How Does D. A. Carson Define Theology?

What Does Carson Think the Theological Disciplines Are?

While D. A. Carson acknowledges that “theology can relate to the entire scope of religious studies,” he uses “the term more narrowly to refer to the study of what the Scriptures say. This includes exegesis and historical criticism, the requisite analysis of method and epistemology, and the presentation of the biblical data in an orderly fashion.”1 Theology “is disciplined discourse about God,”2 and the Bible “finally and irrevocably” constrains theology’s subject matter.3

Carson recognizes that his definitions of the theological disciplines (described below) “do not avoid overlap,” but his distinctions “are clear enough and are not novel.”4 So while there is not necessarily anything distinctly “Carsonian” to Carson’s theological method itself, it is worth analyzing for at least three reasons: (1) it differs significantly from how many other exegetes and theologians “do” theology, (2) it helps us understand the mechanics of how he does theology in his voluminous publications, and (3) it may help us improve our own theological method.

The Gospel and the Modern World

D. A. Carson, Brian J. Tabb

The Gospel and the Modern World brings together more than 30 of D. A. Carson’s essays from the evangelical theological journal Themelios, with contributions from colleagues Brian J. Tabb, Andrew David Naselli, and Collin Hansen.


Exegesis is “careful reading.”5 Exegesis “is the analysis of the final-form of a text, considered as an integral and self-referring literary object.”6 In other words, “Exegesis answers the questions, What does this text actually say? and, What did the author mean by what he said?”7 “All that exegesis is is reading the text to find out what’s there.”8 Exegesis includes but is not limited to parsing, word study, and syntax at various levels (clause, sentence, discourse, genre) while being sensitive to literary features and the running argument.9

In short, exegesis is open-ended. It is not the sort of thing about which one can say, “I have completed the task; there is no more to do.” Of course, in one sense that is exactly what can be said if what is meant is that the exegete has come to the end of the text. The exegesis is complete at that level of analysis, when the entire text has been analyzed. But exegesis itself is not a mechanical discipline with a few limited steps that, properly pursued, inevitably churn out the “right answer.” On the other hand, progressively sophisticated levels of exegetical analysis may rapidly illustrate the law of diminishing returns! Exegetes with this view are quite happy to speak of discerning the author’s intent, provided it is presupposed that the author’s intent is expressed in the text. Only in this way can the intentional fallacy be avoided. There is no other access to the author’s intent than in the text.10

Because Carson locates the text’s meaning in the authorial intention as found in the text, he distinguishes between interpretation (i.e., what the text meant) and application (i.e., what the text means).11 He is well aware that “truth is conveyed in different ways in different literary genres.”12 Carson’s dozens of exegetical works demonstrate his proficiency at exegesis.13

Biblical Theology

Biblical theology (BT) “is rather difficult to define.”14 For Carson, “BT answers the question, How has God revealed his word historically and organically?”15 BT may inductively and historically focus on the whole Bible or select biblical corpora.16 It involves a “salvation-historical study of the biblical texts (i.e. the understanding and exposition of the texts along their chronological line of development).”17 (“Salvation history” is “the history of salvation—i.e., the history of events that focus on the salvation of human beings and issues involving the new heaven and the new earth.18) At least five elements are essential:

  1. BT reads “the Bible as an historically developing collection of documents.”
  2. BT presupposes “a coherent and agreed canon.”19
  3. BT presupposes “a profound willingness to work inductively from the text—from individual books and from the canon as a whole.” Its task is “to deploy categories and pursue an agenda set by the text itself.”
  4. BT clarifies “the connections among the corpora”—that is, “it is committed to intertextual study . . . because biblical theology, at its most coherent, is a theology of the Bible.”
  5. “Ideally,” BT will “call men and women to knowledge of the living God”—that is, it does not stop with the Bible’s structure, corpus thought, storyline, or synthetic thought; it must “capture” the experiential, “existential element.”20

BT focuses on the turning points in the Bible’s storyline.21 It recognizes “seeds” in Genesis 1–3 that grow throughout the story,22 and it makes “theological connections within the entire Bible that the Bible itself authorizes.”23 BT’s most “pivotal” concern is tied to the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.24 One way to do BT is to “work really carefully with each biblical book or corpus by corpus,” and another is to track “themes that run right though the whole Bible.”25 Theologians, not least Old Testament scholars, must read the Old Testament “with Christian eyes.”26 Old Testament and New Testament theology are subsets of BT.27 BT “forms an organic whole”28 and serves as “an excellent bridge discipline, building links among the associated disciplines and in certain respects holding them together.”29 The study Bible that Carson edited shows how to do BT: the notes make biblical-theological connections, and the study Bible concludes with twenty-eight essays on biblical theology, most of which trace themes throughout the Bible’s storyline.30

Historical Theology

Historical theology (HT) answers the questions, How have people in the past understood the Bible? What have Christians thought about exegesis and theology? and, more specifically, How has Christian doctrine developed over the centuries, especially in response to false teachings? HT is concerned primarily with opinions in periods earlier than our own. But we may also include under this heading the importance of reading the Bible globally—that is, finding out how believers in some other parts of the world read the text. That does not mean that they (or we!) are necessarily right; rather, it means that we recognize that all of us have a great deal to learn.31

