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D. A. Carson reviews Roland Boer – But what concord hath Christ with Belial?

Posted by NT Wrong on July 24, 2008

I had to smirk when I saw that D. A. “The Don” Carson had volunteered(?) to been assigned the review of Roland Boer’s recent book, Rescuing the Bible, in the latest offering from the Review of Biblical Literature. There’s something amusing about reading somebody’s apoplectic criticisms when you know they come from a completely different planet. The one thing that puzzled me is why The Don would be bothered considered qualified to write a review of Roland Boer’s book … Anyway, let’s have a read through D. A. Carson’s final paragraph, where he provides the bulk of his own criticisms, and I’ll interweave a few comments of my own:

“This book, a fascinating mix of dogmatic left-wing self-righteousness combined with rich and scathing condescension toward all who are even a tad less left than the author, is rich in unintended irony. Boer cannot see how implausible his arguments become. While nominally allowing “religious” people to believe in the supernatural so long as they support his left-wing agenda and join forces with him in a “worldly” secularism, what he says about the Bible and about biblical scholarship is so blatantly committed to philosophical naturalism and historical minimalism that even the most mild supernaturalism is ridiculed: no allowance can be made for divine revelation, anyone who thinks Moses really existed is not really a scholar, biblical studies can be called “scientific” only if the scholars themselves do not preach, and so forth.”

Roland Boer explicitly describes Rescuing the Bible as a “manifesto”. Given such a genre, the book should be “dogmatic” — every bit as dogmatic as the latest edition of Moody’s Dogmatic Theology, if it could manage that degree of dogmatism. But Carson appears to have missed this fact. The manifesto genre does not make the work “self-righteous”, and it is disingenuous to make the equation. Moreover, the focus of Boer’s book is very much on positive left-wing uses of the Bible, not on negatively denegrating right-wing (ab)use. This is reflected in the pages Boer has devoted to positive examples such as Wilberforce (concerning whom Boer was perhaps a bit too positive), Müntzer, Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers, and Camilo Torres. Carson’s criticism of the manifesto for being a manifesto is an elementary mistake concerning categories of genre. But the impression he gives of the book’s negative content is unfair and misleading.

Boer’s manifesto is clear that it is providing a way to use the Bible as an instrument for left-wing ends. So Boer has provided examples of how the Bible can be — in the future — and has been — in the past — used to further such goals. This is a welcome antedote to the dominant presentations of the biblical material these days, in which it is either used or abused by right-wing political interests to further their own goals. As this is Boer’s stated approach, it is simply not relevant whether a person would also use the Bible for religious purposes. So Carson has missed the point in his criticism that Boer “nominally” allows “religious people to believe in the supernatural so long as they support his left-wing agenda”. Boer is just not primarily concerned with belief or disbelief in this book — his primary concern is the political use of the Bible. To describe this as “nominally” allowing religious belief is a severe misrepresentation of Boer’s concerns in the book.

If Carson had understood this, he might not have made his erroneous charges of “unintended irony” and “implausible” arguments — charges which are fallacious and inapplicable once it is understood that Boer is primarily concerned here with the Bible as instrument for left-wing ends rather than the Bible itself. And whether Carson likes it or not, any “scholar” who presupposes the object of his study is “revelation” from God or that a “Moses” existed is doing theology, not biblical scholarship. Carson might also have taken Boer’s advice not to mix preaching with scholarship when he lapsed into the worst type of preaching at the end of his paragraph.

“Boer consistently damns everyone on the right by ridiculing the obvious targets, but probably he would not appreciate it if a counterpart on the right ridiculed those on the left by skewering Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.”

As noted, Boer’s manifesto is much more concerned with providing a positive plan for the use of the Bible for left-wing ends than with negative assessments of right-wing (ab)use.

“It turns out that Boer wants to “rescue” the Bible not only from what people on the right say that it means, but from what the Bible itself says, for whenever the Bible, in all its multivalence, disagrees with Boer’s vision of the summum bonum, it is to be undermined, set aside, and mocked — not even wrestled with. Readers are repeatedly told that those nasty right-wingers have “stolen” the Bible. Boer never considers the possibility that quite a few left-wingers have simply abandoned the Bible, leaving the terrain open for those who at least take it seriously.”

