Observing Evangelicalism: An Interview Between Mark Dever and Don Carson (Part 1)

In this interview, Don Carson discusses the historical and contemporary landscape of evangelicalism, examining its strengths and weaknesses. He delves into the importance of maintaining biblical fidelity, the challenges of cultural engagement, and the need for spiritual renewal within the movement. Carson emphasizes the significance of humility, prayer, and reliance on God’s grace in navigating the complexities of evangelicalism.

Matt Schmucker: I am Matt Schmucker, executive director of 9Marks. We believe the local church is the focal point of God’s plan for displaying his glory to the nations. Our vision is simple: churches that reflect the character of God. To that end, we pray 9Marks audio will benefit both you and your local church. Listen, learn, and join the conversation.

Mark Dever: Hello, this is Mark Dever. It’s June 13, 2008. I’m in Chicago, Illinois, at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with our guest today, Dr. Don Carson. Don, thank you so much for doing this interview.

Don Carson: It’s my privilege.

Mark: Why don’t you like interviews?

Don: That’s a good question. Partly because I’m very leery of guru culture. That’s part of it. Part of it is some people interview spectacularly well because they’re full of one-liners and snappy responses, whereas I am probably enough of an old-fashioned scholar that I want to keep putting in footnotes, and footnotes don’t make for good interviews.

Mark: Yeah, we use your Worship by the Book in our intern program. The guys always comment in their papers on your definition of worship in the introduction, which is about 10 lines long or 12 lines long.

Don: Yeah, but I probably get it right.

Mark: That’s true. Okay. How is it you’re able to read faster than a speeding bullet and still be able to retain most everything you read? Inquiring minds want to know.

Don: No, no, no, no, no. There are two assumptions there. The first is that I read faster than a speeding bullet and, second, that I retain it all. I tend …

Mark: Drop the all. That’s too easy. You retain most of it.

Don: I retain large concepts very well.

Mark: Okay. So like the skeleton of the argument.

Don: That’s correct. I do retain those sorts of things well, but I don’t have virtually text-perfect memory. I’ve met a few people who do, but I’m not one of them. Not by a long shot! I do have a very good indexing system on my computer. There is not much that I read that I don’t make a note of, and it goes into a retrieval system.

I used to say the weakest ink is stronger than the strongest memory. Now I say, provided you back up, the weakest zeroes and ones are stronger than the strongest memory. That’s part of it too. As for reading speed, what I try to do is differentiate my speed so that if I’m breaking into something new, a new subject or a really complicated argument or something, I read as slowly as everybody else, plod by plod.

But if I’m on my third or fourth or fifth commentary on a text and a lot of the arguments are really going over the same sort of thing, I force myself to skim just to find out what’s novel there. Even in a book like The Gagging of God, the first 30 or 40 books I read in preparation for that were pretty slow. By the time you get to your 300th, half an hour a shot is it, because I’m not trying to read every line.

Mark: So like David Wells’ new book The Courage to be Protestant. You’ve read David’s other books. You know what he is going to say. On the other hand, it’s pleasurable to read. Does that slow you down?

Don: Correct. Yeah. Well, when a writer is good and I’m enjoying him, then sometimes I slow down. But in some ways, I begin to feel guilty for wasting too much time that way too. That one I may read more slowly just because I like David, and he is a friend and so on, but then it’s more likely to be late evening reading for pleasure rather than something I’m doing because I need to know; I think I know where his argument is going.

Mark: Yeah, a summary of other books. You’ve been a professor of New Testament for how long now? Thirty years?

Don: Thirty years here. I taught New Testament at Northwest Baptist Theological College in Vancouver before that.

Mark: You’re in your 60s now.

Don: I am 61.

Mark: How do you think about retirement as a Christian? I mean, John Piper goes around saying Christians shouldn’t retire. Christians don’t retire. John is going to retire at some point. I mean, you have to at least shift what you’re doing. How are you thinking about that?

Don: Well, for one reason or another, I have had a fair bit to do with a number of senior saints as they got older, looking after them either in the family or because of other connections. Ken Kantzer was a bit of a mentor here, and Carl Henry lived two hours away. We used to go up and see him every four to six weeks.

What I’ve observed is, provided there’s not too much dementia or actual Alzheimer’s, what goes is the capacity to multi-task. But when that goes depends an awful lot on energy levels and so on. If you know that, if you’re honest with yourself and begin to shed some of the tasks you have been able to manage when you’re young enough to have the energy levels to multi-task, then the one or two things you have left you may be able to do as well as you’ve ever done them.

That was certainly so with Kantzer, for example. When he did give a lecture or a sermon on something or other, even very close to the end, he was spectacular, but he had shed so many things. I could mention quite a few of that order.

Dick Lucas. I don’t know how many people listening to this will know his name, but he is a spectacular example of that. He shed St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and he shed Proclamation Trust and the various things connected with this. All he does now is the odd sermon here or there. But the last time I heard him in his early 80s he was as powerful as I’ve ever heard him. What I pray for myself is enough discernment to know according to my energy levels when to start shedding things and in what order and so on.

Mark: I remember Geoffrey Nuttall sitting in his apartment in Birmingham. He was an extraordinary Puritan scholar, seventeenth century scholar, one of the brightest men I’ve ever met. He went home, I trust, to be with the Lord last year. He was sitting there correcting the DNB. You know, sitting there, very carefully.… I don’t know how Trinity does things. I don’t know how you’re thinking. Do you plan to continue to teach New Testament? Is that the thing you plan to keep doing professionally?

Don: It used to be that Trinity …

Mark: I don’t think you’re going to have an institution that wants you to retire unless, you know, something happens to your ability.

Don: Trinity is pretty flexible. Well, by law, they can’t just automatically fire you nowadays in any case. Trinity tries to be pretty flexible so that some stay on teaching half time, some a course a semester. It works out in a variety of different ways. As long as I have the kind of energy levels I have now, I don’t see the point in withdrawing a whole lot. What am I going to do? Make a whole lot of cabinets out of wood or something?

Mark: You could. I remember one time when I was taking you to pick up your car in Cambridge at the repair shop, and you were sort of like being apologetic that you hadn’t fixed it yourself. It’s not that you weren’t able; you just didn’t have time.

Don: Well …

Mark: I have so many stories on you, Don. You grew up in a pastor’s home in Canada.

Don: I did.

Mark: Did you ever think about being a pastor yourself?

Don: Virtually never.

Mark: Really?

Don: Virtually never.

Mark: But then you were a pastor for a while out in Canada in the West.

Don: Yes, I was. Yes, I planted three churches, and I was pastor of another. But when I was growing up, almost never. Partly, I suspect, it was because this was in the rough years in Quebec. I was a lonely teenager in many ways partly because I really did have then (and still have now) very considerable interests in other fields (chemistry).

