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Easy Virtues and Cruel Mistresses

In light of Rob Bell’s using a quote from a letter of Martin Luther to defend his arguments in Love Wins, Carl Trueman offers some helpful advice on interpreting Luther:

A number of comments seem apposite in regard to this statement. First, there is a basic problem of historical method here: it is illegitimate to take a small quotation from a single letter and use it to extrapolate to a person’s general theology. Now, to accuse someone of taking statements out of context is not in itself a strong criticism. Is not all historical writing an example of things taken out of one context and placed in another? But to build so much on a single, short sentence, without examining what went before or after it leaves the argument at best half-done.

Second, to extrapolate from a letter to a person’s general theology risks distortion, even if the whole letter is taken into account. If someone were ever to express an interest in my opinion on say, classic rock music of the seventies, I hope they would not focus simply on an email or two, or even on a couple of longer essays or papers. I trust they would try to read as much of my material as possible, and set each artifact in relation to others, so as to produce a coherent account of my thought on rock music as a whole. By so doing, they would create a framework for understanding the significance of any individual statement I might have made on the subject.

Thus it is with Luther: one cannot legitimately draw theological conclusions from statements in occasional letters without taking into account the theological treatises and, indeed, the confessional documents to which he appended his name. Even the briefest reading of, say, Luther’s Larger Catechism would indicate that his mature position allows no space for such postmortem second chances. Anyone can express themselves unclearly at points; anyone can make a statement that contradicts a position which he holds consistently elsewhere. Therefore, even if Luther did say exactly what Bell claims, it might prove little more than the fact he was having a bad day.

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In Case You Missed It

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

A review of Love Wins by Rob Bell

Is God’s Victory Over Sin Thwarted?

Reading A Book

Sermon Audio: When God Delivers His People

Honor Your Father by Being in Awe of Him

 

 

Don’t Study Theology

How often do we study theology for the sake of studying theology?

Carl Trueman’s provocatively titled article, Minority Report: The Importance of Not Studying Theology, addresses that very issue. Trueman writes,

The greatest temptation of a theology student is to assume that what they are studying is the most important thing in the world. Now, I need to be uncharacteristically nuanced at this point: there is a sense, a very deep and true sense, in which theology is the most important thing in the world. It is, after all, reflection upon what God has chosen to reveal to his creatures; and it thus involves the very meaning of existence. In this sense, there is nothing more important than doing theology.

But this is not the whole story. One of the great problems with the study of theology is how quickly it can become the study of theology, rather than the study of theology, that becomes the point. We are all no doubt familiar with the secular mindset which repudiates any notion of certainty in thought; and one of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that intellectual inquiry is rather like trying to get a date with the attractive girl across the road with whom you have secretly fallen in love: the thrill comes more from the chase and the sense of anticipation than it does from actually finding the answer or eliciting agreement to go to the movies.

This is a great temptation for me. I’m a very “booky” person. I genuinely enjoy studying complicated ideas. I like reading a lot (as is obvious from much of the content of this blog).

But I’ve found that I have to constantly be asking myself two questions:

  1. Does what I’m reading help me grow in my knowledge of and love for Christ?
  2. Am I actually growing wiser because I’m applying what I’m reading or am I merely accumulating information?

Reading Trueman’s article reminded me just how important it is for me to be constantly asking these questions. [Read more…]