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Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman’s Nietzschean Delusion

Within Christian academia, Carl Trueman is one of the well-known professors at Grove City College who often writes at First Things and other outlets, even getting circulated by Christian Post. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is an interfaith Judeo-Christian think tank, and he appeared in Matt Walsh’s What is a Woman? documentary. A year ago, Jon Harris did a review of his book Republocrat, which highlighted Trueman’s iteration of Third Way-ism.

Recently, he penned his column “How Pop Nietzscheanism Masquerades as Christianity” in an attempt to counter the rising tide of the dissident right who fight the Culture War and want to restore America’s Christian heritage. In a world where everything has become political, Trueman thinks Christians are becoming too political.

At that time, the big threat to the faith was the emerging pressure on religious freedom, focused then on the issue of gay marriage. The threat to religious liberty remains and has indeed expanded, but a new one has also emerged: the temptation to combat this by fusing Christianity with worldly forms of power and worldly ways of achieving the same.

First, all worldly power derives from God, and magistrates are to be ministers of God (Romans 13:6). Although it is unclear who he is opposing, no one is seeking to fuse worldly power with Christianity but use worldly power to uphold God’s standard. Any magistrate who fails to this end is in sin, as they are derelict in their duty as ordained by God. Second, Trueman hints at a neo-anabaptism impulse that is all too commonplace in Big Eva, whereby all “power” is bad, like the Ring in Lord of the Rings—that no man can wield it. For someone who advocates historic Protestantism, this is contrary to historic Protestant belief.

For want of a better term, it’s a kind of pop Nietzscheanism that uses the idioms of Christianity. It’s understandable why such a thing has emerged. Many Christians think America has been stolen from them. And the path to political power today is littered with crudity, verbal thuggery, and, whatever the policies at stake, the destruction of any given opponent’s character. While the left may pose an obvious threat, there is also a more subtle danger in succumbing to the rules of the political game as currently played by both sides. And the internet doesn’t help. All ideas—however silly, insane, or plain evil—can seem rational and workable in the frictionless kindergartens of social media bubbles. In the real world, things can be just a bit more complicated.

Ironically, in his book Trueman suggested that America’s secularity utilizes religious idioms in a way that Britain does not. This simply is the American political landscape that descends from its Christian heritage. Americans do not think their nation has been stolen from them, they know that it has. Sexual degeneracy is rampant. Prices have skyrocketed from inflation. Housing is unaffordable. Wages have stagnated and jobs are difficult to obtain. Marital prospects are at all-time lows. Mass immigration is destroying the culture. Anarcho-tyranny reigns in every American city. There is an excess of over $30 trillion in debt that older generations have heaped upon their progeny to pay for their wanton Forever Wars, Welfare State, and self-preservation from a glorified flu. Of course, their country was stolen from them!

Trueman tries to strike the balance that the Right succumbing to the “rules” of modern politics is as threatening as the left, if not worse. In what way? Politics is war without guns, and America is engaged in a Cold Civil War. Society is falling apart, but Trueman is more concerned with tone-policing internet speech. Clearly, he fails to comprehend how bad things have become. There are bigger problems than “verbal thuggery” in political discourse. His equivocation of the two, or rather claiming the right is worse than the left, is the same rhetoric of David French, Erick Erickson, and Russell Moore. It is the sophistry of compromise.

Now, the Right has largely not played by the rules of politics but rather has chosen to ignore what strategies work and stand on so-called principles, which involve observing the destruction of America from their lofty ivory towers, lecturing at those beneath them. They are as Sam Francis called them, Beautiful Losers.

And yet the sun also rises, to quote Ecclesiastes. Regardless of the political stakes, at ground level the births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths continue. Pastoral ministry goes on, day to day, year to year, whatever the political officer class, right and left, are debating. And so in this context, the Church must continue to do that to which she has been called: proclaim Christ in Word and sacrament. The big problems of life—sin and death—remain, whoever wins the election in November 2024. And so the Church needs to remain faithful to her appointed task and not become simply an arm of those vying for political power. 