Mark: What did you major in as an undergrad?

Don: Chemistry and virtually another full minor in mathematics.

Mark: Did you think of having a career in chemistry?

Don: Oh yes! I mean, I was all lined up. I had a full-ride scholarship at McGill. My intention was to go to Cornell to do a PhD in organic synthesis. My plans were pretty nicely laid out, thank you.

Mark: And?

Don: Well, the way the Lord called me to the ministry is a bit confusing. It wasn’t one flash in the pan. I worked for a while in research labs in Ottawa for the federal government of Canada in air pollution. They gave me a project that I …

Mark: This was in the late-60s?

Don: The mid-60s. I had a good budget. I was enjoying it. But as I got to know the other chaps in the lab (and they were all chaps), some really hated their work. They could hardly wait for retirement. Others idolized it. I didn’t fit in either camp. I enjoyed it. I had a blast, but meanwhile, another chap and I were starting a Sunday school up the valley in the hopes of starting another church.

It was just on the side, but in some ways, I was more interested in that than in the chemistry, even though I was enjoying the chemistry. A chorus kept going through my head at that time. It was something I learned in Sunday school when I was just a little gaffer.

By and by when I look on his face,

Beautiful face, thorn shadowed face.

By and by when I look on his face,

I’ll wish I had given him more.

Then at the end of that summer, I heard a man preach on Ezekiel 22. “I sought for a man to stand in the gap before my people.” I found that.… I burst into tears. I just couldn’t say no. I reoriented the program a bit, started picking up classical Greek and some psychology on the side and all this sort of thing.

Mark: Did you perceive then you were being called into pastoral ministry or into teaching ministry?

Don: Oh, pastoral ministry.

Mark: Okay.

Don: When I was at seminary, all my interests were in pastoral ministry. I had no intention of going on for a PhD. None!

Mark: Seminary where?

Don: Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto. It doesn’t exist now. Well, it’s merged.

Mark: It moved to Hamilton.

Don: No, no. Central merged with a school in London. They’re now in Cambridge, Ontario.

Mark: So then how did you get off from the pastoring (being set on that) to teaching?

Don: Well, eventually the Lord called me to a church in Vancouver. I took some summer courses on the side at Regent. That’s where I first met F.F. Bruce. At the same time, there was a small institution connected with our denomination (Northwest Baptist Theological College) that invited me to go and give some lectures now and then.

At the end of (I can’t remember) a couple of years, they lost somebody to retirement or death. I don’t even remember what happened. They asked me to go in and start teaching, and I could work on something on the side. I had no intention of doing that. On the other hand, I was still single. For the first time, I began to wonder if I should go for more training while I was still young and single. But it was not with the aim even then of teaching. It was just keeping the options open.

After a bit of a struggle, I applied to Manchester and was accepted to work with F.F. Bruce. Then another pastor in our group said, “Well, why don’t you go to Cambridge?” I said, “I probably couldn’t get in there.” He said, “Well, yeah. There’s Tyndale House.” I didn’t even know much about Tyndale House. I applied late. I mean, the cutoff was the end of March or end of April. I can’t remember. I wrote to C.F.D. Moule in June. Lo and behold, I got in. I went to Cambridge that fall.

Mark: Looking back since you got to know him, did you figure out why you got in?

Don: I don’t know for sure. It would all be guessing, but I did in any case. The first weekend I was in Cambridge, whom should I bump into but F.F. Bruce, who was down at Cambridge for something. I had just cabled him a couple of weeks earlier saying, “Sorry. I’m not coming.” But I didn’t say what I was doing.

He said, “Oh, what are you doing here?” I explained, somewhat mealymouthed and embarrassed, that I had chosen Cambridge instead. Instantly he replied, “Well, I can’t blame you for that. I came to Cambridge too!” Perfect graciousness. You know, no one-upmanship at all or rebuke. I spent the next three very happy years in Cambridge.

Mark: Okay, prepare yourself. I’m going to thank you for two things, so get yourself ready. I’ll be brief about it. On behalf of all the pastors, thank you for all the books you’ve written that have been so helpful. I mean, there is no one who I refer to more (their books) than yours, and that’s true probably of every pastor I know and respect. The Lord has hugely used that man who preached that Ezekiel 22 sermon.

Second, thank you for, in the middle of that, how you’ve always been devoted to the church. You know, you’ve had a relationship with Eden Baptist Church. You’ve had one for 35 years in Cambridge. That’s been a model for me, and I know others, of somebody who is trying to do respectable scholarship and, at the same time, you give yourself to parachurch ministries as well. You participate in them, create them. Yet there’s no doubt, anybody who knows you personally, that at the center of your life is your local church.

You have shown that in your own local church here in Libertyville as you’ve gone through trials. You’ve certainly shown that with your sort of other church home in England. You’ve been a uniquely good model in that, and I say that because pastors won’t know that from just reading your books. But I’d like them to know that may be part of the reason you figure out to write the useful books you do because you are so committed to the local church. Thank you for those things.

Don: You’re very kind. We all stand on the shoulders of others. Probably if I picked up anything from my parents, it was this commitment to the local church. It was just part of the heritage. You had to think local church. Even when I was at McGill, where I did chemistry, I was vice president one year of MCF (McGill Christian Fellowship), the InterVarsity in Canada.

The president was an Egyptian chap. We were good friends. I loved the brother dearly, but his instincts were invariably toward the parachurch, and my instincts even then were invariably toward the church. I can’t pat myself on the back. I inherited that. I can’t even tell you where it came from. Eventually, it was undergirded by a lot more biblical theology and so on. It’s the only institution that goes into eternity.

Mark: That’s a good heritage.

Don: It’s not that I thought it all up and chose so much as I received it from my own forbearers.

Mark: There are a million things we could talk about that I think could be of interest to pastors because of all the various things you’ve done and are involved in. I mean, you grew up in Canada, lived in the UK. Your wife is from the UK. You may be the most globetrotting person I know (at least outside of the State Department).

I think that must give you an unusual perspective on American evangelicalism. So just sort of an open question. Answer it however you’d like. What do you observe in the American evangelical scene as a half-outsider that a lot of American pastors (and there are British and South African and Australian pastors who listen to this) wouldn’t probably observe?

Don: It’s a very hard question to answer partly because there is such diversity in the American scene itself.

Mark: That’s true.

Don: So even within one denomination, let’s say the SBC, you’re all over the map, aren’t you (theologically and in terms of tolerance levels, in terms of theological orientation)? Some of you are in parts of the South where the challenge is preaching the gospel in a roughly Christianized culture, and other parts of you are in extraordinarily secular parts where the challenge is how to preach the gospel to people who have written Christianity off as not worth thinking about or talking about.

