Book Review: The God Who Is There, by D. A. Carson
In his 1998 book Losing Our Virtue, David Wells comments that systematic theologies are more commonly written for the academy than for the church. To do the latter, he says, “would require that theology understand the life of the Church as well as the way life in the postmodern world works, and not simply orient itself to the preoccupations of the academic guild” (10).
The same observation could be made in reference to biblical theologies. With only a few exceptions (Strom, Roberts, Lawrence), much recent biblical theology has been driven by scholarly questions that only bear secondarily, if at all, on the life of the church. While D. A. Carson does not explicitly say that he wrote The God Who Is There to help fill this lacuna, happily the book does.
A CANONICAL SURVEY OF THE BIBLE’S MAIN THEMES
In what was originally a series of talks over two weekends in Minneapolis/St. Paul (accessible at www.thegospelcoalition.org), Carson covers fourteen biblical-theological themes in roughly canonical order.
The first four chapters focus on important themes arising from the Pentateuch which are necessary for reading the rest of the biblical narrative. Chapter five covers the crucial Davidic material from 2 Samuel 7, and chapter six surveys the poetic corpus.
After a brief survey of the prophetic literature, the remaining eight chapters address important New Testament doctrines like the Incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ, justification, regeneration, and the eschaton.
Pages 117 through 119 provide an apt illustration of what Carson is trying to accomplish in this work. He describes a Muslim friend who came to a trenchant understanding of John the first time he read the New Testament because he already had a foundation of ideas that the gospel writer presupposes. Carson writes, “He was a Muslim. He understood about a God who has laws, who has standards, who brings terror, who sits in judgment over you, a God who is sovereign and holy and powerful. He understood all that” (119). Because he already believed these things, the gospel made sense to him. Most in the West, however, do not have this pre-understanding. Therefore, Carson methodically lays down these themes (and others) which are necessary for comprehending the gospel.
While Carson’s treatment of the Old Testament is disproportionately brief, one can understand why. Not everything can fit into a 200-page book; content-limiting decisions have to be made. One may wish to see more on the flood (where we see that God does wipe out rebels, contrary to chapter two’s title), the exodus event and the Passover (Carson goes directly from the burning bush to the Ten Commandments), the theology of the temple (the chapter on 2 Samuel 7 would have been a good place to discuss at least the role of David’s son in building it), or the preaching of the prophets (to which Carson gives only 6½ pages).
Since the book is written to an audience almost entirely unfamiliar with the Bible’s content, however, one can see why Carson wants to get quickly to Jesus Christ, to whose person and work all these Old Testament institutions testify. In fact, Carson demonstrates this teleological leaning of the Old Testament well, showing how to see the gospel in it. When he deals directly with the Lord’s person and work, Carson makes rich use of the hermeneutical foundation the Old Testament provides for reading the New Testament (even if every Old Testament type is not discussed).
GOOD FOR PASTORS
While the book is clearly intended to serve as an introduction to the Bible’s narrative, it is not too remedial to serve experienced pastors.
For one, Carson’s illustrations are poignant and relevant, reflecting an awareness of longstanding cultural trends and not merely the latest football story. Further, perusing the beginning and end of each chapter, as well as the endnotes, will provide pastors with helpful references for connecting biblical teaching with the ideas their congregations are commonly exposed to. Specifically, I would point pastors to the chapters on creation (“The God Who Made Everything”) and on the church (“The God Who Gathers and Transforms His People”). Other than a postmodern aversion to truth claims and a fear of commitment, I think the most common objections to the gospel among people today are “Hasn’t science disproven God’s existence?” and “Religion is violent!” Carson deftly addresses such quips.
HELPS US SEE THE FOREST, NOT JUST THE TREES
Secondly, the book is well suited for pastors to pass along (i) to believers who perhaps miss the forest for the trees in their Bible reading, (ii) to those who do not know the Bible’s content at all, (iii) to young believers, and (iv) even to unbelievers. Carson avoids all technical jargon and provides thorough definitions and descriptions for new ideas. Further, he shows how all biblical themes converge on the person and work of Christ.
Carson doesn’t opt for gimmicks or forced paradigms into which to fit the gospel. Instead, he straightforwardly lays out the Bible’s storyline without any bells or whistles. With each page, readers know they are getting an exposition of the Bible’s content, not a reworked therapeutic myth fit for the latest zeitgeist. Instead Carson takes on a host of the latest zeitgeists.
I cannot imagine a Christian pastor who would not want his congregants to become familiar with the overall storyline of the Bible which Carson here makes accessible. So I would confidently recommend this book to any pastor, especially for the purpose of giving it away to church members. A study guide for groups is also available.
This is biblical theology that “understand[s] the life of the Church as well as the way life in the postmodern world works.” It joins only a few like it.