D. A. Carson – How to Subtly Abandon Your Bible’s Authority

On the danger of appealing to selective evidence:

The most severe forms of this drift [appealing to selective evidence] are well exemplified in the teaching and preaching of the HWPG—the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. Link together some verses about God sending prosperity to the land with others that reflect on the significance of being a child of the King, and the case is made—provided, of course, that we ignore the many passages about taking up our cross, about suffering with Christ so that we may reign with him, about rejoicing because we are privileged to suffer for the name, and much more. These breaches are so egregious that they are easy to spot. What I’m thinking of now is something subtler: the simple refusal to talk about disputed matters in order to sidestep controversy in the local church. For the sake of peace, we offer anodyne treatments of hot topics (poverty, racism, homosexual marriage, distinctions between men and women) in the forlorn hope that some of these topics will eventually go away. The sad reality is that if we do not try to shape our thinking on such topics under the authority of Scripture, the result is that many of us will simply pick up the culture’s thinking on them.

The best antidote is systematic expository preaching, for such preaching forces us to deal with texts as they come up. Topical preaching finds it easier to avoid the hard texts. Yet cultural blinders can easily afflict expositors, too.

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D. A. Carson – The Puritans: What They Have That The Moderns Have Not


Whoever dares embark on a subject of this nature in a paper this brief faces three insuperable difficulties. The first concerns definition: how large a group of people, over how broad a time-span, can be included in the term “Puritan”? Even if that problem is solved, it leads directly to the next: in a brief article, the detailed documentation needed to be convincing cannot possibly be included. And that lack produces the third difficulty: as the documentation decreases, the dangers inherent in subjectivity increase in proportion. It is all too easy to discover in Puritan writings precisely what the critic would like to discover. Having admitted the difficulties, we nevertheless plunge into the subject since the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ continues to exhibit a sad ignorance concerning that incomparably Godly and influential minority group of believers called Puritans. Though the term be filled with opprobrium and mockery by the ignorant, let those who love the Lord. Jesus remember with respect that genuine purity is never to be despised; and the Puritans, in church life as in individual deportment, in private prayers as in scholarly achievement, stand amongst the grandest exemplars of Biblical purity.

The Puritan age proper spans a mere hundred years. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the crying need in both England and Scotland centred on the appalling ignorance of the masses at the parish level. Nominally, the people had become Protestants by royal decree. Following the years of turmoil under Henry VIII, the boy King Edward VI (1547-1553), and Mary Tudor (1553-1558, of “Bloody Mary” fame), the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 coupled with the formal abolition of Catholicism by the Scottish Parliament in 1560 brought back scores of British exiles from their havens of refuge on the Continent. No haven was as influential as Geneva, where Calvin and his colleagues had taught some two hundred British exiles. They returned to their homeland bringing with them the so-called Geneva Bible, which went through 140 editions during the subsequent eighty years, read by Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans alike. The Westminster Assembly, which effectively brought together divines from both groups, met in 1643; and out of this convention there emerged a matchless expression of Biblical truth in systematic and catechetical form: the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

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D. A. Carson – The Tabula Rasa Fallacy


Carl Henry has long been fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t. For every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is actually there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible.

There is good interpretation and there is bad interpretation, but there is no escape from interpretation. Consequently, we should be self-conscious about our hermeneutical task. Yet it is ironic that in our day some people seem altogether too interested, and other people too disinterested, in hermeneutics. Some seem far more interested in challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics than in the Bible itself, while others think they can bypass hermeneutics altogether. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they offer is just what the Bible says.

In this article, I want to reflect on interpretive decisions by focusing on one relatively “simple” hermeneutical challenge: how to tell what parts of the Bible are binding mandates for us, and what parts are not. This will not be an attempt to deal comprehensively with the subject, but it should nonetheless provide some preliminary principles for sorting such matters out.

Translating the Word “Bread”

Principle: Determine not only how symbols, customs, metaphors, and models function in Scripture, but also to what else they are tied.

We may be able to agree with the widely accepted conclusion that biblical language about sackcloth and ashes is a “placeholder” for repentance, and holy kissing for committed fellowship among church members. But is it then acceptable to lead a group of young people in a California church in a celebration of the Lord’s Table using Coke and chips? And how about yams and goat’s milk in Papua New Guinea? If in the latter case we use bread and wine, are we not subtly insisting that only the food of white foreigners is acceptable to God?

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D. A. Carson – The Power of the Gospel


We tend to overlook how often the gospel of Christ crucified is described as “power.”

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, he declares, “because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Writing to the Corinthians, Paul insists that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). He takes painstaking care not to corrupt the gospel with cheap tricks like manipulative rhetoric, what he dismissively sets aside as “words of human wisdom”—“lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). The “incomparably great power” that is working in those who believe is tied to the exercise of God’s mighty strength when He raised Jesus from the dead (Eph 1:19–20).