Carson slips up here, and reveals the real basis for his criticism. See how easily the right-wing use of the Bible is equated with “what the Bible itself says”. Carson’s basic presupposition is exposed for all to see. For Carson the Bible is a right-wing Bible. And his slip-up is justification enough for Boer’s whole project. Carson’s equation of right-wing users of the Bible with those who “take it seriously” is also revealing of his stand. Can’t your left-leaning reader of the Bible also take it seriously? Apparently not in Don’s world.

The use of “wrestled with” reveals another common evangelical presupposition. For some evangelicals, only those who seek the most tendentious explanations for the “abusive” parts of the Bible have interpreted it properly. Underlying this is a strange presupposition concerning the Bible’s perfection, a perfection which justifies what would otherwise be the most tortuous explanations, and which condemns those who conclude that the Bible is less than perfect by accusing them of not having “wrestled” adequately with the text. The approach pretends to deal with the evidence, but in fact rests on an a priori position that the Bible is perfect.

“What will satisfy Boer, it seems, is not the liberation of the Bible, but the liberation of the Bible from any agenda he considers right-wing, so that it can be locked in servitude to a left-wing agenda.”

Carson basically got Boer’s project right here. But I think this was unintended, as he was only aiming to be sarcastic.

“Boer’s dismissive arguments to prove the Bible is hopelessly multivalent — a commonplace among many modern and postmodern readers today — is spectacularly unconvincing because he does not interact with any serious literature (and there is two thousand years’ worth of such literature) that argues, with various [sic] degrees of success, how the Bible does hang together.”

Hmmmmm… there’s two thousand years’ worth of “serious” literature showing that the Bible is a unity, huh? Does Don know that for most of those two thousand years, the “serious” literature employed a seriously convoluted set of interpretational devices to impose unity on the Bible — such as allegory, typology, anagogy, etc? While it might have been considered “serious” at the time, it sure isn’t now. In any case, I’m not so sure that Boer’s only trick is to show that the Bible is “hopelessly multivalent” and open to different readings. From my memory of reading his book, Boer appeals both to the right-wing “abuses” of the Bible as well as its uses. Although the line between use and interpretation is a fuzzy one, and maybe a “continuum” is a better model for it, Boer at least pragmatically operates as though there is some distinction. So, sometimes a surface reading of the Bible is all that is required, sometimes it requires a reading against the grain. I don’t know that I’d side either with Boer or Carson when it comes to their hermeneutics, but I am sure that Carson has again oversimplified or misrepresented his description of Boer’s approach.

“But perhaps this is not too surprising from an author who cherishes chaos precisely because chaos undermines God’s authority — and all authority save Boer’s must be overthrown. I think that many biblical writers would call that choice idolatry. At the end of the day, Boer is trying to rescue the Bible from God.”

The final three sentences of Carson’s review simply shouldn’t have been included in any scholarly review. Carson has accused Boer not of any critical fault, but of opposing God himself. Has the RBL started to publish Sunday sermons? Earlier, Carson tried to equate a right-wing reading of the Bible with the Bible itself, and here he equates a left-wing reading with opposition to God. Carson’s criticism is revealed to be based less on any scholarly critical grounds than on religious presuppositions. That’s fine for a Sunday sermon, but it should have no place in a purportedly scholarly review.

Moreover, in accusing Boer of opposing God and practising idolatry, he seems to consider a right-wing interpretation of the Bible to be immune from the same charge. It’s as though the Bible has become so tied up with right-wing and conservative politics and religion that he has become blind to its left-wing passages and possibilities for use. And that’s precisely the reason why a manifesto such as Boer’s was needed in the first place.

20 Responses to “D. A. Carson reviews Roland Boer – But what concord hath Christ with Belial?”

  1. steph said

    Thanks for a scholarly review of that unscholarly “review”

  2. Trish said

    I found Carson’s review bold but bang on after I read Boer’s book. Kudos to the Carson author.

