To D. A. Carson on the Emerging Church: Leave Me Out of It

A couple of years ago, a few students brought to my attention the fact that D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago, had quoted me in his book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Zondervan, 2005).

They each came to me, and several people have since approached me during speaking engagements around North America, because Carson uses something I wrote to illustrate something he doesn’t like about the emerging church. This use has puzzled each of my inquirers for the same two reasons: (1) they didn’t know I had anything to do with the emerging church and (2) they didn’t think that Carson construed properly what I wrote.

So I retrieved a copy from our library, looked up my name, and behold, on page 66, there I am.

“What in the world am I doing in a book on the emerging church?” I thought. My inquirers were, in fact, correct: I have nothing to do with the emerging church. I have never been to one of their conferences or congregations; I have read none of their books; I have never been in correspondence with any of their leaders; all I know is what I’ve heard from acquaintances and read in the occasional magazine article.

Yet here I am. Except, not quite. For Carson doesn’t exactly say that I am representative of the emerging church. Perhaps he knows that I am not. Still, he needs a quotation, so he says instead, “Emerging writers are not unlike other contemporary writers who think in unrealistically antithetical categories. Here is John Stackhouse.”

Hmm. Apparently Brother Carson is not sufficiently conversant with the emergent church to quote one of their authors to make his point. So he uses me via that nice academic double negative: “not unlike.”

Okay. But then he tells us that I “think in unrealistically antithetical categories.” Strong words. So let’s see. Here’s the quotation:

“Since the Christian message is fundamentally an invitation extended to human beings—not just human brains—to encounter the person of Jesus Christ rather than to adopt a doctrinal system or ideology, it is only obvious then that establishing the credibility and plausibility of that message will depend upon more than intellectual argument. It will depend instead upon the Holy Spirit of God shining out through all the lamps of good works we can raise to the glory of our Father in heaven.”

So far, so good: the quotation is accurate, from an article on apologetics I published in 1995.

But then Carson writes, “Here again is that antithesis: the Christian message is an invitation ‘extended to human beings—not just human brains.’”

Well, that sentence is not an antithesis, is it? Instead, it is a “not just this, but rather a more inclusive that” sort of sentence.

Having tried to score a point here, Carson actually backs off shortly thereafter by saying, “[Stackhouse] rightly insists that the plausibility of the message will depend on more than intellectual argument.” (So the sentence is not an antithesis after all, is it, Brother Carson?)

Then Carson continues, “…but then [Stackhouse] says that such plausibility will depend instead on the Holy Spirit shining out through good works. Does he mean that the Holy Spirit does not shine out through the message preached?”

A lot is hanging, apparently, on the word “instead.” The word might mean “to completely replace as an antithetical alternative,” true. But it might also mean “a more inclusive category that replaces—but also includes—a less inclusive one.”

So let’s consider how plausible it is that I do mean the former, and therefore that I think that the Holy Spirit does not shine out through our proclamation. I am a professor of theology, and Carson likely knows that, so he might infer that I have not dedicated my career to something I think is apologetically worthless.

But maybe he doesn’t know that I’m a theologian. What he should know, however, is how to read a text in context. So let’s take a quick look at the article from which he quotes to see whether a fair-minded reader should be wondering aloud whether I believe that “the Holy Spirit does not shine out through the message preached.”

And let’s make it as easy as possible. Here are the very first lines of that article: “Apologetics is a type of Christian theology and its cousin, philosophy of religion. Standard histories of apologetics, like those by J. K. S. Reid and Avery Dulles, assume this truism. Great figures in the history of Christian thought agree, as diverse as F. D. E. Schleiermacher, B. B. Warfield, and Paul Tillich.”

That does sound like I think apologetics has to do with the message preached, doesn’t it? I say that to understand apologetics as a type of Christian theology and philosophy is a truism.

But let’s read a little further. Here is the thesis sentence of the article, a few paragraphs later, at the end of the introduction: “I find that the history of the church offers a wide range of intriguing and exemplary modes of apologetics if we will but look beyond the confines of theology and philosophy.” So the fair-minded reader might conclude that the point of the article is not to disparage theology or philosophy, not to disparage the life of the mind and preaching to it, but to take all that for granted and look beyond to other modes of apologetics as well.

But let’s make it simpler still. Let’s look at the sentences of my article immediately preceding Carson’s quotation: “Apologetics is a matter of theology and philosophy. Quite so: the intellectual defense of the faith has a long and distinguished history and continues as a challenge in the present.”

Does that sound like I mean that “the Holy Spirit does not shine out through the message preached”?

Frankly, it would be very odd if I did mean that, especially since thirty seconds’ searching on Amazon.com would show that I seem to think intellectual apologetics worthwhile enough to have written an entire book of it myself: Can God Be Trusted: Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press, 1998)—which was published long before Carson’s book and so was readily available for him to find.

Since this matter of Carson’s quotation of me keeps coming to my attention, then, I am hoping this blog post will settle the matter. When it comes to the emerging church, Carson should—both metaphorically and literally—leave me out of it.

