Joseph Truman (1631-71) was an ejected minister from the Nottinghamshire area. He wrote (among other things) a Discourse of Natural and Moral Impotency (2nd edn. 1675) which is not a medical handbook, as you may think, but a tidy theological essay in which he sets forth the distinction between moral ability and natural or physical ability. All the title page says is that he was a minister ‘near Nottingham’. He was in fact Rector of Cromwell, Notts. (Nice, that.) After 1662 he lived in Mansfield and attended the parish church.
I’ve read that Truman was a protégé of Richard Baxter’s. He seems at least to have met him. Baxter also wrote on natural and moral ability and inability in his Catholick Theologie, Plain. Pure, Peaceable, for Pacification of the Dogmatical Word-Warriors (1675). Later this distinction was made famous by Jonathan Edwards in his Freedom of the Will. The Victorian editor Henry Rodgers thought that Truman’s Essay was the place where Edwards might have discovered the distinction, but there’s no reason to think Edwards even read Truman, though he did read Francis Turretin, where the distinction can also be found. Rodgers was so enamoured of Truman’s discourse that in 1834 he had it reprinted, though I’ve never seen a copy.
As I say it is an interesting book, showing learning and argumentative ability, on a topic that was of practical importance to him. Truman he is not what the late Al Read used to call a Johnny Know-All, for one of the engaging features of the book, uncommon among theologians, is that when he gets stuck with the argument he says he is stuck. In the text he shows a respect for lawyers. Reading the more casuistical side to the Discourse makes it easy to see he himself might have made a useful defence lawyer. ‘Often indicted, and once sued to an Outlawry, which was very chargeable to him. He begg’d leave of the Justices to plead his own Cause that he got off, tho’ the Justices were no great Friends to Nonconformists.’ It was said of him, probably in a funeral sermon, ‘An excellent Scholar, and wonderful clear-headed Man’. (I found both comments in Calamy Revised)
Truman holds to the moral impotency of the unregenerate. The unregenerate have an intellect and a will and these are warped such that there is always a prevailing motive to continue in the way of unrighteousness. He prefers to say that they may not will a godly way, not that they cannot. The emphasis is on wilfully persisting in a course of action, not in being necessitated to that course.Though there is no think that he is necessitated. This is in contrast to the more Augustinian conceptuality in which it is true of fallen men and women that non posse non peccare, impossible not to sin. Truman prefers to say that the morally impotent are only so by vicious habits which they have voluntarily acquired.
The ‘cannot’ of unbelief is not a natural impotency, like having an allergy to cheese, of being paralysed, but a cannot that is an expression of wilfulness. Not to will to believe is just what unbelief is. Unbelief is to will not, tho’ such a person has the natural power of willing . But he cannot find it in his heart to choose to, cannot obtain of himself to will it, due to influence of wickedness, pride and so on. Maybe he cannot want to want to please God. Truman distinguishes between a ‘will not’ and a ‘can not’. He quotes Gen. 37.4. 'Joseph’s brethren hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.’ This ‘can-not' (or 'could-not') is a ‘will not’. This ‘cannot' is of a person’s own choice. Choice for a reason, as Truman puts it. God regenerates not by giving new faculties, a will where there was none, but by causing people to will and to do of his good pleasure. It is impossible that there is anything but will in this impotency.
I guess that the book probably started life as sermons, before being worked up into a more substantial book. I say this because he calls what could have been an ‘Essay’ a Discourse. And the likely origin of it as sermons is confirmed by the fact that at the end of the book Truman has a number of ‘uses’ for the doctrine he has been setting forth, and numerous objections to these, which he then replies to.
It is these I want briefly to ruminate on here. ‘Uses’ are (or were) applications of the doctrine to its hearers, and they frequently brought the sermon to a close. They prevented the sermon from being a lecture. They were intended to make hearers of the word doers of it also. Clearly Truman did not his readers to take his book as an essay, and to take or leave its contents as they saw fit.
In these ‘uses’ at the end of the book he considers a possible or likely response the case of one who is persuaded of what is true, that he is morally unable to respond positively to the preaching of the gospel. He might say ‘But I cannot turn from sin to God, I cannot leave my sinful ways’. (190) If this is genuinely intended, and is not a mere excuse, then Truman replies, if the person means that he cannot turn to God, then that is false, because the faculties, the understanding and will, are intact. What he should say is that he will not. This person is made to continue
I am resolved to please my Flesh and Senses, come what will of it. I have such a chosen Aversness to God and his Wayes, and such a Love to the wayes of sin, that though the Minister should lift up his Voyce like a Trumpet, and speak and sound as terribly as the Trumpet will as the last day, I will go on. (190)
Truman has a number of other similar objections to other ‘uses’, conveyed in the same plain outspoken style. I am assuming that these words are meant to convey the then-current style of speech in the churches, and in conversation with a minister or an earnest Christian. The sort of thing might go on at the back of the church after Pastor Truman has been preaching. Though the Bunyanesque manner makes me wonder, and the use of ‘averseness’. If this example is not altogether contrived (what would be the point?) but is intended to be life-like, and is a reasonable likeness, then the degree of outspokenness and the speaker’s self-confidence (i.e. confidence regarding a person’s self) is striking. Truman has the speaker using the language of Scripture against himself, knowingly. Besides this, there is the fact that an avowed unbeliever who had this self-knowledge was be in church! Perhaps there was nowhere else to go. But maybe in those days there were outspoken unbelievers attending church, a rather rare phenomenon today, I think.
What do we draw from this? Even if we were to translate such sentiments into the patois of today, do we ever hear people speak like this? Ought we to? Does the surrounding culture prevent such language? Ignorance as to what goes on inside the four walls of a church building? Besides living in a day of such ignorance, are we unwitting victims of political correctness and of modern sensitivities? Curbing speech that ‘offends’ has its effect on plain speaking in the pulpit. Has the culture of speaking out, and allowing others to speak out, disappeared?
Here’s another comment on the Eighth Use.
Some may say, But there is something beside Will in it; for Natural men cannot understand the Gospel, and Scriptures, and Will of God; Carnal men cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
What would your answer be?
(Are such topics dealt with in courses on Practical Theology in seminaries and colleges? I should hope so. To have courses in Practical Theology it is necessary to have a theology to be practical about, as someone once said.)