Dr. D.A. Carson on 12 Principles of Biblical Interpretation


 by D. A. Carson

Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over ―interpretation, not just over ―interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics than in the interpretation of the Bible—the very Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. On the other hand, rather ironically there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they themselves offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don‘t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don‘t. For the fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations; there are faithful interpretations and there are unfaithful interpretations. But there is no escape from interpretation.

This is not the place to lay out foundational principles, or to wrestle with the ―new hermeneutic (now becoming long in the tooth) and with ―radical hermeneutics and ―postmodern hermeneutics. [For more information and bibliography on these topics, and especially their relation to postmodernism and how to respond to it, see my book The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, esp. chaps. 2 and 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996 – in this article will be referred to as GOG).] I shall focus instead on one ―simple problem, one with which every serious Bible reader is occasionally confronted. The issue is this: What parts of the Bible are binding mandates for us, and what parts are not?

Consider some examples. “Greet one another with a holy kiss: the French do it, Arab believers do it, but by and large we do not. Are we therefore unbiblical? Jesus tells his disciples that they should wash one another‘s feet (John 13:14), yet most of us have never done so. Why do we “disobey” that plain injunction, yet obey his injunction regarding the Lord‘s Table (“This do, in remembrance of me)? If we find reasons to be flexible about the “holy kiss (GOG, 19), how flexible may we be in other domains? May we replace the bread and wine at the Lord‘s Supper with yams and goat‘s milk if we are in a village church in Papua New Guinea? If not, why not? And what about the broader questions circulating among theonomists regarding the continuing legal force of law set down under the Mosaic covenant? Should we as a nation, on the assumption that God graciously grants widespread revival and reformation, pass laws to execute adulterers by stoning? If not, why not? Is the injunction for women to keep silent in the church absolute (1 Cor. 14:33–36)? If not, why not? Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom; he tells the rich young man that he is to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. Why do we make the former demand absolute for all persons, and apparently fudge a little on the second?

Obviously I have raised enough questions for a dissertation or two. What follows in this article is not a comprehensive key to answering all difficult interpretive questions, but some preliminary guidelines to sorting such matters out. The apostolic number of points that follow are not put into any order of importance.

(1) As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

Liberals have often provided us with nasty disjunctions: Jesus or Paul, the charismatic community or the ―early catholic‖ church, and so forth. Protestants sometimes drop a wedge between Paul‘s faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28) and James‘s faith and works (Jas. 2:4); others absolutize Gal. 3:28 as if it were the controlling passage on all matters to do with women, and spend countless hours explaining away 1 Tim. 2:12 (or the reverse!).

Historically, many Reformed Baptists in England between the middle of the eighteenth century and the middle of the twentieth so emphasized God‘s sovereign grace in election that they became uncomfortable with general declarations of the gospel. Unbelievers should not be told to repent and believe the gospel: how could that be, since they are dead in trespasses and sin, and may not in any case belong to the elect? They should rather be encouraged to examine themselves to see if they have within themselves any of the first signs of the Spirit‘s work, any conviction of sin, any stirrings of shame. On the face of it, this is a long way from the Bible, but a large number of churches thought it was the hallmark of faithfulness. What has gone wrong, of course, is that the balance of Scripture has been lost. One element of biblical truth has been elevated to a position where it is allowed to destroy or domesticate some other element of biblical truth.

In fact, the “balance of Scripture” is not an easy thing to maintain, in part because there are different kinds of balance in Scripture. For example, there is the balance of diverse responsibilities laid on us (e.g. praying, being reliable at work, being a biblically faithful spouse and parent, evangelizing a neighbor, taking an orphan or widow under our wing, and so forth): these amount to balancing priorities within the limits of time and energy. There is the balance of Scripture‘s emphases as established by observing their relation to the Bible‘s central plot-line (more on this in the 12th point); there is also the balance of truths which we cannot at this point ultimately reconcile, but which we can easily distort if do not listen carefully to the text (e.g. Jesus is both God and man; God is both the transcendent sovereign and yet personal; the elect alone are saved, and yet in some sense God loves horrible rebels so much that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and God cries, “Turn, turn, why will you die? For the Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked). In each case, a slightly different kind of biblical balance comes into play, but there is no escaping the fact that biblical balance is what we need.

(2) Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.

Of course, there are absolute antitheses in Scripture that must not be watered down in any way. For example, the disjunctions between the curses and the blessings in Deut. 27–28 are not mutually delimiting: the conduct that calls down the curses of God and the conduct that wins his approval stand in opposite camps, and must not be intermingled or diluted. But on the other hand, when eight centuries before Christ, God says, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6), the sacrifical system of the Mosaic covenant is not thereby being destroyed. Rather, the Hebrew antithesis is a pointed way of saying, “If push comes to shove, mercy is more important than sacrifice. Whatever you do, you must not rank the marks of formal religion—in this case, burnt offerings and other mandated ritual sacrifices—with fundamental acknowledgment of God, or confuse the extent to which God cherishes compassion and mercy with the firmness with which he demands the observance of the formalities of the sacrificial system” (GOG, 20).

Similarly, when Jesus insists that if anyone is to become his disciple, he must hate his parents (Lk. 14:26), we must not think Jesus is sanctioning raw hatred of family members. What is at issue is that the claims of Jesus are more urgent and binding than even the most precious and prized human relationships (as the parallel in Mt. 10:37 makes clear).

Sometimes the apparent antithesis is formed by comparing utterances from two distant passages. On the one hand, Jesus insists that the praying of his followers should not be like the babbling of the pagans who think they are heard because of their many words (Mt. 6:7). On the other hand, Jesus can elsewhere tell a parable with the pointed lesson that his disciples should pray perseveringly and not give up (Lk. 18:1–8). Yet if we imagine that the formal clash between these two injunctions is more than superficial, we betray not only our ignorance of Jesus‘ preaching style, but also our insensitivity to pastoral demands. The first injunction is vital against those who think they can wheedle things out of God by their interminable prayers; the second is vital against those whose spiritual commitments are so shallow that their mumbled one-liners constitute the whole of their prayer life.

(3) Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

The reason is not that God must say things more than once for them to be true or binding. The reason, rather, is that if something is said only once it is easily misunderstood or misapplied. When something is repeated on several occasions and in slightly different contexts, readers will enjoy a better grasp of what is meant and what is at stake.

That is why the famous “baptism for the dead passage (1 Cor.15:29) is not unpacked at length and made a major plank in, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. Over forty interpretations of that passage have been offered in the history of the church. Mormons are quite sure what it means, of course, but the reason why they are sure is because they are reading it in the context of other books that they claim are inspired and authoritative.

This principle also underlies one of the reasons why most Christians do not view Christ‘s command to wash one another‘s feet as a third sacrament or ordinance. Baptism and the Lord‘s Supper are certainly treated more than once, and there is ample evidence that the early church observed both, but neither can be said about footwashing. But there is more to be said.

(4) Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

The purpose of this counsel is not to suggest that if you cannot discern the rationale you should flout the command. It is to insist that God is neither arbitrary nor whimsical, and by and large he provides reasons and structures of thought behind the truths he discloses and the demands he makes. Trying to uncover this rationale can be a help in understanding what is of the essence of what God is saying, and what is the peculiar cultural expression of it.

Before I give a couple of examples, it is important to recognize that all of Scripture is culturally bound. For a start, it is given in human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), and languages are a cultural phenomenon. Nor are the words God speaks to be thought of as, say, generic Greek. Rather, they belong to the Greek of the Hellenistic period (it isn‘t Homeric Greek or Attic Greek or modern Greek). Indeed, this Greek changes somewhat from writer to writer (Paul does not always use words the same way that Matthew does) and from genre to genre (apocalyptic does not sound exactly like an epistle). None of this should frighten us. It is part of the glory of our great God that he has accommodated himself to human speech, which is necessarily time-bound and therefore changing. Despite some postmodern philosophers, this does not jeopardize God‘s capacity for speaking truth. It does mean that we finite human beings shall never know truth exhaustively (that would require omniscience), but there is no reason why we cannot know some truth truly. Nevertheless, all such truth as God discloses to us in words comes dressed in cultural forms. Careful and godly interpretation does not mean stripping away such forms to find absolute truth beneath, for that is not possible: we can never escape our finiteness. It does mean understanding those cultural forms, and by God‘s grace discovering the truth that God has disclosed through them.

