As a young chemistry graduate, Dr. D.A. Carson planned to pursue a PhD in organic synthesis and begin a career in research.

When his pastor asked him to assist over the summer, he says, “I thought he had me confused with someone else. There were a number of young adults in our church who had decided to head into ministry. The pastor and I argued over my summer plans for close to two hours, and eventually I won. I spent my summer in a research lab.” Even so, the seed had been planted. Carson went on to become a pastor, author, seminary professor, and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition. 

Growing Up in the Faith

Carson didn’t shy away from ministry for lack of faith or spiritual upbringing. He was raised in a Christian home in French-speaking Québec, and his father was a Protestant minister. Carson doesn’t recall the precise moment of being saved. “Some of my earliest memories with respect to God were formed within a family that loved the Lord and talked about God daily. We had regular family devotions, and at bath time, my father told Bible stories. Every bath night we had a little review, and he would relate a little more of the Bible’s storyline. There was never a time in the family when God was not central.”

Carson believes that there is a time in every Christian’s life—remembered or not—when they cross over from death to life. “I think uncertainty of that moment is common for kids brought up in the faith. But God knows it, whether you can pinpoint it or not. I have a mental checklist of things to ask God someday, and one of them is, ‘When did you save me?’ I suspect he’ll say, ‘From before the foundation of the world, my son.’ ”

Being in the religious minority shaped Carson’s faith as a child. In Québec, the majority of citizens were Roman Catholic. “The Roman Catholic Church in Québec at the time was almost medieval in its outlook. There was a lot of opposition to the gospel. In the 1950s, Baptist ministers were sometimes put in prison. I was occasionally beaten up at school because I was considered a ‘maudit Protestant,’ or damned Protestant.”

Professors Training Pastors

Carson rethought his science career when he realized it didn’t inspire him the way it seemed to inspire his colleagues. “I enjoyed the work, had a good budget and a good project. But it wasn’t consuming me. I began to wonder where I should spend the rest of my life. Meanwhile, an old Sunday school chorus kept coming back to me: ‘By and by when I look on his face, I’ll wish I had given him more.’ ”

Carson is careful to underscore that God calls people to many vocations—Christians are and should be thriving in the sciences. But once he felt God calling him elsewhere, Carson enrolled in Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto (now called Heritage Baptist College and Seminary). He eventually moved on to pastor Richmond Baptist Church in Vancouver, Canada, where he remained for several years. At the same time, he taught courses at Northwest Baptist Theological College. “After some years in the ministry, I decided that if I were to get further training, I should do it while I was still relatively young and single. I went to Cambridge for a PhD in New Testament before coming back to Vancouver.” He served as dean at Northwest Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1978, Carson accepted a position as professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he’s been ever since.

In all his years at Trinity, Carson has only once been tempted to leave—when an opportunity arose to return to full-time pastoral ministry. “If I went to another seminary, I’d be doing a similar sort of thing. The Lord has placed me where I am for all kinds of reasons, and I don’t regret it in the slightest. But local church ministry is the front line. I’m in the business of training pastors. If I remain where I am, I can put in a greater percentage of time writing and in training pastors.” 

Carson sees a close connection between the academic and pastoral professions. “Seminaries exist first and foremost to train pastors, missionaries, and people of that order; training academics is a secondary concern. If all the teachers, professors, and lecturers are academic from beginning to end, they tend to reproduce their own kind. It’s necessary for a significant percentage of faculty members at any decent seminary to be made up of people who, at a very deep level, would prefer to be in pastoral ministry. That will affect how they teach, what they mirror, and how they handle Scripture. In retrospect, I can see the Lord’s wisdom in doing things in my life that gave me experience in evangelism, in church planting, and in pastoring.”

Prayer and Scripture

When spending time in the Word of God, Carson seeks a blend of devotional reflection and serious study. “It’s important to read the Bible regularly, faithfully, and devotionally. I’m a bit suspicious of an approach that advises people to think critically and academically only when they’re preparing a message or doing exegesis, but when reading devotionally to do so without taking notes or consulting a commentary—just to sit there feeling mystical. That’s a mistake.”

“Personal Bible reading ought to have oomph to it. If you don’t understand something, there’s nothing wrong with taking a commentary off your shelf so that you can understand the passage better. Likewise, if you’re preparing a message, there’s something wrong with a study so detailed and structured that it doesn’t include an element of reverence and fear. According to the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 66:2, God looks to those who are contrite and humble of spirit, and who tremble at his Word. Whether you’re writing a commentary or having your morning devotions, you ought to have the sort of reverence that is always God’s due.”

In his own devotional life, Carson says he’s never restricted himself to one way of doing things. “John Stott famously followed the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible reading scheme for the whole of his Christian walk. For quite a few years I strenuously followed it, and two of my books—volumes one and two of For the Love of God—came out of that time. Sometimes I use a portion of my devotional time to memorize a chunk of Scripture—a chapter or several chapters or a small book. A while ago I read and reread Proverbs, and collected them into various topical arrays so I could see what kind of emphases were there.” 