The perception of what’s going on in America so varies enormously in the minds of American pastors. At the risk of horrible generalization …

Mark: … which I invited you to, so you can blame me on the horrible generalization part.

Don: Well, at the risk of a horrible generalization, Christian leaders in Europe (because the countries are smaller, the geography is closer) are much more used to crossing borders. By and large, when Americans cross borders, they’re doing so for either a holiday or a brief missions trip or the like. They really have not by and large lived abroad, empathized abroad. They haven’t learned another language. Again, there are wonderful exceptions, but all those things make a huge difference.

It’s really hard to see the strengths and weaknesses of your own patch with some objectivity until you’ve really deeply empathized with another patch. There is a kind of almost inbred cultural narrowness. That sounds terribly condescending, but there is something of that more so here than in some countries where people are used to crossing borders.

On the other hand, amongst the strengths of the American scene (this is both a strength and a weakness), there is a kind of can-do mentality. One worries about the only bit of liturgy known is, “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever more shall be, world without end. Amen.” There are many places in the world where that is the case.

Sometimes it’s fossilized because the whole social system builds stability. There’s no entrepreneurial spirit. It builds bureaucratic heavy-handedness in many of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, for example. Church leaders are actually in many cases reflecting a kind of Communist-style of leadership from the top and, “You’re doing it this way because I said so.”

Well, there’s so little of that over here. There’s still so much entrepreneurial spirit. Of course, that can get away and make for a whole lot of Lone Rangers, yet there is something attractive about people seeing a problem and having a bit of a Calebite spirit and saying, “God, give me this mountain.” That’s one of the strengths here. Everybody comments on the degree of fragmentation in broad-stream evangelicalism in North America.

Mark: Is that really just a reflection of our size?

Don: It’s partly a reflection of size. I think, though, that there is a relatively new development in it (relatively new … the last three or four decades). There had been a broadly recognized center with a whole lot of diversity that is partly a reflection of size, but now it’s not so much a center with a lot of diversity it is as clumps. So there’s a kind of emerging clump, and there’s a charismatic clump, and there’s a Reformed clump, and there are two or three other clumps.

Those who try to claim to bring it all together are actually weakening so that something like the National Pastors’ Conference (which tries to bring in a huge diversity) runs 2,000, while T4G this year ran … what? Was it 5,500? It’s remarkable! The very center which was allegedly holding it all together is, in fact, emptying out. There are defined groups that make up the broad landscape.

Mark: You mentioned that generation, the 40s and 50s. Now some of them you wouldn’t have known. Did you know Billy Graham or Harold Ockenga?

Don: Personally, I met Graham only once or twice. The first time was in Cambridge, believe it or not. He was over there for something. I didn’t know him personally. Ockenga, I never met.

Mark: But you certainly knew Ken Kantzer well, as you mentioned, Carl Henry well.

Don: Yes, very well.

Mark: In that generation of evangelical leaders who we look back on in some ways wistfully, did they succeed at what they were attempting to do, or did they fail?

Don: Yes. That’s not meant to be a smart-mouthed response. In some ways, they succeeded really quite gloriously. I mean, Kenneth Kantzer had the potential for being one of the greatest Calvin scholars of his generation. He, as a relatively young man, was once in a debate with a Calvin scholar whose name you would know. I won’t mention it publicly.

They were discussing something or other, some esoteric point, and the other chap said, “But I suppose nobody has ever read everything Calvin has written.” Kenneth quietly responded, “I have” (in terms of what was available). He had spent years in Switzerland. He ransacked everything. He had huge potential along that line, but instead, he chose to work in theological education, and Trinity is his heritage.

That’s some sort of success in one sense. On the other hand, the challenges keep changing too. If by success you mean something that really endures for another generation or two or three, Carl Henry (with Graham money) did build Christianity Today, and it was pretty remarkable for a long time. Now it has the breadth of the old CT and more, but it doesn’t have anything like the Christmas of theological focus.

Mark: Was there something in their vision that was flawed?

Don: I think they gravitated toward parachurch organizations and the like in part because they were still trying to interact with the genuine, bona fide confessional Christians who filled many of the mainline denominations after the leadership had gone in another direction. One can understand why they did it, but on the long haul, I am not sure they had a doctrine of the church that was as stable, as front and center.

Carl himself was very loyal to his own local church, of course, as you yourself know, but on the other hand, in terms of strategizing for the future, that’s not the domain they thought of. They thought of bringing Christians together.

Mark: The only one of those I really knew (I met them all) was Carl Henry. Certainly in reading stuff and talking to him, there almost seemed to be a naÔve respect for the world’s approval. When I would hear Carl Henry talk about his main failure being that he wasn’t able to found a major Christian research university, or when he would refer to graduate schools that are respected, like Harvard, and what they were or were not reading and teaching, I kept thinking …

I had this conversation with him a little bit. I kept thinking, “There’s something in that vision, though, that’s off.” I wouldn’t expect there to be that respect. I mean, it can be okay if it comes, but it’s.… Do you know what I’m talking about?

Don: Oh, I do! I think that was probably more with Carl than with Kenneth Kantzer.

Mark: Okay.

Don: In some ways, I knew Kenneth Kantzer well (better than I knew Carl). My reading of him was that he wanted this work to be the best it could be, but he didn’t go through life really expecting a whole lot of plaudits from the outside. With Carl, in order to be sympathetic to him, it’s nevertheless important to remember how much had been lost.

He saw this as a strategy not so much for personal approval. Yeah. Not so much for personal approval, but after all, he was himself a deeply committed personal evangelist. Those who are just too snookered by academic plaudits rarely do personal evangelism, and he was deeply committed along those lines, as you know full well.

But at the same time I think he thought that in terms of infiltrating the whole society and promoting the credibility and believability of the gospel then these sorts of markers in a culture are helpful. Now whether you think that’s quite right or whether it picks up the biblical theme of, “Well, if you suffer with me, you’ll reign with me,” or, “If they despise me, well, of course, they’re going to despise you …”

I don’t think they picked up on those themes very much, partly because they came out of a culture that had been pretty heavily stamped by Judeo-Christian heritage and partly because they had lost so many institutions. So they thought of regaining them. But if you ask, “Do you think they got it quite right in terms of biblical priorities?” probably not. In another generation, people will be telling you what Don Carson got wrong.

Mark: Yeah. So our generation is probably a little bit more used to being in the wilderness.

Don: I have a friend in Britain who recently returned from Malawi. A Malawi church leader there told him, “Brother, the difference between you Christians in Britain and us here in Malawi is this: in both countries the gospel is despised, and you guys don’t realize it yet.”

