DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

This morning I attended a three-hour seminar given to pastors in Akron, Ohio about the Emerging Church. The speaker was D.A. Carson, esteemed New Testament scholar from my alma mater, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It’s been three years since Carson first gave this same basic lecture at Cedarville College, and little has changed. I listened to those lectures in astonishment back then; I listened to this lecture with astonishment today.

Why am I astonished?

Because Carson, known worldwide as a top-notch scholar, is still offering a poorly thought-out critique of the Emerging Church. His critique was full of straw-man arguments and cheap shots. This from a world-renowned scholar?

I ate lunch with him and six other men. I sought to get a more nuanced take on the EC in a smaller-group context. Instead, he simply said that he won’t lose any sleep over people who don’t want to take his criticism. He knows he’s right and they are wrong, and his presumption is that if they have any issues with his critique, they just are not listening hard enough.

It was a slap in my face. I sat there for three hours, took nine (9!) pages of notes, wanted to engage in some dialogue about his criticism, and he dismissed me as one that was not listening to his lecture well enough.

Next: A look at some of Carson’s critique.

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06

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Anonymous said...

I am so saddened by his response, but I am not all that surprised though. Carson said roughly the same thing when he was approached by someone he "took to task" in his book. When the person asked to dialogue a bit about what his critique was, he refused to even enter into conversation.

How very, very sad. Also quite telling.

Graeme Codrington said...

I have not met Carson or listened to him live. But, my response to his book on emerging church was similar to your perception. He is paranoid about postmodernism - yet, his paranoia is about a version of postmodernism that doesn't actually exist - he has created the monster for himself (a straw man).

Those who defend Carson seem to equally work in urban legends and heresay.

Having said that, one of the reasons Carson can get away with it, is there is no hierarchy in the emerging church that can respond "on its behalf". That will emerge soon, I suggest... :-)

You may be interested in a short post, and the interactions at http://www.futurechurch.co.za/item/emerging-church-emerging-a-different-voice#more

Anonymous said...

Does Carson himself have a blog where he responds to friends and foes alike or is he into one way conversations?

Bob Robinson said...


It is difficult to explain to people who have not interacted with the D.A. Carson one-on-one how he often seems very arrogant.

Asked in Q & A whether he and Brian McLaren have talked, he smirked and explained that they had, and that afterword McLaren had sent him a very long e-mail. Carson said that he returned the e-mail refuting all of his points and that McLaren, at that point, said that he wasn't interested in talking anymore. To the audience, it made McLaren out to sound arrogant and unwilling to take criticism.

But anyone who has interacted with Brian McLaren knows that, though he is not afraid to speak his mind, he has a gentle spirit. He is always willing to talk to anyone about what he thinks. However, when confronted in such an arrogant manner (Carson is always right, and McLaren is always wrong), McLaren would rather step away and not continue in such contentious discourse. McLaren has come to know what conversations are simply confrontational, and which ones will actually bring understanding. I've talked to McLaren about Carson, and he told me he is honestly hurt by what Carson says and he feels that Carson simply will not seek to understand his point-of-view.

Now, I have a lot of problems with Brian McLaren's theology (and i've told him so), but I appreciate his honest and intellectual grappling with it. I don't just write him off since he doesn't agree with everything I believe.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for your input and the link.

Actually, I think that Carson has a pretty good handle on postmodernity. And I think that much of his cautions about it are valid. He understands that "hard postmodernism" can be a threat to the gospel, and he is sympathetic to "soft postmodernism." And he is also not a big fan of modernity, correctly assessing its shortcomings (though I think he is more "modern" than he knows or admits he is).

However, when critiquing Christians or a Christian movement, it seems that it is a matter of grace and courtesy to properly understand their positions. He indeed built a number of straw men and proceeded to burn them down with arguments that I've actually heard those in the EC use! In other words, he would say the EC believes such-and-such and burn that down, while I'm thinking, "Not all ECs think that, and in fact, a number of ECs say exactly what Carson just said to refute it".

