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The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures

By D. A. Carson
May 2017 | Review by Paul Wells
  • Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing /Inter Varsity Press
  • ISBN: 978-1-78359-460-3
  • Pages: 1240
  • Price: 44.00
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Book Review

This collection of 37 hefty essays by leading scholars, edited by Donald Carson, is a window on the state of the authority of Scripture in the Anglo-Saxon evangelical world today.

Six contributions come from the UK, three from Australia, one from France, and the remaining 70 per cent from North America. The range of the contributions and their quality will make it the reference book on the subject for years to come. It will be a valuable tool for pastors and Bible students, even though the complexity of most of the contributions puts it beyond general readership.

Carson sets the scene with a wide-angled ‘Introduction’, giving a survey for what follows: sections on historical, biblical and theological, philosophical and epistemological, and comparative-religions themes. His conclusion answers common questions about the nature of Scripture, with flashbacks to the preceding chapters. This is highly useful, because anyone short of time can get an overview by reading the introduction and concluding FAQs. The breadth of Carson’s knowledge on the subject and his ability for synthesis is impressive.

Strange but true, I looked for a chapter presenting a biblical and theological definition of the authority of Scripture, and had to conclude that all the chapters are supposed to deal with it. However, I was compensated by the Introduction, where a definition is built up in a cumulative way.

Revelation (divine self-disclosure) was central to the patristic Fathers and Reformers, assuring the truthfulness of the inspired Word and grounding its authority (p.18), with the canon as a corollary of inspired special revelation.

Modernist views of biblical history undermine the Christian faith in a destined-to-fail attempt to make it acceptable. Carson fires from the hip: ‘What saves us is not a set of ideas that fire the imagination, and call us to share a similarly imagined world, but the extra-textual realities to which the text points … The ideas are about Jesus Christ, and he reconciles us to God … Prove that Jesus never lived, never died, and never rose from the dead, or declare that historical details are unimportant … and you have utterly destroyed Christianity’ (pp. 28-9).

Some omissions were surprising in a book this size. Although many of the contributions refer to historical criticism (pp. 4-9), an article about what it is and what it does to Scripture and church would have been pertinent. With Islam, it remains the big challenge and has undermined the church in Europe. With its various masks, it remains perennially alluring for young evangelical academics.

Another thorn in the side of evangelicalism is the present discussion about the status given to Ancient Near Eastern influences on the OT, which is touched on in the chapter on ‘Myth’ (pp. 549-553, 567-573) and elsewhere. But is the conclusion that the ‘difference is so great that it points to the Bible’s heavenly inspiration’ (p.576) satisfying, when people think that the Bible’s ethics are not superior?

Similarly, the issue of the autographs, referred to several times, merits more detailed, updated reflection, as do questions of dating, the increasingly vexed authority of Scripture in relation to the historical Adam (and evolution/genetics), pantheistic new-ageism and gender issues. These might be sideshows at the fair, but they are the subject of recurrent objections against biblical authority.

A coherent view of the authority of Scripture today has some ‘musts’. The articles by Peter Jensen on ‘God and the Bible’, Craig Blomberg on ‘Reflections of Jesus’ view of the Old Testament’, Henri Blocher on ‘God and the Scripture writers: the question of double authorship’, and Paul Helm on ‘The idea of inerrancy’ are worth what the book costs.

Finally, the indexes of ancient and modern names, subjects and biblical references are valuable tools. A random check of modern names gives the impression that the older stalwarts of the evangelical tradition (Carl Henry, E. J. Young, etc.) are slipping over the horizon (B. B. Warfield excepted), whereas recent contributors to academic debate occupy centre frame. Are we evangelicals also obsessed with the newest and the latest? As Blocher frankly remarks, ‘Conformist pressures are high in the academic microcosm’ (p.501).

Hats off to Carson. Let’s hope that the excellent stuff in this book is not shelf-bound 15 years down the line, it deserves a lot more than that.

Paul Wells

Jean Calvin Faculté,

Aix-en-Provence, France

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