So when God commands people to rend their clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, are these precise actions so much of the essence of repentance (GOG, 21) that there is no true repentance without them? When Paul tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, does he mean that there is no true Christian greeting without such a kiss?

When we examine the rationale for these actions, and ask whether or not ashes and kissing are integratively related to God‘s revelation, we see the way forward. There is no theology of kissing; there is a theology of mutual love and committed fellowship among the members of the church. There is no theology of sackcloth and ashes; there is a theology of repentance that demands both radical sorrow and profound change.

If this reasoning is right, it has a bearing on both footwashing and on head-coverings. Apart from the fact that footwashing appears only once in the New Testament as something commanded by the Lord, the act itself is theologically tied, in John 13, to the urgent need for humility among God‘s people, and to the cross. Similarly, there is no theology of head- coverings, but there is a profound and recurrent theology of that of which the head-coverings were a first-century Corinthian expression: the proper relationships between men and women, between husbands and wives.

(5) Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive—and pastoral!—errors will inevitably ensue.

Compare these two sayings of Jesus: (a) “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (Mt.12:30). (b) “. . . for whoever is not against us is for us(Mk. 9:40; cf. Lk. 9:50). As has often been noted, the sayings are not contradictory if the first is uttered to indifferent people against themselves, and the second to the disciples about others whose zeal outstrips their knowledge. But the two statements are certainly difficult to reconcile if each is taken absolutely, without thinking through such matters.

Or consider two adjacent proverbs in Prov. 26. (a) “Do not answer a fool according to his folly . . .(26:4). (b) “Answer a fool according to his folly . . . (26:5). If these are statutes or examples of case law, there is unavoidable contradiction. On the other hand, the second line of each proverb provides enough of a rationale that we glimpse what we should have seen anyway: proverbs are not statutes. They are distilled wisdom, frequently put into pungent, aphoristic forms that demand reflection, or that describe effects in society at large (but not necessarily in every individual), or that demand consideration of just how and when they apply.

Let us spell out these two proverbs again, this time with the second line included in each case: (a) “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. (b) “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. Side by side as they are, these two proverbs demand reflection on when it is the part of prudence to refrain from answering fools, lest we be dragged down to their level, and when it is the part of wisdom to offer a sharp, “foolish rejoinder that has the effect of pricking the pretensions of the fool. The text does not spell this out explicitly, but if the rationales of the two cases are kept in mind, we will have a solid principle of discrimination.

So when a well-known para-church organization keeps quoting “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it as if it were case law, what are we to think? This proverbial utterance must not be stripped of its force: it is a powerful incentive to responsible, God-fearing, child-rearing. Nevertheless, it is a proverb; it is not a covenantal promise. Nor does it specify at what point the children will be brought into line. Of course, many children from Christian homes go astray because the parents really have been very foolish or unbiblical or downright sinful; but many of us have witnessed the burdens of unnecessary guilt and shame borne by really godly parents when their grown (GOG, 22) children are, say, 40 years of age and demonstrably unconverted. To apply the proverb in such a way as to engender or reinforce such guilt is not only pastorally incompetent, it is hermeneutically incompetent: it is making the Scriptures say something a little different from what can safely be inferred. Aphorisms and proverbs give insight as to how culture under God works, how relationships work, what are priorities should be; they do not put in all the footnotes as to whether there are any individual exceptions, and under what circumstances, and so forth.

(6) The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between biblical times and our own day.

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom.13:1–2). Some Christians have reasoned from this passage that we must always submit to the governing authorities, except in matters of conscience before God (Acts 4:19). Even then, we “submitto the authorities by patiently bearing the sanctions they impose on us in this fallen world. Other Christians have reasoned from this passage that since Paul goes on to say that the purpose of rulers is to uphold justice (Rom.13:3–4), then if rulers are no longer upholding justice the time may come when righteous people should oppose them, and even, if necessary, overthrow them. The issues are exceedingly complex, and were thought through in some detail by the Reformers.

But there is of course a new wrinkle added to the fabric of debate when one moves from a totalitarian régime, or from an oligarchy, or from a view of government bound up with an inherited monarchy, to some form of democracy. This is not to elevate democracy to heights it must not occupy. It is to say, rather, that in theory at least a democracy allows you to “overthrow” a government without violence or bloodshed. And if the causes of justice cannot do so, it is because the country as a whole has slid into a miasma that lacks the will, courage, and vision to do what it has the power to do, but chooses not to do (for whatever reason). What, precisely, are the Christian‘s responsibilities in that case (whatever your view of the meaning of Rom.13 in its own context)?

In other words, new social structures beyond anything Paul could have imagined, though they cannot overturn what he said, may force us to see that valid, thoughtful, application demands that we bring into the discussion some considerations he could not have foreseen. It is a great comfort, and epistemologically important, to remember that God did foresee them—but that does not itself reduce the hermeneutical responsibilities we have.

(7) Determine not only how symbols, customs, metaphors, and models function in Scripture, but also to what else they are tied.

We may agree with conclusions already drawn about sackcloth and ashes, and about holy kissing. But is it then acceptable to lead a group of young people in a California church in a celebration of the Lord‘s Table using coke and chips? And how about yams and goat‘s milk in Papua New Guinea? If in the latter case we use bread and wine, are we not subtly insisting that only the food of white foreigners is acceptable to God?

The problem is one not only of churchmanship, but of linguistic theory: Bible translators face it continuously. How should we translate “bread and “wine in the words of institution? Or consider a text such as Isa.1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.Suppose the target group for which you are translating the Bible lives in equatorial rain forests and has never seen snow: would it be better to change the simile? Suppose that the only “wool they have seen is the dirty dun-colored stuff from village goats: could not “faithful’ translation be misleading, while culturally sensitive translation that is nevertheless more distant from the original succeed in communicating the point that God speaking through Isaiah was getting across?

A lot can be said in favor of this sort of flexibility. Certainly in the case of “snow, not a lot seems to be at stake. You might want to check out the other seven biblical occurrences of “white as snow to make sure you are not unwittingly running into some awkward clash or other. But in the case of bread and wine at the Lord‘s Supper, the situation is more complicated. This is because the elements are tied in with other strands of the Bible, and it is almost impossible to disentangle them. Having changed “bread to, say, “yams” in order to avoid any cultural imperialism, what shall we do with the connections between the Lord‘s Supper and the Passover, where only “unleavened bread was to be eaten: can we speak of “unleavened yams?! How about the connection between bread and manna, and then the further connection drawn between bread/manna and Jesus (John.6)? Is Jesus (I say this reverently) now to become the yam of God? And I have not yet begun to exhaust the complications connected with this one.

So what begins as a charitable effort in cross-cultural communication is leading toward major interpretive problems a little farther down the road. Moreover, Bible translations have a much longer shelf-life than the original translators usually think. Fifty years later, once the tribe has become a little more familiar with cultures beyond their own forests, and it seems best in a revision to return to a greater degree of literalism, try and change “yams to “bread and see what kind of ecclesiastical squabbles will break out. The “KJV” of the rain forests has “yams”. . . .

All of these sorts of problems are bound up with the fact that God has not given us a culturally neutral revelation. What he has revealed in words is necessarily tied to specific places and cultures. Every other culture is going to have to do some work to understand what God meant when he said certain things in a particular language at a specific time and place and in a shifting idiom. In the case of some expressions, an analogous idiom may be the best way to render something; in other expressions, especially those that are deeply tied to other elements in the Bible‘s story-line, it is best to render things more literally, and then perhaps include an explanatory note. In this case, for example, it might be wise to say that “bread was a staple food of the people at the time, as yams are to us. A slightly different note would have to be included when leaven or yeast is introduced.

There is almost nothing to be said in favor of California young people using chips and coke as the elements. (I‘m afraid this is not a fictitious example.) Unlike the people of the rain forests, they do not even have in their favor that they have never heard of bread. Nor can it be said that chips and coke are their staples (though doubtless some of them move in that direction). What this represents is the whimsy of what is novel, the love of the iconoclastic, the spirituality of the cutesy—with no connections with either the Lord‘s words or with two thousand years of church history.

