Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor at Books At a Glance, and today we’re talking to D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dr. Carson is well known to our readers here at Books At a Glance, and in fact he is a friend who serves on our Board of Reference, and of course we have featured some of his many books before. His newest book, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures is an impressive tome that is certain to establish itself immediately as the standard on the subject – your first “go-to” reference with regard to current debates on biblical authority, a book that will demand hearing from all sides of this theological fence. Today he talks to us about this work. Dr. Carson, welcome! It’s good to have you with us.
It’s my privilege. It’s nice to be with you.
Why this book? Why now? And maybe you could explain the significance of your chosen title, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures?
Well, I should say first of all that it’s an edited book. There are 37 contributors and all of us agreed to work together to produce the many essays that constitute the book. The book includes different sections; some historical, some theological, some exegetical and so forth. Doubtless we would say more about that in due course. But behind all of them is the question, “What authority does the Bible have?” And the notion of the enduring authority focuses on the fact that some people think that notions like authority of Scripture’s is passé, while others say that the present configuration of the doctrine of inerrancy is a late addition. And to both we want to say, No we’re talking about the enduring authority of Scripture, grounded first and foremost in its relevatory status, something given by God and utterly reliable, and that this is enduring conviction of the central confessionalism of the Church of Jesus Christ across 20 centuries in virtually all denominations and it is not to be overturned. It’s tied finally to what Jesus himself thinks of the Scriptures that were already present in his own day and if we bow to his Lordship that we must bow also to his view of Holy Scripture.
So, why now? In every generation there are voices that question the authority of Scripture. So in one sense this is merely part of the continuing stream. But there’s a sense in which the questions that are raised against Scripture vary a wee bit from generation to generation. Thirty years ago John Woodbridge and I edited two volumes: Scripture and Truth and Hermeneutics Authority in Canon, and in some ways this is an update covering some of the same issues but interacting with new writers but interacting also with far more of contemporary writers than those two early volumes did and bringing into the dialogue discussions with Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and so on who also have their own holy books, so that we know what lines of continuity and discontinuity there are when we talk about Scriptures.
Every professing Christian wants to acknowledge the “authority” of Scripture, but that word “authority” suffers quite a range of definitions. How has the authority of Scripture traditionally been understood, and what are some variations of it today?
One of our contributors wrestles with the disputed notions of authority because you are quite right, of course. Authority can mean different things to different people. For example, some document or other may be authoritative for particular group even though it’s not reliable. It’s just that the group has accepted that document as authoritative for their group. And some documents are truthful and reliable but they are ignored, so they have no authority for that particular group. But when Christians speak of the authority of Scripture, because Christians believe that this word, even though it’s mediated through many different human authors, nevertheless is God breathed and is revealed by God and is utterly reliable and all that it says, with all of its different literary genres, it’s trustworthy and without mistake or distortion. It is trustworthy and therefore, because it is from God it has God’s authority. That’s why God speaking through Isaiah can say “to these will I look. They who are humble and of a contrite spirit and who tremble in my word.” So we want to fan the flames of Christians for whom inerrancy and the authority of Scripture are not mere shibboleths, but part of her life beat, part of the beating heart of what makes them tick. They revere Scripture, not because Scripture becomes an idol, but because it discloses God who is especially come after us in salvation and redemption through the person of his son, his cross, his resurrection, the full sweep of the gospel. It is authoritative in all matters on which it chooses to speak and it is serious sin as well as great danger to ignore this authoritative, faithful, God revealing document.
You mention in your Preface that the question of authority necessarily bears on many specific issues. Give us a sampling of the range of issues you have addressed in the book.
Some of the issues are technical, such as, “How can the Bible be authoritative when the New Testament seems to quote the Old Testament in ways that flat-out defy the context of the Old Testament passages?” So that becomes a question of how the New Testament uses the Old. If we go about this the wrong way, the difficulties that we face may make us begin to doubt that this really is an authoritative book after all. So there’s a long and excellent chapter by Drs. Doug Moo and Andy Naselli on that question.
Others have questions about how it is that God and human beings can both be speaking through the one document such that you can see and read the personalities of the human authors with their individual vocabularies and literary genres, and yet this is nevertheless the word of God. How can that be? This is quite a contrast with Islam, for example, which holds that the Koran has been dictated in Arabic by God and as a result Mohammed is nothing more than the one who memorizes the word so as to pass it on. There is nothing of human contribution. There is no sense in which Mohammed is viewed as a writer. So that has to be thought through theologically, historically, conceptually and is an excellent essay there by Henri Blocher on that subject.