There is some of that that is still going on in the West. We still expect (at least in many parts of the country) to have a certain kind of honored place. Now that’s becoming less and less the given as there are advances in secularizing forces; nevertheless, there are huge numbers of us who still live under that expectation.

Mark: Just a little sidebar. Those of you who are listening, if you’ve heard Carl Henry’s name a lot and you’ve never read anything by him, there’s a little series of lectures he did toward the end of his life called Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief. I think it’s still in print, and I think it’s the best and most accessible summary of his thought. So you might want to try to get ahold of a copy of that. It’s worth reading.

Don: I have to tell you another story of Carl. When I went up to see him in the last four or five years of his life and he was increasingly limited in what he could do and so on, he always … always … asked me where I had been recently in some trip here or there. Of course, for quite a number of years, he worked with World Vision and traveled absolutely everywhere. He would then regale me with stories of when he had been in the same place and what was going on.

Always he ended with questions about, “Where is the church there today? What’s going on?” He would add them to the prayer list, because he would come in and then talk with me about these things the next time I was there. He always was forward-looking. He wasn’t just looking backward. He could give the rootage, but he was still, in all the best senses of the term, a global Christian. He was a world Christian who was concerned for the promotion of the gospel everywhere.

Mark: Using your “globalness” just for one more question, how would evangelicalism in Britain be different than evangelicalism here in the US?

Don: Everything is shaded in Britain. Even when you say Britain, it’s different in England from Scotland and so on. Again, at the risk of generalizations, everything is shaded there by the dynamics of state church versus independent churches. That shapes all of the social dynamics (who is with whom and so on) in a way that has no parallel over here. That’s part of it.

Mark: Americans would be clueless.

Don: Oh yes, yes. Occasionally you’ll find a pastor from a strongly Christian part of the country going over there and actually finding Anglicans who are preaching the gospel and are somewhat aghast. I mean, they know it’s true in theory, and they may well have read some Packer and Stott, but they are just exceptions then, instead, to find they are, in many ways, holding the whole can in England with some others tacked on …

To have a church like the Church of England in England that is the center both of confessionalism and the center of all heresy is mind-blowing for people who were brought in a kind of independent, Free Church-type tradition. In terms of global statistics, they are much farther down the road to an anti-church mentality, secularization. Proportionally, the voice of Islam is much, much stronger in the UK than here, partly because their immigration patterns are so very different and partly it’s the residue of empire.

Most of our immigrants come either from East Asia or from the Hispanic countries. The number of actual Muslims coming in is relatively small, whereas it’s still very large over there. That begins to affect the dynamics. One of the most striking differences is the relative paucity of first-class theological colleges, seminaries (to use our term).

There are two or three that are really good and two or three more that are acceptable. One of the hardest questions to answer over there from a young man who really has been called is, “Where should I train for the ministry?” There are some things to say, but there’s nothing like the choice and possibility that we have in this country, for which to give thanks.

Mark: Just looking around the world then, are there any other striking observations? I mean, the one thing you haven’t mentioned that I would think you might mention is just the wealth of the American church and how that affects, enables, distorts.

Don: All of the above.

Mark: Yeah.

Don: To me, more important than the money is what we have available in print, in literature, in resources. There is no language group in the world to compare with English, not even German and French, let alone Chinese or Swahili or Kikuyu or something. Of course, “To whom much is given, from them also shall much be required.”

Of course, we produce a tremendous amount of drivel, but when you think of the heritage of the Puritan literature, or when you think of the heritage of all the translated Reformation literature, the heritage of commentaries we have today (good, bad, and indifferent), amongst them are some really excellent ones on absolutely every book of the Bible and theologies of various kinds.

We just take that sort of thing for granted, and yet there are countless millions and millions and millions of Christians around the world who cannot read anything in their own language that’s any good. This is really huge, and I become more and more interested in questions of literature translation, what needs to be written in their own country, educating them for producing materials for pastors, and so on. These are huge challenges.

Mark: Tell our listeners briefly what the CICCU is, and why you have a special affection for them.

Don: CICCU stands for Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. It’s Inter-Collegiate because the four oldest universities in England were (and are) made up of separate colleges. These colleges come together to constitute a university. The actual structure varies a bit from university to university. That’s Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, London.

All of the more recent universities in England are often referred to as “red brick universities,” but those old ones were collegiate-based. What ultimately became worldwide InterVarsity and then also IFES (the international parallel to InterVarsity) was actually started at Cambridge in what was the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate (that is, among the colleges of the university) Christian Union.

At the time, in the late 1800s, they were fighting the Student Christian Movement in some ways (or what became the Student Christian movement; it had an earlier name) that began as an evangelical body that drifted farther and farther left, and the first point of really major drift was the atonement.

They balked at that and started what became, in fact, worldwide InterVarsity. CICCU itself (the Cambridge University branch) has had its ups and downs over the years, but when I was there doing my own doctrinal work in the early 70s it was very strong, and it drew together about 700 students every Saturday night for Bible exposition that would go for pretty close to a solid hour after half an hour of singing and a couple of book reviews and so on.

That was apart from all of the individual Bible studies in the individual colleges all during the week. Two or three of the colleges actually had 10 percent of its students belonging to CICCU. It was by far the biggest undergraduate organization on the entire university campus.

Today it’s not as strong as that for a variety of reasons, and today some of the chapters of UCCF (of Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, the British equivalent of InterVarsity) are actually stronger in other campuses. Nevertheless, that’s part of the heritage. I really enjoyed it, participated constantly with them, was involved in university mission with them, and so forth.

Mark: One of the strange things we have in common is thinking we were close to a prominent minister whose ministry suddenly and tragically imploded. The only question really about this that I want to ask you is what did you learn from that that would be a good lesson to share with others?

Don: Two or three things. Be very careful about holding anybody up too high. This chap was so gifted on so many fronts and was still rising in reputation. He was seen increasingly worldwide as the next John Stott and so forth. He was an extraordinarily gifted man. Partly because of that, I think some of us who were closest to him did not confront him as closely as we probably would’ve confronted just about anybody else. That’s part of it.

He was temperamentally a loner, and you have to allow for differences in temperament. You really do, the kinds of differences we were joking about earlier between you and John Piper in terms of style … how extroverted you are or are not, and how you go about your study and all of that.

Yet there is a kind of independence that is singularly unhealthy. There needs to be some sort of accountability of ministers with ministers of integrity that shares things, that weeps, and that confesses, that prays for others and really eschews any sort of Lone Ranger vision of the ministry.

In retrospect, I don’t think I, at least, paid enough attention to what was developing in his own life in that regard. The damage that can be done by a trajectory of sin, the damage that was done in this case to his family and beyond, was pretty spectacular. It made me start praying, “Help me to finish well.” You can destroy things all the way to the end. God have mercy on us.