(8) Thoughtfully limit comparisons and analogies by observing near and far contexts.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb.13:8). Since he never finally refused to heal anyone who approached him during the days of his flesh, and since he is the same yesterday and today and forever, therefore he will heal all who approach him for healing today. I have had that argument put to me more than once. By the same token, of course, Heb.13:8 could be used to prove that since he was mortal before the cross, he must still be mortal today; or since he was crucified by the Romans, and he is the same yesterday and today and forever, he must still be being crucified by the Romans today.

The fact of the matter is that comparisons and analogies are always self-limiting in some respect or other. Otherwise, you would not be dealing with comparisons and analogies, but with two or more things that are identical. What makes a comparison or an analogy possible is that two different things are similar in certain respects. It is always crucial to discover the planes on which the parallels operate—something that is usually made clear by the context—and to refuse further generalization.

A disciple is to be like his master; we are to imitate Paul, as Paul imitates Christ. In what respects? Should we walk on water? Should we clean the local temple with a whip? Should we infallibly heal those who are ill and who petition us for help? Should we miraculously provide food for thousands out of some little boy‘s lunch? Should we be crucified? Such questions cannot all be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” It is worth observing that most of the injunctions in the Gospels to follow Jesus or to do what he does are bound up with his self- abnegation: e.g. as he is hated, so we must expect to be hated (Jn.15:18); as he takes the place of a servant and washes his disciples‘ feet, so we are to wash one another‘s feet (Jn.13); as he goes to the cross, so we are to take our cross and follow him (Mt.10:38; 16:24; Lk.14:27). Thus the answer to the question, “Should we be crucified?”, is surely ‘yes” and “no”: no, not literally, most of us will have to say, and yet that does not warrant complete escape from the demand to take up our cross and follow him. So in this case the answer is “yes,” but not literally.

(9) Many mandates are pastorally limited by the occasion or people being addressed.

For example, Jesus unambiguously insists, “Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God‘s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. . . . Simply let your Yes‘ be ‘Yes,‘ and your  No,‘  No‘; anything beyond this comes from the evil one(Mt. 6:34–36). Yet we find Paul going well beyond a simple “Yes or “No (e.g. Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 11:10; Gal. 1:20). In fact, God puts himself under an oath (Heb. 6:17–18). Won‘t pedants have a wonderful time with this?

Yet the particular language of Jesus‘ prohibition, not to mention the expanded parallel in Mt. 23:16–22, shows that what Jesus was going after was the sophisticated use of oaths that became an occasion for evasive lying—a bit like the schoolboy who tells whoppers with his fingers crossed behind his back, as if this device exonerated him from the obligation to tell the truth. At some point, it is best to get to the heart of the issue: simply tell the truth, and let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” In other words, the pastoral context is vital. By contrast, the context of Heb. 6–7 shows that when God puts himself under an oath, it is not because otherwise he might lie, but for two reasons: first, to maintain the typological pattern of a priesthood established by oath, and second, to offer special reassurance to the weak faith of human beings who otherwise might be too little inclined to take God‘s wonderful promises seriously.

There are many examples in Scripture of the importance of pastoral context. Paul can say it is good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Cor. 7:1—NIV‘s “not to marry is an unwarranted softening of the Greek). But (he goes on to say) there are also good reasons to marry, and finally concludes that both celibacy and marriage are gifts from God, charismata (1 Cor. 7:7—which I suppose makes us all charismatics). It does not take much reading between the lines to perceive that the church in Corinth included some who were given to asceticism, and others in danger of promiscuity (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12–20). There is a pastoral sensitivity to Paul‘s “Yes, but” argument, one that he deploys more than once in this letter (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:18–19). In other words, there are pastoral limitations to the course advocated, limitations made clear by the context.

In the same way, what Paul says to encourage Christian assurance to the Romans at the end of chap. 8 is not what he says to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 13:5. Which particular elements of a full-blooded, nuanced, and even complex doctrine need to be stressed at any particular time will be determined, in part, by a pastoral diagnosis of the predominant current ailments.

(10) Always be careful how you apply narratives.

Nowadays most of us are familiar with “postmodern” voices that advocate open-ended meaning—meaning, finally, that you or your interpretive community “finds,” not meaning that is necessarily in the text, and only accidentally what the author intended. Not surprisingly, when these postmodern voices turn to the Bible, they are often attracted to narrative portions, since narratives are generically more open to diverse interpretation than discourse. Admittedly, these narrative portions are usually pulled out of their contexts in the books in which they are embedded, and made to stand on their own. Without the contextual constraints, the interpretive possibilities seem to multiply—which is, of course, what the postmodernists want. Narratives have other virtues, of course: they are evocative, affective, image-enhancing, memorable. But unless care is taken, they are more easily misinterpreted than discourse.

In fact, little narratives should not only be interpreted within the framework of the book in which they are embedded, but within the corpus, and ultimately within the canon. Take, for instance, Gen. 39, the account of Joseph‘s early years in Egypt. One can read that narrative and draw from it excellent lessons on how to resist temptation (e.g. Joseph refers to sexual sin to which he is enticed by Potiphar‘s wife as “sin against God, not some mere weakness or foible; he avoids the woman‘s company, at the crunch, because his purity is more important to him than his prospects). But a careful reading of the opening and closing verses of the chapter also shows that one of the important points of the narrative is that God is with Joseph and blesses him even in the midst of the most appalling circumstances: neither the presence of God nor the blessing of God are restricted to happy lifestyles. Then read the chapter in the context of the preceding narrative: now Judah becomes a foil for Joseph. The one is tempted in circumstances of comfort and plenty, and succumbs to incest; the other is tempted in circumstances of slavery and injustice, and retains his integrity. Now read the same chapter in the context of the book of Genesis. Joseph‘s integrity is bound up with the way God providentially provides famine relief not only for countless thousands, but for the covenant people of God in particular. Now read it within the context of the Pentateuch. The narrative is part of the explanation for how the people of God find themselves in Egypt, which leads to the Exodus. Joseph‘s bones are brought out when the people leave. Enlarge the horizon now to embrace the whole canon: suddenly Joseph‘s fidelity in small matters is part of the providential wisdom that preserves the people of God, leads to the exodus that serves as a type of a still greater release, and ultimately leads to Judah‘s (!) distant son David, and his still more distant son, Jesus.

So if you are applying Gen. 39, although it may be appropriate to apply it simply as a moralizing account that tells us how to deal with temptation, the perspective gained by admitting the widening contexts discloses scores of further connections and significances that thoughtful readers (and preachers) should not ignore.

(11) Remember that you, too, are culturally and theologically located.

In other words, it is not simply a case of each part of the Bible being culturally located, while you and I are neutral and dispassionate observers. Rather, thoughtful readers will acknowledge that they, too, are located in specific culture—they are awash in specific language, unacknowledged assumptions, perspectives on time and race and education and humor, notions of truth and honor and wealth. In postmodern hands, of course, these realities become part of the reason for arguing that all interpretations are relative. I have argued elsewhere that although no finite and sinful human being can ever know exhaustive truth about anything (that would require omniscience), they can know some truth truly. But often this requires some self-distancing of ourselves from inherited assumptions and perspectives.

Sometimes this is achieved unknowingly. The person who has read her Bible right through once or twice a year, loves it dearly, and now in her eightieth year reads it no less, may never have self-consciously engaged in some process of self-distancing from cultural prejudice. But she may now be so steeped in biblical outlooks and perspectives that she lives in a different “world” from her pagan neighbors, and perhaps even from many of her more shallow and less well-informed Christian neighbors. But the process can be accelerated by reading meditatively, self-critically, humbly, honestly, thereby discovering where the Word challenges the outlooks and values of our time and place. It is accelerated by the right kinds of small-group Bible studies (e.g. those that include devout Christians from other cultures), and from the best of sermons.

Does our Western culture place so much stress on individualism that we find it hard to perceive, not only the biblical emphasis on the family and on the body of the church, but also the ways in which God judges entire cultures and nations for the accumulating corruptions of her people? Are the biblical interpretations advanced by ―evangelical feminists‖ compromised by their indebtedness to the current focus on women‘s liberation, or are the interpretations of more traditional exegetes compromised by unwitting enslavement to patriarchal assumptions? Do we overlook some of the ―hard‖ sayings about poverty simply because most of us live in relative wealth?

