Review of the Trauma of Doctrine

The Trauma of Doctrine book cover

The Trauma of Doctrine is a difficult book: the issue of trauma is massive, requiring an intricate, inter-disciplinary treatment. More significantly, trauma is a painful issue for many members of our churches. It is painful to read about Maxwell’s own experience and the experience of others. There is no doubt in my mind that Reformed churches, among which I would count my membership, have caused untold pain in recent years. This is especially true within the movement known as New Calvinism. We must face a reckoning for the damage we are causing and do some serious soul-searching for its causes. I approached The Trauma of Doctrine to learn from someone who has suffered and thought deeply about his suffering through an interdisciplinary investigation of psychology, philosophy, theology, and the Bible. However, after setting the book down, I am not convinced that this is the answer the Church needs, Reformed or otherwise.


However we define the concept, “trauma” and the Christian response to it is an important subject. Churches must be places where the broken can find peace and even healing, whether in this life or the next. However, from a pastoral and (Christian) academic perspective, I do not believe Maxwell’s work will help us attain that goal. There are methodological issues in this book that will not commend themselves to a Reformed audience and theological problems that are too weighty to ignore.

Maxwell set out, first in his PhD dissertation and now its published form, The Trauma of Doctrine, to answer his own existential question, will someone who apostatizes because of religious trauma (trauma where the trauma is associated with God) lose their soteric benefits? That is, will someone who apostatizes go to Hell? He intends to give “a theological account of the conditions and consequences of what we will call trauma-induced apostasy.” To do this, he argues three theses: “1. A Christian can lose his faith as a result of traumatic experience. 2. Reformed theology can make faith more psychologically difficult to retain. 3. The loss of such faith does not guarantee the loss soteric benefits.”


I am not convinced he proves any of these theses and his positive account of “pistic resilience,” how God preserves the Christian and how the Christian can persevere in the face of religious trauma, is problematic. Indeed, I am convinced his solution will be spiritually devastating. Concerning his theses, his account of “Reformed theology” is a straw man (despite his protestations otherwise). His account of religious trauma is also philosophically problematic. Both problems are rooted in an assumption that will be troublesome for many Reformed readers.

Concerning his account of “Reformed theology,” he defines it according to the fundamental beliefs of “maximal providence” (MP) and “total depravity” (TD). Concerning the latter, few Reformed theologians would speak of total depravity in such a way that results in the abandonment of human dignity, as Maxwell asserts, or that it means humans are as bad as they could be. Instead, the Reformed—at least when they are careful (a point to which we will return)—speak of TD as what Sproul calls “radical depravity.” Humans are not as bad as they could be but are instead corrupt to their very core. They may do what appears to be good things, yet these acts are rooted in a heart of rebellion against God, their creator. Therefore, their acts are ultimately evil: all human acts are corrupt from the perspective of God, not necessarily from a natural or “common sense” perspective. The problem with Maxwell’s account is that he isolates these two doctrines from their context in a worldview that seeks, at its best, to be Biblical; as such, the meaning of “good,” “free,” “sovereignty,” etc. are all defined by the contours of redemptive history and Biblical doctrine. In his account of Reformed theodicy, Maxwell repeatedly appeals to common sense or natural accounts of goodness. However, the Reformed account of goodness is rooted in God’s character and revelation; therefore, an accurate account of Reformed theology and every aspect of life considered in interaction with Reformed theology must consider this lens. It is by no means self-evident—indeed, it is highly problematic—to speak of a standard of goodness apart from God as he has revealed himself, to dismiss compatibilist free will, or to appeal to a common “moral intuition.” Maxwell draws heavily on a universal reason in these cases, yet the mode of approach and his conclusions are highly problematic (as I have argued extensively in Prevenient Grace and The Gift of Knowing). This failure to reckon with the Reformed account of goodness and, therefore, reality, is also reflected in Maxwell’s account of trauma. He adopts uncritically a psychological account of the “imagination” rooted in late 19th and early 20th-century philosophical movements (namely, Existentialism and Phenomenology); this account is loaded with philosophical presuppositions that are open to criticism, especially within a Reformed worldview. The point is this: psychology is as philosophically loaded as theology; for a Reformed Christian to integrate theology and psychology faithfully, they must attempt to do both on a consistently Biblical basis. By not taking this into account, the argument of part one and two is not persuasive.

