We Can Know! (Carson)

Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [15th Anniversary Edition]

The Gagging of God by Don Carson is one of those books I read some years ago that I still think about and appreciate. I’m sure many of you have books like this: you read them, really enjoyed them, and you go back to them from time to time because they were super helpful in your Christian walk. This book – The Gagging of God – is that for me. Here’s a part I recently re-read that I believe is still applicable today even though we’re probably past postmodernism and into post-postmodernism:

…I have tried to show that, whatever the genuine insights that can be gleaned from postmodern epistemology, it is finally unsuccessful in its attempt to deny the existence both of objective truth and human access to it. We may readily concur that human knowing is partial, but not that it is therefore necessarily objectively untrue; that our cultural baggage shapes our perceptions and categories, but not that no one from the culture may transcend these categories; that individuals belong to interpretive communities, but not that the individual in such a community, or even the entire community itself, cannot be reformed by information coming from outside.

In some ways, Christians go farther than postmodernists: we insist on the noetic effects of sin. But on the other hand we insist equally on the power of grace and the work of the Spirit through the heralded word of God to transform our understanding. Above all, because the God who has so graciously disclosed himself knows all things truly and exhaustively, we perceive that it is possible for his image-bearers to enjoy knowledge that is a subset of his. Moreover, we perceive that the strongest arguments of postmodernism in general and of deconstruction in particular are not securely based, and in many instances can be shown to be inconsistent at their core and finally self-destructive.

The entailment of such a stance is that however much we may defend the right of people to articulate their views, we must equally insist that some views are in error….

D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, p. 348-349.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Do Not Wound A Brother’s Conscience! (Carson)

 While studying 1 Corinthians 8 today I was reminded how firmly Paul told Christians with stronger consciences to give up their rights for the sake of Christians with weaker consciences.  In fact, it’s based on the gospel (v.11).  I appreciate how D. A. Carson explained 1 Cor. 8 in his devotional, For the Love of God (vol. 1).  Take a moment to read this – and if you don’t have the book, I recommend it!

Apparently some Christians in Corinth, secure in their knowledge that idols are nothing at all, and that all meat has been created by the one true God so that it is good to eat even if it had been offered to an idol, feel wonderful liberty to eat whatever they like. Others, converted perhaps from a life bound up with pagan superstition, detect the demonic in the idol, and think it unsafe to eat food that has been offered to them (1 Cor. 8). The thrust of Paul’s argument is plain enough. Those with a robust conscience on these matters should be willing to forgo their rights so that they do not damage other brothers and sisters in Christ.

It may nevertheless crystallize the application if we underline several elements:

(1) The issue concerns something that is not intrinsically wrong. One could not imagine the apostle suggesting that some Christians think adultery is all right, while others have qualms about it, and the former should perhaps forgo their freedom so as not to offend the latter. In such a case, there is never any excuse for the action; the action is prohibited. So Paul’s principles here apply only to actions that are in themselves morally indifferent.

(2) Paul assumes that it is wrong to go against conscience, for then conscience may be damaged (8:12). A conscience hardened in one area, over an indifferent matter, may become hard in another area—something more crucial. Ideally, of course, the conscience should become more perfectly aligned with what God says in Scripture, so that in indifferent matters it would leave the individual free. Conscience may be instructed and shaped by truth. But until conscience has been reformed by Scripture, it is best not to contravene it.

(3) The “weak” brother in this chapter (8:7–13) is one with a “weak” conscience; that is, one who thinks some action is wrong even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong in it. Thus the “weak” brother is more bound by rules than the “strong” brother. Both will adopt the rules that touch things truly wrong, while the weak brother adds rules for things that are not truly wrong but that are at that point wrong for him, since he thinks them wrong.

(4) Paul places primary onus of responsibility on the “strong” to restrict their own freedoms for the sake of others. In other words, it is never a sufficient question for the Christian to ask, “What am I allowed to do? What are my rights?” Christians serve a Lord who certainly did not stand on his rights when he went to the cross. Following the self-denial of Jesus, they will also ask, “What rights should I give up for the sake of others?”