The examples are legion. But the place to begin is by acknowledging that no interpreter, including you and me, approaches the text tabula rasa, like a razed slate just waiting to have the truth inscribed on them. There is always a need for honest recognition of our biases and assumptions, and progressive willingness to reform them and challenge them as we perceive that the Word of God takes us in quite a different direction. As our culture becomes progressively more secular, the need for this sort of reading is becoming more urgent. How it is done—both theoretically and practically—cannot be elucidated here. But that it must be done if we are not to domesticate Scripture to our own worlds cannot be doubted.

(12) Frankly admit that many interpretive decisions are nestled within a large theological system, which in principle we must be willing to modify if the Bible is to have the final word.

This is, of course, a subset of the preceding point, yet it deserves separate treatment.

Some Christians give the impression that if you learn Greek and Hebrew and get your basic hermeneutics sorted out, then you can forget about historical theology and systematic theology: simply do your exegesis and you will come out with the truth straight from the Word of God. But of course, it is not quite that simple. Inevitably, you are doing your exegesis as an Arminian, or as a Reformed Presbyterian, or as a dispensationalist, or as a theonomist, or as a Lutheran—and these are only some of the predominant systems among believers. Even if you are so ignorant of any one tradition that you are a bit of an eclectic, that simply means your exegesis is likely to be a little more inconsistent than that of others.

Systems are not inherently evil things. They function to make interpretation a little easier and a little more realistic: they mean that you do not have to go back to basics at each point (i.e. inevitably you assume a whole lot of other exegesis at any particular instance of exegesis). If the tradition is broadly orthodox, then the system helps to direct you away from interpretations that are heterodox. But a system can be so tightly controlling that it does not allow itself to be corrected by Scripture, modified by Scripture, or even overturned by Scripture. Moreover, not a few interpretative points of dispute are tied to such massive interlocking structures that to change one‘s mind about the detail would require a change of mind on massive structures, and that is inevitably far more challenging a prospect. This is also why a devout Reformed Presbyterian and a devout Reformed Baptist are not going to sort out what Scripture says about, say, baptism or church government, simply by taking out a couple of lexica and working over a few texts together during free moments some Friday afternoon. What is at stake, for both of them, is how these matters are nestled into a large number of other points, which are themselves related to an entire structure of theology.

And yet, and yet. . . . If this is all that could be said, then the postmodernists would be right: the interpretive community determines everything. But if believers are in principle willing to change their minds (i.e. their systems!), and are humbly willing to bring everything, including their systems, to the test of Scripture, and are willing to enter courteous discussion and debate with brothers and sisters who are similarly unthreatened and are similarly eager to let Scripture have final authority, then systems can be modified, abandoned, reformed.

The number of topics affected by such considerations is very large—not only the old chestnuts (e.g. baptism, the significance of Holy Communion, the understanding of covenant, Sabbath/Sunday issues) but more recent questions as well (e.g. theonomy, the place of “charismatic” gifts). For our purposes, we note that some of these manifold topics have to do with what is mandated of believers today.

Let us take a simple example. In recent years, a number of Christians have appealed to Acts 15:28 (“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .) to serve as a model for how the church comes to difficult decisions involving change in disputed areas—in the case of Acts, circumcision and its significance, and in the modern case, the ordination of women. Is this a fair usage of Acts 15:28? Does it provide a definitive model for how to change things formerly accepted in the church?

But believers with any firm views on the exclusive authority of the canon, or with any sophisticated views on how the new covenant believers were led in the progress of redemption history to re-think the place of circumcision in the light of the cross and resurrection, will not be easily persuaded by this logic. Has every change introduced by various churches across the centuries been justified, simply because it was blessed with the words “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us? Does the church now have the right to change things established in and by the canon in the way that the early church changed things established in and by the Old Testament canon, as if we were similarly located at a strategic turning point in redemptive history? The mind boggles at the suggestions. But what is clear in any case is that such issues cannot properly be resolved without thinking through, in considerable detail, how the parameters of the interpretive decisions are tied to much more substantial theological matters.

One final word: By advancing these dozen points, am I in danger of elevating certain hermeneutical controls above Scripture, controls which themselves serve to domesticate Scripture? Had I time and space, I think I could demonstrate that each of these twelve points is itself mandated by Scripture, whether explicitly or as a function of what Scripture is. It might be a useful exercise to work through the twelve points and think through why this is so. But that would be another essay.

About the Author: Dr. D. A. Carson teaches New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has more than twenty books to his credit. Among them are Showing the Spirit, Exegetical Fallacies, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, How Long O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, and Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Article above adapted from: “Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?” Modern Reformation 5:3 (May/June 1996): 18–22. Updated 2003.


1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of The American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 56–57

2. J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Banner of Truth, 1925), p. 21.

Dr. D.A. Carson on How To Do Evangelism in a Post Modern Culture

*Athens Revisited (An Exegetical Study of Acts 17) by D.A. Carson

I would like to think that most of us have become convinced of the primacy of what might generically be called worldview evangelism. In the recent past, at least in North America and Europe, evangelism consisted of a fairly aggressive presentation of one small part of the Bible’s story line. Most non-Christians to whom we presented the gospel shared enough common language and outlook with us that we did not find it necessary to unpack the entire plot line of the Bible.

A mere quarter of a century ago, if we were dealing with an atheist, he or she was not a generic atheist but a Christian atheist-that is, the God he or she did not believe in was more or less a god of discernibly Judeo-Christian provenance. The atheist was not particularly denying the existence of Hindu gods — Krishna, perhaps — but the God of the Bible. But that meant that the categories were still ours. The domain of discourse was ours.

When I was a child, if I had said, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” 80 percent of the kids in my school could have responded, “Hail the incarnate deity.” That was because Christmas carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” were sung in home, church, school, and street. These kids may not have understood all-the words, but this domain of Christian discourse was still theirs. Young people at university doubtless imbibed massive doses of naturalism, but in most English departments it was still assumed you could not plumb the vast heritage of English poetry if you possessed no knowledge of the language, metaphors, themes, and categories of the Bible.

In those days, then, evangelism presupposed that most unbelievers, whether they were atheists or agnostics or deists or theists, nevertheless knew that the Bible begins with God, that this God is both personal and transcendent, that he made the universe and made it good, and that the Fall introduced sin and attracted the curse. Virtually everyone knew that the Bible has two Testaments. History moves in a straight line. There is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and error, fact and fiction. They knew that Christians believe there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be feared. Christmas is bound up with Jesus’ birth; Good Friday and Easter, with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those were the givens.

So what we pushed in evangelism was the seriousness of sin, the freedom of grace, who Jesus really is, what his death is about, and the urgency of repentance and faith. That was evangelism. Of course, we tilted things in certain ways depending on the people we were addressing; the focus was different when evangelizing in different subcultural settings— in the Bible Belt, for instance, or in an Italian-Catholic section of New York, or in an Ivy League university. But for most of us, evangelism was connected with articulating and pressing home a very small part of the Bible’s plot line.

In many seminaries like Trinity, of course, we recognized that missionaries being trained to communicate the gospel in radically different cultures needed something more. A missionary to Japan or Thailand or north India would have to learn not only another language or two but also another culture. No less important, they would have to begin their evangelism farther back, because many of their hearers would have no knowledge of the Bible at all and would tenaciously hold to some worldview structures that were fundamentally at odds with the Bible. The best schools gave such training to their missionary candidates. But pastors and campus workers were rarely trained along such lines. After all, they were doing nothing more than evangelizing people who shared their own cultural assumptions, or at least people located in the same domain of discourse, weren’t they?

We were naive, of course. We were right, a quarter of a century ago, when we sang, “The times they are a-changin’.” Of course, there were many places in America where you could evangelize churchy people who still retained substantial elements of a Judeo-Christian worldview. There are still places like that today: the over-fifties in the Midwest, parts of the Bible Belt. But in the New England states, in the Pacific Northwest, in universities almost anywhere in the country, in pockets of the population such as media people, and in many parts of the entire Western world, the degree of biblical illiteracy cannot be overestimated. One of my students commented a week ago that he was walking in Chicago with his girlfriend, who had a wooden cross hanging from a chain around her neck. A lad stopped her on the sidewalk and asked why she had a plus sign for a necklace. The people whom we evangelize on university campuses usually do not know that the Bible has two Testaments. As Phillip Jensen says, you have to explain to them the purpose of the big numbers and little numbers. They have never heard of Abraham, David, Solomon, Paul — let alone Haggai or Zechariah. They may have heard of Moses, but only so as to confuse him with Charlton Heston.

