On the Gloucestershire Way of Identifying Sheep: A Response to Iain Murray

Carl Trueman Articles
On the whole, I have always taken the position that I do not respond to hostile reviews, simply on the grounds that the reviewer is entitled to his or her opinions, and the reading public is entitled to weigh the arguments and come to its own conclusion; but the recent review by Iain H. Murray in March's Banner of Truth magazine of my essay in J.I.Packer's Festschrift has drawn me out of my lair. After all, while I am no stranger to brickbats, I am impressed that in the space of a page and a half, Mr. Murray finds me guilty of `serious inaccuracies,' of trusting an `unworthy' source which is '[f]alse and has misled [me] to support a slander,' and of arguing a case that is `simply wrong;' but the argument over the meaning and significance of Lloyd-Jones' relationship to Packer is important for understanding the identity of British evangelicalism; and thus I feel compelled to respond.  After all, if Mr. Murray is right in his criticisms, then my argument, in the words of the Munchkin Coroner to the Lollipop Guild, isn't only merely dead, it is really most sincerely dead.

First, Mr. Murray claims that the issue between MLJ and Dr. Packer `was not, as Trueman represents it, "separatism versus the Church of England"; it was maintaining historic evangelical belief versus ecumenical alignment.'  This claim is misleading, and, in the context, a distinction without a difference: separation was proposed by MLJ in 1966 as the means of maintaining evangelical belief.  Dr. Packer clearly understood the issue as precisely this, as my lengthy quotation from him on pp. 122-23 indicates (and my essay was on Dr. Packer, not MLJ after all); and Mr. Murray himself seems to have held a view I find hard to distinguish from that of Packer (see the second volume of his biography of Dr. Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith [Banner of Truth, 1990], hereafter MLJ 2, 557-58).  

I am, of course, well aware that the final breach with Packer did not take place until 1970 - I allude to as much on p. 123 of my essay.  But 1966 set out the grid by which 1970 must be judged; in fact, the dispute over JIP's involvement with Growing into Union was simply the latest phase in a move that started in 1966; so to speak as I do in the essay of the post-1966 world is not, I believe, inappropriate or misleading.   Mr. Murray himself, makes the point that 1966 was a watershed, the impact of which took some years to work out (MLJ 2, 563-67); and it seems to me that the logic of the split in 1970 was simply that of 1966 applied to a particular instance.  At that point, MLJ could, I believe, quite legitimately say `I told you so.  Stay in and inevitably you compromise. Enough is now enough!' Further, while my experience of English non-conformity as a younger man may have been limited, it was 1966, not 1970, that loomed large in the popular imagination regarding how to assess Anglican evangelicals in general and Dr. Packer in particular.

Now, second, to the most brutal charge, that of slander, the issue is the accuracy or otherwise of Gaius Davies arguments in the essay to which I refer in the original piece.   I acknowledge that psychological explanations are always speculative, and indeed they should be read as such - as I make clear in the essay itself (p. 124).  Yet Davies makes a good case, based on some significant evidence, that the Doctor did indeed struggle with those who were perceived to be rivals and liked to close them down.  Davies was a friend of the Doctor and writes with no animus, as far as I can see; and as a trained medical man, he would seem to be well qualified to speak to such psychological matters.  Readers should check out the article for themselves and decide if his opinions are "unworthy" or not.

Now, is this a slander?  I do not think so. For a start, slander carries connotations of deliberate misrepresentation and malice, neither of which I can assure Mr. Murray apply in this case.  The charge is, to use Mr. Murray's own phrase, an unworthy one.   Further, slander implies extreme misrepresentation.   Now, I did not accuse the Doctor of murder or armed robbery or wife beating.   I said that there is evidence to suggest that he liked to be in charge and had difficulty with those who might be rivals in that.  Now, what leader does not struggle from such temptations?  If so, should this not be a legitimate part (not the whole!) of the explanation for his actions? The debate is surely not about whether this issue was a factor; but to what extent it was a factor; and I scarcely reduced the conflict to some matter of psychological projection; I simply pointed to it as one possible aspect that needed to be taken into account.   Lloyd-Jones was, presumably, totally depraved; and I believe that total depravity must be addressed in constructing the narrative of a man's life, particularly a public figure who is presented with so many temptations.  

Given that Mr. Murray managed to write a massive two volume biography of MLJ which contained virtually no criticism whatsoever, I suspect (and here I speculate again) that the problem with Davies is not that he makes this particular criticism of Lloyd-Jones, but rather that he makes any criticism at all.   The world is full of Lloyd-Jones fans who keep telling us that the man had his faults, but who never specify exactly what they were or what impact they had,  and who are merciless with those who attempt so to do.

