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Special thanks to Connie at Crossway for a review copy of this book.

For all the time I’ve spent studying Scripture, I hate to admit that I have a fairly weak theology of Scripture itself.  The truth is that I’m probably not alone.  It had been a long time since I had read something about the nature of Scripture, particularly of a more technical bent.  Enter D A Carson (I know, I’ve read a lot of Carson this year- I have many years of catching up to do).

Collected Writings on Scripture by D A Carson is just that, collected writings on Scripture written by D A Carson.  Included are 10 articles; the first 5 covering a variety of topics related to the Bible and the study of it (originally published between 1983 and 1997), the last 5 being a collection of book reviews of 9 books released from 1981 to 2007.  It may seem odd to some that one would include a series of book reviews in a collection of writings, but they reveal as much about Carson’s understanding of Scripture. 

The first chapter, “Approaching the Bible,” is probably the only one that could be read with relative ease by a layperson (despite Carson’s claim to the contrary in his preface).  It was originally written as the opening essay for the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, released in 1994.  This essay would be the most broadly useful, one that could be passed around to church members wishing to understand better the nature of the Bible and how it is best interpreted (note: it can be downloaded as a pdf here, although it looks a bit awkward). 

The next four chapters are a bit of a tougher read, though still quite rewarding.  I’ll admit that I found my eyes crossing a bit during chapter 2 (“Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture”)- though don’t ignore the warning to evangelicals at the end of the chapter-, but was reinvigorated during chapter 3, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology.”  The latter chapter is a must read for those of us who find ourselves suspicious of systematic theology (myself included).  Pastors could easily take the insights from this chapter and make them more digestible to their congregations.

I found chapter 4, “Redaction Criticism: On the Legitmacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool,” to be my favorite, surprisingly so.  “Surprisingly” because chapters on methodology, specifically a method I’ve found to be used with far too much confidence by some scholars, are rarely the most exciting.  Yet after giving 20 reasons to be cautious of redaction criticism, Carson still argues that it has its place in Gospel study.  (Side note: the extended Morna Hooker quote on page 160 is worth multiple readings.)

In the fifth chapter, entitled “Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?,” Carson jumps into the worlds of historical theology and epistemology in admirable fashion.  For those familiar with his works on postmodernity, such as The Gagging of God, this chapter will cover familiar territory. 

The book reviews deal with a handful of books I’ve never heard of, and a few more well known authors (Marshall, Enns and Wright).  After offering a summary of their contents, he interacts (often critiquing) their contents in rather entertaining fashion.  For the most part his reviews would be seen as “negative,” meaning he has serious concerns with the books reviewed.  The notable except is Jeffrey Sheler’s Is the Bible True?.  His disagreements doesn’t lead him beyond the bounds of appreciation, however.

One of my concerns about this book is in these book reviews.  It’s not that I find them unworthy of their inclusion in this collection of essays; on the contrary I find them to be brilliant.  Carson writes with candor and wit, deconstructing false premises, refuting historical revisionist tendencies and kicking over sand castles built on bad logic.  Considering the vast majority of book reviews I read in the world of biblical scholarship are formulaic and predictable, I appreciate Carson’s willingness to forego convention and get to the heart of the matter.

My concern lies not with Carson’s reviews themselves, but that readers from my generation (roughly 40 and below) may skip over the more dense chapters on methodology and the nature of Scripture to grab a ringside seat for the fight.  My generation is one that loves to pump our fist in the air, rallying behind our champion as he goes toe-to-toe with the “bad guys.”  My concern is that the scholars, both actual and wannabe (my choice of the latter term over “aspiring” is intentional), of my age group are more adept at poking holes than patching them.  We have been taught to think critically, engage thoughtfully, examine assumptions, etc.  And I’ve seen firsthand many who were quite skilled at doing just that.  Unfortunately, many of those in my generation are cowards.  They can point out the flaws of others, but won’t stick their neck out long enough for anyone to return the favor. 

But Carson is not like my generation.  To be sure, the first portion of the book devotes plenty of space to critiques.  But the function is not merely negative (why so-and-so is wrong).  Carson offers positive arguments for how to approach Scripture.  In other words, he isn’t simply arguing against something, he’s arguing for something.  Building a strong case often requires both, though I fear many can only do the former.  Thankfully, Carson provides a model for making a case, not just deconstructing one.