 D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word., vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 272.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

When the Category of Evil Disappears (Carson)

“The Intolerance of Tolerance”

Here’s a helpful discussion of evil, truth, and the “new tolerance”:

Once the category of evil disappears, our moral discernment has no structure. Strong fiber is reduced to mush; the skeleton of moral reasoning is taken out, and what is left is jelly-like protoplasm. We end up not only with rampant ethical relativism but with the anemic inability to feel or express moral outrage over pervasive immorality. The failure to recognize the evil in our own hearts is precisely what convinces so many of us that our opinions and motives are above reproach while those who contradict us are stupid or malign. A healthy dose of Augustinian realism about sin, as Mark Ellingsen puts it, could make America a better place: indeed, that is why the founding fathers cared so much about checks and balances, about constitutional limitations, about division of powers: they did not trust anyone precisely because the founders had a robust notion of sin.6 If in our environment the virtue of (the new) tolerance becomes absolute, then ostensibly moral discussions are brought round to this one consideration.

For example, in a recent report by the Australia Institute titled “Mapping Homophobia in Australia,” we are told that 62 percent of evangelical Christians are homophobic. The evidence? People were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I believe that homosexuality is immoral.” If they agreed, they were classified as homophobic. In other words, there was no moral engagement with the complexities surrounding human sexuality, but merely a label used to brand an entire class of people with the supreme shame: intolerance. Again: Millions call themselves “pro-choice” in the matter of abortion. But that is coherent for them because abortion itself is morally neutral, and therefore the choice is devoid of moral significance except for its availability to the sovereign freedom of the individual will. Small wonder that we have arrived at the place where our medical experts can help generate life in the womb, and can kill a baby about to emerge from the womb, with no moral differentiation. It is merely a matter of personal choice.

D. A Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, p. 130-131.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Word Study Fallacies (Carson)

Exegetical Fallacies Many preachers, speakers, and Bible teachers know at least a little Greek.  Knowing a little Greek isn’t a bad thing, but trying to use the little Greek one knows often turns out badly.  One example is when it comes to Greek word studies.  Word study errors are legion.  From defining the word by its root, to always defining the word in the exact same way, to missing metaphors, word studies that are not careful and nuanced can be a train wreck!  Don Carson helpfully lists sixteen (!) word study fallacies in his book, Exegetical Fallacies.  Here are a few:

The root fallacy.  “The root fallacy presupposes that every word actual has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components.  In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word.”  For example, some say that “apostle” is “one sent” because the Greek words are similar (apostolos and apostello).

Semantic anachronism.  “This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature.” For example, some wrongly say that the Greek word power (dynamis) has to do with what we think of as “dynamite.”  This is incorrect; Paul was not thinking of blowing things up when he used the term power (dynamis).

Linkage of language and mentality.  “The heart of this fallacy is the assumption that any language so constrains the thinking processes of the people who used it that they are forced into certain patterns of thought and shielded from others.”

Carson notes more; this is a short and edited summary.  The chapter closes with these wise words – words which those of us who do word studies need to read carefully!

“Perhaps the principal reason why word studies constitute a particularly rich source for exegetical fallacies is that man y preachers and Bible teachers know Greek only well enough to use concordances, or perhaps a little more.  There is little feel for Greek as a language; and so there is the temptation to display what has been learned in study, which as often as not is a great deal of lexical information without the restraining influence of context.  The solution, of course, is to learn more Greek, not less, and to gain at least a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics. …The heart of the issue is that semantics, meaning, is more than the meaning of words.  It involves phrases, sentences, discourse, genre, style; it demands a feel not only for syntagmatic word studies (those that relate to other words) but also paradigmatic word studies (those that ponder why this word is used instead of that word).

D. A Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, chapter one.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


God’s Wrath, God’s Love, and the Cross (Carson)

Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God God’s love and his wrath are on display throughout the Bible.  I realize “the wrath of God” sounds harsh in many people’s ears, but it clearly is a teaching of the Bible.  It’s a teaching that has to do with the perfect justice of God.  Here’s how Don Carson well explained the love and wrath of God:

“The reality is that the Old Testament displays the grace and love of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in new covenant writings.  Similarly, the Old Testament displays the righteous wrath of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the new covenant writings.  In other words, both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New.  These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – in the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s love?  Look at the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s wrath?  Look at the cross.

Hymn writers have sometimes captured this best,  In Wales Christians sing a nineteenth-century hymn by William Rees:

Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
Throughout heav’n’s eternal days.

On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.

D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, p 70-71.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015