There is superb irony in all this, of course. When Jesus was executed in the first century, the cross had no positive religious overtones. The Romans had three methods of capital punishment, and crucifixion was the most painful and the most shameful. Yet here were the Christians, their leader executed as a damned malefactor, talking about Him with gleeful irony as if He were reigning from the cross.

So central was the cross in Paul’s estimation that he could write, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:2–5).

But this stance, of course, is not exclusively Paul’s. Martin Hengel and others have shown that in the first century, the four canonical books we refer to as “Gospels” did not use the word “gospel” as if it were a literary genre. In the first century, no one spoke of “the Gospel of Matthew” or “the Gospel of Mark” or the like. Rather, each of the four relevant books was “the gospel according to Matthew,” “the gospel according to Mark,” and so forth. In other words, there was only one gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of the kingdom, with multiple witnesses.

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D. A. Carson – Why Pray to an All-knowing God?

Praying with Paul

Prayer changes things. You find plaques promulgating this notion everywhere. You may have one in your home. Countless sermons have been preached, countless prayers prayed, under this assumption: “Prayer changes things.”

Or does it?

If prayer changes things, how can we believe that God is sovereign and all-knowing? How can we hold that he has his plans all worked out and that these plans cannot fail? If not a bird falls from the heavens without his decree, if we live and move and have our being under his sovereignty, if he works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11), then in what meaningful sense can we say that prayer changes things?

Indeed, that is precisely why some people argue that God must be severely limited in certain ways. They reason something like this: “Frankly, it seems to us that although God is extraordinarily powerful, it is unreasonable to think he is all-powerful, absolutely sovereign. Surely that would reduce the entire universe to a toy, God’s toy. We would lose our freedom; we would become mere puppets, chunks of matter moved around by a despotic Deity. If in that sort of universe we pray, well, we pray only if God has ordained that we pray; if we do not pray, God has ordained that too. In either case it is hard to see how our prayers actually change anything. Certainly there is little point in encouraging people to be fervent or passionate in prayer: your encouragement has been ordained, and if they listen to you and offer fervent prayer that, too, has been ordained. The entire business becomes pretty phony. Surely there is no other reasonable option: we simply have to conclude that God cannot be utterly sovereign, absolutely omnipotent.”

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D. A. Carson – When Did the Church Begin?


When Did the Church Begin? This question is not uncommon, especially among theological students. Sometimes people ask it because they have been exposed to dispensational teaching. In that case, the answer one gives becomes a kind of litmus test to a nest of other questions that dispensationalists pose. People from a dispensational heritage emphasize discontinuity between the covenants, and therefore commonly argue that the church begins at Pentecost; people from a covenant-theology heritage emphasize the continuity of the covenant of grace, think in terms of fulfillment of what was promised, and therefore argue that the “assembly” of the people of God is one, and that therefore it is a mistake to argue that the church begins at Pentecost. Others ask the question in our title because for them the answer is a way of distinguishing between Reformed Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists. Still others ask the question without a theological agenda, but for no other reason than that it deserves to be asked precisely because the answer seems ambiguous in the biblical texts.

It may be helpful to organize the relevant material in several steps.

(1) As for the terminology, although “church” is commonly a NT expression, both the word and the idea surface in the OT too. For example, a not atypical passage pictures God instructing Moses, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children” (Deut 4:10): the verb is קהל in Hebrew and ἐκκλησιάζειν (cognate with ἐκκλησία, “church” or “assembly”) in the Septuagint. Not less important is the fact that NT writers can refer to the OT people of God as the “church”: Stephen speaks of the gathered Israelites in the wilderness as “the assembly [ἐκκλησία] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The writer to the Hebrews uses OT language to depict Jesus saying that he will sing praise to God: “in the assembly [ἐκκλησία] I will sing your praise” (2:12, citing Ps 22:22). When Christians gather together, the language the writer to the Hebrews uses to describe their assembly bursts with fulfilled typological references to the OT: the writer tells them, “[Y]ou have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church [ἐκκλησία] of the firstborn … to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:22–24). The reference to Abel inevitably reminds the reader that Christians are “surrounded by … a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1)—namely, the faithful heroes from Abel through Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Gideon, David, and all the rest of the OT figures (ch. 11). One cannot help but see some kind of profound continuity in the people of God.

(2) The issue is broader than merely terminological. When Jesus declares, in a thoroughly Jewish context, that he will build his church (ἐκκλησία, Matt 16:18), what he has in mind, according to this Gospel, includes Gentiles too (28:18–20). His instructions on how to exercise church [ἐκκλησία] discipline (18:15–20) show how he is willing to blur distinctions we tend to make: the local church (which must be in view in ch. 18) is the outcropping of the entire church (ch. 16), and clearly includes both Jews and Gentiles. They constitute Messiah’s assembly, Messiah’s church. Nowhere is the one-ness of Messiah’s people, Messiah’s church, more powerfully worked out than in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Jewish believers and Gentile believers have been made “one” by Jesus, who is our peace (Eph 2:14). At one time the Gentiles were alienated from God, “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise” (2:12), but now the two groups constitute “one new humanity” (2:15). Gentiles are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (2:19). This is the church (ἐκκλησία) that Christ loved and for which he died (5:25). One recalls that in the olive tree metaphor (Romans 11), there is but one vine, with branches being broken off from that vine or grafted onto it.