Mark: There are two things I would tell guys when they would ask me in the years right after that. First, we have an obligation ourselves to be open about what’s going on with our lives, because there’s no amount …

One brother we’ve already mentioned in this interview bemoaned with me that he had just been with him recently, and he realized he hadn’t asked him enough questions about his life, to which my response was, “I had breakfast with him every Tuesday. I asked him questions about his life all the time.” If you want to hide something, you’re going to hide it. We as pastors have to beware of hiding sin. We need to be in close relationships with others where we answer questions honestly and voluntarily come forth with information.

The other thing is to never think that because your ministry is apparently successful that reflects your relationship with the Lord. There are many holy ministers who have not been used in any apparently mighty way, and there are those who have been used mightily by God whose own work we will know on the last day how God will judge it in regard to themselves. You know, God used the burning bush. God used Balaam’s donkey. The fact that God uses something speaks to God’s greatness.

Don: That’s right. It does not necessarily speak to the moral perfections of the agent used.

Mark: Sometimes in our pious language, we make it seem like the more holy we are, the more powerfully we’ll be used. While there’s some truth to that.… You know, you think of Pelagius, who was known as a very pious man but whose theology could not have been more prideful.

Don: There is no direct correlation between piety, godliness, on the one hand, and fruitfulness on the other. There is some correlation in the grace of God sometimes, but you cannot build anything on that. Some of the godliest Christians I know live and serve in corners of the world where there is almost no fruit and there is a great deal of suffering. When the saints go marching in, they’ll be somewhere near the head of the pack, and people like me won’t be anywhere near.

Mark: Do you have any word of celebration or caution for our Southern Baptist listeners? (He pauses thoughtfully.)

Don: Again, I’m not sure I know enough about the SBC … The SBC is so huge.

Mark: That will make it more fun for us, though. Your ignorance will only amuse us, so please, go ahead, brother.

Don: The SBC is so diverse now that it is repeatedly on the edge of blowing itself up. I suppose, if I had to emphasize anything I would say, “Learn again to go back to the Bible, to expound the Bible as the whole counsel of God. Check things by the Bible again and again and again and again.” Now I know there are some really excellent Bible teachers amongst SBC pastors. I could name some of them! But I do get the impression that there is still a shockingly high number of people who don’t handle the Bible well, and I’d want to challenge the socks off that one.

Those who are in the Reformed camp must continue to work hard to walk with humility so that there is no spirit of condescension or one-upmanship even while trying to reform things in the light of God’s Word all the time. Use biblical categories not historic dogmatic categories, because they so often have overtones in the public ear that you don’t mean to convey.

For some Southern Baptists of my acquaintance, Calvinist basically means “not interested in evangelism.” Historically, that’s nonsense of the very first water, but as long as a lot of people understand that to be the case, then in those circles I would never, ever call myself a Calvinist, just as in New York City I would never call myself an evangelical, because there evangelical means roughly “Christianized jihad.”

The overtones connected with a term may not be the same overtones you intend. It becomes more and more and more important, I think, to use biblical categories, theological categories, where we have a common text and try to reform things by the Word. I guess I would push things along that line.

Mark: I was sitting at a dinner in New York a couple of years ago with two brothers whose books I’ve profited from over the years. They both were lamenting the state of preaching in the evangelical world today. I was sitting there thinking, “Yeah, I don’t entirely agree with your grim assessment” and blaming it partly on where they’re each located in their churches and ministries. What about you? What do you find is the state of evangelical preaching these days?

Don: It’s like just about everything else in broad-stream evangelicalism. It’s polarizing. There is a rising number of young, eager preachers who are being challenged and helped and stimulated by the diversity of Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, all of whom are …

Mark: John MacArthur.

Don: That’s right! There are so many. Lee Duncan and Mark Dever. They’re really quite different in style, but they’re serious with respect to handling the Bible. They clearly believe it. They clearly are trying to understand it. They’re trying to proclaim it and apply it faithfully and well. These people are holding up a certain kind of standard that are drawing young men to them at a ferocious clip.

In one sense, this is wonderfully encouraging! The things are polarizing again into clumps, but at the same time, there is an awful lot of an older line kind of preaching that is clichÈ driven or cutesy or eviscerated of the Bible that is profoundly discouraging. There’s not much in-between. It seems to me again that it’s the center that’s being lost, and in the polarizing that’s coming, there are rising movements for which to thank God, and there are other things that still are drawing significant numbers but have much more to do with a sociologically driven agenda.

Mark: I heard this one sermon not long ago in which about every third sentence was a motto, some motto-like statement. It’s like writing something in all caps. It just loses its emphasis, you know, when people do that. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people object to having expositional preaching as the main teaching diet of a congregation. They object, saying, “We don’t see that in the New Testament.” Should expositional preaching be the main way pastors feed their congregation God’s Word?

Don: Well, we’d better agree first of all on what expositional preaching is. Expositional preaching, in my view, has many different forms, but at its heart, whatever texts are being adopted, whether a half verse or a chapter or even a half book, the aim is to unpack it faithfully, to explain what’s there and show how it fits in to the stream of what the Bible is all about (the redemptive historical stream that brings you to Christ at the end of the day and the gospel and applies it to life so it wounds and heals and sings and stings today).

Now if that is what expository preaching is, then you could say Acts 2 is expository. There are two or three crucial texts that are picked up and expounded at some length, including one of the psalms and Joel 2 and so forth. This is true of quite a number of biblical passages where there really is expository preaching that shows then how those texts really fit into the Bible’s storyline with a certain kind of typology and cohesiveness understood that brings you finally to Christ.

There are fewer examples of the sort of expository preaching that focuses on half a verse and then picks up each word and tries to build a whole theology out of each word. There is some of that too!

Mark: Paul in Galatians. You know, seed.

Don: That’s right.

Mark: Yeah.

Don: There is even some of that there. But even there, the seed language is expounded within the framework of figuring out who Abraham is and where he fits in to the sequence of law and gospel and so forth. The law cannot annul the promise, and promise comes first. In fact, in Paul what there really is very strongly (as in the epistle of the Hebrews) is a huge emphasis on making sure you unpack Abraham, for example, in his appropriate place in redemptive history.

That is, in a great deal of Jewish teaching and preaching at the time, there was a kind of atemporal reading of Abraham, for example, that was tied to a certain elevation of the law. One of the things Paul does that’s hermeneutically different is he insists on reading the relationship between Abraham and the law with an eye cocked for the sequence of things in the Bible’s account. That changes almost everything.