This is a textbook example of what is called a “Gospel Juke.” Trueman is avoiding real issues by appealing to the Prime Directive of preaching the Gospel. Worry not about the world, just preach the gospel. This is a classic tactic often used by Third Way Liberals to imply that their opponents are not focused on the gospel. No one is saying the Gospel is unimportant or that one should not preach the Word, but this sanctimonious strawman is an excellent veil to conceal inaction and ineptitude under the guise of the Gospel.

This is where the language of life in what Aaron Renn calls the “negative world” needs modification. For those of us who grew up in Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century, confessional orthodox Protestantism has always been culturally marginal and despised. Ours was always the negative world, albeit perhaps less intensely so than now. For American evangelicals, this is a new experience, one that is disorienting and infuriating. That is why it is important to remember that the message of the Christian gospel has always stood in antithesis to the thinking of the surrounding world, even when the churches and that world had a broadly shared moral imagination. The antithesis is merely more obvious and more socially significant now. But it has always been there.

Trueman disputes Aaron Renn’s characterization of Negative World, articulating that the world has always been Negative World. The point of Renn’s commentary is not to suggest that Positive World was without issue, but to characterize the stages of society. Trueman is bucketing all generations and all eras into the same “Negative World” category because the Gospel stands in contrast even when there is a “broadly shared moral imagination.” At American Reformer, Ben Crenshaw points out that Trueman’s assumptions about the rules of political discourse are entirely derived from living in a Positive World framework.

Trueman mirrors the arguments that Cultural Christianity is bad because of the prevalence of hypocrites which neglects the objective benefits like the mitigation of sin, whether through stigma or proscription, while enabling the Church to focus on calling the people to repentance since they already have familiarity with the Gospel. The use of cultural symbolism under so-called Cultural Christianity serves as a constant reminder of God, using societal elements to point people toward the Gospel. Truly, Cultural Christianity or Christendom, despite its flaws, was clearly superior to the Negative World of modernity even if Trueman objects to Renn’s categorization.

That means that the task of the Church and her ministers has always stood in antithesis to the world as well. She has a prophetic voice and answers to a higher authority. She must pursue her task regardless of the crises of the political moment. Nathan hardly did Israel a favor when he confronted David over his relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. But he did his job and he saved David’s soul. That’s prophetic ministry. “Prophetic” does not mean “triggering the libs.” It means calling anyone and everyone to faith and repentance, no matter the social and political exigencies of the day. 

Where does Trueman get the gall to suggest that Israel would have been better off had David been deposed? Does Trueman know better than God what was best for Israel? Disciplining David was doing Israel a favor. When David was most focused on God, being a man after God’s heart, the nation benefited materially and spiritually. David prepared the materials for the First Temple, and God ordained that Solomon would see its construction. Contrast Israel and Judah, whereby the former underwent constant political transition resulting from sinful lifestyles while the latter, though not immune to wicked rulers, was a near-constant dynasty. To depose a leader every time he sins would lead to far worse tangible outcomes for the nation. Throughout history, the constant turnover of leadership has been a recipe for societal instability. Additionally, it must be stated that Nathan did not save David’s soul—God did, which is why He used the prophet to confront David. Crediting David’s salvation to Nathan is reckless, especially from a professor.

Trueman resorts to outright irreverence and soteriological ignorance in weaponizing David and Bathsheba to conject that Nathan only cared about preaching the gospel, not about the contemporary world in which he lived. Confronting a king was hardly a safe assignment, but Nathan obeyed God to the benefit of all Israel. One can benefit the culture while preaching the Gospel. There is no conflict but for that contrived by Third-Way Liberals.

Conclusion

The Gospel is not an excuse for inaction and impotence. Contrary, the Gospel was most effective when believers took bold, public stances to the world around them. People like Trueman would rather look pretty losing than fighting in the trenches to win. They would rather tone police those who want to fight than take up the fight themselves. And when the fight came to his backyard, Trueman defended Grove City from accusations of promoting Critical Race Theory rather than risk offending the institutions. In the end, the gatekeepers have enabled the decline of America. 

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