There are several essays interact with historians who argue, for example, that the Princetonians invented inerrancy, which is simply not the case. Or, alternatively, some have argued that the Christian notion of Scripture is not epistemologically sustainable. It’s not philosophically possible with rigor to uphold the Christian understanding of Scripture.
So these and many other areas are all of the sort of semi-technical theological, philosophical, historical level, but then in terms of applicability to today’s world, many people are trying to domesticate Scripture so as to get the PC answer, the politically correct answer on a wide range of subjects, whether it’s homosexual marriage, or a certain view of government, or a certain view of eschatology or whatever. At the end of the day we want also to encourage the kind of reverent handling of Scripture that wants to be corrected by Scripture, that is more eager to be mastered by Scripture then to master it. So there are all kinds of personal pastoral issues that have to be addressed along those lines. There are about 35 different topics in the book that are addressed by essays. So there’s a pretty full range and I shouldn’t try to run through the whole lot.
In chapter 2 Charles Hill makes the point that the Christian church did not so much construct a doctrine of Scripture as inherit one. This is a point Warfield often made also – explain for us what is meant by this and how it is significant.
Well they already had an implicit doctrine of Scripture because they had what we call the Old Testament books, the Tanach, the Hebrew canon, and so the New Testament writers did not invent a doctrine of Scripture they inherited it. But in some ways it’s changed a bit too. It’s not as if the New Testament writers came along and said, “The culmination of Old Testament books is more books, New Testament books.” In some ways they thought instead of the culmination of Old Testament books being Christ himself, the word incarnate as the opening verses of Hebrews 1 put it. In the past God spoke to the fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son and the son is revelation. So that the New Testament writers I think conceive of their inspired Scripture writings as flushing out, bringing to articulation, expounding and so on the climactic revelation in the son, but this in self-conscious fulfillment of the promises and covenants that were already made to God’s chosen people in Old Testament times.
You mention that it is important that we define and understand the meaning of biblical “inerrancy” rightly. Just what is that right understanding of inerrancy?
Well first of all let me say what a wrong understanding is. A wrong understanding is interested in precisionism. That is it tries to say that the Bible can’t be telling the truth if it says that Jesus was such and such a distance from some place or other and in fact the distance is off by 15% or something like that. There are all kinds of grounded figures and so forth. The Bible is not interested in precisionism unless the context indicates that precision is particularly important. We talk like that all the time, too. I can say that it’s 10 miles from my home to Trinity, when in fact that’s not quite right, it’s off by about 10%, but nobody would say that I’m telling a lie or making a mistake when I rounded off because that’s the way we speak and rounded off terms regularly.
Nor is inerrancy interested in what we call grammatical errors or syntactical errors. This presupposes that language is a static thing of right rules and wrong rules and if you break one of those rules you make an error. And of course that sometimes is the way we teach grammar to little kids, but anyone who’s linguistically informed knows that usage constraints grammatical rules, not the other way around. So there are all kinds of things that grammarian purists would argue are awkward forms of speech and sometimes they are intentional for rhetorical effect and sometimes it’s the way people chose to write at the time. Inerrancy isn’t interested in any of those kinds of things.
The truth of the matter is that inerrancy is simply a way of saying that there are no errors that call into question the truthfulness of Scripture wherever Scripture is making truth claims. Not all Scripture is propositional, some of it is asking questions, some of it’s rhetorical, but where Scripture is stating something, asserting something, making a truth claim, uttering a proposition that is claiming to be true, it is the truth. Obviously even that has to be constrained with care. For example, the Bible does say this is a proposition, “There is no God.” But of course the context of Psalm 14:1 enriches it a bit: “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” So there are contextual constraints and when you finish putting in all the contextual constraints and sophisticated discussions of what inerrancy is and isn’t.
And some people say What’s the use of the term if it has to be so fully documented and constrained and footnoted and all the rest. My response to that is: there is no theological word that does not have to be similarly footnoted and constrained: justification, spirit, sanctification etc. in every case the words have been subject to all kinds of abuse. Any term can be distorted or domesticated or fly off the handle because of another alien philosophical structure that’s imposed on the text and so on. Inerrancy is no different from what we find in every other theologically loaded word.
So, at the end of the day, in brief summary: inerrancy is interested in the truthfulness of Scripture and it is a powerful way forcing people to think about that reliability that is God-given.
In your introductory chapter you mention the need for “cognitive reverence” in approaching the Bible. Explain this for us – and perhaps along these lines you might want to mention something about Dan Doriani’s chapter in the book.
