Book Review: The Gospel According to John by D. A. Carson

The Gospel According to John by D. A. Carson.  Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.  715 pp., hardback.

D. A. Carson, long a professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is among the most prolific of contemporary Evangelical Christian writers, creating a rapidly growing mass of publications of a consistently high quality.  And this present volume is no exception.  His earlier extensive commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, is equally meritorious, if not more so.

One marked characteristic of Carson’s writings is the demonstration of a manifestly thorough acquaintance with virtually anything and everything of relevance or significance in the secondary literature–books, articles, Festschriften, even of the most obscure and esoteric sort.  And yet this strength is at once Carson’s biggest “weakness”–he gives too much attention to articles and writers whose opinions are so frequently demonstrated to be unsound, ill-considered, warped or otherwise unworthy of serious consideration.  In this commentary, Carson far more frequently quotes, references, and notes opinions and views of liberals, neo-orthodox and other and sundry heterodox writers than he does of conservative scholars and commentators.  Repeatedly, when Carson notes that “most commentators think, . . .” (noting some anti-orthodox view) he means most liberal commentators, and the uninformed neophyte reader may well erroneously assume that this inclusive term also covers conservative commentators which indeed it does not.  After coming across in the text for the tenth or fifteenth time Carson pointing out the grave defects in the interpretation of Bultmann or Beasley-Murray or Brown or Kaeseman, I threw up my hands and said, “If these guys are so far wrong so frequently”–and they certainly were–“why give them so much attention, or any at all?!”  Perhaps Carson is driven by a compulsion to inter-act and refute the claims of these heresy-mongers in order to defuse their arguments in the eyes of students and others under their influence.  There is some merit in such an enterprise.  I trust however that Carson has no delusions that he will actually succeed in persuading such false teachers and writers of the error of their views.

For all that, Carson’s own views are thoroughly orthodox and conservative–he argues for a first century date of the Gospel (circa 85 A. D.), the traditional identification of the otherwise unnamed author as John the son of Zebedee, the unity of authorship, without a body of subsequent revisers and editors, and the inerrancy of Scripture, the full Deity of Christ, the reality of miracles and predictive prophecy, and the rest.  He also argues that John was aware of the Synoptics–certainly at least Mark and probably Luke–and wrote with them in mind (by way of contrast conservative commentator Leon Morris in his The Gospel according to John in the NICNT [Eerdmans, 1971] series takes the opposing view, namely that John wrote with no knowledge of the Synoptics. Carson’s view is the more persuasive).

Analysis of textual variants is not one of Carson’s strengths and he fails to thoroughly and correctly present or analyze the evidence on more than one occasion (pp. 152, 157, etc.).  He several times misunderstands the proper force of the Greek aorist (namely, simple occurrence, rather than completed action as Carson asserts–see pp. 519, 520, for example; Morris errs regarding the aorist, too, and repeatedly [pp. 262, 365, 728, etc.]).  Carson surprisingly (p. 155) allows that “Messiah” is a Hebrew word, instead of, as it is in reality, an Aramaic word, which he also allows for (the Hebrew form is “Mashiach”; a surprising number of scholars make the mistake of saying “Messiah” is a Hebrew word, including Morris, [p. 134 of his commentary], which to me is inexplicable).  Nor does he give sufficient attention to ancient versions of John, or to the illumination that ancient Jewish literature can cast on the interpretation of the text (all of Carson’s references to Jewish literature seem to be from secondary sources, rather than such gleaned from his own reading of primary sources).  When Psalm 22 comes under discussion (e.g., p. 612), it seems that Carson opts for the idea that Psalm 22 was composed with reference to some event in David’s life, and is applied only by way of accommodation to events in the life of Jesus, rather that as a strictly prophetic prophecy of them; here I think Carson wholly in error.  Carson strongly rejects “Gordon’s Calvary” and the adjoining “Garden Tomb” as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, opting instead for the traditional (and I think indefensible) “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” site.  And naturally, there are scattered interpretations here and there from which I dissent (as is to be expected from any commentary).  Stylistically, Carson works to death the term “unpack” in the sense of “explain, expound, unfold” the meaning of a text.  On the other hand, in his too-brief discussion of monogenes (traditionally mistranslated “only-begotten” but in reality meaning “unique, one-of-a-kind,” and by extension “dear, precious” in some contexts), Carson is correct (see on 1:14, p. 128); in truth, Carson’s view, expressed also in his The King James Version Debate (Baker, 1979; p. 92), early on influenced in part my investigation and thinking in regard to this word when I read that book in 1979.  And Carson rightly dismisses John 15:26, 27 as contextually irrelevant to the ages’ old dispute between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church over “the procession of the Holy Spirit” (the filioque controversy that precipitated the split in 1054 A. D.)

Carson’s strength then is in surveying the current literature regarding the interpretation of John, and in stating what the text does mean.  He does not present much in the way of gleanings from conservative commentators, and in spite of occasional flashes of spiritual warmth, there is, however, little of application here to aid the preacher or teacher preparing sermons.

In sum, Carson’s commentary on John takes its place along side that by Leon Morris as probably, all things considered, the two best conservative technical commentaries on John in English written in recent decades.  They will be consulted with profit, though they are not all that one would desire or need.

Doug Kutilek

Some quotes from The Gospel According to John by D. A. Carson–

“It is remarkable that everywhere Mary [the mother of Jesus] appears during the course of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is at pains to establish distance between them.” (p. 171)

“It is not the Christian doctrine of heaven that is the myth, but the humanist dream of utopia.” (p. 385; quoting Roy Clements)

“If self-righteousness sometimes snuffs out genuine compassion, it must also be admitted, with shame, that social activism, even that which meets real needs, sometimes masks a spirit that knows nothing of worship and adoration.” (p. 429)

“Doubtless when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet he included the feet of Judas Iscariot.  It this proves anything beyond the unfathomable love and forbearance of the Master, it is that no rite, even if performed by Jesus himself, ensures spiritual cleansing.” (p. 466)

“Orthodoxy without principal obedience to this characteristic command of the new covenant [i.e. love one another] is merely so much humbug.” (p. 485)

“The world is a society of rebels, and therefore finds it hard to tolerate those who are in joyful allegiance to the king to whom all loyalty is due. . . .Those who preach Jesus’ gospel and live in progressive conformity to his own life and teaching will attract the same antagonism that he did.” (p. 525)

“The rejection of Jesus’ words (15: 22) and works (15:24) is thus the rejection of the clearest light, the fullest revelation, and therefore it incurs the most central, deep-stained guilt.” (p. 526)

“Because of this theme of the finality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the church has always been rightly suspicious of claims of still further definitive revelation that is binding on the consciences of all Christians.” (p. 539)

“Although the unity [i.e. of believers] envisaged in this chapter [John 17] is not institutional, this purpose clause at the end of v. 21 shows beyond possibility of doubt that the unity is meant to be observable.  It is not achieved by hunting enthusiastically for the lowest common theological denominator, but by common adherence to the apostolic gospel, by love that is joyfully self-sacrificing, by undaunted commitment to the shared goals of the mission with which Jesus’ followers have been charged, by self-conscious dependence on God himself for life and fruitfulness.” (p. 568)

This review was written by Doug Kutilek and originally appeared in his e-mail publication:  As I See It.  This review is used with permission.  AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at: DKUTILEK@juno.com.  You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address.  Back issues sent on request.  All back issues may be accessed at http://www.KJVOnly.org.

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