But this analysis is still superficial. My point is not so much that these people are ignorant of biblical data (though that is true) as that, having lost touch with the Judeo-Christian heritage that in one form or another (sometimes bowdlerized) long nourished the West, they are not clean slates waiting for us to write on them. They are not empty hard drives waiting for us to download our Christian files onto them. Rather, they have inevitably developed an array of alternative worldviews. They are hard drives full of many other files that collectively constitute various non-Christian frames of reference.

The implications for evangelism are immense. I shall summarize four.

First, the people we wish to evangelize hold some fundamental positions that they are going to have to abandon to become Christians. To continue my computer analogy, they retain numerous files that are going to have to be erased or revised, because as presently written, those files are going to clash formidably with Christian files. At one level, of course, that is always so. That is why the gospel demands repentance and faith; indeed, it demands the regenerating, transforming work of the Spirit of God. But the less there is of a common, shared worldview between “evangelizer” and “evangelizee,” between the biblically informed Christian and the biblically illiterate postmodern, the more traumatic the transition, the more decisive the change, the more stuff has to be unlearned.

Second, under these conditions evangelism means starting farther back. The good news of Jesus Christ — who he is and what he accomplished by his death, resurrection, and exaltation — is simply incoherent unless certain structures are already in place. You cannot make heads or tails of the real Jesus unless you have categories for the personal/transcendent God of the Bible; the nature of human beings made in the image of God; the sheer odium of rebellion against him; the curse that our rebellion has attracted; the spiritual, personal, familial, and social effects of our transgression; the nature of salvation; the holiness and wrath and love of God. One cannot make sense of the Bible’s plot line without such basic ingredients; one cannot make sense of the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus without such blocks in place. We cannot possibly agree on the solution that Jesus provides if we cannot agree on the problem he confronts. That is why our evangelism must be “worldview” evangelism. I shall flesh out what this means in a few moments.

Third, not for a moment am I suggesting that worldview evangelism is a restrictively propositional exercise. It is certainly not less than propositional; the Bible not only presents us with many propositions, but it insists in some cases that unless one believes those propositions one is lost. The point can easily be confirmed by a close reading of the gospel of John. For all its complementary perspectives, it repeatedly makes statements like “Unless you believe that . . .” One really ought not be forced to choose between propositions and relational faith any more than one should be forced to choose between the left wing of an airplane and the right. At its core, worldview evangelism is as encompassing as the Bible. We are called not only to certain propositional confession but also to loyal faith in Jesus Christ, the truth incarnate; to repentance from dead works to serve the living God; to life transformed by the Holy Spirit, given to us in anticipation of the consummated life to come; to a new community that lives and loves and behaves in joyful and principled submission to the Word of the King, our Maker and Redeemer. This massive worldview touches everything, embraces everything. It can be simply put, for it has a center; it can be endlessly expounded and lived out, for in its scope it has no restrictive perimeter.

Fourth, the evangelist must find ways into the values, heart, thought patterns — in short, the worldview — of those who are being evangelized but must not let that non-Christian worldview domesticate the biblical message. The evangelist must find bridges into the other’s frame of reference, or no communication is possible; the evangelist will remain ghettoized. Nevertheless, faithful worldview evangelism under these circumstances will sooner or later find the evangelist trying to modify or destroy some of the alien worldview an d to present another entire structure of thought and conduct that is unimaginably more glorious, coherent, consistent, and finally true.

All of this, of course, the apostle Paul well understood. In particular, by his own example he teaches us the difference between evangelizing those who largely share your biblical worldview and evangelizing those who are biblically illiterate. In Acts 13:16-41, we read Paul’s evangelistic address in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. The setting, a synagogue, ensures that his hearers are Jews, Gentile proselytes to Judaism, and Godfearers — in every case, people thoroughly informed by the Bible (what we would today call the Old Testament). In this context, Paul selectively narrates Old Testament history in order to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. He quotes biblical texts, reasons his way through them, and argues that the resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of biblical prophecies about the Holy One in David’s line not seeing decay From Jesus’ resurrection, Paul argues back to Jesus’ death and its significance — ultimately, the forgiveness of sins and justification before God (vv. 38-39). Paul ends with a biblical passage warning of fearful judgment against skepticism and unbelief. Here, then, is the apostolic equivalent to evangelism among churchy folk, biblically literate folk-the kind of people who already, at a certain level, know their Bibles.

In Acts 17:16-34, however, one finds the apostle Paul evangelizing intelligent Athenians who are utterly biblically illiterate. Here his approach is remarkably different, and has much to teach us as we attempt to evangelize a new generation of biblical illiterates.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

I have organized the rest of what I have to say under four topics: the realities Paul faces, the priorities he adopts, the framework he establishes, and the nonnegotiable gospel he preaches.


Apart from their obvious biblical illiteracy — these Athenian intellectuals had never heard of Moses, never cracked a Bible — three features of this culture are striking.

First, the Roman Empire was characterized not only by large-scale empirical pluralism but also by government-sponsored religious pluralism. The Romans knew that a captive people were more likely to rebel if they could align religion, land, and people. Partly to break up this threefold cord, the Romans insisted on adopting into their own pantheon some of the gods of any newly subjugated people, and they insisted equally strongly that the newly subjugated people adopt some of the Roman gods. In any potential civil war, therefore, it would be quite unclear which side the gods were helping — and this policy of god-swaps strengthened the likelihood of imperial peace. It also meant that religious pluralism was not only endemic to the Empire but was buttressed by the force of law After all, it was a capital offense to desecrate a temple — any temple. But let no temple and no God challenge Washington — I mean Rome.

Second, like us, Paul was dealing not with people who were biblically illiterate and therefore had no worldview, but with people who vociferously argued for various competing and powerful worldviews.

Two are mentioned in the text: Epicurean and Stoic (v. 18). In the first century, philosophy did not have the fairly esoteric and abstract connotations it has today, connected with minor departments in large universities. It referred to an entire way of life, based on a rigorous and self-consistent intellectual system — close to what we mean by worldview The ideal of Epicurean philosophy, Epicurean worldview, was an undisturbed life — a life of tranquility, untroubled by undue involvement in human affairs.

The gods themselves are composed of atoms so fine they live in calmness in the spaces between the worlds. As the gods are nicely removed from the hurly-burly of life, so human beings should seek the same ideal. But over against this vision, as we shall see, Paul presents a God who is actively involved in this world as its Creator, providential Ruler, Judge, and self-disclosing Savior.

Stoic philosophy thought of god as all-pervasive, more or less in a pantheistic sense, so that the human ideal was to live life in line with what is ultimately real, to conduct life in line with this god/principle of reason, which must rule over emotion and passion. Stoicism, as someone has commented, was “marked by great moral earnestness and a high sense of duty.” Against such a vision, the God that Paul presents, far from being pantheistic, is personal, distinct from the creation, and is our final judge. Instead of focusing on “universal reason tapped into by human reasoning,” Paul contrasts divine will and sovereignty with human dependence and need. In short, there is a massive clash of worldviews.

Of course, there were other Greek and Latin worldviews. There is no mention here of the sophists or of the atheistic philosophical materialists such as Lucretius. What is clear is that Paul here finds himself evangelizing men and women deeply committed to one fundamentally alien worldview or another.

Third, no less striking is the sneering tone of condescension they display in verse 18: What is this babbler trying to say? — this “seed picker,” this little bird fluttering around picking up disconnected scraps of incoherent information, this second-class mind? Others remarked, He seems to be advocating foreign gods. Of course, as it turns out, some of these people become genuinely interested in the gospel. The tenor of condescension is unmistakable, however, when an alien worldview feels secure in its thoughtless majority.

These, then, are the realities Paul faces.