  3. James C said

    It was a very odd review. Why Carson? Why not someone more obviously in Boer’s areas of expertise?

  4. BenjaminL said

    “Wrestle with” doesn’t mean “presuppose the perfection of”; it means “strive to demonstrate interpretive charity to an opposing view.”

  5. ntwrong said

    That’s what puzzled me. On the assumption that DA Carson has volunteered to review the book, it seems that he’s got a bee in his bonnet with Boer at some stage, and wanted a wee vent.

  6. James C said

    And if he didn’t volunteer, then why was he chosen? If we assumed this, it is also a very odd choice.

  7. ntwrong said

    Hi Benjamin, thanks for your comment.

    The principle of charity is of course necessary for interpreting any ancient text. But, in any ancient Near Eastern or ancient Mediterranean text, the presumption should also be rebuttable in light of the specific evidence uncovered in the text. Unfortunately, in much conservative evangelical scholarship, the principle has in effect been elevated to an a priori non-rebuttable assumption and goal. And it has that status only in respect of the Bible. So, when Carson talks about “wrestling” with the text — and contrasts that with those who reach the conclusion, based on the evidence of the text, that the text is ‘less than perfect’ — I have no doubt that Carson is in fact operating with a non-rebuttable presupposition of perfection. He may well deny it, but that’s the No True Scotsman’s trick (to pretend that your a priori stance is a posteriori).

  8. ntwrong said

    James – I guess one of us could simply ask the RBL editors. They might tell us.

  9. ntwrong said

    I’ve added a “(?)” after “volunteered” in the meantime.

  10. Sean B said

    Yes, definitely a ‘wow’ for that review (though not, if I recall correctly, unprecedented in RBL, either for its Sunday-sermon tone or its dismissive bluntness). I wonder if Carson’s review is in part an attempt to neutralize Boer, who comes from a theoretical perspective that is, if not more challenging, then at least differently challenging to modernist evangelical biblical criticism. If one can lump Boer in with the ‘minimalists’ or other assorted nefarious enemies of the Bible (much like a commenter on another blog did), he might be easier to deal with. To be fair, however, Boer’s call for an alliance with the ‘religious left’ can suggest that interpretation (even if the alliance is intended to be founded on practical, not theoretical, grounds).

  11. ntwrong said

    Update: RBL confirms that the book was assigned to D. A. Carson for his review by one of the editors.

  12. Mike said

    Out of curiosity, what exactly is Boer’s expertise that makes Carson unqualified. To be honest, I don’t know anything about Boer.

  13. ntwrong said

    Literary criticism, Marxist criticism.

  14. Mike said

    well…he has written a book on modernity and postmodernity…

  15. ntwrong said

    As I said, he is unqualified when it comes to literary criticism and Marxist criticism. A rant against “pluralism” doesn’t count.

  16. Mike said

    well, whatever the case, both you and carson could use a healthy dose of humility. his rant against boer and your rant against him make me sick.

  17. ntwrong said

    Really? Do you mean physically ill?

  18. Mike said

    maybe a headache…

  19. Hi everyone, you can read my sober and calm response to Carson’s rabid rant from the religious right at http://www.stalinsmoustache.blogspot.com


  20. Christopher Shell said

    Being sober and calm does not make one right. It is however a technique for making others think you are right. It is also, logically, perfectly possible to say entirely true things in a ranting tone – tho’ how anyone gauges tone on the internet beats me. Or vice-versa.

    To say that the entire bible is essentially univocal – or entirely multivocal – without qualification and without going through different themes piecemeal, is as unscholarly as one can get. I would predict that some themes would yield a univocal pattern and others a multivocal – given how many themes there are in total. The fact that some *wish* to emphasise one mpore than the other tells us more about the person and the image they wish to project (“wow folks, see how liberal I am – I’m in the liberal in-crowd and [as Boer himself admits] talk to few outside it in the interests of furthering my education” / “yeah folks, I’m a bone fide bible believer”) than about the Bible.

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