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.