Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don Carson on "What is Evangelicalism?" (2)

Carson divided his exposition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 into eight defining words and five clarifying sentences. This gospel, he argued forms the material principle of evangelicalism. See part 1 (in the post below) for introductory matters and the "eight defining words". Now my report continues with the "five clarifying sentences" and some comments on the rest of the day's proceedings.
1. This gospel is normally disseminated through proclamation.
This is the message that Paul preached to the Corinthians (15:1). Preaching is the most appropriate way of disseminating the truth because the gospel is an announcement of good news. The message of the King is to be heralded by his servants.
2. This gospel is fruitfully received in authentic persevering faith.
The Corinthians received the gospel and were saved so long as they continued in it (15:1 & 2). Paul was concerned that they did not move from the gospel that he had proclaimed to them. This is why he gave serious attention to their problems with the resurrection in this chapter (vs. 11 & 12).
3. This gospel is properly disclosed in personal self-humiliation.
The gospel humbles sinners to the dust and makes us honest and repentant about our sin. Paul saw himself as the least of the apostles because he was the last eyewitness to Jesus' resurrection and because he had persecuted the church. He was what he was as a believer and apostle by the grace of God (15:8-10). The gospel subverts human pride and self-reliance. We are saved by Christ alone, by faith alone, by grace alone - glory to God alone.
4. This gospel is asserted to be the central confession of the whole church.
Time and time again in this epistle, Paul appealed to the fact that this gospel was believed in all the churches (4:17, 7:17, 11:16, 14:34). Also, this is what was preached everywhere by all the apostles (vs. 11). We should hold to true gospel ecuminicity and catholicity. Beware of the lust for endless doctrinal innovation.
5. This gospel is boldly announcing the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the King.
All of God's sovereignty is mediated through Christ. All power in heaven and earth is given to him (Matt 28). He is the world's true Lord (Philippians 2). His reign is contested. He has enemies - (1 Corinthians 15:25). But his triumph is certain (15:28).
In the light of this gospel we are to be "steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord" (15:58). The gospel is cognitive and propositional, but it works itself out in the moral and spiritual life of the believer. The gospel determines everything in the life of the church. In terms of 1 Corinthians, it is the announcement of God's wisdom - chapters 1 & 2. It unites divided churches, 3 & 4. It demands holiness and church discipline, 5 & 6. The gospel speaks to marriage and singleness, 7. It resolves disputes about adiaphora like food, 8-10. This message defines male-female relations, 11. The Lord's Supper is focuses on the gospel of a crucified Christ, 11. The gospel is the context in which the church exercises the gifts of the Spirit in Christian love, 12-14.
Nothing should be allowed to displace the gospel. This is what makes us evangelicals - people of the evangel. Social reformers like Wilberforce were "prophetic from the centre" because their social activism was the outworking of their passion for the gospel. We must hold to the formal principle of Scriptural authority and the material principle of gospel truth.
This presentation of the theological basis of evangelicalism spanned two one hour morning sessions. Me and a few of my friends headed to Carson's table to eat our buffet lunch. We plied him with questions about the doctrine of the church and the importance of systematic theology. I asked him what he made of Vanhoozer's theodramatic proposals. He was aware of the discussions between Vanhoozer and Paul Helm over this matter and answered very diplomatically! After lunch, Carson changed his style. He was more conversational and anecdotal. He discussed several issues that arose from his earlier presentation.
Liberation Theology
Carson chose Liberation Theology as an example of what happens when the norm is shifted from the Biblical gospel. In LT, the norm is not the Scripture as a whole, but the exodus event understood as liberation from political oppression. The exodus is chosen as the theological norm because of the present-day social context where the poor are oppressed. But in Scripture, the exodus event is interpreted in the light of the gospel - Christ's exodus (Luke 9:31). In Christ we are liberated from sin, death and hell. Not that we are to be unconcerned about poverty and oppression, but we are to be prophetic from the centre.
World vision
Carson drew on anecdotes from his global ministry to urge us to be world-Christians. We need to be aware of global trends. Christianity is growing in every continent apart from Europe. The birth rate among indigenous Europeans is falling, while the birth rate among immigrant Islamic communities is increasing. This will present challenges in the future.
How evangelicals relate to other church traditions
He explored ways in which evangelicals can work together in ventures that transcend ecclesiastical differences. The gospel is what counts. Deviation from the gospel brings the apostolic anathema (Galatians 1). The gospel is our final authority. Even the apostles were subject to the gospel - Peter was rebuked by Paul because he did not walk according to the truth (Galatians 2). But truly evangelical Christians can and should work together for the good of the gospel.
Is the Reformation Over?
Carson asked if anyone in the congregation had read Mark Noll's book. Only yours truly raised his hand (see my review here). He was critical of Noll's proposal that the major differences between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism have been resolved. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church still differs radically from the Biblical gospel of the Reformers on matters like justification by faith alone. Carson promised that an in-depth review of this book would be published soon on I've just checked the site and it is still a work in progress. Should be a useful resource when it gets going.
The last afternoon session was a Q&A. It was not taped so the Don could be a bit more unguarded in what he said. Maybe he didn't count on the Exiled Preacher being present to spill the beans in cyberspace! But I'll limit myself mainly to the questions that were raised because it would be a shame if men like Carson had to watch every word for fear of their comments being reported on the net.
Questions were asked on Is the Reformation Over?, the gospel and the church, Tom Wright and the new perspective on Paul, the Anglican doctrine of the church, Emerging Church (DAC confessed that his book on that subject was now out of date, prompting some wag to ask for his money back), homosexuality (he said that while we may not want to pick a fight over this issue, homosexuality may become a test-case for faithfulness to Scripture as indulgence sales were the tipping point at the Reformation) and gospel ecumenism.
In all, yesterday was a wonderfully stimulating and encouraging time of ministry and fellowship. Carson should some to the south west of England more often!
Contact St. Bartholomew's Church (here) for info on CD's.