HT is “the written record of exegetical and theological opinions in periods earlier than our own, a kind of historical parallel to the diversity of exegetical and theological opinions that are actually current.”32 HT is “the diachronic study of theology, i.e. the study of the changing face of theology across time.”33

HT is valuable for at least five reasons: (1) it frees us “from unwitting slavery to our biases,” (2) “it induces humility,” (3) it “clears our minds of unwarranted assumptions,” (4) it “exposes faulty interpretations that others have long since (and rightly) dismissed,” and (5) it “reminds us that responsibly interpreting the Bible must never be a solitary task.”34

Systematic Theology

Systematic theology (ST) “answers the question, What does the whole Bible teach about certain topics? or put another way, What is true about God and his universe?”35

[ST] is Christian theology whose internal structure is systematic; i.e., it is organized on atemporal principles of logic, order, and need, rather than on inductive study of discrete biblical corpora. Thus it can address broader concerns of Christian theology (it is not merely inductive study of the Bible, though it must never lose such controls), but it seeks to be rigorously systematic and is therefore concerned about how various parts of God’s gracious self-disclosure cohere. . . . The questions it poses are atemporal . . . the focal concerns are logical and hierarchical, not salvation-historical.36

“ST is the most comprehensive of the various theological disciplines.”37 Everyone uses some sort of ST, and it is foolish to denigrate it. The issue is not whether ST is legitimate; the issue, rather, is the quality of one’s ST reflected in its foundational data, constructive methods, principles for excluding certain information, appropriately expressive language, and logical, accurate results.38

Carson’s approach to ST presupposes “that the basic laws of logic” are not human inventions “but discoveries to do with the nature of reality and of communication.”39 The Bible is like part of a massive jigsaw puzzle because it contains only a small fraction of the total number of pieces.40 More precisely, the Bible is like a massive “multi-dimensional puzzle beyond the third dimension.”41 ST “must be controlled by the biblical data” and must beware of going beyond “how various truths and arguments function in Scripture,” not least because “a number of fundamental Christian beliefs involves huge areas of unknown,” such as the incarnation, the Trinity, and God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.42

There is no other access to the author’s intent than in the text.

The Bible’s unity makes ST “not only possible but necessary,” and “modern theology at variance with this stance is both methodologically and doctrinally deficient.”43 An approach that recognizes this unity encourages “theological exploration” within the canon:

[J. I. Packer writes,] “There is . . . a sense in which every New Testament writer communicates to Christians today more than he knew he was communicating, simply because Christians can now read his work as part of the completed New Testament canon.” This is not an appeal to sensus plenior, at least not in any traditional sense. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that with greater numbers of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle provided, the individual pieces and clusters of pieces are seen in new relationships not visible before.44

Carson’s standard for good ST is high. Michael Horton asked Carson, “Do you think there has been a lot of polarization where systematicians aren’t always very good exegetes and exegetes aren’t very good systematicians?”45 Carson replied,

The danger springs from a culture of specialization—more and more knowledge about less and less—so that a person who really is on top of the exegetical literature quite frankly just doesn’t have time to be right on top of the systematic literature, and vice versa. I’ve sometimes told students who say they want to do a Ph.D. in systematic theology, that one doctorate won’t do—they’ll need at least five: one or two in New Testament, at least one in Old Testament, a couple in church history, one in philosophy, and then they can do one in systematics. That’s the problem—the nature of the discipline is integrative and synthetic. If instead people do systematics without any grasp of Scripture, they’re likely to cut themselves off from what they confess to be their authority base, and so they’re not really rigorous.46

Examples of how Carson systematically integrates the theological disciplines include his treatments of compatibilism and theodicy,47 Sabbath and the Lord’s Day,48 spiritual gifts,49 assurance of salvation,50 the love and wrath of God,51 the emerging church,52 and the Son of God.53

Pastoral Theology

Pastoral theology (PT) answers the question, How should humans respond to God’s revelation? Sometimes that is spelled out by Scripture itself; other times it builds on inferences of what Scripture says. PT practically applies the other four disciplines—so much so that the other disciplines are in danger of being sterile and even dishonoring to God unless tied in some sense to the responses God rightly demands of us. PT may well address such diverse domains as culture, ethics, evangelism, marriage and family, money, the cure of souls, politics, worship, and much more.54

PT applies (i.e., cross-culturally contextualizes) exegesis, BT, HT, and ST to help people glorify God by living wisely with a biblical worldview. Basically, PT answers the question, How then should we live?