In one of Carson’s recent publications, Praying with Paul, he talks about his habit of making lists for prayer. Praying with Paul aims to deepen readers’ relationship with the Word of God in their prayer lives. “I wanted to address a fairly simple question: How do we learn to pray? We learn by the models around us. In my conservative family home, using the King James Bible, I learned to pray in Elizabethan English, or in slightly archaic French. Someone who is converted at a campus group meeting at age 23 with no Christian background will probably learn to pray less formally. But where are the best models from which we can learn? They are the prayers that God himself has left for us in Scripture. This book fastens on eight or ten of Paul’s prayers to see not only what he is praying, but also why. Are there patterns in the things that he’s praying for? There’s nothing wrong with praying about anything, but if we want to reform our prayers to be more in line with those of the apostles, we need to study the apostles’ prayers. I hope that, in working through the book, readers will learn to pray the prayers of the apostles in their own context.”

Biblical Interpretation

In 1996, Carson published Exegetical Fallacies, a book dedicated to uncovering common interpretation errors. The book has become popular in biblical studies courses and with pastors. Speaking about the importance of correct biblical interpretation, Carson says, “We are finite and limited in our understanding. Worse, we’re sinful, and we sometimes make mistakes to justify our own biases. We sometimes read the Bible to answer our own questions. We all come with a matrix of presuppositions, so it’s relatively easy to misinterpret Scripture.”

“The big picture of the Bible is straightforward. The trouble is, it’s a big book, written in several languages, with different layers and subtleties. It has different genres and literary forms. It’s easy for Bible readers—from young, immature readers to the greatest scholars—to have blind spots and be wrong. But if the Bible really is the Word of God, then there is nothing more important than handling it well. If the authority we Christians ascribe to the Bible is vested in a misinterpretation of what Scripture says, then we’re assigning the weight of biblical authority to our own opinions, which could be extremely damaging. Good biblical interpretation is bound up in the importance of hearing the voice of God and letting him set the agenda, rather than dictating our biases to God.”

Of course, even careful, devout reading of Scripture can lead to two interpretations. “At that point, we don’t simply ask which interpretation we prefer, but ‘Are they both mandated in the biblical text?’ If so, then these two differing interpretations must complement each other in some way.” 

“Although it is true that the Bible rejoices in certain kinds of diversity—for example, around the throne on the last day there will be men and women from every town and tribe and nation—yet we mustn’t forget the importance of unity. Ten times in the little book of Philippians, Paul tells people to think the same thing. You don’t build church unity by ignoring differences, but by doing the hard work of bringing things back to the test of Scripture over and over again.”

“Some parts of Scripture can be pretty straightforward in terms of what they mean, yet complex in terms of the various ways in which they might be applied. A proverb tends to fall into that category. It can be worked out in quite a variety of different contexts. In that case, it’s not so much a matter of different interpretations as of different applications. The best applications are those that are heavily, carefully grounded in the Bible’s whole storyline.”

The Gospel Coalition

Carson’s most recent endeavor has been co-founding and leading The Gospel Coalition, along with New York pastor and author Tim Keller. Over coffee together in 2002, the two men discussed the broadening definition of the term “evangelical” and the possibility of creating an organization that would represent an “institutional center that was faithful to the historic confessional understanding.” 

Five years later, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) officially launched, and since then it has grown exponentially. Humanly speaking, two of the key reasons for their success, Carson says, were the combination of theological robustness with courtesy, and the early decision to make all their online resources free. “Making that decision early on changed the way we built structures and finances. We also found that people were looking for what we were offering: a serious understanding of Scripture—doctrinal robustness, not lowest common denominator theology.”

While it might seem that avoiding “lowest common denominator theology” would alienate all who don’t agree with Carson and Keller’s specific brand of reformed evangelicalism, Carson says it instead pushes for healthy discussion and room for disagreement. “All of us carry some baggage, and we want to make sure we are corrected by Scripture. Where our statement of faith and theological vision of ministry articulate a particular stance, we expect council members to reflect that stance faithfully. In other areas, we want to acknowledge that we don’t see eye to eye, but we continue to bring issues to the test of Scripture. If we find we still disagree, we’ll disagree as Christians, under the authority of Scripture. We want to have serious public discussions rather than adopting a position that says, ‘We can’t talk about these things lest a fight breaks out.’ ”

In addition to encouraging the American church to grow deep theological roots, Carson is interested in helping Christians around the world grow in understanding the gospel. “The digital world does not respect international boundaries. As people from other countries began following us online, we have seen sister organizations develop in many countries and languages. They’ve cropped up in Germany, France, Poland, Australia, Brazil, and other places; they agree with our statement of faith and theological vision; and they have access to our technical resources. But in all other respects they’re independent. It’s more than a little humbling to see what God has done.”

While an internet presence has been vital to TGC’s growth, Carson recognizes that the digital world has its limits. To provide resources to Christians in parts of the world without reliable electricity and internet, TGC turned to print. “In the last few years we’ve distributed about half a million books in 30 different languages—all of it free to users. We work with many publishers to choose materials that are biblically and theologically rich, but that are also suitable to the needs of the culture.”

Wherever he ministers, Carson is determined to do so with a “clear gospel-centeredness. When we’re dealing with virtually any subject, our primary concern is how it relates to the gospel. The gospel, rightly understood, makes disciples, not just converts.”   

 
Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.


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