Christ and the Academy: An Interview with D.A. Carson
by D.A. Carson
Tabletalk: When did God call you to ministry and what were the circumstances that surrounded your call?
D.A. Carson: I was well into a degree in chemistry at McGill University, with well-formed plans to pursue a PhD in organic synthesis, when the Lord began to tug me in another direction. God used several independent influences. The first was the pastor of the church I was attending in Montreal. He told me one summer that he wanted me to serve as his apprentice. I told him that he probably had me confused with someone else. After all, there were several in our college-and-careers group who were contemplating pastoral ministry, but I wasn’t one of them. He assured me that he had not made a mistake—I was the one he wanted. We had a substantial argument, and I “won.” I did not serve as his apprentice. But that was the first step in jogging me to consider a change of direction—and all the pastor was doing, of course, was obeying 2 Timothy 2:2.
When I worked in a lab in Canada’s federal government (plugging away at a problem connected with air pollution), I discovered that some of my colleagues hated their work and longed for retirement, while others idolized their chemistry and dreamed of the big breakthrough that would win a Nobel Prize. I wasn’t in either camp. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing, but chemistry was not God. I was, after all, a Christian. At the time, I was devoting my weekends to helping another young man plant a church in the Ottawa Valley. That, too, began to tug at my heart. That autumn, I heard a missionary preach on Ezekiel 22, where God says, “I sought for a man to stand in the gap before me, but I found none.” The Spirit of God used that sermon to make every fiber of my being want to cry out, “Here am I! Send me!” So I never pursued graduate chemistry, and in due course, after more fledgling experiences in ministry, I went off to gain an MDiv in a small seminary in Toronto. That was the autumn of 1967.
TT: Given the large quantity and high quality of work you are able to produce, what does your average workday and workweek look like?
DC: My schedule varies so much from day to day and from week to week that it is difficult to give you a realistic picture. Many weeks during the academic term, my working hours are heavily tied to responsibilities at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). One year in three, however, I have no regular lectures at TEDS—though I do maintain my PhD students. In essence, I wear four hats: TEDS responsibilities, preaching and lecturing here and there, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) responsibilities, and writing. Some of these overlap. For example, some of the writing is tied to lecturing, while some of the speaking is tied to TGC. But each of these domains imposes its own urgencies at different times: writing produces its deadlines, syllabi just have to be created by assigned dates, TGC conferences and other meetings have fixed spots in the calendar, and so forth. Three secrets of productivity, however, are worth mentioning: (1) Learn to fill in the little empty periods that clutter each day. (2) Don’t fritter. When you work, work hard; when you are not working, quit entirely. (3) Discover how different aspects of your work can leverage other aspects of your work. For example, choosing your reading to feed into things that you’ll be preparing over the next six or nine months adds to godly efficiency.
TT: What is the best way for parents to prepare their children for the attacks on their faith they may face in college?
DC: There is no formulaic answer and no guarantee. For a start, our children themselves are extraordinarily diverse. Many will be tempted by postmodern assumptions. Others will feel far greater threats from biologists, cosmologists, or psychologists who operate under the assumptions of raw atheism or, worse, functional atheism. All I can do is enumerate some values and practices in the home that seem to me to be wise, biblically faithful, and useful in mitigating the dangers. These are exemplary, not exhaustive.
First, the home should encourage vigorous Christian understanding. The most dangerous seedbed for intellectual rebellion is a home where faith is sentimental and even anti-intellectual, and where opponents are painted as ignorant knaves, because eventually our children discover that there are some really nice people who are atheists and agnostics, and they can present arguments in sophisticated, gentle, and persuasive fashion.
Similarly, the local church with young people who are heading off to college should be doing what it can to prepare them—first with a solid grasp of Christian essentials, and second with the rudiments of responsible apologetics.
At the same time, both the home and the church should be living out a Christian faith that is more than intellectually rigorous. It should be striving for biblically-faithful authenticity across the board: genuine love for God and neighbor, living with eternity in view, quickness to confess sin and seek reconciliation, a concern for the lost and the broken, faithfulness in praise and intercessory prayer, a transparent delight in holiness, and a contagious joy in God. Even if our children are sucked into intellectual nihilism for a while, over the long haul it is important that they remember what biblically-faithful Christianity looks like in the home and in the church.
Fourth, wisdom in shaping our kids demands more structure when they are young; more discussion, carefully monitored controls, and a safety net as they grow older; and a willingness, in most instances, to wait to be asked for advice when they have genuinely left the nest and are no longer dependent on our roof or our wallets.
Finally, pray for them. Pray for them especially diligently when you recognize, as you repeatedly will, that unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor do so in vain.
TT: Skepticism toward Christianity in academia has led to anti-intellectualism among certain evangelicals. How should evangelicals approach scholarship?
DC: A long essay on this topic would only begin to explore the subject. I concur that some anti-intellectualism is nothing but a thoughtless reaction to the skepticism toward Christianity found in many academic circles. But some of it is the pride of those who can do things with their hands but who do not or cannot make much of intellectual pursuits. Intellectual arrogance is still arrogance; blue-collar arrogance is still arrogance. The right response, for the Christian, begins with repentance and contrition, and a generous recognition that God gives different gifts to human beings in general and to the church in particular. Where the anti-intellectualism is a defensive posture against skepticism in academia, surely the right Christian response is the example of the Apostle Paul, who was determined to bring every thought into submission to Christ. That means we ought to be encouraging our best and brightest to demonstrate love for God with their minds and hearts, taking on the strongholds of intellectual lostness with exactly the same kind of missionary zeal that we want to take on the strongholds of, say, Islam and Buddhism. Moreover, the need is not just evangelistic and apologetic. Much of this work should be motivated by a passionate desire to offer God our best in every domain of life, whether we are grinding valves on a motorcycle engine or wrestling with the magisterial voices of the Western philosophical tradition. The Kuyperian vision of not one square inch where Jesus does not say, “This is mine!” is not a restrictively geographical sweep.
TT: What book projects are you currently working on?
DC: As I write these lines, I have in front of me the page-proofs of Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Frequently Ignored, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Abused, a little book to be published by Crossway in November 2012.
I’m days away from finishing the revision of the seventh edition of New Testament Commentary Survey. God willing, I’m not more than weeks away from finishing the long overdue book Evangelicalism.
And the next commentary will be on the epistles of John, in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series.
D.A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and a council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is a frequent conference speaker and lecturer in churches and academic settings around the world. He is the author or coauthor of more than forty-five books, including An Introduction to the New Testament, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, The God Who Is There, Worship by the Book, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning The Gagging of God.
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