0 Responses to “To D. A. Carson on the Emerging Church: Leave Me Out of It”

  1. Random Acts of Linkage #33 : Subversive Influence

    […] church that Don Carson misquoted and misunderstood in writing a book about understanding us. Stackhouse to Carson on the Emerging Church: Leave Me Out of It I confess, I loved this part: “Hmm. Apparently Brother Carson is not sufficiently conversant […]

  2. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    From the quotes you have shared here, I think someone would have either had to intentionally misrepresent your intentions or (which is more lkely the case for Carson) failed to do thorough enough research. Well articulated response. Thanks for sharing that with us.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  3. Timbo

    For the record, the quotation Carson analyzes was used by David Mills in his response to Carson’s original lectures on the Emerging Church. That is most likely why it appears in Carson’s book in the same form. Neither Mills nor Carson included the fuller context.

  4. Patrick Lowthian

    I hate to say it, because I have often found Carson’s writings helpful, but it appears to be sloppy and lazy research on his part. I think there are many scholars who write too much, and the result is that they don’t research as thoroughly as they ought. Quality, not quantity, is important.

  5. Mike Clawson

    Excellent response to a gross misrepresentation of your work by Dr. Carson. (Sadly it’s not the only thing that gets misrepresented by him in that book.)

    However, I’m disappointed that you’re not interested in hanging out with us emerging types. Personally, as an emerging church pastor, I’ve found several of your books quite helpful, including “Humble Apologetics” and “What Does It Mean to Be Saved?” If you ever wanted to come join the conversation (whether online or at one of our events) you’d be more than welcome.

  6. JD

    Man, I’m really tired of the misreading thing. I feel like it’s become an epidemic in Christian-academic circles. It’s so sad. Feels like people are more interested in making their point than they are in being fair. And it’s sad that it wouldn’t be nearly so tolerated in other academic circles (e.g. classics, in my case).

  7. Michel

    Hi John,

    Thanks for that good post.

    I have a question regarding the following quote from your original article, as reproduced here:

    “Since the Christian message is fundamentally an invitation extended to human beings—not just human brains—to encounter the person of Jesus Christ rather than to adopt a doctrinal system or ideology, it is only obvious then that establishing the credibility and plausibility of that message will depend upon more than intellectual argument. It will depend instead upon the Holy Spirit of God shining out through all the lamps of good words we can raise to the glory of our Father in heaven.”

    I’m sorry for being nit-picky. But is that “good words” or “good works”, near the end of that quote, which you provided earlier in your post? I presume this is a typo?

    Michel

  8. discokvn

    dear professor stackhouse…

    where to begin… let me start by asking have you spoken to carson about misquoting you? it would seem to me that a dialogue should begin between you and if necessary a retraction on his part…

    second, i studied under carson, and have never found him to be sloppy or lazy (#5)… heck, he corrected every breathing mark and accent on our 20+ page greek papers, not the mark of a sloppy or lazy person…

    discokvn

  9. John Stackhouse

    For the record, discokvn, I did approach Brother Carson privately about this matter. His reply indicated no interest in a retraction. Hence I have written this blog entry to set the record straight.

  10. Bennett

    “Carson is a huge person in the religious world.”

    Is that a fat joke?

    Someone had to say it.

  11. discokvn

    dear professor stackhouse…

    thank you, i think it’s important for us to know that…

  12. John Stackhouse

    Not just “defensive,” but “hyper-defensive”? And not just partially “hyper-defensive,” but “totally”? Wow. That’s like, just, whatever!

  13. Andrew Lunau Smith

    Now you’re talkin! Welcome to the “conversation” 🙂

  14. regeneratex

    Prof John said:
    Not just “defensive,” but “hyper-defensive”? And not just partially “hyper-defensive,” but “totally”? Wow. That’s like, just, whatever!

    TOTALLY HILARIOUS!! Well, like, ya know?

  15. elliot

    Dr. Stackhouse:

    I realize I’m coming VERY late to this conversation, but I thought I’d point out that in doing research for a paper, I’ve found this same quote taken from Carson’s book in an article by John Bolt in the November 2006 edition of the Calvin Theological Journal (“An Emerging Critique of the Postmodern, Evangelical Church”). Bolt commends Carson for challenging “this tendency to speak in either/or categorical disjunctions.”

  16. Julie

    “But maybe he doesn’t know that I’m a theologian. What he should know, however, is how to read a text in context.”

    Ha, isn’t this the guy that wrote Exegetical Fallacies? That’s the money shot!

  17. April French

    Dr. Stackhouse,
    Interesting to find this on your blog. The book in question was being sold at our church earlier this year for a twonie, and I swooped it up (the $ went toward feeding starving children in North Korea. . . a very worthy cause), so fewer people would have that book and its misrepresentational polemic fed to them.

    Blessings this holiday season!

  18. Jay

    I do really appreciate Carson for his work. He has helped me work through many issues and see Christ and his cross. I am sorry he didn’t retract his mis-quote, and remain curios as to why.
    However, I do appreciate you clearing this up.
    We are all serving the same Lord though right?
    Usually Carson aims at a “gospel centred” theology, and I wonder if he reads your’ “take it for granted” as a slight to “gospel centred-ness”.
    But then, I’m just a carpenter from Canada. I may be over my head.

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