Carl Trueman, Martin Luther, and Church History in Context

I am a lover of history in general; church history in particular. This, in turn, means that I read a lot of old, dead authors. While this practice has often been nourishing to my soul, and foundational for my theology, there is yet a pervasive problem in reading church history: if the reader does not know the historical and social settings of the time period in which they are reading, then they are likely to misread, misunderstand, and then misuse an old, dead authors to prove a point which the authors themselves were never intending to make. (Trust me when I tell you, “This is easy to do.” I have done it myself.)

I want to give you a concrete example of how easy it is to make this error. However, to think that I could explain this better, or with more humility, than Carl Trueman would just be silly. In a recent article entitled, Easy Virtues and Cruel Mistresses, Trueman does a masterful job addressing a current misuse of Martin Luther’s 1522 letter to Hans von Rechenburg. Truman states,

In this letter, Luther is answering the question, raised by von Rechenberg, as to whether any can be saved without faith. Luther’s answer is a clear ‘no.’ In fact, the letter is specifically aimed at refuting any notion that anyone can be saved by anything other than faith as Luther defines it. In this particular passage, Luther is raising, in a rhetorical flourish, a kind of question which was typical of the late medieval theological tradition in which he was schooled. It concerns the range of God’s possible action (technically, his absolute power/potentia absoluta).

Why is this important? In his new book, Rob Bell quotes Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechenburg to argue for the possibility that there may be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. On page 108 of his book (to be precise, an advance reader copy), Bell makes the following statement:

And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but insist that there must be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 he considered the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?”
Again, a good question.
And so space is created in this “who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” perspective for all kinds of people–fifteen-year-old atheists, people from other religions, and people who rejected Jesus because the only Jesus they ever saw was an oppressive figure who did anything but show God’s love.

Carl Trueman rightly states,

Any medieval theologian worth his salt knows that the key to understanding how things actually are, how God actually works in relation to the created world, is his potentia ordinata, his ordained power, those things which he has actually determined to do. What Luther is focusing on here is not the possibility of postmortem evangelism but the absolute necessity of faith in the ordained order. Indeed, he goes out of his way to say that we have no basis for thinking that postmortem evangelism does occur, only that God could have established it that way had he so wished. Bell’s mistake is that he draws a patently wrong conclusion about Luther’s argument here because he either did not allow the wider context of the quotation to inform his understanding of its meaning or did not understand the medieval theology and rhetorical argumentation underlying Luther’s point.

Read the full article here.

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3 Responses to “Carl Trueman, Martin Luther, and Church History in Context”

  1. Thanks for this clarification. I’m working my way through Bell’s book, and googled for a second opinion on what Bell asserts Luther meant by his statement. Yours was the first that popped up.
    I’m finding so many misuses of scripture, examples of eisigesis in this book that, even if Bell says something worthy of note, I find I’m loathe to trust it because of all of the other interpretive pitfalls I’m having to navigate as I make my way through “Love Wins”.

    • kevinwilkening Says:

      I am glad the post was helpful. Carl Trueman was a professor of mine, and he is a great historical and theological mind. You should probably thank him. LOL.

  2. david sims Says:

    good job, again, Kevin

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