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D. A. Carson – Are You Sure You Want God’s Justice?


When we suffer, which we will, there will often be mystery. Will there also be faith?

In Christian thought, faith is never naïve or gullible, but rather relies on the strength of its object. Faith that depends on a God who is a cruel tyrant or cheap trickster will be bitterly disappointed in the end.

When Christians think seriously about evil and suffering, one of the paramount reasons we’re certain God can be trusted is because he sent his Son to suffer in our place. The One for whom we live knows what suffering is about—not merely in the way he knows everything, but by experience.

When we’re convinced we’re suffering unjustly, however, we may cry out for justice. We want God to be just and exonerate us immediately; we want God to be fair and mete out suffering immediately to those who deserve it.

We Make Assumptions

The trouble with such justice and fairness, though, is that, if it were truly just and truly fair and as prompt as we demand, we would soon be begging for mercy, for love, for forgiveness — for anything but justice. For very often what I really mean when I ask for justice is implicitly circumscribed by three assumptions, assumptions not always recognized:

1. I want this justice to be dispensed immediately.
2. I want justice in this instance, but not necessarily in every instance.
3. I presuppose that in this instance I have grasped the situation correctly.

We need to examine these three assumptions. First, the Bible assures us that God is a just God, and that justice will be done in the end, and will be seen to be done. But when we urgently plead for justice, we usually mean something more than that. We mean we want vindication now! Second, to ask for such instantaneous justice in every instance is inconceivable: it would too often find me on the wrong side, too often find me implicitly inviting my own condemnation. But justice instantaneously applied only when it favors me is not justice at all. Selective justice that favors one individual above another is simply another name for corruption. And no one wants a corrupt God. And third, when I plead so passionately for justice, it’s usually because I think I understand the situation pretty well. I wouldn’t be quite so crass as actually to say I need to explain it to God, but that is pretty close to the way I act.

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D. A. Carson- How to Read the Bible and Do Theology Well


It’s been said that the Bible is like a body of water in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. The youngest Christian can read the Bible with profit, for the Bible’s basic message is simple. But we can never exhaust its depth. After decades of intense study, the most senior Bible scholars find that they’ve barely scratched the surface. Although we cannot know anything with the perfection of God’s knowledge (his knowledge is absolutely exhaustive!), yet because God has disclosed things, we can know those things truly.

Trying to make sense of parts of the Bible and of the Bible as a whole can be challenging. What kind of study should be involved when any serious reader of the Bible tries to make sense of the Bible as a whole? Appropriate study involves several basic interdependent disciplines, of which five are mentioned here: careful reading, biblical theology (BT), historical theology (HT), systematic theology (ST), and pastoral theology (PT). What follows looks at each of these individually and shows how they interrelate—and how they are more than merely intellectual exercises.

Careful Reading

“Exegesis” is the word often used for careful reading. Exegesis answers the questions, “What does this text actually say?” and “What did the author mean by what he said?” We discover this by applying sound principles of interpretation to the Bible.

Fundamental to reading the Bible well is good reading. Good readers pay careful attention to words and their meanings and to the ways sentences, paragraphs, and longer units are put together. They observe that the Bible is a book that includes many different styles of literature—stories, laws, proverbs, poetry, prophecy, history, parables, letters, apocalyptic, and much more. Good readers follow the flow of texts. For example, while it is always worth meditating on individual words and phrases, the most important factor in determining what a word means is how the author uses that word in a specific context.

One of the best signs of good exegesis is asking thoughtful questions that drive us to “listen” attentively to what the Bible says. As we read the text again and again, these questions are progressively honed, sharpened, corrected, or discarded.

Biblical Theology

BT answers the question, “How has God revealed his word historically and organically?” BT studies the theology of individual biblical books (e.g., Isaiah, the Gospel of John), of select collections within the Bible (e.g., the Pentateuch, wisdom literature, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, John’s writings), and then traces out themes as they develop across time within the canon (e.g., the way the theme of the temple develops, in several directions, to fill out a “whole Bible” theology of the temple). At least four priorities are essential:

1. Read the Bible progressively as a historically developing collection of documents. God did not provide his people with all of the Bible at once. There is a progression to his revelation, and to read the whole back into some early part may seriously distort that part by obscuring its true significance in the flow of redemptive history. This requires not only organizing the Bible’s historical material into its chronological sequence but also trying to understand the theological nature of the sequence.

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