I do recommend this book, particularly for students and pastors who need some assistance thinking through their understanding of Scripture, both its nature and the study of it.  The first chapter and the review of Sheler’s book would probably be the only sections easily read by a layperson, though with time and a knowledge of theological terms one would benefit greatly from it.  In all, D A Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture is worth the time and effort.

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The scene is my first class in Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell.  The professor, Dr. Richard Lints, begins his lecture.  His first point, (at least, the first I remember), is that the theological project is not a matter of studying God, or putting God under the microscope, as it were.  Instead, good theology ultimately winds up with us being under God’s microscope.  Our reality, our existence, our thoughts and our feelings, are cast under the awesome light of who God is.  In turn, “who God is” (i.e., theology), informs the very framework of our reality, existence, thoughts and feelings.

John Wesley made a similar remark about Scripture:

In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church.

The leap is not a far one.  If Scripture is the Word of God, then it follows that it too ought to comprise the framework of our worldview.

So what do we do when our experiences or feelings don’t line up with God’s Word?  God’s Word wins.  The theology here is simple enough: as a Christian, I believe God is The Absolute Authority.  Since Scripture is the Word of God, it follows that it is absolutely authoritative in my life.  In other words, nothing trumps it.  If I look up and see a sky that I would call “green,” but Scripture says that the sky is blue, then I – whether by poor eyesight, misunderstanding, or defiance – am in the wrong.  Scripture is the Truth that judges our reality, not the other way around.

I could restate and expound upon this fact in any number or ways, for any number of years, perhaps resulting in any number of yawns from my reader(s).  I do not believe it is possible to overstate this proper attitude towards the Bible.  Why?  Partly because it is easily forgotten, but mostly because it sets the stage for our worldview, and our walk with God.  Examples abound of Bible abuses that arise when we put Scripture on the Procrustean bed of our own agenda, rather than letting it establish for us what our agenda ought to be in the first place.

I recently felt the loving sting of conviction when I realized that I often live life backwards, and let personal experience take the seat of absolute authority in my life.  I am much more modern than I care to admit.  While I believe in miracles, I have to think long and hard to conjure up any personal experience of them.  This creates a tension in my life; one that some might (erroneously, in my opinion) claim is a head/heart separation: I give mental assent to God’s miracle working power for today, but I’ve never experienced it, so it tends to be a cooler, almost academic belief, that is short on faith.  (For the record, I think the head/heart language has just become shorthand for expressing personal beliefs [head] and personal experiences [heart].  I don’t think the Bible understands us as being quite so bifrucated).

So unfolds what I believe is a common Christian struggle: how to align God’s Word with our experience.  Theodicy comes to mind, as do plenty of other common “If God X, then how do you explain Y and Z?” questions.  But, I just played a trick on you.  Did you catch it?  The nature of the struggle is actually aligning our experience with God’s Word, not the other way around.  Again, God’s Word trumps our experience.

Perhaps you don’t feel loved by God; nor do you see any evidences of it in your life, which is marked with hardship.  The fact of the matter is that God still loves you, because that’s what He says.  God’s Word is right; your feelings and experiences are what need adjustment or reinterpretation.  This statement sounds terribly cold; I certainly do not mean to diminish something like human suffering, or suggest for a second that a proposition such as the one above is a panacea to help those in times of trouble.  This is certainly not a suggestion for pastoral counseling.  It is the truth, however; a truth we must cling to when our experience seems to run against the grain of Scripture.

The situation can work the other way, too.  Perhaps we experience a powerful encounter with the Lord, and receive a vision of some previously  misunderstood “truth.”  We might be filled with joy; our lives might even change.  However, no matter the experience, if said vision runs against Scripture, then our interpretation of the experience needs the adjustment, not Scripture.

There is a balance, of course.  God does work through emotions and experience, after all, and we’re God-equipped with senses to take in the world He made.  Praise be, the Holy Spirit dwells within us to empower, guide and reprove us in our walk.  Still, and I heaftily apply this to myself, we are “prone to wander,” as the hymn says.  We have no shortage of ways to do this.  The Scriptues, a vital part of God’s great revelation of Himself to humanity, must remain a centerpiece of our thought and study to help us live according to the Truth.  Even when all evidence seems to come against it, we can cling to it with unyielding trust, because we know the One who spoke it is faithful and true.

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