Thursday, May 31, 2012

Herman Bavinck and R. S. Thomas: can an idea bleed?

As a reader I'm usually a cover to cover man rather than an occasional dipper. But my approach is a bit different when it comes to poetry. As a case in point, I tend to flick through R. S. Thomas' Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, (Bloodaxe, 2004), and read a poem here and there that grabs my attention. It's a bit random I suppose, and there might be some benefit in working through the collection one at a time, but there we are. Thomas was a theologically liberal Church in Wales clergyman. (See here for my review of his biography The Man Who Went into the West). Thomas' poems often give expression to his struggles with the orthodox Christian faith. The other day I came across one entitled Agnus Dei,

No longer the Lamb
but the idea of it.
Can an idea bleed?
Or on what altar
does one sacrifice an idea?

It gave its life
for the world? No
it is we give our life
for the idea that nourishes 
itself on the dust in our veins.

God is love. Where
there is no love, no God?
There is only the gap between
word and deed we try
narrowing with an idea.

In this offering R. S. Thomas perfectly encapsulates the problem with liberal theology. The historical foundations of the Gospel in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have been exchanged for the idea of Christ as some kind of cosmic expression of God's love. It is not that the Lamb of God gave his life for the world. An idea cannot bleed. Rather, it is we who nourish the idea of love. And that idea is projected onto God. He owes his existence to us. 

This struck me as I'm currently reading Herman Bavinck's treatment of Christ's Humiliation in The Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ. After setting out the biblical materials on Christ's sacrifice, the theologian begins to reflect on the doctrine of Christ's work. He gives attention to attempts on the part of modern theology to modify the historic teaching of the church on Christ's sacrificial death. In modern theology, "The idea that God becomes man in a specific person and subsequently suffers for others is unthinkable." (P. 351). The death of Jesus is reinterpreted as a symbol of the suffering and dying  of God in and through the world. Bavinck summarises the views of Hartmann to the effect that, "God cannot save me, but I must save God. God can only be saved through me. Actual existence is the incarnation of the deity; the cosmic process is the story of God's passion and at the same time the way to the redemption of the One crucified in the flesh." (P. 351-352). 

The liberal account of Christ's person and work totally inverts the message of the Bible and the historic teaching of the Church. The Creator/creature distinction is rendered void. The singularity of the ensfleshment of God in Christ is compromised as the whole of existence becomes the incarnation of the deity. The historical Jesus is decoupled from an idealised 'Christ of faith'. It is we who save God, not he who saves us. 

Bavinck, however maintains that "the historical Jesus and the apostolic Christ cannot be separated" (p. 272). And that, "One cannot honour Jesus without accepting him as the Christ, the Son of the living God... [T]hroughout all centuries the [church] has confessed the crucified and risen Christ as its Lord and its God." (P. 273-274). As such Jesus is the unique mediator between God and men,
He is not a third party who, coming from without, intervenes between God and us but is himself the Son of God , the reflection of his glory and the exact imprint of his very being, a partaker in God's essence, in the attributes of his nature, and at the same time the Son of Man, head of all humanity, Lord of the church. He does not stand between two parties he is those two parties in his own person. (P. 362)
Jesus is no bloodless idea, the projection of human thoughts about God. He is the God-Man who took human flesh, bled and died to save us from sin. His death was an act of vicarious satisfaction, "Christ put himself in our place, has borne the punishment of our sin, satisfied God's justice, and so secured salvation for us." (P. 398).

Agnus Dei. Behold the Lamb who redeemed us to God by his blood!

William Williams Pantycelyn was a better poet of redemption that R. S. Thomas, 

THERE is a path of pardon
In His blood;
There is a sure salvation
In His blood.
The law’s full consummation,
A Father’s approbation—
Hear Zion’s acclamation!
In His blood—
Atonement and redemption
In His blood!
William Williams, (1801-76)
tr. by William Vernon Higham (1926-)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New Foundations

The Spring edition of Affinity's theological journal,  Foundations is out now.