I think there is far, far more expository preaching in the Bible than people realize, but I would go further. We’re also farther removed from the language, the culture, the heritage, and so on today than unbelievers were in Jewish synagogues in the first century, so that in Acts 13 in Pisidian Antioch, Paul doesn’t have to lay out a whole lot about creation and fall and all of that. That’s part of the given, so he tends to focus on a handful of Old Testament passages that demonstrate the Messiah really did have to suffer and explains who Jesus is within that kind of context.

By contrast, when you come to Acts 17 and the sermon to the intellectuals of Athens, then although he does not actually quote unambiguously at a whole clip any biblical text, what he is really doing there is laying out the Bible’s entire storyline: the oneness of God; creation; providence; God’s aseity, even; eventually, the nature of sin; that he is both sovereign and personal; and so on, until eventually he comes to Jesus and the final judgment, and you know where he would go if he hadn’t been cut off.

The more biblically illiterate any culture is, the more it’s imperative to lay out something of the Bible’s storyline into which alone the preaching of Jesus makes sense. If people are really biblically illiterate and all they’re talking about with Jesus is, “Come to Jesus, and he’ll give you abundant life,” that’s just a cipher. What does abundant life mean? More sex? Better job? Promotion at work? More money?

It becomes more important to lay out the Bible’s framework so you know what is meant by the categories that are being used when you do preach Christ. That, in a sense, is also expository preaching if you’re faithfully expounding the entire framework of the Bible.

Mark: The kind of consecutive going through a book of the Bible that we know today largely is expositional preaching in the ministry of a Lloyd-Jones or a Boyce. We know it’s done in church history certainly. Christensen did it. Augustine did it.

Don: Yes.

Mark: Should we, as pastors, feel an obligation to normally preach that way in our congregations?

Don: With emphasis on normally, yes. Walt Kaiser used to say, if once or twice a year you preach topically, that’s fine so long as you immediately repent.

Mark: What in Scripture lets us know we should preach that way if that’s not the model we see?

Don: Well, there is more of it actually in Scripture than people realize. For example, taking chunks in sequence and unpacking them in Hebrews. You think of the careful way in which Genesis 14 is unpacked and Psalm 110 is unpacked and the before and after of Genesis 14. It’s not just Genesis 14, but there’s this sequence there, and so forth. What I would say is there is a form of preaching through whole books today that I become nervous about.

Mark: More like a commentary?

Don: More like a commentary or that keeps its finger carefully on the text but does not work at the …

Mark: … application.

Don: Not just the application. The intratextual sinews that tie what you’re doing to the Bible’s whole storyline and bring you to Christ. You can go through large chunks of the Psalms or large chunks of Jeremiah and never mention Jesus or the gospel week after week after week after week. That’s horrible! That’s horrible!

Whereas faithful expository preaching, it seems to me, not only begins with the text at hand and tries to say what’s there but puts it in the framework of the book as a whole and the corpus as a whole, the covenant as a whole, and shows somewhere along the line how through innercanonical connections that are genuinely already there in the text finally brings you to Christ.

If you’re dealing with some passage on the temple or something in the Old Testament, somewhere along the line, you have to show how the temple ultimately arrives at Jesus (the ultimate temple of God), and why the temple is the great meeting place between God and sinful human beings, and so forth, or else ultimately you may be faithfully expounding some narrow little bit of text but you’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

Mark: If somebody is listening to this who says, “Yeah, I agree with all of that, and that’s why I do more systematic or topical teaching than expositional teaching,” you would want to say, “Yeah, we have a basic stewardship of God’s Word. We need to teach God’s people God’s Word. We have written copies available. We are able to do this. People did it even under much more difficult circumstances, so with the concern we have for Scripture in Scripture itself (Psalm 119), the glories of it, we should understand our role as teaching it fundamentally. If the main diet you’re giving is topical, that’s simply going to be too narrow and subjective a filter on the riches of God’s Word.”

Don: One of the most important functions of good preaching is teaching people in a literate society how to read their Bibles. Topical preaching almost never does that. It may impress people with the brilliance and integrative abilities of the preacher, but ultimately if you get a steady diet of the best kind of expository preaching through book after book after book, you end up with a church that knows how to read the Bible and with Christians who, in very large measure, feed themselves on God’s most Holy Word. There’s so much in the Bible that talks about that sort of thing.

Mark: Maybe part of it is so many pastors today (young and old), evangelical pastors, view the church, the assembly, as the fundamental point of evangelism so they’re thinking it’s what would be acceptable to the non-Christians or useful for non-Christians.

Don: Probably. Probably, but I would still want to argue the best kind of evangelism takes place in a context where there is teaching for Christians, because the gospel rightly conceived addresses the Christian and builds maturity every bit as much as it calls unregenerate people to repentance and faith. Ideally, I want to see those things put together.

Mark: What do you like and dislike about the work of John Calvin?

Don: What I like about it is that there is this glorious mixture of exegetical acuteness reflected in the commentaries and synthesis that holds so much of it together. That’s really wonderful. Occasionally, you find good systematicians at a sort of large synthetic level like Saint Augustine, in that respect, who, nevertheless, don’t display all that much exegetical skill the way John Chrysostom displays exegetical skill. But John Calvin put it together in really wonderful ways. For our tastes today, some of his polarizations and his intolerances hit against our sensibilities.

Mark: Do you mean like his anti-Roman Catholicism?

Don: Yes, but …

Mark: Statements about women?

Don: Statements about women. Statements about some Anabaptists. The tolerance levels have changed a bit, and I’m not sure he got his own reading of things in his own time exactly right, but, you know, that’s one of the things historical perspective adds to you.

Mark: Yeah, yeah.

Don: Obviously, I’m not a paedo-baptist, so I don’t quite agree with all of his theological points on some matters, but there is a spectacular doxological element in everything he does that is very healthy too. It’s not just the combination of care with the text and synthesis, commentaries and institutes, there is in all of it a transparent God-centeredness, glory-of-God hunger, a really praising element that is nourishing to the soul.

Mark: What do you like and dislike about the works of the Puritans?

Don: What I dislike is the endless wordiness. You talked about reading fast. I’ve learned to read them fast. I know you’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to stop and think about it all slowly.

Mark: Also, what about your definition of worship that we began with?

Don: Oh, yes. I know, but when you come to 16 uses at the end of the sermon …

Mark: It’s called meditation, brother.

Don: Well, I love meditation, but I still want to crank up the speed of meditation just a wee bit. I’m sure it’s partly a function of a different age and so forth. I want to take time to reflect meditatively on some things, but I still want to say there is a heavy-handedness in the meditation that I can take in small doses but I benefit from if I can read quickly and take away the 16 subpoints with me so I can think about them in the car rather than pause on each one for half an hour.