  1. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology,” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983) 69.
  2. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, ed. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 40.
  3. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 44.
  4. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 70.
  5. “The Bible and Theology,” in NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 2321.
  6. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 46.
  7. “The Bible and Theology,” 2321.
  8. “R. C. Sproul Interviews D. A. Carson on Biblical Exegesis,” March 10, 2011,
  9. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 47.
  10. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 47–48.
  11. “Approaching the Bible,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 18.
  12. “Approaching the Bible,” 14.
  13. See “D. A. Carson’s Publications,” Gospel Coalition, July 24, 2014, http://www.thegospel
  14. “Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995): 17. See pp. 18–26 for a survey of six “competing definitions” of BT. For further reflections on defining BT, see “New Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology,” in God’s Glory Revealed in Christ: Essays on Biblical Theology in Honor of Thomas R. Schreiner, ed. Denny Burk, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Brian Vickers (Nashville: B&H, 2019), 17–31.
  15. “The Bible and Theology,” 2321.
  16. “Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective,” 20, 23. These are definitions two and three in Carson’s survey.
  17. “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 90. Cf. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 69; “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 45; Gagging of God, 502; “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 100–101.
  18. “A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible,” in NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 2325.
  19. Cf. “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 91–92, 95–97.
  20. “Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 27–32.
  21. Cf. Gagging of God, 193–314; Christ and Culture Revisited, xi, 36, 44–61, 67, 81, 202, 226; The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010).
  22. “Genesis 1–3: Not Maximalist, but Seminal,” Trinity Journal 39 (2018): 143–63.
  23. “The Bible and Theology,” 2321.
  24. “Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 39–41. Cf. “New Testament Theology,” 811; “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 97–98; G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, “Introduction,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), xxiii–xxviii; “The Hermeneutical Competence of New Testament Commentaries,” in On the Writing of New Testament Commentaries: Festschrift for Grant R. Osborne on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Eckhard J. Schnabel, Texts and Editions for New Testament Studies 8 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 166–68. See also G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Benjamin L. Gladd, and Andrew David Naselli, eds., Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2023).
  25. “What Is Biblical Theology? And Do We Need It?,” Desiring God, July 21, 2015, https://www For examples of tracing a God-designed typological trajectory through the Bible, see “Getting Excited about Melchizedek (Psalm 110),” in The Scriptures Testify about Me: Jesus and the Gospel in the Old Testament, ed. D. A. Carson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 145–74; “Why We Must Understand the Temple in God’s Plan Today,” Desiring God, July 22 2015,
  26. “Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 40–41.
  27. “New Testament Theology,” 796.
  28. “Approaching the Bible,” 1. Cf. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 83; “A Sketch of the Factors,” 26–27.
  29. “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 91. On the need for wisely integrating BT, see Christ and Culture Revisited, 59–62, 67, 71, 81–85, 87, 94, 121, 127, 143, 172, 207, 227.
  30. D. A. Carson, ed., NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018). For more information, see Andy Naselli, “NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible,” Andy Naselli (blog), August 18, 2015, See also one of Carson’s essays in that volume: “A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible,” 2325–27
  31. “The Bible and Theology,” 2321.
  32. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 56.
  33. “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 91.
  34. “The Bible and Theology,” 2322.
  35. “The Bible and Theology,” 2322.
  36. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 45–46. Cf. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 69–70; “Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 29; “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” 101–2.
  37. “The Bible and Theology,” 2324.
  38. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 78; cf. 92.
  39. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 80. Cf. Exegetical Fallacies, 87–88.
  40. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 81–82.
  41. “Current Issues in Biblical Theology,” 30.
  42. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 82, 93–94. Cf. “Approaching the Bible,” 17–18.
  43. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 95; cf. 90.
  44. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,” 91. Carson is sympathetic with Douglas J. Moo, “The Problem of Sensus Plenior,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 175–211, 397–405, an article that has recently been updated: Douglas J. Moo and Andrew David Naselli, “The Problem of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 702–46. Cf. “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” 56.
  45. D. A. Carson and Michael Horton, “Why Can’t We Just Read the Bible? An Interview with D. A. Carson,” Modern Reformation 19, no. 4 (2010): 33.
  46. Carson and Horton, “Why Can’t We Just Read the Bible?” 33.
  47. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility; “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in Philo: Analysis and Method,” Novum Testamentum 23 (1981): 148–64; How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006); review of Evil and the Justice of God, by N. T. Wright, Review of Biblical Literature (April 23, 2007); “BiblicalTheological Pillars Needed to Support Faithful Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil,” Trinity Journal 38 (2017): 55–77
  48. Carson coordinated and edited the project (what he calls “a unified, cooperative investigation” [18]) that resulted in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982); see esp. Carson, “Introduction” (13–19).
  49. Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 137–88.
  50. “Reflections on Assurance,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 247–76.
  51. Gagging of God, 238–42; The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000); “Love,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000); “How Can We Reconcile the Love and the Transcendent Sovereignty of God?” in God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God, ed. Douglas S. Huffman and Eric L. Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 279–312; Love in Hard Places (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002); “The Wrath of God,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 37–63.
  52. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. For example, while critiquing their idea of truth, knowledge, and pluralism, Carson uncharacteristically lists Bible verses with very little commentary and notes that the context of each passage supports his theses: fifty-two verses “on what is true” and eighty-eight “on knowing some truths, even with ‘certainty’” (188–99).
  53. Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  54. “The Bible and Theology,” 2322.

This article is by Andrew David Naselli and is adapted from The Gospel and the Modern World: A Theological Vision for the Church by D. A. Carson and edited by Brian J. Tabb.

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