The most immediate and striking response of the apostle Paul to all that he witnesses in Athens is an intuitively biblical analysis: he is greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols (v. 16). Paul might have been overwhelmed by Athens’ reputation as the Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard of the ancient world (though universities per se did not then exist). He might have admired the architecture, gaping at the Parthenon. But Paul is neither intimidated nor snookered by Athens; he sees the idolatry. How we need Christians in our universities and high places who are neither impressed nor intimidated by reputation and accomplishment if it is nothing more than idolatry!

The apostle sets out, then, to evangelize. He aims at two quite different groups. As usual, he attaches a certain priority to evangelizing Jews and Godfearing Gentiles, the churchy folk, the biblically literate people; he reasons in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks (v. 17a). He has a theological reason for this priority that we cannot examine here, but in any case we must never forget to evangelize such people. Second, he evangelizes the ordinary pagans who have no connection with the Bible: he evangelizes day by day in the market place, targeting anyone who happens to be there, most of whom would have been biblically illiterate (v. 17b). He does not wait for an invitation to the Areopagus. He simply gets on with his evangelism, and the invitation to the Areopagus is the result (v. 18).

These, then, are his priorities: God-centered cultural analysis, and persistent evangelism of both biblical literates and biblical illiterates.

Perhaps I should add that there is at least one fundamental difference between Paul’s situation and ours. When Paul evangelizes biblical illiterates, he is dealing with people whose heritage has not in recent centuries had anything to do with biblical religion. So when they react negatively to him, they do so solely because, from their perspective, his frame of reference is so alien to their own. They are not rejecting him in part because they are still running away from their own heritage. That is the additional problem we sometimes face. We sometimes deal with men and women who have adopted a worldview that is not only at several points profoundly antithetical to a biblical worldview but also self-consciously chosen over against that biblical worldview. That opens up some opportunities for us, but it raises some additional barriers as well. However, we cannot probe these opportunities and barriers here. It is enough to observe the priorities that Paul adopts.


Here it will be helpful to run through Paul’s argument from 17:22 to 17:31. Before I do so, however, I want to make three preliminary observations.

First, it takes you about two minutes to read this record of Paul’s address. But speeches before the Areopagus were not known for their brevity. In other words, we must remember that this is a condensed report of a much longer speech. Doubtless every sentence, in some cases every clause, constituted a point that Paul expanded upon at length.

Second, if you want to know a little more closely just how he would have expanded each point, it is easier to discover than some people think. For there are many points of comparison between these sermon notes and, for instance, Romans. I’ll draw attention to one or two of the parallels as we move on.

Third, there is a fascinating choice of vocabulary. It has often been shown that many of the expressions in this address, especially in the early parts, are the sorts of things one would have found in Stoic circles. Yet in every case, Paul tweaks them so that in his context they convey the peculiar emphases he wants to assign to them. In other words, the vocabulary is linguistically appropriate to his hearers, but at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, Paul in this report is saying just what he wants to say; he is establishing a biblical worldview.

Now let us scan the framework Paul establishes.

First, he establishes that God is the creator of the world and everything in it (17:24). How much he enlarged on this point we cannot be certain, but we know from his other writings how his mind ran. The creation establishes that God is other than the created order; pantheism is ruled out. It also establishes human accountability; we owe our Creator everything, and to defy him and set ourselves up as the center of the universe is the heart of all sin. Worse, to cherish and worship created things instead of the Creator is the essence of idolatry.

Second, Paul insists that God is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands (v. 24). The sovereignty of God over the whole universe stands over against views that assign this god or that goddess a particular domain — perhaps the sea (Neptune), or tribal gods with merely regional or ethnic interests. The God of the Bible is sovereign over everything. This teaching grounds the doctrine of providence. Because of the universality of his reign, God cannot be domesticated — not even by temples (v. 24). Paul is not denying the historical importance of the temple in

Jerusalem, still less that God uniquely disclosed himself there. Rather, he denies that God is limited to temples, and that he can be domesticated or squeezed or tapped into by the cultus of any temple (which of course threatens popular pagan practice). He is so much bigger than that.

Third, God is the God of aseity: he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything (17:25). Aseity is a word now largely fallen into disuse, though it was common in Puritan times. Etymologically it comes from the Latin a se — “from himself.” God is so utterly “from himself” that he does not need us; he is not only self-existent (a term we often deploy with respect to God’s origins — the existence of everything else is God-dependent, but God himself is self-existent), but he is utterly independent of his created order so far as his own well-being or contentment or existence are concerned. God does not need us — a very different perspective from that of polytheism, where human beings and gods interact in all kinds of ways bound up with the finiteness and needs of the gods. The God of the Bible would not come to us if, rather whimsically, he wanted a McDonald’s hamburger; the cattle on a thousand hills are already his.

Fourth, the truth of the matter is the converse: we are utterly dependent on him — he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else (v. 25b). This strips us of our vaunted independence; it is the human correlative of the doctrines of creation and providence.

Fifth, from theology proper, Paul turns to anthropology. He insists that all nations descended from one man (v. 26). This contradicts not a few ancient notions of human descent, which conjectured that different ethnic groups came into being in quite different ways. But Paul has a universal gospel that is based on a universal problem (cf. Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). If sin and death were introduced into the one human race by one man such that the decisive act of another man is required to reverse them, then it is important for Paul to get the anthropology right so that the soteriology is right. We cannot agree on the solution if we cannot agree on the problem. But Paul’s stance has yet wider implications; there is no trace of racism here. Moreover, however much he holds that God has enjoyed a peculiar covenant relationship with Israel, because he is a monotheist, Paul holds that God must be sovereign over all the nations. Did he, perhaps, develop some of the lines of argument one finds in Isaiah 40ff.? If there is but one God, that God must in some sense be the God of all, whether his being and status are recognized by all or not.

Sixth, for the first time one finds an explicit reference to something wrong in this universe that God created. His providential rule over all was with the purpose that some would reach out for him and find him (v. 27). In short order Paul will say much more about sin (without actually using the word). Here he is preparing the way. The assumption is that the race as a whole does not know the God who made them. Something has gone profoundly wrong.

Seventh, although it has been important for him to establish God’s transcendence, Paul does not want such an emphasis to drift toward what would later be called deism. The God he has in mind is not far from each one of us (v. 27). He is immanent. Paul will not allow any suspicion that God is careless or indifferent about people; he is never far from us. Moreover, the apostle recognizes that some of this truth is acknowledged in some pagan religions. When Greek thought (or much of it) spoke of one “God” as opposed to many gods, very often the assumption was more or less pantheistic. That structure of thought Paul has already ruled out. Still, some of its emphases were not wrong if put within a better framework. We live and move and have our being in this God, and we are his offspring (17:28) — not, for Paul, in some pantheistic sense, but as an expression of God’s personal and immediate concern for our well-being.

Eighth, the entailment of this theology and this anthropology is to clarify what sin is and to make idolatry utterly reprehensible (v. 29). Doubtless Paul enlarged this point very much in terms of, say, Isaiah 44-45 and Romans 1. For he cannot rightly introduce Jesus and his role as Savior until he establishes what the problem is; he cannot make the good news clear until he elucidates the bad news from which the good news rescues us.

Ninth, Paul also introduces what might be called a philosophy of history — or better, perhaps, a certain view of time. Many Greeks in the ancient world thought that time went round and round in circles. Paul establishes a linear framework: creation at a fixed point; a long period that is past with respect to Paul’s present in which God acted in a certain way (In the past God over-looked such ignorance); a now that is pregnant with massive changes; and a future (v. 31) that is the final termination of this world order, a time of final judgment. The massive changes of Paul’s dramatic now are bound up with the coming of Jesus and the dawning of the gospel. Paul has set the stage so as to introduce Jesus.

So here is the framework Paul establishes. He has, in fact, constructed a biblical worldview. But he has not done so simply for the pleasure of creating a worldview. In this context he has done so in order to provide a framework in which Jesus himself, not least his death and resurrection, makes sense. Otherwise nothing that Paul wants to say about Jesus will make sense.

This is the framework Paul establishes.


We read again verse 31: For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

Here, at last, Jesus is introduced.

I want to emphasize two things. First, it is extraordinarily important to see that Paul has established the framework of the biblical metanarrative before he introduces Jesus. If metaphysics is a sort of big physics that explains all the other branches of physics, similarly metanarrative is the big story that explains all the other stories. By and large, postmodernists love stories, especially ambiguous or symbol-laden narratives. But they hate the metanarrative, the big story that makes all the little stories coherent. But what Paul provides is the biblical metanarrative. This is the big story in the Bible that frames and explains all the little stories. Without this big story, the accounts of Jesus will not make any sense — and Paul knows it.