Mark: All right. Are you telling the guys listening to this, “Don’t read the Puritans”?

Don: No, no, I’m certainly not saying that. I’m saying there are some Puritan treatises that are worth reading slowly, thoughtfully.

Mark: Like Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed.

Don: Yes, and I can remember in its own time reading Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted. That had a huge impact on me at the time. And Henry Scougal’s work. I mean, there are a lot of things in there that I really do like. Nobody can read John Owen too fast. You just can’t do it! He is too dense, but he is still worth picking through, and sometimes not in works that are the best known.

I think his commentary on Hebrews (all, whatever it is, six or eight volumes of it) is still worth picking through, although you have to do it pretty fast because a lot of the best of it has been picked over. Nevertheless, it is still worth reading. Yet at the same time, I worry sometimes about guys who are first exposed to the Puritans and then remain locked somehow in the seventeenth century.

One of the things I like about you (if I’m allowed to say so) is you’ve devoted a significant chunk of your academic life to the Puritans, and you obviously know that literature, Sibbes in particular, and so on, yet you don’t sound dusty. You’re still interested in reading contemporary stuff too.

Mark: I read modern Puritans, like David Wells and Don Carson.

Don: Yes, well.

Mark: What do you like and dislike about the works of John Gill?

Don: The massive structure is wonderful, the theological integration, but he drifts over pretty close to a hyper-Calvinism that makes me nervous. There is a form of Reformed thought that is so focusing on the structure of theology that you somehow forget there are lost men and women out there. That’s an overstate. It’s not fair to him, but nevertheless, he is not Alleine. There are some things to learn from that wing of things.

Mark: The Puritans certainly knew historical faith has to precede regeneration.

Don: Right.

Mark: Does saving faith precede regeneration?

Don: Everything depends on what you mean by saving faith.

Mark: Feel free to define away, Don.

Don: Yes. I want to say that in the experience sequence of things, you may not know it that way. You cannot see so as self-consciously intelligently to believe apart from the work of God in the heart. Whether that is called regeneration depends a wee bit on the heritage from which one comes.

Some people see regeneration as a narrower category that follows saving faith, but that you don’t get the saving faith without the work of God on the heart, in which case they’re still preserving the best of Reformed thought, but they’re insisting the category regeneration does not encompass the whole of the experience but something that follows, whereas there are others who argue for the use of the term regeneration to include the secret work of God that illumines us and enables us to see.

In that sense, regeneration must precede the gift of intelligent coherent faith. Partly it’s a question, I think, of terminology, and not all Reformed writers are using the categories in exactly the same way. So it becomes important to start working through biblical text after biblical text and say, “What do you mean here?” and, “What do you mean here?” and, “What do you mean here?”

Let me say this. More generally, I think it is very important to distinguish between how terms and categories are used in the discipline of systematic theology and how they’re sometimes used in biblical texts. They do not always line up one-to-one. Sanctification, reconciliation, even regeneration … all of these terms often have a narrower definition in the category of systematic theology than they do in biblical texts.

Mark: Didn’t you write a really good article on this in JETS? Am I remembering this?

Don: I don’t know about that.

Mark: Maybe not JETS, but didn’t you write an article on this?

Don: I’ve written several times about the need to distinguish between the domain of discourse of systematics and the domain of discourse of …

Mark: But particularly on this area of salvation. I’m thinking you did. Maybe I’m misremembering. Oh well. What do you like and dislike about the writings of B.B. Warfield?

Don: It’s mostly like. His style of writing today is a bit heavy, so you can’t just recommend him to anybody. But if people are able and willing to read, there is again this quite remarkable combination of exegetical precision in the categories and exegetical structures of the time and theological synthesis. I think he gets an awful lot of bad rap whereas, in fact, he is really quite wonderful. Even if you disagree with him, you have to be very careful why you’re disagreeing with him. He really does know his material.

There is a doctoral dissertation that’s just been finished here at Trinity by a chap called David Smith where he takes to the cleaners those who have argued that Warfield heads toward a precisionistic understanding of dictation or infallibility, inerrancy, and so on. He just shows them it just isn’t the case. I hope the work will get published. It was just defended this spring.

John Woodbridge, one of our church history chaps, says this is perhaps one of the best dissertations ever done at Trinity. In fact, so strong is this dissertation in its care with the material that ultimately he wonders how people who have taken the other line have actually gotten to their conclusion. He wonders if they’ve actually read that much of Warfield.

Mark: Secondary sources.

Don: Secondary sources! It becomes part of this sort of given and the assumption. But if you actually read Warfield carefully and respectfully and closely, he is not guilty of almost anything he is charged with. Meanwhile, he is edifying. You and I were talking before this taping of his book on perfectionism. It’s still the best treatment of that subject that’s ever been done. His material on Christology is still worth reading. His material on Scripture is still worth reading.

That’s quite apart from the many little essays in the Princeton Review that have never actually gotten published. A friend of mind has been going through some of these old review things and sends me photocopies of things that aren’t available anywhere else in PDF files. I file them away and carefully read them when I need them and so forth. He was, in my view, a very great man.

Mark: Roger Nicole, when I studying with him at Gordon-Conwell, would always assign a certain amount of extra pages of reading for each theology class. He would give you double credit per page for reading anything by B.B. Warfield and quadruple credit per page for reading anything by John Owen. I think that was not only a statement of the value of it but also of the difficulty of reading it.

Don: Yes, yes. That’s right. You can’t recommend Warfield to everybody, just because it’s not easy reading, but it is rare that he puts a foot wrong actually.

Mark: What do you like and dislike about the work of Peter O’Brien?

Don: Well, Peter is a friend, so I’m biased along those lines. Peter, for those who don’t know him, is an Anglican out of the Sydney stable. He has taught at Moore College for years but served as a missionary in India for a long time before that.

He is exegetically very, very careful and operates within a framework of broad confessionalism that is strong and unflinching but yet is not trying to domesticate the text by an agenda. He listens very well to the text. His commentary on Philippians, in my view, is one of the best ones out there. He is about to hand in actually later this month Hebrews for the Pillar series.

Mark: I was doing the CMS series preaching out there on Hebrews, and he was there. I’m rarely intimidated by somebody being there, but Peter O’Brien working on Hebrews while I’m preaching through Hebrews.… He was so kind.

Don: Oh, he is very gracious.

Mark: Every day, he would talk with me about the sermon and say all these kind things. I would keep pressing him, and then he would improve me in various ways in my understanding of the text very kindly.

Don: There’s not a hint anywhere of arrogance or condescension. In his demeanor, he is one of the meekest chaps at the front rank of biblical scholarship that I have ever met. He hopes to write a further book perhaps for the NSBT series on the theology of Hebrews.

