D.A. Carson on the Pros and Cons of the Postmodern Hermeneutic

I was finishing up D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies this afternoon (I’m writing this on 2.1.16); and I came across a section in which Carson evaluates what he calls “The New Hermeneutic.” It reminded me of another place in Carson’s writings where he tackles the same issue. And I decided these were worth sharing here.

I appreciate Carson’s even-handed approach, noting both the cons as well as the pros. I find this refreshing because, while there are obvious issues with the postmodern hermeneutic (or “The New Hermeneutic,” or deconstructionism, or whatever else you want to call it) that we, as evangelical Christians, should find troublesome when taken to an extreme, postmodernity is not all bad. (I mean, we’re a bit naive if we want to reject all that postmodernity has brought to our attention in favor of clinging to modernity as if its ideas were pristinely Christian!)

But I digress. Let me share the two excerpts.

None of us interprets anything from an entirely neutral stance. One would have to enjoy the attribute of omniscience to be entirely objective. Insofar as it reminds us that we are finite, and that our findings, at some level, must always be qualified by our limitations, postmodernism has been a salutary advance. It has been especially useful in checking the arrogance of modernist claims. The problem is that in the hands of many interpreters, postmodernism demands a nasty antithesis: either we claim we can know objective truth exhaustively, or we insist that our finitude means we cannot know objective truth and therefore cannot truly “know” reality. Since finite human beings can never know anything omnisciently, only the second alternative is defensible. In that case, all our “knowledge” is a social or a personal construct; the only “reality” we can know is the one we construct.

There is a sense, of course, in which this latter claim is transparently obvious: the only “reality” we can know is the one we construct. But the crucial issue is this: Can this “reality” that we ourselves “know” be tightly aligned with objective reality? In other words, even though we finite human beings can never enjoy omniscient knowledge, can we not legitimately claim to know some objective things truly, even if we do not know them perfectly, exhaustively?

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D.A. Carson Illustrating the Difference Between Arminian and Calvinist Conceptions of Grace

In Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson dismantles an analogy by which Donald Lakes seeks to deny alleged differences between the Arminian and Calvinist understandings of grace. Carson then counters with an example of his own that helpfully exemplifies the difference that is truly at play.

Donald M. Lake, for example, in attempting to argue that grace is no weaker in an Arminian system than in a Reformed system, offers us the analogy of a judge who condemns a guilty criminal and then offers him a pardon. Although the man must accept it, such acceptance, argues Lake, cannot be thought of as a meritorious work, a work that in any sense makes the man deserving of salvation. “Calvin and later Calvinists,” he adds, “never seem to be able to see this fundamental distinction unfortunately!”

But to argue that the role of grace in the two systems is not different, Lake would have to change his analogy. He would need to picture a judge rightly condemning ten criminals, and offering each of them pardon. Five of them accept the pardon, the other five reject it (the relative numbers are not important). But in this model, even though those who accept the pardon do not earn it, and certainly enjoy their new freedom because of the judge’s “grace,” nevertheless they are distinguishable from those who reject the offer solely on the basis of their own decision to accept the pardon. The only thing that separates them from those who are carted off to prison is the wisdom of their own choice. That becomes a legitimate boast. By contrast, in the Calvinistic scheme, the sole determining factor is God’s elective grace. Thus, although both systems appeal to grace, the role and place of grace in the two systems are rather different. Lake fails to see this because he has drawn an inadequate analogy; or, more likely, the inadequacy of his chosen analogy demonstrates he has not understood the issue.

D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 121–122.

RECOMMENDED: “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New” by D.A. Carson

I just finished reading D.A. Carson’s chapter “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, volume 2 subtitled “The Paradoxes of Paul.” These two volumes, the first of which deals with the variegated nature of 1st century/Second Temple Judaism while the second addresses the interpretation of Paul himself, are a collection of essays which seek to respond to the claims made by what has been called the New Perspective on Paul (or better: New Perspectives [plural] on Paul).

The following is my attempt to summarize the main argument of the chapter:

Carson presents the “coherent tension” between mystery (which entails some degree of discontinuity) and fulfillment (which entails some element of preceding anticipation and thus continuity) in Paul’s thought and applies to a response to the proposals of the New Perspective.

He argues that the New Perspective on Paul, which in many ways views Paul as not diverting from Judaism but, rather, in essence advancing what could be understood as a sect of Judaism in continuity with Judaism and as fitting the criteria of “covenantal nomism,” fails to grapple with the way in which Paul’s thought, although containing a strong sense of continuity with the Old Testament and its religion, which is evidenced by Paul’s pervasive “fulfillment”-framework, nonetheless has strong currents of discontinuity, which are evidenced by his inclusion of mystery concepts alongside his “fulfillment”-framework.

In other words, he argues that the New Perspective on Paul, which stresses significant continuity between Paul and  Judaism and/or “covenantal nomism,” fails to handle with integrity the continuity and discontinuity framework in Paul, a framework evidenced by the existence of “mystery” and “fulfillment” concepts in Paul.

Although I have significant interest in the conversations and debates inspired by the proposals of New Perspective, I actually set out to read this chapter because of its interaction with matters pertaining to redemptive history, issues continuity and discontinuity, typology, the role of the law, the relationship between the Testaments, the concept of mystery in Paul and the NT, etc. Carson provides some helpful insights into these matters as he “utilizes” them in his interaction with the New Perspective.

In other words, if either the New Perspective or any of the other topics interests you, I’d add this essay to your reading list.