Balanced Thought from D.A. Carson

Greg Strand – March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

–comments by Greg Strand, director of EFCA Biblical Theology and Credentialing

D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)

A few years ago, Carson published Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). In this work he picked up Niebuhr’s work, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper &Row, 1951), and reworked the foundation of the understanding and intersection of Christ and culture and placed it in a more robustly biblical and theological framework. It is an excellent work.

Though this is a stand-alone book, Carson describes it as a part 2, a second stream of how he came to write both of these books. In the preface of this new work Carson explains, x:

These occasional lectures have kept me reading about and thinking through this topic, and it is high time I set some of this down in book form. It does not take much cultural awareness to see that the difficulties surrounding this subject are eating away at both Western Christianity and the fabric of Western culture. The challenges before us are not going to go away any time soon.

The second stream was my book Christ and Culture Revisited (also published by Eerdmans). That book provides more biblical reflection and theology, but it more or less covers the waterfront: I tried to think about culture in pretty broad terms. By contrast, the topic of this present book is much more narrowly focused. As I wrote the earlier one, however, I kept noting subtopics that cried out for more detailed unpacking – and none more so than tolerance/intolerance. What you now hold in your hand is the result. Perhaps I may be forgiven if from time to time I refer back to Christ and Culture Revisited to provide the underpinnings for some of my arguments here.

Eerdmans also included a brief blog post from Carson about his new book.

D. A. Carson, “Tolerance, Not Truth, Is the New Supreme Virtue”:

Here are some pertinent quotes from Carson’s post, which should whet your appetite to dip further into his book.

Tolerance and intolerance constitute a sort of paired virtue, and the trick is getting the balance right in support of the larger matrix of cultural values. And necessarily, that paired virtue, the balance between tolerance and intolerance, changes as the culture changes.

But in much of the Western world, the last few decades have brought about a jarring change. This change can be analyzed on at least four fronts.

First, by and large it has become detached from any broad, culture-wide ethical system, for the very good reason that the culture has become suspicious of all systems. But that leaves tolerance as the last virtue standing — or, more cautiously put, it leaves tolerance exercising the role of supreme virtue.

Second, the supreme virtue of tolerance, detached from any broad ethical system, has now become part of the “plausibility structure” of much of the Western world. . . . The plausibility structure of society is the cultural structure that the overwhelming majority of people in that culture find plausible; opinions and stances outside that structure seem hopelessly implausible. If tolerance is part of the West’s plausibility structure, then even to suggest that we should not tolerate something or other is to sound bizarre, out of date, out of step with the contemporary world, mean, even (and here’s irony) evil.

Third, it is worth analyzing the effect of elevating tolerance to the level of supreme virtue. It generates scores of ironies that relatively few people even notice. As J. Daryl Charles puts it, the old tolerance that has recently been transmuted to this new status “becomes indistinguishable from an intractably intolerant relativism.” Worse, it soon becomes massively inconsistent and manipulative.

Fourth, the elevation of tolerance to supreme virtue and the adoption of this virtue into the West’s plausibility structure makes it extremely difficult to converse intelligently with other parts of the world — the worlds of Buddhism, say, or of Islam, Hindusim, and Communism.

. . . we must expose the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of this new tolerance, and we must strive to regain the old tolerance, which was attached to some sort of broad ethical and cultural vision, so that what we argue about with others is first of all the truthfulness or credibility or usefulness of the broad vision. And here, Christians can lead the way. The new tolerance will simply wrap us up in more chains, as every issue becomes, not, “What is the truth of the matter?” but “Has anyone been offended?”

Sometimes the truth offends.

As I often say whenever a new book comes out by Carson, it is worthwhile to purchase and to read. Here, then, is my prescription. First, purchase the book. Second, read the book. Third, as you read, ask God to bring clarity to these issues so that you can articulate the truth with clarity and engage with culture, which is made up of people!, with courage, conviction and compassion.

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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