For instance, if in a vague, New Age, postmodern context, we affirm something like “God loves you,” this short expression may carry a very different set of associations than we who are Christians might think. We already assume that men and women are guilty and that the clearest and deepest expression of God’s love is in the cross, where God’s own Son dealt with our sin at the expense of his own life. But if people know nothing of this story line, then the same words, “God loves you,” may be an adequate summary of the stance adopted by Jodie Foster in her recent film, Contact. The alien power is beneficent, wise, good, and interested in our well-being. There is nothing whatever to do with moral accountability, sin, guilt, and how God takes action to remove our sin by the death of his Son. The one vision nestles into the framework of biblical Christianity; the other nestles comfortably into the worldview of New Age optimism. In short, without the big story, without the metanarrative, the little story or the little expression becomes either incoherent or positively misleading. Paul understands the point.

Second, what is striking is that Paul does not flinch from affirming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And that is what causes so much offense that Paul is cut off, and the Areopagus address comes to an end. Paul was thoroughly aware, of course, that most Greeks adopted some form of dualism. Matter is bad, or at least relatively bad; spirit is good. To imagine someone coming back from the dead in bodily form was not saying anything desirable, still less believable. Bodily resurrection from the dead was irrational; it was an oxymoron, like intelligent slug or boiled ice. So some of Paul’s hearers have had enough, and they openly sneer and end the meeting (v. 32). If Paul had spoken instead of Jesus’ immortality, his eternal spiritual longevity quite apart from any body, he would have caused no umbrage. But Paul does not flinch. Elsewhere he argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then the apostles are liars, and we are still dead in our trespasses and sins (I Cor. 15). He remains faithful to that vision here. Paul does not trim the gospel to make it acceptable to the worldview of his listeners.

For Paul, then, there is some irreducible and nonnegotiable content to the gospel, content that must not be abandoned, no matter how unacceptable it is to some other worldview. It follows that especially when we are trying hard to connect wisely with some worldview other than our own, we must give no less careful attention to the nonnegotiables of the gospel, lest in our efforts to communicate wisely and with relevance, we unwittingly sacrifice what we mean to communicate.

But suddenly we overhear the muttered objection of the critic. Can it not be argued that Paul here makes a fundamental mistake? Elsewhere in Acts he frequently preaches with much greater fruitfulness, and in those cases he does not stoop to all this worldview stuff. He just preaches Jesus and his cross and resurrection, and men and women get converted. Here, a piddling number believe (v. 34). In fact, Paul’s next stop in Greece after Athens is Corinth. Reflecting later on his experiences there, Paul writes to the Corinthians and reminds them For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (I Cor. 2:2) — doubtless because he was reflecting with some sour-faced chagrin on his flawed approach in Athens. So let us be frank, the critics charge, and admit that Paul made a huge mistake in Athens and stop holding up Acts 17 as if it were a model of anything except what not to do. The man goofed: he appealed to natural theology; he tried to construct redemptive history; he attempted to form a worldview when he should have stuck to his last and preached Jesus and the cross.

I sometimes wish this reading were correct, but it is profoundly mistaken for a number of reasons.

(1) It is not the natural reading of Acts. As Luke works through his book, he does not at this point in his narrative send up a red flag and warn us that at this point Paul makes a ghastly mistake. The false reading is utterly dependent on taking I Corinthians in a certain way (a mistaken way, as we shall see), and then reading it into Acts 17.

(2) What Paul expresses, according to Luke’s report of the Areopagus address, is very much in line with Paul’s own theology, not least his theology in the opening chapters of Romans.

(3) Strictly speaking, Paul does not say that only a “few” men believed. He says tines de andres, “certain people,” along with heteroi, “others.” These are in line with other descriptions. The numbers could scarcely have been large, because the numbers in the Areopagus could not have been very large in the first place.

(4) Transparently, Paul was cut off when he got to the resurrection of Jesus (vv. 31-32). But judging from all we know of him — both from a book like Romans and from the descriptions of him in Acts — we know where he would have gone from here.

(5) That is entirely in line with the fact that what Paul had already been preaching in the marketplace to the biblically illiterate pagans was the cc gospel” (v. 18).

(6) At this point in his life Paul was not a rookie. Far from being fresh out of seminary and still trying to establish the precise pattern of his ministry, on any chronology he had already been through twenty years of thrilling and brutal ministry. Nor is this Paul’s first time among biblically illiterate pagans or among intellectuals.

(7) In any case, I Corinthians 2 does not cast Paul’s resolve to preach Christ crucified against the background of what had happened to him in Athens. He does not say, in effect, “Owing to my serious mistakes in Athens, when I arrived in Corinth I resolved to preach only Christ and him crucified.” Rather, in 1 Corinthians Paul’s resolve to preach Christ crucified is cast against the background of what Christians in Corinth were attracted to — namely, to a form of triumphalism that espoused an ostensible wisdom that Paul detests. It is a wisdom full of pride and rhetoric and showmanship. Against this background, Paul takes a very different course. Knowing that believers must boast only in the Lord and follow quite a different wisdom (I Cor. 1), he resolves to preach Christ and him crucified.

(8) In any case, it would be wrong to think that Paul has no interest in worldviews. Writing after I Corinthians 2, Paul can say, We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:45). The context shows that Paul is not here interested so much in disciplining the individual’s private thought life (though that certainly concerns him elsewhere) as in bringing into obedience to Christ every thought structure, every worldview, that presents opposition to his beloved Master. In other words, Paul thought “worldviewishly” (if that is not too monstrous a neologism). That is clear in many of his writings; it is clear in both 2 Corinthians 10 and in Acts 17.

(9) Finally, the first line of Acts 17:34 is sometimes misconstrued: “A few men became followers of Paul and believed.” Many have assumed Luke means that a few people became Christians on the spot and followers of Paul. But that reverses what is said. Moreover, Paul has not yet given much gospel — in precisely what sense would they have become Christians? It is better to follow the text exactly Following Paul’s address, no one became a Christian on the spot. But some did become followers of Paul. In consequence, in due course they grasped the gospel and believed; they became Christians. This is entirely in line with the experience of many evangelists working in a university environment today.

A couple of years ago I spoke evangelistically at a large meeting in Oxford. So far as I know, no one became a Christian at that meeting. But sixteen students signed up for a six-week “Discovering Christianity” Bible study. A few weeks after the meeting, the curate, Vaughan Roberts, wrote me a note to tell me that eleven of the sixteen had clearly become Christians already, and he was praying for the remaining five. In other words, as a result of that meeting, some became “followers of Jesus,” and in due course believed. That is often the pattern when part of the evangelistic strategy is to establish a worldview, a frame of reference, to make the meaning of Jesus and the gospel unmistakably plain.

In short, however sensitive Paul is to the needs and outlook of the people he is evangelizing, and however flexible he is in shaping the gospel to address them directly, we must see that there remains for him irreducible content to the gospel. That content is nonnegotiable, even if it is remarkably offensive to our hearers. If it is offensive, we may have to decide whether it is offensive because of the intrinsic message or because we have still not done an adequate job of establishing the frame of reference in which it alone makes sense. But the gospel itself must never be compromised.


I offer three concluding reflections. First, the challenge of worldview evangelism is not to make simple things complicated but to make clear to others some fairly complicated things that we simply assume. This can be done in fifteen minutes with the sort of presentation Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne have constructed (in Chapter 6 of Telling the Truth – “Two Ways To Live”). It might be done in seven consecutive expositions running right through the first eight chapters of Romans. It might be done with the six months of Bible teaching, beginning with Genesis, that many New Tribes Mission personnel now use before they get to Jesus. But it must be done.

Second, the challenge of worldview evangelism is not primarily to think in philosophical categories, but it is to make it clear that closing with Jesus has content (it is connected with a real, historical Jesus about whom certain things must be said and believed) and is all-embracing (it affects conduct, relationships, values, priorities). It is not reducible to a preferential religious option among many, designed primarily to make me feel good about myself.

