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Getting to Know D. A. Carson

His Life and Work

While many know D. A. Carson for his mind and his impressive scholarly writings, fewer have an intimate acquaintance with the heart that produces those works.[1] Carson’s inner disposition is particularly apparent in such writings as How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil and A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, which reveal a deeply personal faith.

Though Carson is a rather private person, those who know him well attest to his devotion to family and his true pastor’s heart. The noted scholar Colin Hemer, a personal friend, died in Carson’s arms. Carson’s eulogy for Hemer provides a moving testimony to his deep care for the spiritual welfare of those close to him.[2] Similarly, after hearing of the death of his mentor, Barnabas Lindars, Carson was genuinely moved, reminiscing at the beginning of a class for quite a while about his studies and personal conversations with Lindars while at Cambridge.

The intensity of his beliefs is evident in an autobiographical section of How Long, O Lord?, where Carson writes, “I would rather die than end up unfaithful to my wife; I would rather die than deny by a profligate life what I have taught in my books; I would rather die than deny or disown the gospel.”[3] To understand the true depth of D. A. Carson’s faith, it is important to recount in some detail his godly heritage.

His Godly Heritage

The second of three children, Donald Arthur Carson was born on December 21, 1946, to Thomas Donald McMillan Carson (Aug. 26, 1911–Oct. 26, 1992) and his wife Elizabeth Margaret (née Maybury; Jan. 6, 1909–Dec. 31, 1989).[4] In How Long, O Lord?, Carson describes the “just under the poverty line” type of family in which he grew up.

The father and mother love each other. They serve the Lord in a low-paying job where they feel they can exercise real ministry. Their modest (and rented) home is characterized by gratitude; their children are disciplined for ingratitude and shown by example how the Lord provides for his own. There is time to read and think and discuss. There is moral and emotional support (and sometimes material support as well) from the local church, and even an adventurous challenge to see how much can be invested in the “bank of heaven” (Matt. 6:19–21). I grew up in such a home. I did not find out how “poor” we were until I left home to go to university (funded by scholarships and part-time work; my parents certainly could not afford to send me).[5]

Yet Carson would not want anyone to think that his family heritage was one of “unmitigated godliness and joy.”[6] He qualifies his family “success” story by disclosing times of dramatic illness, financial strains, and moral and spiritual pressures: “The family quiet time was not always brilliant and scintillating; indeed, during particularly stressful periods of our lives it could disappear for days at a time.”[7] Yet these difficulties notwithstanding, Carson recollects the advantages of growing up in a home with parents who were “genuine and self-consistent.” He learned humility from his father, common sense from his mother, and value and proportion from both as they eked out a meager income on limited resources. In the end, Carson is forced to conclude that, “looking back on certain crucial turning points in the family’s life, a thoughtful historian would have to conclude that apart from the grace of God all three of us children could have turned out quite another way.”[8]

Tom Carson, Don’s father, was born in Carrickfergus, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, and immigrated with his family to Ottawa, Canada, in 1913. There Tom grew up under the influence of Calvary Baptist Church. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, he entered Toronto Baptist Seminary. During his years there, Tom developed an interest in evangelism and church planting in the province of Quebec. He graduated in 1937 and married in 1938. After a few years of service in an English-speaking congregation, Tom moved to Drummondville in 1948, where he established a bilingual church, Faith Baptist Church. The fifteen years spent in ministry in Drummondville were times of persecution, hardships, and a scarcely visible harvest. From 1963 until his death in 1992, Tom Carson continued serving in various forms of local church ministry, primarily at the Montclair Church in Hull, where the Carsons had moved.

In his moving tribute on the occasion of his father’s funeral, D. A. Carson expressed his gratitude for his father’s perseverance, his life of prayer, his uncomplaining spirit, and his generosity. “When Dad died,” Carson wrote,

there were no crowds outside the hospital, no notice in the papers, no announcements on the television, no mention in Parliament, no notice in the nation. In his hospital room there was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because Dad had stopped breathing and would never need it again. But on the other side, all the trumpets sounded. Dad won admittance to the only throne-room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man, but because he was a forgiven man.[9]

His Career to Date

D. A. Carson attended McGill University in Montreal from 1963 to 1967, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics. He was determined to make his mark as a chemist, though during a short tenure in a lab in Ottawa, Canada, Carson recalls that his imagination began to be captured by the challenges of a fledgling church plant up the valley where he had been volunteering. He remembers, as a significant turning point in his vocational calling, the words of a chorus he sang as a child playing incessantly in his mind:

By and by when I look on his face—
Beautiful face, thorn-shadowed face—
By and by when I look on his face,
I’ll wish I had given him more.[10]

As a result of a message preached on Ezekiel 22:30—“I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land” (NIV)—Carson recalls the intense conviction, stating, “It was as if God by his Spirit was compelling me to say, ‘Here, please send me!’”[11]

“It was as if God by his Spirit was compelling me to say, ‘Here, please send me!’”