I’ve urged him to cut out some of the material in his front material for his commentary and reserve it for a separate volume. It will keep the commentary a little shorter and have a separate volume just on the theology of Hebrews. It’s not that there’s not theology there. It’s right through the whole commentary, but it’s not all pulled together.

Mark: Yeah, yeah. When is this Hebrews commentary supposed to come out?

Don: Well, if he does get it in to me by the end of this month, about a year. I mean, it takes about that time to go through the press.

Mark: N.T. Wright. What do you like and dislike about his work?

Don: Tom is an old friend. He was at Oxford when I was at Cambridge (exactly the same years). We started meeting up at Tyndale House in the summer. He is an astonishingly vivid writer. Compared with Peter, for example, he is far more vivid. He can’t be boring either in his speech or in his writing. He captures you, whether you agree with him or not.

On some issues, he has been stellar. Oh, 20 years or so ago when I was doing university missions then, I often gave away his little book Who Was Jesus? in which he took on some of the farthest out liberals of the day.

Mark: He was defending the historicity.

Don: Yeah, at his best, he is very good at it. His massive 800-page volume on the resurrection of Christ.… There are bits and pieces I disagree with, but it is still nevertheless the best book on the resurrection of Christ that’s been written in decades and decades and decades. It’s a very important piece. He reminds me, in my view, of the nursery rhyme by all British people were brought up with:

There was a little girl,

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid.

That’s Tom. He is never just so-so. Some of the stuff he has done, in my view, is absolutely stellar. Then I fear, in my judgment, he gets things wrong and drives them to a conclusion before he has been challenged. Ultimately, he is challenged, and then what he tends to do is take on board the criticism and concede it somewhere in his next book without actually changing the structure of the argument, so that his more recent material, for example, on justification is, in my view, less unbalanced than his material of 15 years ago.

If you say, “Yes, but where do you have a place for penal substitution?” “Well, I’ve said that too,” he says and points to the place where he does concede it. The result is, nevertheless, when it’s conceded, the things that are at best backgrounded in the text become his foreground. The things that are at most backgrounded are so important to him that they’ve actually distorted the whole text. The things that are foregrounded he has left in as concession. They’re backgrounded in his material.

I like Tom personally. I like the fact that he is still preaching to outsiders but, in my view, his overarching scope of what the gospel is has so minimized the wrath of God and the fact that sin is first an offense against him, it’s become an offense against other people or against the world, against the global structure of creation, and so on, that ultimately his understanding of the cross gets skewed too. At the end of the day, we still talk and treat each other, I think, with respect, but we disagree and say so often in our respective writings.

Mark: Just, again, thinking about the past. I read stuff like his The Climax of the Covenant when it came out, but I think the average pastor isn’t going to read a lot of Tom’s stuff. I think the series of commentaries (New Testament for Everyone) he has done might have a much more long-lasting popular impact. This isn’t Barclay’s. They look like they’re aimed to sort of replace Barclay. Have you looked at those much?

Don: I’ve skimmed them here and there. If a pastor brings a strong confessional stance to his work, those things aren’t going to do much damage and they might give him some one-liners and useful insights and so forth. If that’s the only set of commentaries they read, well, it’s too thin for serious expositors, in any case, but just as people could be led astray by A.M. Hunter and William Barclay by their thin commentaries, so if Tom’s commentaries are the only ones being read, yeah, I think he could do some damage, although even there, there’s a bit of a difference.

Somebody used to say of William Barclay that he had a magnificent superstructure after destroying the foundations. That’s not quite the same thing with Tom. It’s just the opposite. He has a great foundation on many, many, many fronts, but the superstructure eventually goes skewed. It’s just about the opposite.

Mark: I remember reading on Mark 10 in that series, and when you get to Mark 10:45, I think he deals with forgiveness of sins in a parentheses, and he spends the time, as I remember, on sort of social, horizontal, and political implications as he sees them.

Don: Correct. Correct. Correct.

Mark: To me, it was maddening.

Don: Well, on that passage, I heard him at a conference in Edinburgh we were both speaking at a couple of years ago. Almost as an aside, he said something like, “Of course, this passage really isn’t about the atonement at all. It’s about politics and how you govern in a Christian way.” Bang! Just like that. In the Q&A afterward, somebody (it wasn’t me) picked him up as an indefensible bit of antithesis. “Not this, but this …”

Under the discussion, somebody said, “Wouldn’t it be better to say the atonement becomes rather the ground for political implications about how you govern rather than saying it’s not this but this?” He conceded the point. You push him exegetically, and he is a bright enough mind that he can concede it, but it doesn’t actually change the next book. In some ways, in my view.… He is not going to appreciate my saying this.

Mark: I don’t think he listens to the 9Marks interview, Don.

Don: Probably not, but somebody may report it to him. I think he is actually a stronger systematician (stronger in terms of the focus of the discipline, not that I agree with it all) than he is an exegete. I don’t think he is as careful an exegete as he thinks he is. I come to his commentary on Romans 4, for example, and there’s a lot of good material …

Mark: The New Interpreter’s Bible.

Don: … in the New Interpreter’s Bible. But he actually doesn’t wrestle with it. He actually skips over the fact that God is justifying the ungodly and what that is saying about the text view of Abraham.

Mark: Which was the Reformation. I mean, that was the Reformation right there.

Don: Of course! Right there! His whole reading of what Abraham is doing in the previous material at the end of the previous chapter on the atonement and this work of Christ on the cross from Romans 3:21 on is all tied in to the fact that he misses something that is so foundational. He actually skips over it. I think functionally, he is actually more of a systematician than he is a detailed, careful exegete.

Mark: Brother, we’re out of time. Thank you for the Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. It is a good, good read. I encourage pastors to read it. I think it will be encouraging to them. Thank you for Christ and Culture Revisited. I mean, that’s a fine piece of work and really helpful in getting our minds around a very complicated topic.

Don: Thank you!

Matt: To learn more about 9Marks, visit our website (www.9marks.org). There you’ll find articles, a blog called “Church Matters,” previews, tutorials, audio resources, and information about upcoming 9Marks events. When you visit the website, be sure to sign up for our free 9Marks e-journal.


Is there enough evidence for us to believe the Gospels?

In an age of faith deconstruction and skepticism about the Bible’s authority, it’s common to hear claims that the Gospels are unreliable propaganda. And if the Gospels are shown to be historically unreliable, the whole foundation of Christianity begins to crumble.
But the Gospels are historically reliable. And the evidence for this is vast.
To learn about the evidence for the historical reliability of the four Gospels, click below to access a FREE eBook of Can We Trust the Gospels? written by New Testament scholar Peter J. Williams.