The Sin of Uzzah

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As it is a rest day in the Tour, and Team Sky/Bradley Wiggins are in a very strong position before hitting the mountain stages this week, I find myself with a few hours to spare.   In the time since Paul Levy's challenge last week, I have noticed that Iain Murray has published a review of the Lloyd-Jones volume in June's Banner of Truth magazine.   By my count that now makes three critical reviews of the book which Banner has sponsored - quite a tally considering that the volume is meant to be so flawed and easy to dismiss.  If you will forgive the mixing of biblical allusions, those who commit the sin of Uzzah can expect the Phineas priesthood to smite them most mightily.

What is interesting about the Murray review is not so much the details of the critique of the volume.   This is predictable and standard Banner fare.  What piqued my interest was the attack on historical method that Murray launches in the first few paragraphs.   
Murray asserts that scholarly (or, to be precise, 'scholarly' - speech marks are crucial to the rhetoric of the argument) historians write from the standpoint of 'neutral objectivity'.  University-based historians in particular have to avoid judging the truth or falsity of the beliefs of the person being studied.

There is an ocean of discussion to be had here. Having taught history now for twenty years, with almost half of that time in a secular university context, I know of no historian who would claim to be able to write history from the standpoint of 'neutral objectivity', least of all the men involved in this volume.  Every historian knows that history is written from a perspective.  That Murray apparently conflates neutrality and objectivity is the error here: while some radical postmodern historians might well deny the distinction, most of those of whom I am aware would routinely distinguish neutrality from objectivity.  The former is impossible; the latter simply acknowledges the fact that history is a public discipline, the results of which can be assessed by public criteria.  This is one of the great dilemmas for those who advocate  a distinctively 'Christian' historical method (of which I am not one).  How does one assess, for example, the impact of prayer on a man's ministry, when prayer and God's action relative to it are not things to which we have public access?  They may well be real; but they are not susceptible to historical study in the way that, say, the literary form of a man's sermons might be.  History has its sphere of competence and its ambitions, and its methods and results should be understood accordingly.

The constant complaint of historians like Murray is that the 'truth question' - whether a man is right or wrong in a particular action or statement -- is ignored by historians such as myself because of some deep-seated desire we have for intellectual respectability or acceptance by the secular academy.  That may be the case in some instances, but speaking for myself, I simply repudiate the idea that the 'truth question' is either the only question worth asking or the first (and thus methodologically formative) question which should be asked.  The 'why' question is really that which preoccupies the historian -- why did this person do this thing in this way at this point in time?  Historians provide material explanations of intentional actions; and that task is first and foremost an issue of 'why'.  It does not exclude the truth question; it simply reassigns it.

Take, for example, the reason why the Holocaust happened.   On Murray's approach, one could presumably be satisfied with the answer: it happened because too many Germans hated Jews, and that was a very wrong thing.   Not only is that a very simplistic explanation, it is also ironically a somewhat useless one: we cannot really learn how to avoid a Holocaust in the future if the answer boils to down to 'some people are very, very bad.'   The historian wants to know 'why', and that demands studies of the wider culture, politics, the history of Europe, technology etc. etc.  To do this, to ask these sorts of questions, is not to remain personally neutral on the moral status of the Holocaust; it is simply to acknowledge the need to explain complex human behaviour in a suitably complex manner.

So with Lloyd-Jones: whether he was right in '66 is an interesting question, but it is not obvious to me why it should make redundant  or uninteresting questions such as 'Did his medical training impact the way he read the Bible?', 'Did personal rivalries within the British evangelical movement of the 50s shape the way things fell out in the 60s?' and 'Was his understanding of the Puritans something they themselves would have recognized or did it involve infusing a certain amount of whacky eighteenth century Welsh Methodist mysticism back into them?'

Much more could be said.  That F. F. Bruce described Lloyd-Jones as humble is  interesting at an anecdotal level.  By way of contrast, I know someone who was close to the Doctor in the fifties, who loved him deeply but who described him to me as a 'massive egoist' who could not tolerate challenges to his authority.  I quote this not to slander the Doctor but only to show the problematic nature of history and the underlying complexity of human personality.  Which of these accounts is correct?  Was he humble or an egoist?  That is the task of the historian: to assess such claims in the light of the material which the historian has at his disposal.   I suspect both are true: is there a humble man on earth who does not have moments of over-weening pride, or an egoist who does not occasionally feel a twinge of humility?  The apparent refusal by the guardians of the flame to allow discussion of Lloyd-Jones' complexity without raising suspicions of a conspiracy to do him ill is sad and will ultimately prevent the church from learning all that it can from his life and legacy.

When I received my call to Cornerstone Church earlier this year, the first thing I did was re-read MLJ's book about preaching and the first volume of Murray's biography of him.  Both are great and inspiring reads and two of my favourite books of all time.  Lloyd-Jones is a huge hero of mine; and the Banner of Truth, through its production of beautiful and sound books and its promotion of conferences and ministry style which is a refreshing change to the personality cult pyrotechnics of the current reformed revival, has helped me more than I can ever say.   But in its apparent absolute commitment to maintaining a fundamentally uncritical, defensive and hagiographical approach to MLJ, it does the church no favours.   

I will never do a thousandth part of what the Doctor did for the church.  His greatness is undeniable.   But it is time to acknowledge that his public greatness lay in his preaching, his modeling of godliness in the pulpit and his mentoring of a whole generation of young men in the ministry.  Beyond that, he is problematic.  Indeed, some aspects of his legacy are decidedly negative: his weird mysticism has little to do with biblical Christianity and his failure to provide coherent leadership in the 60s and 70s needs to be acknowledged, as do the reasons why Westminster Chapel went the way it did after his retirement.  It looks as if a generation will have to pass away before the temperature will have dropped sufficiently for such discussion to take place.

Posted July 10, 2012 @ 10:11 AM by Carl Trueman

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