I'm Sorry, Dr. Carson
Dr. Donald Carson is a renowned New Testament scholar. All who work in biblical studies know his name and recognize his work. Yet, this story doesn’t begin there.
It begins instead with my writings, which are not quite so renowned. In a 2014 work, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity (Wilmore, KY: Francis Asbury), I felt like I was gathering my sling and a stone when I went against the giant, D.A. Carson, on the doctrine of predestination. I constructively criticized his interpretation of John 1:9 which “must discount the universality of the passage” (p.30). I highlighted his admission for a “strong predestinarian strain” in John’s gospel (p. 42). Finally, I challenged his notion that John 6:44 describes Jesus’ drawing only of the elect (p. 44). As a subordinate but sagacious scholar, I was careful to understand his points accurately, to choose the best rhetoric for engaging his writing, and to ensure that my argument in these paragraphs was sturdier than David fitting into Saul’s armor. And I stand by these opinions. Even though I predicted the titan would not even bother to taunt the shepherd exegete, I was careful. Such is what a novice miniature does when choosing to take on a veteran giant.
However, on another New Testament front, his knowledge caught me. In a new 2018 work, Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing their Lives and Legacies (Grand Rapids: Baker), I naturally provided a definition of an apostle and I kept it simple (p.27). The lexicon of Liddell and Scott was employed to recognize “I send off or away from” as the meaning of the Greek apostellō. I had no difference of opinion to actively engage this great New Testament scholar this time—he didn’t even cross my mind. I simply produced the root and advanced the definition of apostle. But the good doctor caught me.
In his important work, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1996), D.A. Carson had used the very example of my use of apostle as a “root fallacy” in which someone limits the root of a word to the definition of a lexicon. While the etymology was right, the scope was fallacious. “Actual usage in the New Testament suggests that apostolos commonly bears the meaning special representative or a special messenger” (p.30). Now, I want to declare the Koine Greek word, skubala, “crap,” and I can declare it without fallacy: Dr. Carson caught me in untidy exegesis.
Oh, the book, the page, the passage, or the point is not ultimately compromised. Not at all. Instead, this act of mine goes to exegetical excellence and scholarly form. As a foundational definition for the work, I missed the opportunity to enhance the powerful notion of an apostle as a messenger, one sent forth armed with the good news. While the book perpetuates the mission of the apostles as inseparable from their message (pp.26-38), the foundational etymology is lacking.
The irony is that while I carefully fenced against a greater scholar with a keen blade over the New Testament intentions of salvation, I rode my horse in backwards and was jousted off by his 1996 publication on exegesis. I am a proud owner of Exegetical Fallacies, and the book was required reading for a seminary course. Yet, if our exegesis isn’t characterized by humility, then our faith is weaker for it.
And so, to a great scholar whose work I normally use with regularity and immense respect, I confess that I’m sorry, Dr. Carson.