michael jensen said...

so what did he say about the anglican doctrine of the church? I am intrigued (if only to find out what it is!)

Guy Davies said...

He said that Anglicans view the church in terms of the parable of the wheat and the tares. As the C of E is a national church, both godly "wheat" and ungodly "tares" are present in the life of the church. Anglicans in the congregation did not demur. But Carson holds that the Bible teaches that the church should comprise only of believers. The parable is about the kingdom, not the church. That was about it, really. He did not touch on church government issues. But over lunch he said that he once asked a certain Aussie evangelical archbishop how he justified his role from the Scriptures.

michael jensen said...

Ah - I wonder what the answer was!

Calvin and Luther held to the wheat and tares idea of course...

Guy Davies said...

Luther regarded everyone in a Reformed district as a church member. But this caused him problems with church discipline. He proposed the formation of Ecclesiola in Ecclesia, little gatherings of the godly within the territorial church, but never carried it through. Calvin tried harder with church discipline. But still, all inhabitants of Geneva were church members by default, unless they proved to be unworthy.

The Puritans and Separatists argued for gathered churches of visible saints. This, I think is the more Biblical model. See how Paul addresses the churches Rom 1:7,1 Cor 1:2. Yes there were problems in the NT churches, but the assumption was that church membership should be restricted to believers.

michael jensen said...

Of course, my loophole is always that I don't belong to a national church because the Anglican Church in Australia isn't such a church!

Isn't puritan ecclesiology another way to over-realise the doctrine of the church?

Guy Davies said...

I'm not sure that the gathered church view is over-realised. What's the problem with expecting potential church members to have a credible profession of faith before they join the church. In the case of a new believer, their understanding may be very basic, but they should at least confess that they have been saved by Christ alone. Should not present church members be living godly lives?

Of course, no local church will ever be perfect. This side of eternity, visible saints are also visible sinners.

Back to the over-realised bit, in a sense the church should be an eschatological community - a demonstration (albeit flawed), of the fellowship on heaven here on earth.

michael jensen said...

so, we DO have the wheat and the tares, then....

Guy Davies said...

In the parable (Mat 13), the field is the world, not the church. The wheat are the children of the kingdom and the tares the children of the wicked one. The parable is not about the church at all. Its purpose is to explain why God delays judging the wicked.

Going back to the church, of course it cannot be guaranteed that all members are bona fide believers. There were hypocrites in the NT church. Also, Christians are justified sinners. They ain't perfect yet. But the ideal is "The church called to be saints". Only those who make a credible profession of faith aught to be allowed to join the membership of a church.

When Church members are guilty of recalcitrant heresy or gross sin, they they should be excommunicated. There is no room in church life for "let the tares grow". Paul did not take that attitude in 1 Cor 5.

Family Blogs said...

Fascinating stuff, both in your original post, and in your interaction with Michael. I'm looking forward to hearing the CDs, but couldn't find any info on them through the link you suggest...

Guy Davies said...

Thanks Andrew,

The link just takes you to St Barts' site. I think that you can contact them via e-mail from the site. Try dropping them an e-mail re the CD's and see what happens. I'm afraid that I can't think of any other way of ordering the recordings. They will be well worth listening to.

michael jensen said...

Yes, I meant metaphorically we still have the wheat and tares situation. The Church visible is always a mixed entity, despite our best efforts!

Family Blogs said...

Some interesting audio from Jonathan Edwards on these issues is available to download free from this month. It includes Edwards' farewell sermon, and can be found here or via a link on my blog.

Hope this stirs a little more thought/discussion.

Guy Davies said...


Is it legitimate to use Biblical metaphors in ways not intended by the text?


Thanks for the link. I'll have to follow that up. Did you get anywhere with St Barts & the CDs?

dp23 said...

Re "He ought to come to the SW more often" - did you know that he is speaking at Cheltenham Bible Festival in August?

Guy Davies said...

Wow, I didn't expect him to respond to my wish that quickly.

(I knew really! But we will be going to the Aber Conference, so we won't be going to Cheltenham).

Guy Davies said...


Ian Lewis, the Minsiter at St Barts e-mailed me to say that,

"People can get them by going onto the church website (via your link) and either either emailing via "contact" or using my email address on the Staff page. We'll then email back prices etc".

Daniel Hill said...

It's a myth that in Anglicanism all the baptized are members of the Church of England. See The legal framework of the Church of England by Norman Doe, p. 222, footnote 8.