John Calvin




D. A. Carson
Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1996).
640 pages, cloth, $27.99.


There it was, on the shelf in a local Christian bookstore. Both the cover art and the title grabbed by attention. This looked like something a well-read pastor should have. I left the store with a diminished book allowance and the hope of increased understanding. I was not disappointed (with the latter). Nothing since my reading of Francis Schaeffer's works several years ago has been more enlightening of culture, and the believer's place in it, than this volume. The author states his goal in the preface:

If anything in the following pages equips some Christians to intelligent, culturally sensitive, and passionate fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ, or if it encourages some thoughtful unbelievers to examine the foundations again and so to find that Jesus is Lord, I shall be profoundly grateful (p.10).

     Dr. Don Carson, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, starts with definitions. He sees three categories of pluralism: empirical, cherished, and philosophical or hermeneutical (p.13). The first simply describes the reality of diversity in America. The second, "cherished pluralism," describes the popular approval of diversity. For Americans, diversity is an unquestioned virtue. The final category is by far the most serious.

Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior.. . . In particular it is bound up with the new hermeneutic and with its stepchild, deconstruction. The outlook that it spawns is often labeled postmodernism (p.19).

     What follows is a balanced, energetic, and compassionate examination of pluralism. The primary exponents are quoted and summarized. In some cases, Carson takes time to interact in greater detail with particular positions. The summaries and details illustrate the breadth and depth of Carson's understanding. A forty-seven-page bibliography testifies to a thoroughly researched work, though Carson feels often compelled to apologize for his brevity in places.
     Carson gives sensible and nuanced evaluations. He is always gracious, even when he ardently disagrees. His graciousness, however, never degenerates to denying the faith, either explicitly or implicitly.

From the pluralist's perspective, the Christian must appear a bigot, unless "Christian" is redefined so that it has no necessary connection with Scripture; from the Christian's perspective, the religious pluralist, however sincere, is both misguided and an idolater (p.238).

     In an amusing personal story, he tells of an exchange between himself and a doctoral student who styled herself a deconstructionist. When he turned her deconstructionist approach on her arguments, she was frustrated. His concluding remarks to her were insightful:

You are a deconstructionist... but you expect me to interpret your words aright. More precisely, you are upset because I seem to be divorcing the meaning I claim to see in your words with your intent. Thus, implicitly you affirm the link between text and authorial intent. I have never read a deconstructionist who would be pleased if a reviewer misinterpreted his or her work: thus in practice deconstructionists implicitly link their own texts with their own intentions. I simply want the same courtesy extended to Paul (p.103).

     This is not merely a negative book. Carson not only shows the problems with pluralism, he also gives direction to believers for evangelical interaction with a pluralistic culture. Carson elaborates in some detail the necessity of both understanding and proclaiming what he calls the "biblical plot-line." This is simply having a comprehensive understanding of redemptive history as God has revealed Himself. He believes this is essential both in accurate interpretation of Cod's written revelation as well as essential to effective evangelism in the face of biblical illiteracy. Later in the book, he uses Paul's message on Mars Hill in Acts 17 as an example of using redemptive history in evangelism (pp. 496-501). He also acknowledges the danger of some current evangelistic approaches:

If you begin with perceived needs, you will always distort the gospel. If you begin with the Bible's definition of our need, relating perceived needs to that central grim reality, you are more likely to retain intact the gospel of Cod (p.221).

     He deals with pluralism within evangelicalism as well. One chapter titled, "On Banishing the Lake of Fire," addresses the current popularity of annihilationist and postdeath conversion views on hell. There is also a fine appendix, "When Is Spirituality Spiritual?" in which Carson insists, "spirituality must be thought about and sought after out of the matrix of core biblical theology" (p.567).
     There are two problems with the book. First, its size will keep many from reading it. Ministerial pragmatism is sad, but certain. It has been my unfortunate experience that if "How To . . . doesn't appear in the title it won't be on a minister's shelf. Second, the arguments in some parts are vigorous and somewhat involved. The reader must do some thinking. Thinking is not something that comes naturally for American Christians. Thus, Carson's extraordinary grasp of so many issues can be a bit daunting. This final note is not a criticism of Carson as much as a criticism of the nonexistent Christian mind.
     The church is often accused of entering battles with "too little, too late." The accusation is true. While we have been battling the dinosaur named "modernism," a dragon named "postmodernism" has taken the field. The dragon has singed a few of us when we used our antimodernist weaponry. While arguments against the old foe have at least provoked animated discussion, the new foe has responded differently. After all, what can you do with a dismissive shrug? Carson gives us a rigorous analysis of the main threat against Christianity today: pluralism. This a magnificent work if you're ready to go a few rounds with postmodern dragons.

Springfield, Missouri


This review was used by permission and is taken from the Reformation & Revival Journal, Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 1998, pp. 215-218. Reformation & Revival Journal is published four times each year by Reformation & Revival Ministries, Inc. a not-for-profit teaching ministry orgainized in the state of Illinois in 1991. The ministry is committed to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the infallible Word of God and is in essential agreement with the confessinal statements of historic Reformation theology.


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