Steven Mittwede shows how the relationship between justification and sanctification in Paul’s letters helps us to avoid the pitfalls of legalistic religion; at stake, he says ‘is the spiritual health of individual believers and local fellowships of believers’Derek Bigg contributes helpfully and practically on the neglected subject of the public reading of Scripture. Chris Thomas writes as a pastor and chaplain on the way in which chaplaincy work reflects a consistent theme throughout Scripture of God’s presence in the world he has made. He ends with a pertinent challenge to us all. Oliver Gross provides a thorough exegetical study of John 3:5 and comes to a well-argued (and, to some, controversial) conclusion. Finally, Kieran Beville gives us a useful survey of the main players in the phenomenon of New Atheism and encourages us, like David facing Goliath, to have courageous hearts. Book reviews from Stephen Clark, Gareth Williams, Paul Yeulett and Ro Mody complete this edition.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Confessions of a literary polygamist

When it comes to books some people are serial monogamists. They pick up a book and remain wedded to it until they have finished before starting on another one. I have a sneaking regard for such undying literary faithfulness. I could almost bring myself to echo the famous prayer of Augustine, "Make me chaste and continent, but not yet." (Confessions, 8:7). However, while the thought of being married to only one wife is fine by me, the idea of being limited to one book at a time does my head in. Only read systematic theology, for months on end? As much as I enjoy ST, no, no, please no. Only read biography? Same response. Only novels? Same again. You've got the picture. When it comes to books - and only when it comes to books, mind you, I am an unashamed polygamist. 

I have to confess, though that I don't treat all the books I read with equal attentiveness and affection. I don't even try. Some are left gathering dust for weeks, even months before I pick them up and read a chapter or two. But others keep drawing me back day after day, week after week. My current long-term read is Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck. I'm currently around half way through Volume 3. Big multi-volume sets hold no fear for me as, a bit like William Carey, I can plod. Not that reading Bavinck is a plodding hard slog. The theologian writes with a warmth, depth of insight and sheer triune God-centredness that is utterly captivating. Forget Befkhof and Reymond. Read Bavinck I say. 

One of my favourite Christian biographers has to be Iain Murray. His work on Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards and Lloyd-Jones had a massive impact on my life and thinking. I'm presently on chapter 12 of his biography of Archibald Brown. It really is excellent stuff, very moving and encouraging. 

Some time ago I started D. B. Calhuon's two volume history of Pinceton Seminary, published by Banner. I stopped reading near the end of volume one and did not disturb the set for a couple of years. But I recently finished Volume 1 and have made a good start on Volume 2, usually reading a chapter or so Sunday evenings. Few better ways to unwind than to hang out with the Alexanders and Hodges of Old Princteon, not to mention the estimable B. B. Warfield. 

But it's not all big sets. The other day I picked up The Secret Providence of God by John Calvin, edited by Paul Helm (Crossway). It's a mere 125pp. but it really is bracing stuff. Calvin takes on a pesky 'calumniator' who presumed to diss the Reformer's views on providence and the sovereignty of God. There are some great put-downs from Calvin's acid-dipped pen, "Now see, you dog, what you accomplish by your violent barking". Why don't you just tell him what you think, Mr. C? Should be finished by the end of the day. Expect a review soon. 

I've written before about John Newton's Letters as my 'waiting room book', but no visits to the doctor or dentist recently, so the old sea captain's epistles have been rather neglected of late. 

I like to read a bit of poetry. These days it's mostly Edward Taylor or R. S. Thomas. Taylor is extravagantly metaphorical, ornate and theologically orthodox. RST is stripped back, spare and sceptical. 

I keep a weather eye on politics and current affairs and have almost finished The Journey by Tony Blair. I'm a bit diffident about reading it in public in case I get accosted by an anti-war protester. But it's an interesting read that gives some insight into life in No. 10. 

Lastly Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. We've just arrived in France. A barrel of wine has been smashed, sending its blood-red contents cascading down the street.  And we've been introduced to a shoemaker.  

And that's about it for now. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

My stupid ideas #1: A damp squib

I don't know about you, but occasionally, just occasionally I'm given to stupid ideas. Or total misconceptions more like. One example is with the phrase "damp squib".  As when Opposition politicians say, "The Government's latest policy on [fill in the gap yourself] is a damp squib." Whenever I heard those words, all unbidden, a mental image of a soggy sea creature would spring to mind. Freaky really.

However, I can't remember how, but I came to realise that maybe I had misunderstood the meaning of this favoured political cliché. Partly it was due to the fact that I suddenly twigged that the pink, gooey sea creature that kept intruding on my imagination was a not a squib but a squid. It's not that I thought that giant squids were in fact giant squibs, but as the words sound quite similar they had somehow become conflated in my mind.