He then earned a master’s in divinity from Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto. From 1970 to 1972 he pastored Richmond Baptist Church in Richmond, British Columbia, where he was ordained in 1972. The years 1972–1975 were spent in doctoral studies at Cambridge University under Barnabas Lindars. Carson’s doctoral dissertation bore the title “Predestination and Responsibility: Elements of Tension-Theology in the Fourth Gospel against Jewish Background.”[12]

During his time in Cambridge, Carson, like another well-known author before him, was “surprised by Joy.” To the amazement of Carson’s friends, who thought him too devoted to serious scholarship to be sidetracked by romance, Carson’s attraction to Joy Wheildon, a British schoolteacher, quickly grew, and on August 16, 1975, the two were married in Cambridge. For the next three years Carson served at Northwest Baptist Theological College in Vancouver, the first year as associate professor of New Testament, the following two years as the founding dean of the seminary.

A significant turn of events occurred when Kenneth Kantzer, the dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, heard Carson present a paper at a theological conference and asked him to join the Trinity faculty, where he has served for over thirty years. From 1978 until 1982 as an associate professor, from 1982 until 1991 as professor, and since 1991 as research professor of New Testament, Carson has bloomed into one of the most respected evangelical scholars in the early twenty-first century.

The Reception of His Biblical Scholarship

C. S. Lewis once remarked, “A man is ill-advised to write a book on any living author. There is bound to be at least one person and there are probably several who inevitably know more about the subject than ordinary research will discover. Far better to write about the unanswering dead.”[13] Reasons why the present essay is preliminary and limited could be multiplied. Thus readers should not view with any degree of finality the present attempt to assess D. A. Carson’s contribution to evangelical biblical scholarship to date.

Decades ago, Mark Noll, in his survey of evangelical scholarship, singled out Richard Longenecker and D. A. Carson as doing “the most seminal New Testament work by contemporary evangelicals.”[14] This assessment is becoming increasingly justified by the year. In the past, Carson’s productivity was made possible in part by Trinity’s generous sabbatical policies, which allowed him to spend every third year at Tyndale House, a research center for biblical studies in Cambridge, which Carson regards as his ultimate academic home. Apart from affording Carson time and opportunity to write, these sabbaticals also enabled him to maintain a truly international scope for his teaching and scholarship. He blends well into the academic setting in Britain and is accepted and sought after in university circles there. This involvement, together with his worldwide travels, has helped him to surmount the isolation from the rest of the world that continues to characterize much of North American biblical scholarship.

His Lasting Legacy

But how would D. A. Carson himself like to be remembered? When his mother died and he struggled as to whether he should fulfill a commitment to speak at a large missionary conference, he was led to reflect on his priorities: “Sometimes when I look at my own children, I wonder if, should the Lord give us another thirty years, they will remember their father as a man of prayer, or think of him as someone distant who was away from home rather a lot and who wrote a number of obscure books.”[15]

It is appropriate to conclude with Carson’s poem “The Finitude of Man,” which puts the entire human quest to understand God in its proper perspective:

I understand that matter can be changed
To energy; that maths can integrate
The complex quantum jumps that must relate
The fusion of the stars to history’s page.
I understand that God in every age
Is Lord of all; that matter can’t dictate;
That stars and quarks and all things intricate
Perform his word—including fool and sage.
But knowing God is not to know like God;
And science is a quest in infancy.
Still more: transcendence took on flesh and blood:
I do not understand how this can be.
The more my mind assesses what it can,
The more it learns the finitude of man.[16]

This article is adapted from Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century by Andreas J. Köstenberger, in honor of D. A. Carson on his 70th birthday.

Notes:

[1] The present essay represents a reworked, updated, and expanded version of “D. A. Carson,” in Bible Interpreters of the 20th Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices, ed. Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 423–33.
[2] D. A. Carson, “Colin John Hemer: In Memoriam,” Forum for the Association of Christians in Higher Education (Fall 1987): 56–60.
[3] D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 120.
[4] For a moving biography of Don Carson’s father written by Don himself, see D. A. Carson, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
[5] Ibid., 56; see also D. A. Carson, “Growing Up a ‘PK,’” Evangel 2, no. 4 (1984): 16–18.
[6] Ibid., 2.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] D. A. Carson, “Thomas Donald McMillan Carson: A Tribute,” Banner of Truth 356 (May 1993): 24. See also Carson, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, 148 et passim.
[10] D. A. Carson, “The Scholar as Pastor,” 5. This is a lightly edited manuscript of a talk originally delivered on April 23, 2009, at Park Community Church in Chicago (available online at http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/2009_scholar_as_pastor.pdf; accessed May 3, 2010). The audio and video can be viewed on the websites of the Henry Center, Desiring God Ministries, and The Gospel Coalition.
[11] Ibid.
[12] A revised and simplified form was published as D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981).
[13] Quoted in Brian Sibley, C. S. Lewis through the Shadowlands (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1985), 11.
[14] Mark A. Noll, Between Faith and Criticism, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 136.
[15] D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 26.
[16] D. A. Carson, Holy Sonnets of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 97. I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to my assistant Jake Pratt for his assistance in updating this essay.



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