D. A. Carson recently wrote this article, which was published by the Gospel Coalition. I feel like he is writing against theologies that I hold to, and therefore I should respond. My response will be from a personal perspective with the goal that Reformed theologians will be willing to have a dialog with people who have different theologies rather than use caricatures.
Let us start with the introduction. I have no problem setting myself against traditional evangelicalism and reformed thought. After all their tradition has existed only for the last five hundred years. In the past I would have identified myself as evangelical, but of late there are many groups who seek to define evangelicalism around themselves and exclude the rest. Rather than debate what is evangelicalism, I would rather focus on what the scriptures say and go further back in history to the early church. So Carson is right, I do claim to be more Biblical and faithful to the Christian tradition.
The main thrust of my article will be to show that Carson is not really hearing us well and that he is lumping us with people who we have big differences with. In Carson’s article he lays down six challenges which he responds to. Below you will my responses to Carson’s six challenges.
Carson: The kingdom, especially as emphasized in the Synoptic Gospels, is often tied to communitarian ethics rather than individual ethics. By contrast, Paul downplays the kingdom and focuses rather more on individual salvation. This has played into the individualism of the West, which must be resisted by restoring a return to Jesus himself, achieving a better balance with Pauline emphases.
My response: Here is one of those places where not just Carson but other Reformed theologians get me wrong. I do not pit Jesus against Paul, in fact it is their misunderstanding of Paul that causes them to interpret me wrong. The Kingdom of God is the context where both commnutarian as well as individual ethics are practiced. In fact the Bible does not make a distinction between communitarian ethics and individual ethics, but reformed theology does. I also do not like talk of ethics, because ethics is something that can be practiced apart from the Kingdom of God. Rather I would describe our way of life as being witnesses of the Kingdom. Paul does not downplay the Kingdom, he speaks within the context of the Kingdom. Reformed theologians need to get this. The letters that Paul writes, are to churches that have already heard the Gospel of the Kingdom (Think Matthew, Mark and Luke). When Paul writes to a Church, he does not need to repeat the Gospel all over again, he simply addresses their individual situation, within the Gospel which Jesus preached. Because reformed theology has taken out salvation out off the context of the Kingdom, they have gotten salvation wrong. The issue is not maintaining a balance between Jesus and Paul, but understanding Paul who wrote within the context of Jesus’ ministry. In Carsons response to the challenge, he claims that we pit ethics against atonement. Again, I don’t do that. Because of atonement we can enter the Kingdom of God. We live our lives righteously, as witnesses of the Kingdom, because we are in the Kingdom. Finally Carson thinks I extract ethics out of the narratives. What I get from the narratives is what a righteous life looks like. Reformed theologians seems to think that we get “ethics” only from teachings, not from narratives. I would like them then to obey Jesus’ teaching “follow me”, because when Jesus said that he expected us to do things he did when here on earth.
Carson: The kingdom is bound up with a way of looking at reality that undermines the perceptions of the fallen and broken world order. Many of the “parables of the kingdom” have this fundamental reversal at their core, so it turns out that the last are first and the wild and wayward son is given the party. In this kingdom, we do not govern the way the world does: the one who wishes to lead must be the slave of all, even as Christ came not to be served but to serve (Matt 20:20–28). The kingdom-cross has more to do with ethics, especially the ethics of reversal, than with atonement.
My response: I can agree with how Carson describes here until we get to the last statement. He once again says we pit ethics against atonement. The reason why Carson sees me as doing this, is because he understands atonement apart from the Kingdom of God. In John 1:29-42, Jesus is seen as both the person who takes away the sin of the world and as the Messiah, or King. Interestingly, in Carson’s response to the Challenge, he makes no mention of atonement, which proves what I said earlier that Reformed theology does not see atonement as related to the Kingdom. They speak of salvation apart from the Kingdom.
Carson: With the triumph of Christ achieved on the cross and through his resurrection, the kingdom has dawned—a glorious anticipation of the spectacular glory of resurrection existence in the new heaven and new earth. That means Christ’s people are mandated to begin now to work out the dimensions of righteousness and justice that will be consummated at the end: saying “No” to raw power, caring for the poor and needy, reversing discrimination, being good stewards of the created order that anticipates the consummated created order. All of this is the mission of Jesus.
My response: I can agree with what Carson said here of my theology, but it still betrays how much he misunderstands me. First off, I would not separate righteousness and justice from each other. To understand the full meaning of Biblical righteousness would be a really long article. Also we simply don’t say no to worldly power. We are saying yes to the power that has been revealed through Jesus, who has triumphed over all the worldly powers, Col 2:15. Our mission is to triumph over these worldly powers (Eph 6:12) just as Jesus did.
Carson: The clear command of Jesus is to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness—and Jesus makes clear, not least in the Sermon on the Mount, that this entails a range of shocking ethical transformations: turning the other cheek to violence, recognizing that the heart is more fundamental than mere action, and forgiving others (because, quite frankly, we will not be forgiven unless we do). This stance is often associated with the Anabaptist movement, whether in its more traditional guise or in its Hauerwas form. The broad pacifism Jesus mandated finally means that the church in some measure, in some way, must withdraw from the world: our job is not to transform culture, but to constitute a new people, to live by the shaping constraints and privileges of the kingdom. It is not our job to tell the world what to do, or even to figure out how to interact with the broader culture; it is simply our job to be the people of God.
My response: Again most of what Carson’s says of me is right, except for where he says, we withdraw from the world and not engage it. I think using the word withdraw is too broad. There is a sense that we are called to be holy, to set ourselves apart and not be of the world. But we are still called to bring the whole witness of Christ upon it. The world needs to see our light and feel our saltiness. We should tell the world what to do, which is to repent and follow Christ and to seeks his Kingdom and righteousness. We do not seek to transform culture, but to transform people, who in turn change culture.
Carson: A postmillennial anticipation of the coming of the kingdom, combined with either a soft sphere-sovereignty (think Kuyper) and/or with some form of theonomy, develops its own ways of thinking about the transformation of the culture.
My response: No, I don’t believe this. I expect something cataclysmic to happen. After all we are going to clothed with immortality.
Carson: At a popular level (think “Left Behind”), it is still not uncommon for some to think of the kingdom as virtually an exclusive reality, so that terms like “gospel” and “church” may be nicely tied to this generation, but “kingdom” has to do with the future, millennially conceived or not.
My response: Again not my stance. You are lumping me with dispensationalists? I actually lump dispensationalists and theonomists with reformed theology.
The purpose of this article is to show that Carson and by extension other reformed theologians are not listening properly to how people have challenged them. I hope they have some real dialog with those outside of the reformed camp, about the Kingdom of God.