At last, I understood that a "damp squib" wasn't  the equivalent of a "wet fish". Good eh? But that was only half the battle. Now I needed to know what "damp squib" really meant. Being a bookish type with scholarly pretensions, I immediately Googled the phrase, hoping that Wikipedia could enlighten me. I wasn't disappointed.
Squib (explosive)
A squib is a miniature explosive device used in a wide range of industries, from special effects to  military applications.
While most modern squibs used by professionals are insulated from moisture, older uninsulated squibs needed to be kept dry in order to ignite, thus a "damp squib" was literally one that failed to perform because it got wet. Often misheard as "damp squid". (See here for full entry).
At least I'm not the only one.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Door

I am the door,
that beckons you 
to light and life 
to the full.

Knock and 
I will open.

But don't delay,
for the day
comes when
I will forever shut.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The sky bled sunlight

One grey January day,
as we trod the
 banks, barrows
and ditches of
 Bratton Camp,

the White Horse below 
slowly greying to the 
town's shame,
the granite sky split open
and bled sunlight.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A few handbreadths

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
    and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!
(Psalm 39:5)

Preached at Ebenezer, West Lavington morning and evening on John 21:15-19 and Ephesians 1:3-6 respectively. When preaching in the morning I spied some movement in the chapel porch through a gap between the internal doors. I had a member of the congregation investigate. There was a man hanging around in the porch so we invited him in and I carried on preaching. Chatting to him after the service it turned out that he was a 'man of the road' on his way to Devizes. Unusually for such gentlemen, this chap didn't ask for money. He said he provides for himself by cleaning windows. We sent him on his way with the assurance that he was welcome to call in any time and gave him some reading materials including John Blanchard's Jesus: Dead or Alive?  


I usually do my sermon prep on Wednesday and Friday mornings, but this week only Monday and Friday mornings were free, so I had to prepare Sunday morning's sermon on Monday - Genesis 42. The thought of doing this seemed a bit weird, but once I got stuck in I completely forgot what day it was, so it didn't really matter. In the afternoon read some more of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics and a chapter of Iain Murray's biog of Archibald Brown.


Men's Meeting in the morning. John Coxhead, one of our deacons spoke on Fanny J Crosby, the blind hymn writer. Very helpful. I chaired the discussion afterwards. Home around 11.50am. Prepared for Wednesday evening's Bible Study - on 2 Samuel 1 before lunch. Dale Ralph Davis' commentary is excellent. Afternoon, a couple of pastoral visits. Evening, a Bible Study on Romans 8:17 at Maryport Street Baptist Church, Devizes. 


Attended the Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal in the morning - here. Installed new superfast broadband hub thingy  from Virgin before I went. Big mistake. Took too long. Sorted in the end, but only just left on time. Pastoral visit in the afternoon. Our own Bible Study/Prayer Meeting in the evening. 


Pastoral visit in the morning. Then took part in an open air witness in Bradford on Avon. After lunch had a quiet afternoon. Wrote an article on the Queen's Jubilee for News & Views, West Lavington's parish mag.  


Prepared Sunday evening's sermon, Philippians 1:9-11. More Murray on Brown. Kids Club in the evening. Numbers a little low this week. Watched War Horse.


Day off. Wrote a gloomy photo-poem. And another not so gloomy one that I'll post in a couple of days. Went to nearby Stonehenge with wife and daughter while son revised for AS exams. There is an air of mystery about the place. What do those stones mean, just standing there in defiance of time's passing? Gazing at the ancient monument I was reminded of the brevity of life. Like listening to the relentless tick, tock of an old clock, to whose steady beat generations have come and gone. For the men of long ago, erecting Stonehenge must have been the most important thing in their lives. Yet what was it all for? Who knows? A temple for long-forgotten gods? A humongous calendar? But now it is a curio. A  tourist attraction just off the A303. A picturesque backdrop for countless grinning family photos.  The sacred barrows, a nice spot for a picnic, as coachloads come and go.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God's power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

Robert Bridges (1844-1930);
from Joachim Neander (1650-1680)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Night falls on Shearwater

Night falls 
on Shearwater.
Like a prophet 
the silhouetted tree 
portends the 
world's descent to
dark oblivion. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fellowship and the Lord's Supper

Barnaby Alsop spoke at today's Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal on Blessings and Curses at the Lord's Supper. A very helpful session it was too, giving us plenty to think about and discuss. One thought  that was raised in discussion struck me as especially relevant to the contemporary scene. A friend made this point. It is possible for someone to listen to John Piper (or whoever the favoured preacher might be) sermons from the comfort of his home and so never have to go to church. You can certainly be a 'home alone' Christian when it comes to consuming sermons. But you can't do that with the Lord's Supper. You have to be there with flesh and blood people, gathered around a wooden table and eat a shared meal of bread and wine. 