Third, the challenge of worldview evangelism is not primarily a matter of how to get back into the discussion with biblically illiterate people whose perspectives may be very dissimilar to our own. Rather, worldview evangelism focuses primarily on where the discussion goes. There are many ways of getting into discussion; the crucial question is whether the Christian witness has a clear, relatively simple, straightforward grasp of what the Bible’s story line is, how it must give form to a worldview, and how the wonderful news of the gospel fits powerfully into this true story — all told in such a way that men and women can see its relevance, power, truthfulness, and life-changing capacity.

*”Athens Revisited” was originally a lecture at a conference on the topic of Evangelism in a Post Modern Culture held on May 13-15, 1998 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois & sponsored by the Bannockburn Institute (www.biccc.org). All the lectures from this conference were published in the book: Telling The Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000; of which D.A. Carson was the general editor and the contributor of Chapter 28 from which this article is adapted.

About the Author: D. A. Carson (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His theology is similar to that of Wayne Grudem except on charismatic issues, where his view may be described as “open but cautious.” Carson’s tendency is to strive for balance and amicability in disputes but is uncompromising on the essentials of the faith. He is a complementarian but supports gender-neutral Bible translations. Carson also helped produce the NLT. He is the author or coauthor of over 50 books. Some of the plethora of outstanding books he has written includes: The Intolerance of Tolerance, The God Who Is There, ScandalousHow Long O Lord, A Call to Spiritual Reformation; The Cross and Christian Ministry; The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God; Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility; Exegetical Fallacies; For the Love of God; The Gagging of God; The Inclusive Language Debate; Introduction to the New Testament; New Testament Commentary Survey; Scripture and Truth (Ed. with John Woodbridge); Worship by the Book; Pillar Commentaries on Matthew and John and a contributor to Who Will be Saved. He also edits the New Studies in Biblical Theology book series.

Carson’s areas of expertise include biblical theology, the historical Jesus, postmodernism, pluralism, Greek grammar, Johannine theology, Pauline theology, and questions of suffering and evil. He has written books on free will and predestination from a generally compatibilist and Calvinist perspective. He is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, and the Institute for Biblical Research.

Dr. Carson and his wife, Joy, reside in Libertyville, Illinois. They have two children. In his spare time, Dr. Carson enjoys reading, hiking, and woodworking.

Book Review: The Pastor as Scholar and The Scholar as Pastor – John Piper and D.A. Carson (2011)

Two Men Focused on A Sovereign God and a Saving Gospel:

 This is a short book that I wish every pastor and theologian on the planet would read – especially American pastors and theologians. As an American pastor for over twenty years I have been, and am growing even more concerned over how pragmatism rather than theological foundations dominate our approach to life and ministry. The greatest movements throughout Church History have always occurred when godly men were consumed with the glory of God and through that focus were able to under gird their flocks with a solid foundation that prepared them for life via a robust belief in the Sovereignty of God and His glorious gospel and how that connects to all of life. This book demonstrates how two of the finest scholar-pastors in the 20-21st century make it happen. I long for a day when Theology will once again not be marginalized in our Institutions or Churches, but once again be deemed the “Queen of the Sciences” due to the efforts of men like John Piper, D.A. Carson, and those who will follow their lead – through their example as articulated in this wonderful book.

 The book consists of four chapters entitled:

1) “The Return of the Pastor Scholar” by Owen Strachan. In this brief introduction Strachan shows how history is replete with pastor-scholars, and scholar-pastors who demonstrate “that robust theology, so far from hindering the practice of ministry, actually enriches it, even as the practice of ministry enhances and increases one’s appreciation for theology.” John Piper and D. A. Carson fit this mold and he calls for pastors and scholars to be a “realistic combination” of both – scholarly and pastoral (practicing a theology of the heart, mind, and hands is the way I would put it).

 2) “A Personal Journey and the Joyful Place of Scholarship” by John Piper. Here Piper shares how his life and educational experiences combined to bring about the overarching theme of his life and ministry – “that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” He makes the point that he seeks to be like the apostle Paul in his ministry by “talking about his personal life and experience with God with a view to helping his listeners.” He then spends the large portion of the chapter answering the question: “What were the impulses toward scholarship and the pastorate?” Piper writes about the major writers, pastors, teachers, and experiences in his life that shaped him to study hard (he was not a naturally gifted student and shares his struggles) in order to communicate with sound logic and passion the glories of our all satisfying Savior and Lord. Piper gives us a fascinating glimpse into his personal life and what drew him into the pastorate after initially becoming a New Testament scholar. He calls pastors to strive for balance in their calling as scholars and the pastorate by becoming Christian Hedonists – bringing the head and heart in harmony by living for and declaring the glories of Christ in truth and passionate love for one’s flock. He articulates balancing the pastoral/scholarly life in this way, “Right thinking about God exists to serve right feelings for God. Logic exists for the sake of love. Reasoning exists for the sake of rejoicing. Doctrine exists for the sake of delight…If I were to claim the role of pastor-scholar, this is what I would mean by it. Think rightly and deeply about Word and the world with a view to seeing the greatness of God and his works (especially the work of Christ) so that the affections of our hearts might rest on a true foundation and God might be honored by how we feel toward him and by the behaviors that flow from his heart…If I am scholarly, it is not in the sense because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am far too limited for that. What ‘scholarly’ would mean for me is that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and to make him known for the joy of others…Surely this is the goal of every pastor.”

 3) “The Scholar as Pastor: Lessons from the Church and Academy” by D.A. Carson. Carson warns early on in this chapter, “Nothing is quite as deceitful as an evangelical scholarly mind that thinks it is especially close to God because of its scholarship rather than because of Jesus.” In other words, scholarship is not an end in and of itself but its pursuit must be out of love for Jesus and for what Jesus loves. There must be a balance of loving God with our minds and our hearts. Carson proceeds to give a dozen cautions, warnings, and vignettes of advice to scholars with the theme of accurately handling the Word and realizing the impact of lives that you influence for the sake of the church and culture via your research, writing, and mentoring influence for the generations to come.

4) “The Preacher, the Professor, and the True Pastor Scholar” by David Mathis. David Mathis shares how our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the perfect example of a pastor-scholar. Jesus perfectly models the function of the mind, heart, and hands in the Gospels. He is the one that all Christians want to emulate. Mathis gives some other examples of modern-day pastor scholars and calls those in the ministry to emulate their calling using our skills and talents to bring about a new reformation and concludes with a prayer with which I wholeheartedly concur, “So in charging pastors to be more serious about the life of the mind, and in challenging scholars to be more engaged with the life of the church, we conclude with this prayer, that all our thoughtful shepherding and all our pastoral scholarship may be to the great end of having the gospel message about Jesus dwell richly (Col. 3:16) both in us and in our people; that knowing Jesus would be the great end of all our pasturing and our scholarship; that we ourselves, in all our preaching, writing, studying, and counseling, would continue to see ourselves as the great beneficiaries of his great grace; that into eternity we would be followers of Jesus more and more shaped, saturated, and transformed by his person and work. To Jesus, the great pastor-scholar, be the glory. Amen”

This book was simply a delight to read by two of the men that have in the past, and in the present continue to radically shape and influence my developing Christological world-view and how thinking in a God-centered manner lays the foundation for everything in life. As a preaching pastor I owe a great debt to John Piper in helping me to find my joy and satisfaction in Christ above all things, and to D.A. Carson for helping me interpret the Scriptures so as to teach accurately the Christological significance of the Bible. Together – through their speaking and writing – they have allowed me to delve into the depths of God and helped me to better communicate His majestic sovereignty as exemplified in the glorious gospel.

Continuing in a long line of Scholar-Pastors in the mold of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones – Carson and Piper are a tremendous gift to the Church, and those who have yet to believe and follow Christ (even though they don’t know it). Through their prolific writing and speaking ministries in the Theological Institutions, Conferences, and the Church’s where they have served, Carson and Piper’s influence in promoting a robust Christo-Centric Theology is incalculable. My hope is that this book will be used by God to inspire pastors to be more scholarly in their endeavors, and for scholars to be more pastoral in their endeavors so that together we can stand on the shoulders of the pastor-scholars who have gone before us – so as to magnify the glory of God in Christ in our churches and penetrate the world with the soul satisfying gospel declared in the Scriptures.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher – Crossway Books – book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”