Murray also rejects my view that the Doctor exhibited doctrinal indifferentism; several comments are necessary here.

As to the Doctor's lack of concern for ecclesiology and the sacraments, I refer interested readers to Mr. Murray's own appendix on MLJ's churchmanship in volume 2 of his biography (pp. 789-91).  He makes the case there better than I could ever do, reporting that MLJ rejected infant baptism but was happy to serve as pastor in paedobaptist churches, seemed to think no particular form of church government (at least of those which exist) could claim to be fully provable from scripture, and that, anyway, these were not things over which to separate.  That is the kind of thing typically meant by indifference to the sacraments and ecclesiology.

More specifically, my argument was that, in calling evangelicals out from mixed denominations into an alliance which set aside differences over baptism, Calvinism etc., MLJ did indeed show himself doctrinally indifferent on a whole host of points.  Mr. Murray seems to think that this is unfair because MLJ was calling for some kind of broad, parachurch (?) alliance, presumably as epitomised by the British Evangelical Council.  If so, then my major criticism of MLJ, as presenting a completely incoherent vision, stands, for one cannot call a group to an ecclesiastical action (separation) which leads to a non-ecclesiastical result (some broad, parachurch alliance); and, even if one could, the prioritizing of a parachurch alliance over the church means in practice what?  Doctrinal indifferentism on all but the most basic elements of the gospel, precisely the point I was making.

I know that Mr. Murray has described MLJ as wanting a third way, between staying in mixed denominations and forming a new denomination; but, according to Mr. Murray, MLJ was unable to give any detailed definition of what this third way might be (see MLJ 2, 558-59). Now, I am a simple country fellow, a Gloucestershire lad like Dr. Packer; and I was brought up to believe that, if it's white, wooly, and goes `baa' when you kick it, it's a sheep, no matter what you care to call it.  Indeed, to claim otherwise is, to use the technical scholarly terminology, a load of old flannel; and thus it is with MLJ's proposal - call it what you will, it is functionally a new denomination, but one where ecclesiastical distinctives do not apply.  In other words, a denomination with a high degree of doctrinal and ecclesiological indifferentism.

Further, to argue, as Murray in effect does, that MLJ was not arguing for doctrinal indifferentism because he was not indifferent to those doctrines to which he was, well, not indifferent, is to make the Doctor, and his own private opinions, the measure of what should be considered important in the church.  Anyone who calls for some kind of ecclesiastical union - and, despite the flannel to the contrary, this is what he was doing - which ignores differences between Calvinists and Arminians, credobaptists and paedobaptists, is articulating, by any historical ecclesiastical theological standards you care to mention, a doctrinal indifferentism. To cite Whitefield at this point is a complete red herring: as far as I know, Whitefield remained an Anglican and never called for an exodus from his, or any other, denomination.
In sum, the reaction of Mr. Murray to my review typifies the problem surrounding the legacy of MLJ: those who knew him best have signally failed to engage critically with his life and thought, preferring simply to burnish the edifice and deride all who do not buy the party line.  The result is that, instead of a genuine assessment of his strengths and weaknesses which might have been of real value to the contemporary church, what we have is a personality cult, supported by a body of hagiography, and maintained by a defensive mentality, where all critics are dismissed as unworthy slanderers and mediocre historians. 

Let me close by saying how sad I am to have to write the above because it makes me look like an opponent of MLJ.  I am not.  Ironically, I think he correctly and prophetically saw the problem with mixed denominations; his analysis was sound; it was his solution which was so hopelessly inadequate.   Further, I am a great admirer of Dr. Lloyd-Jones.  He was undoubtedly the greatest preacher of the twentieth century, one of two or three pivotal figures in British evangelicalism in the last 100 years, and a massive force for good.  It was his books, along with those of Dr. Packer, which first switched my mind on to the great doctrinal truths of the Bible.  But he was not right on everything, and especially not on matters relating to ecclesiology.  It is surely time that this was acknowledged by those who seem to claim the exclusive right to comment upon his life and ministry; and that is another reason to regret that Dr. Packer remained an Anglican.

Carl Trueman is an Alliance Council Member.

Carl Trueman, "On the Gloucestershire Way of Identifying Sheep: A Response to Iain Murray", Reformation21 (March 2010)

© Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Inc, 1716 Spruce St Philadelphia PA 19103 USA.

This article was originally published in/on Reformation21.org, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation through broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional resources can be found at www.alliancenet.org or by calling 800-956-2644.

This article may be duplicated in its entirety and without edit, including this full disclaimer for personal, small group, non-commercial use.  No more than 200 copies may be made.  No electronic use beyond email is permitted.  Any use other then those listed herein are forbidden without prior written permission.  All rights reserved.