The internet is a wonderful tool that has made some of the best preaching in English available to a worldwide audience at the click of a mouse. Piper, MacArthur, Begg, Lloyd-Jones take your pick. But remember that listening to a sermon online isn't the same as being part of a worshipping congregation as the Word is proclaimed. Cyberspace is no substitute for being actively involved in a local church that is comprised of real Christians, with all the heartbreak and joy that entails.

The Lord's Supper demands our embodied presence. Your Xbox 360 avatar can't take the Lord's Supper. You can't eat bread and drink wine by posting a status update on Facebook, or by publishing a blog article. Pixels and fibre optics are a poor stand in for real, face-to-face fellowship. Even good old fashioned writing with paper and ink can't take the place of personal 'in the flesh' communication, 2 John 12.  

The Lord Jesus commanded that his people should remember him by eating bread and drinking wine together. This is a physical act with deep spiritual meaning. At the Table the Saviour accommodates himself to us as embodied human beings. The bread that we eat and the wine that we drink testify to the reality of Jesus' incarnation and death. It is the very physicality of the emblems that make the Lord's Supper distinctive as a means of grace. The Word became flesh and shed his blood for us. The objective historical and embodied reality at the heart of our faith is symbolised in rich simplicity  at Communion. 

To withdraw into cyberspace and avoid face-to-face fellowship with other Christians is the ecclesiastical equivalent of  doceticism. Docetics denied the true humanity of Jesus, believing that it was not fitting for God to take flesh. But he did. God created the physical world and declared it 'very good'.  That which sin has spoiled, God by his grace has redeemed and will perfect through the work of Christ and by the presence of his Spirit. We are called to glorify God in our bodies in and through embodied and personal fellowship with the Lord's people. 

Jesus summons his followers to gather and share a meal together. The cup of blessing that we bless is the communion of the blood of Christ. The bread that we break is the communion of the body of Christ. We, though many,  are one bread and one body. We express that oneness in the simple act of eating bread in drinking wine in the presence of one another and the Lord. You can't download the Lord's Supper. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Edward Taylor against the heretics

I'm trying to read a poem a day by Edward Taylor, the New England Puritan. I don't always get what he's trying to say as the language is sometimes quite obscure. What's 'inckt' supposed to mean? And I thought that a mall is a shopping centre, but Taylor envisages a 'mall of steel' splitting heretics' brains away. The mind boggles. 

However, this morning's poem was full of interest. It is a meditation on Colossians 1:15, entitled, 'The First Born of Every Creature'. The text is often cited by Arians, Socinians and Jehovah's Witnesses to prove that as the 'firstborn over all creation', Christ was not the eternal Son of God. Edward Taylor is having none of it. In his poem he asserts the full deity of Christ and threatens heretics with a grisly fate.

First Born of e'ry Being: hence a Son
      Begot o'th'First: Gods onely Son begot.
Hence Deity all ore. Gods nature run
      Into a Filiall Mould: Eternal knot.
      A Father then, and a Son: persons distinct.
      Though them Sabellians contrar'ly inckt.

This mall of Steel falls hard upon thy foes
      Of truth, who make the Holy Trinity
Into One Person: Arians too and those
      Socinians calld, who do Christs Deity
      Bark out against, But Will they, nill they, they
      Shall finde this Mall to split their brains away.


As Taylor recognises, using Colossians 1:15 to deny the full deity of Christ is to misinterpret the text. That Jesus is the “firstborn of creation” does not mean the Son was the first creature that God made. Arians and their theological heirs and successors deny the eternal pre-existence of Jesus, saying that there was a time when the Son was not. Over and against Arian error the church confessed that the Son was “begotten not created” at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. Arians have badly misunderstood what Paul is saying here. They make him contradict what he says later on in the passage. If the Son was created, then how does Colossians 1:16 make sense, let alone Colossians 1:17?

So, the apostle was no Arian. For Paul Jesus was very much included in the divine identity, Romans 9:5. But what does he mean when he calls Jesus the “firstborn over all creation”. In the immediately previous verses Paul has described salvation as a new exodus, Colossians 1:12-14. And the exodus event also provides the key to Paul’s meaning here. In Exodus 4:22 God describes Israel as 'my son, my firstborn'. Firstborn sons had special inheritance rights. Pharaoh was to let Israel go so that God's firstborn could claim his inheritance,  Exodus 4:23, 6:8 The firstborn in Egypt were killed at Passover, but the Passover lamb was substituted for the firstborn children of Israel. They were redeemed by blood, Exodus 12:12-13. Israel's firstborn therefore belonged to the Lord, Exodus 13:2 & 15. The firstborn had a special prominence and importance, Psalm 89:27. To conclude, in Old Testament revelation the 'firstborn' were associated with a cluster of ideas: preeminence, ownership, inheritance and redemption.

So, when Paul describes Jesus as the 'firstborn over all creation' he is not suggesting that Jesus was the first thing God made. As Taylor said, the Son is fully God, 'Deity all ore'. Paul's point is that as the 'firstborn' Jesus belongs to God. He is God's “own Son” Romans 8:32, “the Son of his love” Colossians 1:13, John 3:16. Also as the firstborn son, Jesus has the right of inheritance, Romans 8:17. But although God spared the firstborn children of Israel by substituting the Passover lamb, he did not spare his own Son, Colossians Colossians 1:14, 1 Corinthians 5:7. As the 'firstborn over all creation', Christ is creation's 'kinsman redeemer' who liberates the world from the tyrannical grip of sin. This is a thought that Paul will take up at greater length in Colossians 1:20.

There is more to redemption than personal salvation. Christ's work has cosmic dimensions, Romans 8:21. This is how big our Jesus is. He has acted to redeem creation from all the terrible effects of the fall. This is the Jesus we must preach. This is the Jesus we worship. He is the 'firstborn over all creation'. He’s got the whole world in his nail pierced hands.

Taylor concludes his poem with a prayer,

Make mee thy Babe, and him my Elder Brother
     A Right Lord grant me in his Birth Right high.
His Grace, my Treasure make above all other:
      His Life my Sampler: My Life his joy.
      I'le hang my love then on his heart, and sing
      New Psalms of Davids Harpe to thee and him.

(The Poems of Edward Taylor, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, p. 84-85) 

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Scarlet is like the sound of a trumpet

My current 'waiting room book' is The Letters of John Newton. I have an old 1965 edition Banner reprint, priced 4s6d. The other day I took a family member to the Doctors and while waiting I got stuck in to Newton's letter on Spiritual Blindness, p. 35-40. In it he draws on a fascinating illustration from the writings of John Locke, the famous English philosopher. That Newton was familiar with Locke's works was interesting enough in itself. Jonathan Edwards, yes, but  the Old Sea Captain? You never can tell.

Newton refers to Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In the essay, (Chapter IV:11 here) Locke reflects on the relationship between objects as encountered by the senses and words used to name or describe those objects. He argues that words alone cannot create an accurate idea of an object in the mind. Only when an object has been seen, heard or handled as the case may be can words be meaningfully used to define the object encountered. We can only say that an object is "red" because our eyes are able to distinguish colours that exist in the real world. The word "red" on its own would signify nothing apart from our being able to see objects of that colour.

This is where Newton's Lockean illustration comes in. Locke is out to demonstrate that the word "scarlet" has no meaning for a blind man, who is unable to perceive objects of that colour with his darkened eyes,
Royal Mail Postbox
A studious blind man, who had mightily beat his head about visible objects, and made use of the explication of his books and friends, to understand those names of light and colours which often came in his way, bragged one day, That he now understood what scarlet signified. Upon which, his friend demanding what scarlet was? The blind man answered, It was like the sound of a trumpet. Just such an understanding of the name of any other simple idea will he have, who hopes to get it only from a definition, or other words made use of to explain it
Now, the blind man was very close. Brilliantly perceptive in fact. We often speak of red as a "loud" or "blaring" colour, using sound to describe what the eye alone can see. If scarlet had a sound, it would be the sound of a trumpet. But Locke was right, the redness of red, its bold, postbox brightness cannot in fact be perceived or understood by a blind man.

Newton's intention, however is not to discuss the finer points of empirical philosophy. His point is this, "Nor can all the learning and study in the world enable any person to form a suitable judgement of divine truth, till the eyes of the mind are opened". One may have a knowledge of the Bible, but without the spiritual enlightenment that comes with the new birth there is no true perception of the power, grace and beauty of Jesus Christ. John Newton knew what he was talking about,

I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Get thee to a nunnery

Sarah and I headed to the lovely old Wiltshire village of Lacock today. It isn't too far away, about 20 minutes drive. But that's far enough for us to feel that we had a nice day out. Lacock is famous as the setting for various films and costume dramas, including the Harry Potter movies and BBC adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Cranford.  

The village is full of character and olde-worlde charm. Original Tudor-style houses abound, some small and cottagey and others more grand and imposing. Quirky shops nestle on narrow streets. Lacock features a large tithe barn and part of the village is only accessible by car by traversing a ford. With all the recent rain, the stream was flowing rather fast today. You'd need a decent 4x4 to get across. 

We had a good pub lunch in the Carpenters Arms, wandered around the village a little more before heading for Lacock Abbey, a National Trust property. As the name suggests, the stately old pile was originally an Abbey of the Augustinian order. It became a manor house when Henry VIII abolished such institutions. 

William Henry Fox Talbot, who once owned the house, was a pioneer of photography, inventing the photographic negative. The Fox Talbot museum, located at the entrance to the Abbey grounds, is entirely devoted to photography. A fine exhibition of some of the photographs of Basil Pao, Michael Palin's travelling companion was worth a look. 

We've been round the Abbey itself many times, but since we last visited more of the property has been opened up to visitors. What used to be the entrance to the Abbey is now the exit, which confused us a bit. Trying to get in we made for the courtyard, which hosts a second hand bookshop. I snapped up The Lion Christian Poetry Collection, a 500-page hardback, containing over 700 poems, for only £3. 

The entrance to the house is now via the old Abbey cloisters, featured above. Once inside it was nice to have a nose around some of the rooms that were formerly off limits to the public. One of the rooms boasts a mini-grand piano, on top of which is a note inviting guests to ask a guide if they wish to play. A young lad of about 13-14 years of age stepped up to the piano and started playing what I think was one of the movements from Beethoven's Hammerklavier suite. The solemn and complex sound filled the large room. Amazing. 

Wandering around the old Augustinian Abbey made me think about the Reformation and its impact on our nation's life. According to B. B. Warfield, the Reformation was nothing less than the triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace, 
But even so, it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, P&R, p. 321-22).
A good day out.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Intolerance of Tolerance by D. A. Carson

The Intolerance of Tolerance, 
D. A. Carson, Paperback 186p, IVP

Don Carson has been reflecting on the issue of tolerance for a number of years. He touched on the subject in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, Zondervan, 1996 and returned to it in Christ and Culture Revisited (reviewed here), Apollos/IVP, 2008. In fact, Carson sees this volume as a supplement to Christ and Culture Revisited. In this book-length treatment he has the space to develop thoughts that could only be hinted at in his earlier works. As promised, here is my review. 

Carson’s basic thesis is that the meaning of tolerance has changed in the last few decades. Tolerance used to mean putting up with views with which we might strongly disagree. More recently tolerance has taken on a new aspect, involving the acceptance of all views as equally valid.

The old tolerance involved a commitment to truth as well as a willingness to allow people with whom we disagree to say what they think. The new tolerance barely acknowledges that there is any such thing as truth.   Accordingly, it is regarded as the height of intolerance to suggest that one’s views are right and others are wrong. Such “intolerance” simply should not be tolerated.  

As a con-coercive faith, Christianity sits comfortably with the older understanding of tolerance. The new tolerance, however his highly problematic because we believe in truth, the truth of God’s word, revealed supremely in Jesus Christ.

Carson details the intolerance of the “new tolerance” when it comes to the worlds of government, education, the law, the media, “gay rights”, and the Christian faith. His examples are drawn from incidents in the USA and the UK. In an increasingly secular age faith-based values are being squeezed out of public life.

In a final chapter the writer suggests some ways ahead when it comes to responding to the “new tolerance” from a Christian standpoint. His “Ten Words” call for a robust confession of the truth and civility in public discourse.

This timely book is highly recommended.

* Reviewed for Protestant Truth