Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book Review: D.A. Carson

The following is a book review that I turned in to Dr. Robert Pyne's Soteriology class in the fall of 2006. I received a 98% on it.

Donald A. Carson is professor at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a highly respected author with 45 published works to his credit. "Divine Sovereignty And Human Responsibility" is an expansion of his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge originally presented in 1975. Carson struggles with the delicate tension between God's election and man's accountability for his own sin, particularly in light of the doctrines of total depravity and original sin. The opening page of the book sets the stage for all that is to follow. Carson declares, ""If God is absolutely sovereign, in what sense can we meaningfully speak of human choice, of human will? Must God be reduced to accommodate the freedom of human choice? Does significant human responsibility so lean on power to the contrary that God becomes contingent?" To his credit, Carson also states his theoretical conclusion that he is working towards when he notes that the tension is `not a problem to be a solved, but a framework to be explored.' The book is in part a rebuttal to E.P. Sanders' defense of covenantal nomism, the view that Jews held to salvation by grace. The book consists of five sections that present historical and textual evidence towards God's election or `merit theology' and where upon the continuum a particular theology lies. He begins with an introduction, and the body of work contains three basic areas of emphasis: the Hebrew canon, intertestamental works, and the gospel of John. Carson concludes with a chapter of theological reflections that summarizes his view of the tension. His conclusion is that the tension is not fully understandable due to God's infinitude and our own lack of same, but he supports his theoretical conclusion with a grid. There are a number of positives in the book. Carson doesn't use the simplistic appeal approach but instead wrestles with seemingly contradictory data regarding God's sovereignty to formulate his ultimate conclusion. He summarized it better in "The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism," however, when he noted that divine sovereignty stands behind both John Calvin and Adolph Hitler but that such sovereignty is asymmetrical - the good is always traceable to God while the bad is not traceable at least not in the way that would make God Himself the author of sin. He also notes properly at the beginning of the work as well as at the end that this particular issue cannot be solved from the human standpoint and must instead be treated abstractly to interact with the existent data. Writing from the Calvinist perspective, he deals with numerous passages regarding free will as well as those dealing with predestination, particularly the prophecy and fulfillment by Judas Iscariot. The biggest weakness in the book is one that editing will easily fix: there are sections of the middle of the book that are just flat out boring. They are not irrelevant to the immediate question as they help lay the foundation for his conclusion, but some outside knowledge as well as an intimate interest in literature characterizes the portion of the book regarding intertestamental works. One other weakness, though an understandable one, is his emphasis solely on the gospel of John. Perhaps future publications of the work would be improved by the removal of the intertestamental literature and replaced by either other biblical data or even first to fourth century literature. Finally, this was a doctoral dissertation and in many places reads like one, which is fine for those with such scholarly pursuits but will ultimately discourage the layman who really would be edified by this work were it not so `scholarly.' The apex of the book comes with Carson's `formulation of the tension' of divine sovereignty and free will and the presentation of a diagram purporting to show the actions both of the Creator and His finite creations. Carson's diagram shows God's line going 100% of the way across the bar graph and man's line crossing under God's and going about ten percent of the way across the graph. Carson admits that such a drawing is `crude,' but he is left with the problem of how to communicate his theory of `divine ultimacy.' Carson then closes with the claim that the sovereignty-responsibility tension will affect one's outlook in ministry. Where I disagree with Carson is not so much in his central thesis, which even he concedes is theoretical at best, but in the notion that this is an effort that any of us should aspire to attain. All of us may formulate a theory of divine ultimacy but none of us will ever be able to explain God's side and His ultimate role with the exception of what He has chosen to reveal. Perhaps it is better that we simply accept that sovereign election and human responsibility are theological aspects that will never be solved with any degree of certainty this side of glory. Make no mistake: Dr. Carson's work is an admirable and noble attempt, but I believe it to be ultimately a futile effort in terms of an actual formulation. His research is impeccable, and his response to Dr. Sanders both enlightening and necessary. And his points about the sovereignty of God in John's gospel demonstrate both a passion for God and a passion for evangelism. But once the effort is made to describe how two complementary concepts exist, Carson is limited as are all of us by his finitude. Carson's framework to be explored avoids simple categorization by acknowledging the tension he seeks to formulate and attempting to not view that framework through a predetermined theological grid. Whether Carson succeeded at this will probably be left open to question depending upon one's prior convictions. He makes no secret of his mainstream Calvinist views, but he is also willing to critique some forms of determinism in the construction of his framework. In the end, however, I don't know if the attempt at sound reasoning employed by Dr. Carson will exceed the dogmatism and zeal of the modern-day Augustinians or Pelagians. It is a simple fact that most theological discussions will ultimately shed more heat than light.

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