying to create a virtuous or utopian society for millions of years and have not yet succeeded. Why do you think it’s so hard for us? And how will we know when we have arrived?

That’s enough for now. Thanks. NS

Salty1ormondotvos

You think the woke crowd doesn’t have atheistic social controls meant to control society? LOL!

Bruce

More recently, we have struggled with a prominent and celebrated deceased apologist being turned out as indulging in sexual immorality and not only avoiding repentance but denying any wrong-doing. Given that particularly painful and recent example, have we practiced cancel-culture, discernment, apathy, or some mix of all that?

MIZPAHLADYBruce

If you're speaking of Ravi, he didn't repent. He did use the Word of God to evil ends with the women he abused. His was a hidden sin. There but for the grace of God go I.

BruceMIZPAHLADY

Yes I was speaking of Mr. Zacharias. I agree. It was unconscionable and great deceit to himself and others. I was just asking for us to take this article and see if and how it applies.

MIZPAHLADYBruce

I am a church librarian, and agonized, consulted and read everything I could. I was influenced, and enjoyed his writings, but I couldn't get past the double life he led. So I removed them from the library with the consent of our pastor of discipleship. Sad, still so sad. None of us is perfect, but oh when the mighty fall who have taken the name of Christ into the byways and highways. He could have thrown himself in contrition on the blood of the cross, but he didn't.

Janet B

Is there anyone who has not done something that they were told was good, or thought was good, only to realize later that it was not (such as encouraging or aiding in or having an abortion)? Guilty.
As Christians, don't we know that the reason for Christ was that we may repent and receive forgiveness? Gratefully.

Let us not be arrogant enough to think that we are so much better than those whose culture allowed slaves or who saw condemning the Jews (because they rejected Jesus) as a defense of the Lord, especially if we are unforgiving and judgmental toward them from the advantage point of 20/20 hindsight. After all, what will people say 300 years from now about a church so willing to think of abortion as the right of the mother to her own body?
As Jesus said, " Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Cherished1Janet B

Well put!

not silent

I think this gives us an incredible opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel through our own example of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. For a long time, the secular trend seemed to be for more tolerance and co-existence (and the church was viewed as narrow and intolerant); but now it seems to be shifting towards judgment and public shaming.

It may feel powerful for a time to exalt self by judging and condemning others; but, as the Bible says, “ For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2) Those who are quick to condemn others may themselves be condemned when they inevitably fail to live up to the standards they used to judge others.

The gospel isn’t about exalting self or shaming others. It’s about showing others what to do about the guilt and shame we all feel because of our flaws and wrongdoing and offering reconciliation with God and other humans through Jesus.

Brucenot silent

NS, that passage in Matthew that you referenced is often raised in my mind in these days when judgment is one perilous form of what is dividing people. In that same passage, Jesus talks about discernment in which He does expect us to recognize bad fruit as different from good fruit. In that way, we may sometimes have a clearer view of the heart of a person. Even so, instead of pointing a finger to publicly call out sin and evil, Jesus also called us to love our enemies, to be the neighbor for those we might neglect or disdain.

I like this bit you wrote: "It’s about showing others what to do about the guilt and shame we all feel because of our flaws and wrongdoing and offering reconciliation with God and other humans through Jesus."

not silentBruce

Thanks for your additional comments. It’s definitely hard to do this topic justice in a brief comment.

I think we probably agree that there must be a balance between grace and justice. We obviously have to use discernment so that we are not deceived or led astray. We also might need to set boundaries if someone repeatedly harms us or others. God may also call us to help others acknowledge sin so that they can repent and be reconciled to God.

I think motive is very important when seeking balance. If I am judging others to elevate myself or distract from my own personal shame and guilt, I am out of balance. I have to look at myself first and get myself right with God before I can help someone else. (I.e., get the “plank” out of my own eye before helping someone else with their “mote.”)

James

I am reminded of American televangelists who fell from grace at some point. There are numerous others who are not well known. Most of us know someone who falls into that category. We as Christians need to ask ourselves: "Where is the role of confession, repentance, and restoration among these?" We are all broken and all need the Cross. There is a place for forgiveness and tolerance in the evangelical community, even if it flies in the face of cancel culture.