And, the point you make in the post you linked us to is excellent - "Allow it to emerge. After all, the Reformation didn't have a completely worked out theology the day after Luther posted his theses did it?"

Carson feels, quite obviously, that the Reformers (especially Calvin) got it right, and that all Christianity (past, present, and future) must be judged on the standard of their theology. But Calvin and Luther had some very strange ideas swimming in their heads along with the stuff that Carson likes. The Reformation didn't just appear one day, it "emerged" as well.

Bob Robinson said...


Carson, you must understand, is a man nearing retirement age. He rarely even looks at the Internet, let alone blogs.

He joked that one of his grad assistants googled Carson's name and found the link "Beware of D.A. Carson." He didn't do it - the grad assistant did it. He has said on a number of occasions that he simply doesn't have the time to do so.

His world is the world of biblical scholarship. That world is where you research and publish books and papers and articles. And then, when somebody has a critique of what you've written, they publish a book, paper, or article. It is a slow and meticulous process.

In contrast, the blog world allows people to publish instantaneously, with interaction occuring instantaneously. This is a different world from which Carson lives.

Sivin Kit said...

This is sad. Much to learn from this post.

Lord have mercy

Bob K said...

Somehow I feel Bob Robinson may have captured what's eating Carson more than anyone else :

In contrast, the blog world allows people to publish instantaneously, with interaction occuring instantaneously. This is a different world from which Carson lives.

That is perhaps true of many folks and might help us look at him a bit more graciously and sympathetically.


Bob K

brad brisco said...


thanks for sharing this, this is certainly not a "genuine" approach to critque. I have seen Carson do this before, thanks for what you are doing.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong about Carson; he has talked with McLaren and felt hurt at being rebuffed. You shouldn't judge him on hearsay.

Bob Robinson said...


My hope would be that nobody would ever get rebuffed.

I am not judging him on hearsay; I have interacted with him, and this is my story.

Also, I have talked with Brian McLaren, and I am just sharing with you his story.

I judge what I believe happened based on the established modes of operation of the two parties.

Anonymous said...

brettsky2002, I can back up Rob on this since I've also personally asked Brian about his interaction with Carson. They didn't resolve anything and although my impression is this was because Carson didn't want to genuinely dialogue, Rob may well be right that a key reason for this may be the difference in the peronsal approaches to technology. Brian understands email and blogs and the citizen publishing revolution and how that's affected Christians (and interacts with all of it) whereas Carson would seem not to.

Rob, over at Emergent Africa we're asking how this debate affects us in South Africa, since we've been visited by McLaren (twice) and Carson (once) and the mainstream opinion of the emerging church conversation is shaped by which of the two is more respected by those who've just heard about it. I believe Carson is doing massive damage to our local conversation even though he's critiquing an American version of it.

Matt Mitchell said...

DA Carson is one of my theological heroes. Few men have had a deeper influence on my way of thinking and understanding of the message of the Bible.

And I count Bob Robinson as one of my friends.

This puts me in a quandry.

It's hard to see two men that I respect have such a divide in their thinking.

Knowing Carson's mind and love of the Lord and Scripture, I assume that he's got some good, solid points that need listening to. (I haven't read his book yet, but everything else he writes is careful, scholarly, and helpful.)

And knowing Bob's sensitivity to active personal grace, I can't help assume that Carson has been lacking in it to some degree.

It's also frustrating to hear that the communications between Carson and McClaren have broken down.

-Matt Mitchell

Bob Robinson said...


You've captured my quandry as well.

When I got my M.Div. at TEDS (the seminary at which Carson teaches), everyone around me (including myself) were very influenced by Carson. We read his commentaries, his classes were always closed out because everyone wanted to take them.

There was no denying that he sure was passionate about the Bible and about ministry. And that passion is a good passion, and it is contagious. Trinity students have those same passions.

So, in light of that, I have been very astonished at his handling of the Emerging Church.