The concept of pistic resilience also has serious issues. In brief, to argue that Christians can apostatize without losing “their soteric benefits,” Maxwell ignores the texts that are most problematic for this construal. On the one hand, in each case he cites, there are interpretations not amicable to this teaching and that (in my opinion) are more persuasive than his interpretations (e.g. Hos 14:4; Rom 3:31; 2 Tim 2:11-13). On the other hand, he does not address the texts that indicate apostasy shows a lack of authentic faith (1 John 2:19), that apostasy is final and damning (Heb 2:1-4, 6:1-12 and 10:26-31), and that the means of God’s perseverance is through the upholding of the subjective faith of the believer (1 Pet 1:3-5). Most importantly, his suggestions for how the believer may actively pursue “pistic resilience” are the exact opposite of Biblical teaching. According to the author of Hebrews, it is vital to stay committed to the local church (not any local church but that local church to which you are committed) (Heb 2:1-4, 6:1-12, 10:19-31). The whole point of excommunication is that it fosters repentance and restoration, not traumatic healing in the one who has left because a church has become “toxic to one’s faith.” I believe this is clear in the texts that Maxwell does cite (1 Cor 5:1-6; 1 Tim 1:19), but it is more explicit in the text he does not, 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. Thus, the positive advice Maxwell gives, that it may be necessary to leave the local church, is contrary to biblical ecclesiology. Furthermore, regarding the positive need for “autonomy,” though many aspects of Maxwell’s autonomy are recognized by the Reformed community, namely dignity and responsibility, it is important to uphold the Biblical teaching that we are not just dependent on God but on the Christian community (e.g. Heb 10:19-25, Eph 4:1-5:2) and that we must obey and follow God as Lord. Christ’s Lordship means that we cannot be self-governed, though we are nevertheless bearers of dignity and responsibility. All these points tie into perhaps the most glaring silence in Maxwell’s work: according to the Bible, “soteric benefits” do not equal escaping Hell. They involve the whole Christian life lived now (e.g. Matt 19:28-30; Mark 10:29-31) and eternal life delighting in God himself, a future that Christians are called to enjoy now. Once salvation is cast in this broader light of responsibility towards God and His people within the kingdom mandate (Matt 28:18-20) and as fundamentally oriented towards allegiance to and love for God, it is hard to justify the view that apostasy does not negate these benefits. In the words of James, faith without works is dead (Jam 2:14-26).


As Christians, we must care for the hurting and broken among us. When this hurt is focused on God, we must tread with the utmost care. But we cannot do so by rejecting sound theology or abandoning our Christian community. There will be times when a church is abusive, when someone should leave, but these are extraordinary circumstances and leaving a specific church should be paired with commitment to another local church. We cannot ignore the fact that in the Bible, the local church is the fundamental locus of God’s work in individuals and in the world to save it through them. By ignoring this dynamic, Maxwell’s most frequently repeated advice is that which will be, from a theological perspective, most damaging to the traumatized Christian.

However, there is at least one take away for us Reformed writers. We need to be guarded in our rhetoric. All too frequently we overstate our case or describe one aspect of Biblical doctrine without rounding out the picture. In an age where our writing is universally accessible, we would be wise to consider those who are struggling with the Biblical portrait of God and how our rhetoric might have the opposite force to what we intend. Instead of commending the God we worship, it may just reaffirm the negative portrayal given by our culture. I believe that Maxwell’s treatment of authors such as John Calvin and John Piper does not do justice to their Biblical vision and pastoral hearts. However, it is hard to deny that stripped from their broader context, the soundbites he presents sound terrible.

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