Dan Doriani’s chapter is the second last chapter and it has to do with the application of the Bible to all of life. At issue is not merely a set of intellectual challenges, but heart issues. It’s not just Dan Doriani, there’s a recent essay by John Frame speaks of inerrancy as the doctrine in which we live. A place in which to live. Because it’s not a matter of us standing outside it and ticking off the boxes: yes, the Bible is faithful here; yes, it’s telling the truth there, and so on, but rather granted that it’s God-given. It’s the frame of reference that shows us how to live in, tells us how to think about everything. Hence, the cognitive that demands that we listen to what God has disclosed of himself in human words with such magnificent self accommodation to our limitations. Precisely so that we may be his holy people and reverence everything that he says, cherish it, value it, and thus live it out.
So the last thing we want to do in a book like this is be merely polemical, or merely affirming of important truths or entering into interaction with people who disagree with us or with the historic stance of the church. All those things need to be done, but in addition it must be done in such a way that readers can see that we love the word of God; we are afraid of disobeying God, and that such fear is a good thing and that we treat the Bible, not as if it’s a magic book that has to be handled like a piece of abracadabra, make sure it’s dusted, never put it on the floor, and things like that, but rather its words, its message, its truthfulness, precisely because these things come from God, make us recognize that this is what God says. What the Bible says is what God has disclosed and we want to approach this sacred text with cognitive reverence.
You are the editor of the book, and you’ve brought together quite a team – some 37 or so – contributors. But this wasn’t just a simple collection of essays – tell us how you and the others worked together to bring this about.
Well, I consulted with a few people, first of all, as to the topics that needed to be covered. And then I outlined the various chapters and wrote to the contributors who live in various corners of the world, France and the United Kingdom and Australia, here, Canada and other places. And they all agreed to write the assigned chapters within the constraints and at the level that was specified. And then the Henry Center for Theological Understanding, which is one of the wings of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, put up the money to fly all these people to Trinity and put them up in a hotel for a week. And then morning, noon and evening for a week we caucused together.
The papers were sent to me first, and I distributed them to everybody so the papers were supposed to have been read by everybody before we got together. Three or four members couldn’t make it, but all the rest came. And then every single one of the papers was discussed. That turned out to be an astonishingly happy week. I don’t know what else to call it. Quite a number of the people said that they had not had that much fun for years and years and years. You get into theological education and you’re busy marking papers and getting into administration in raising funds and doing all the things that are part of life, but here we were talking about important theological, historical, gospel related, biblically centered things hour after hour after hour.
And although many people had specialty knowledge in one area and not in another area, on every topic there were at least two, three, four, five people that were well informed which meant that nobody got through his or her paper without being questioned; without good suggestions being made. All of these discussions were taken down and sent out to the individual members who then rewrote the papers or revised them, in some cases very extensively, before they came back to me for editing and landed up in the book.
So, in other words this is not a collection of independent papers, quite. They are all written by individuals or pairs of individuals in a couple of cases, but they are the product of a meeting of the minds of an extensive discussion period for or a whole week, where we didn’t take the time to read the papers when we were gathered together (we were supposed to have read them in advance) but papers were discussed and picky points were turned over and so on. The result is that we don’t come to unanimous agreement on absolutely everything, but pretty close. And the result is it’s more unified, it’s stronger, there are fewer errors and besides, to be quite frank, it was a joyous, happy, thoughtful, productive, creative sort of week. And the book is the product of that. I am probably biased but I think that you can feel something of the pulse of that in the pages of the book itself as it has finally appeared.
Who is your intended audience?
It is fairly upmarket, so it’s not a tract for evangelistic purposes or something like that. It’s first of all for theological students and pastors and scholars, all of those people will benefit from it, but well-read laypersons will also benefit from it. Moreover, there are some sections that virtually everybody who’s a good reader will benefit from and there are other sections that are more complicated. If, for example, if you have a lay reader who is really into history, then there are quite a few chapters that deal with historical issues and a lay person would not find them too difficult at all. Others are more interested in philosophical matters; there are several chapters that deal with philosophical issues; several chapters that deal with comparative religions. And in each case those that have interest in any of those fields will be drawn to some chapters in the book. I suspect that relatively few people will sit down and read 1250 pages all the way through from cover to cover. There may be some, but not everybody. But there are many, many, many different Christian, theological, pastoral, specialisms that are covered by one section or another of the book and this will become, therefore, a resource volume for many people.
You always have more books in the works – what can we watch for next?
The next to appear, I fear, is a technical book on the Greek perfect that I have edited, and the one after that, God willing, will be a book on evangelicalism.
We’re talking to Don Carson, editor of the new book, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. It’s a monumental work you will not want to be without.
Dr. Carson, thanks for being with us.
Editor’s Note: Please see our chapter summaries of this book beginning here.
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The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures