Sunday, 13 February 2011

D.A. Carson on the Bible’s Literary Genres (2)

The London School of Theology 2011 Laing Lecture, given by D.A. Carson – on ‘The Bible’s Literary Genres: Reflections on What They Say About God’ – came in two main parts:

(1) What does the diversity of genres itself tell us about God?

(2) What do each of the genres individually say about God?

I’ve already posted on part 1 here, and summarise part 2 below. Once again, it’s worth recognising that I was scribbling notes furiously and so won’t necessarily have caught all the nuances Carson managed in the actual address.

The second main part of the lecture asked, What do each of the genres say about God? As with the first part, Carson developed a number of points:

1. Lessons from the occasional nature of New Testament letters and Acts.

When Paul writes Romans, he is not giving a complete summary of doctrine. He is responding to different pastoral needs. Particular occasions call forth particular responses – but there is no single document containing Paul’s entire theology. Through the letters, God addresses particular churches with particular needs. If we take any one of the letters and try to make it say all that needs to be said on a topic, we distort its teaching.

Carson cited the example of Paul refusing to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2), as (in that context) it would jeopardise the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus. And yet, he is happy to have Timothy circumcised (in Acts) in a different context where there is an issue of removing an unnecessary source of offence.

By way of application, Carson used the example of alcohol – and the different ways we might act in different situations – whether to avoid offence or to issue a challenge where a particular practice is jeopardising the exclusive sufficiency of Christ.

2. Lessons to be learned from the historical books.

God discloses himself in space-time history, and we have access to history through witnesses. According to Carson, if it could be proved that Gautama the Buddha never existed, it would not make any substantial difference to the buddhist system. Or, if it could be proved that Krishna never existed, nothing in Hinduism would be placed in jeopardy. In principle, in Islam, Allah could have given his final revelation to someone other than Muhammad, for Allah could give it to anyone he pleases. But it is quite different in Christianity where, if we pull Jesus out, there is nothing left. Jesus is not just a medium for the revelation of God, he is the revelation of God.

As Carson reminded us, in 1 Corinthians 15, for instance, certain entailments follow if Jesus did not rise from the dead. The truthfulness of faith’s object is necessary for faith. This is significant, Carson noted, because ‘faith’ on the street means either ‘religion’ (a particular faith) or ‘a personal subjective religious choice’, with no necessary connection to truth – which is not how Paul sees faith.

There are lessons from historical books which show how God works through history, attested by witnesses, which is why Christians are interested in historical issues.

3. Lessons from wisdom.

One of the most interesting features is the way wisdom thinks in polarities – lady wisdom or dame folly. Much of Jesus’ teaching also sets up simple polarities – two houses, two ways, etc., in this wisdom style.

Noting that wisdom literature can be abused from the pulpit, Carson used the example of Psalm 1, sometimes said to be a wisdom Psalm, drawing a polarity between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’. He noted the challenge of always living up to the criterion of, say, delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night. Who of us always manages to do this, and never fails to do so? Constant preaching of simple polarities, Carson warned, will produce a congregation of legalists or hypocrites.

Narrative, however, allows more nuance. David might well be a man after God’s own heart, and yet he commits murder and adultery. In Judges, with its downward spiral, even the ‘good guys’ are disgusting by the end of the book.

When it comes to Job, Carson noted that some critics love the moral ambiguities expressed in the poetic portions of the book, but then assume the ending of the book (where everything is reinstated, and there is a happy ending) must have been written by a different hand. But it’s wisdom, Carson said, and so we should expect there to be polarities. Much of contemporary culture enjoys moral ambiguity for its own sake – and there is moral ambiguity, Carson noted – but it will be resolved by God in the end.

Carson ran out of time at this point, and so left off a further two sections on apocalyptic and typology.


There was time afterwards for three questions.

• Someone asked whether Melchizedek could be understood to be an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. Carson responded that he thought nothing in the Old Testament account suggested that to be the case. Some of the description in Hebrews 7 might suggest it to be the case, but the writer here is simply exegeting the Genesis passage, noting Melchizedek’s lack of genealogy, etc. Moreover, the author of Hebrews says that Melchizedek is like the Son of God. He becomes a figure that prefigures someone else, and what’s picked up is that he is a priest-king – a prototype of the ultimate priest-king.

• Riffing (a tad cheekily, I think) on Carson’s lines about whether it would make any difference if Buddha or Krishna had not existed, someone asked about Genesis 1-2 and whether it would make any difference if Adam had not existed. Carson responded that this was a genre-identification question that he had not been addressing in the lecture, and that he would normally ask for four hours to deal with it. But he did express the opinion that if one denies a historical first couple and a space-time fall, it’s difficult to make sense of Paul. A historic Adam, he said, ‘is non-negotiable’.

• Someone asked about the negative side of Scripture’s diversity. Carson responded that he didn’t see it as a ‘negative’ so much as an ‘entailment’. We are finite, and God cannot download omniscience to us (it is one of his ‘incommunicable attributes’), which means that everything he says to us, and every way he communicates with us, will be, in some sense, necessarily limited. There would have been a ‘downside’ to any way he communicated. Moreover, Carson noted, there is a ‘hiddenness’ to God’s revelation. What was prophesied in the Old Testament is now fulfilled; but it is also said in some places that what was hidden in the past has now been revealed. Many truths are hidden in plain sight.

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