A review of recent big books on the Bible, Part One: Don Carson

D.A. Carson has edited a series of 35 essays, with a stellar list of contributors. Should you read it?

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The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures D. A. Carson (ed.) (London: Apollos/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016)

9781783594603-1There has recently been a little spurt in the production of books about the Bible – not background commentaries or biblical theology, but books about the doctrine of scripture and its implications.  Because I’m going to be speaking on this soon, I’ve taken the time to read some of the most significant, and I’ll post a series of reviews for you.

The first is large, although not quite the largest, and like several is a symposium.  D.A. Carson has edited a series of 35 essays, with a stellar list of contributors.

What Carson and his team have achieved here is quite remarkable, and to my knowledge, unprecedented.  They have taken the classic evangelical doctrine of the inspiration of scripture, and restated it as fully as possible, slowly, sequently, and at each point engaging with the most current issues in the relevant areas. I say, ‘current’ – someone on the inside track did tell me that production had been delayed by a couple of years and it is therefore slightly out of date; I think it’s  a measure of the meticulous nature of the contributors to the book that they feel that that is a problem.

Breadth

The first strength I’ve noted is how widely the book ranges.  Although it is defending, basically, the Chicago position, it is not content with merely restating and updating that.  So we cover not only biblical data (freshly), but the Fathers, the Reformers, and the challenges arising in turn from studying the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.  Revisionist readings of both Warfield and Barth are pored over, as is current Roman Catholic theology – and all of that is in part one.  We are then brought up to date on biblical scholarship, both positive and negative, and with deep engagement with the hot-button issues.  I want to qualify that last phrase with ‘some of’, or ‘most of’, but I can’t – as I’ll say below, I think this is exhaustive.  On then to the third section, covering current philosophical discussion, on language, meaning, interpretation, authority and science, and how they engage with the concept of inerrancy; a fourth section on comparative religions (how do Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism read their sacred texts, and what do we need to know as we engage apologetically and evangelistically); a concluding essay on how we read scripture obediently; and then Carson summarises the whole book in a simple but lengthy FAQ format.

Quality

Nor are these quickly-written summaries to be skimmed.  The quality of the contributors is remarkable, and time and again Carson has produced the best evangelical expert, writing at the top of their game.  Some I found tougher going than others: I am not a philosopher and I found some of the debate on epistemology hard to follow – my fault, I’m sure; but at every point where I did feel I knew the field enough to assess the work, the writers had not merely covered the ground but substantially advanced the case.  Two that are quite outstanding are Henri Blocher on the Double Authorship of Scripture, David Gibson on Barth, but honestly almost every essay could qualify for that category – and there are sections in almost every one that hit that level.  Do you have a nagging doubt about how the church treated Galileo?  Read Kirsten Birkett.  Do you want to understand how Muslims down the road read their Qur’an, and what they think of the Bible?  Read Ida Glaser.

I could be picky: one essay is (to my mind) below the par of the rest (Te-Li Lau, introducing the comparative religion set), and a couple of others had me reaching for my editorial red pen, as they engaged in the punning language games that academics sometimes use to ‘lighten’ their work.  But I really am being picky. Overall all, these are brilliantly organised, substantial monographs.  And did I mention Barry Webb on Genre? Or Peter Williams’ elegant filleting of Bart Ehrman?

Depth

And these really are on topic.  Dozens of questions that I began to realise had niggled at me, unaddressed, from the corner of my mind, are brought out and dealt with.  Is Princetonian Inerrancy the product of nineteenth century philosophy?  How does speech-act theory engage with a proper understanding of scripture?  And so on.

Now, reader beware.  This book is therefore neither short nor light – physically, nor intellectually.  It is written to be read with care.  I don’t know if it was written to be read through as I have done, or to be referred to as needed – but I will assert that if you do take the trouble, a little at a time, to read through, you will have your head cleared in a most remarkable way.

There is, perhaps, only one essay missing – and that is where we shall turn in the next review.

1 comments on “A review of recent big books on the Bible, Part One: Don Carson”

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