What I Learned from D. A. Carson - 2016 Heritage Preaching Lectures

October 18, 2016

What I Learned from D. A. Carson - 2016 Heritage Preaching Lectures

On Oct 13, 2016, Heritage Seminary in Cambridge Ontario held its annual preaching lectures. This year's featured speaker was eminent theologian and research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield Illinois, Dr. D. A. Carson.

The theme for the day was preaching apocalyptic literature, a genre fraught with all kinds of theological and hermeneutical challenges, let alone cultural ones. In four sessions Dr. Carson walked us through a number of passages from the Book of Revelation given those of us in attendance insights on genre, metaphors, and the prominence of Old Testament imagery throughout the book.

As someone who has been engaged in the art of preaching for over twenty years, having an opportunity to learn from a world-class scholar was a welcomed opportunity, especially on a genre that as stated above, is one of the more difficult to navigate and present well.

So, in light of what I learned, here are the major takeaway's from the day. These are in no particular order of importance or priority, but they are poignant reminders of how they should be treated whenever they become topics of our preaching.

1. We should not be afraid of preaching the whole of God's Word.

I know some pastors who avoid certain books or genres in the Bible. The Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic literature in general is definitely on their list to avoid. I know for some of them it is too dark and culturally damning so they tend to favour other genres that do not have such a negative or judgmental tone. What I appreciate about Dr. Carson is the way he presented the text with honesty and clarity, but also with grace.

Somehow he was able to navigate the sinfulness of humanity and the holiness of God that wasn't overly berating of our sinfulness while elevating the character of God beyond our common portrayals of a doting grandparent. Further, his appeal to see within Revelation the continual allusions to the Old Testament demonstrated the continuity of theological themes that resonate throughout all of Scripture. At one point he communicated his desire to have preached every book of the Bible, a challenge I found to be not only refreshing but also convicting.

2. Heaven is glorious

Dr. Carson's forays into the nature of heaven left me inspired. His reminder that heaven is the place where we see the face of God was timely. Far too often heaven is treated with dull aphorisms and cultural cliches that neither reflect the glory of heaven nor the believer's ultimate blessing. Whatever we imagine heaven to be, it is worthy of our attention and preaching, and certainly worthy of our hope.

3. We downplay the transcendence of God and therefore minimize his holiness

Culturally, we have shaped the experience of God to fit the narrow confines of our own lives. Because we can struggle with the mystery and unknowable aspects of God, we instead feed only on the characteristics we can know. Because we have domesticated God, we have also neutralized his holiness. These factors contribute to our culture's lack of acknowledgment of sin, and the need that exists for redemption. Tim Keller recently tweeted: "Western cultures want a God who is loving and forgiving but not holy and transcendent." 

4. The church - its incredible make-up

In a moment of brutal honesty (what some may call, verbal spanking), Dr. Carson bemoaned the state of churches that are ethnically homogenous rather than ethnically diverse. The church should be a reflection of the diversity that is humanity. Especially powerful was his reminder of Pentecost, and how the many language were celebrated, not consolidated into one. The church is not only made up of many nations, but of many voices as well.

5. Words are powerful

As preachers we would all affirm the power of the words we use, especially the words of Scripture. What was of interest was the way Dr. Carson exploited words such as holy, or glory, and made them resonate in ways that elevated these oft-quoted words to new theological import.

Throughout the day, Carson touched on double metaphors, the etymology of words, and their contribution to honing our theological understanding. Of particular interest was his assertion that the word pictures in Scripture should be left as just that-word pictures-because any attempt to portray them visually will always fall short.

6. Gospel saturation

Sometimes scholars, even biblical ones, can filter their presentation through academic lenses. Dr. Carson, no academic slouch I may add, filtered his presentation through the Gospel. He is clearly enamoured with Jesus. On a number of occasions he would eloquently frame his entire message against the backdrop of the cross and the power of the resurrection. There was no skirting the reality of the cross as the touchpoint of God's plan for humanity. For Carson, the entire scope of history finds its meaning in the cross.

7. Evangelism matters

Due to Dr. Carson's commitment to faith in Christ alone, it was equally refreshing to hear him stress the importance of evangelism. He even hinted at this being one of the primary functions of the church in terms to how it should relate to the culture at large. This came across from the number of passages that spoke of the testimony of the witnesses found throughout Revelation. A testimony rooted in the cross as the only means of redeeming humanity. The church devoid of evangelism will sooner if not later find it's future existence being threatened.

8. Hope is ever present

It wasn't a particular point or message that bears the thought in this section, but the overall tone of Dr. Carson's presentation. Apocalyptic literature can smack of doom with a heavy dose of judgment thrown in. Those topics weren't avoided by any means but Carson's ability to frame the messages with hopeful expectation gave me a new sense of appreciation for the material. There is so much in our present world to feel skeptical and hopeless about, and yet when we see how these events lend themselves to the unfolding of God's purposes, hope is once again ignited.

9. Absolutes are okay

Interesting that Dr. Carson alluded to the nature of absolutes in Scripture. Case in point are the passages that teach two paths, one for the righteous, the other for the wicked. No middle view or grey area. It's either one or the other. Even the Ten Commandments present absolutes which make a command like Do Not Steal impossible for any human to keep.

He contrasted these with highlighting the lives of Abraham and David. Both men of great faith but who at some level sinned against God. He noted that the absolutes remind us of God standards against the backdrop of fallen human agents who need to be reminded of our constant need for God.

10. No matter what, God is still in control

If there is one thing about apocalyptic literature is that it centers on the sovereignty of God. The genre gives us a view from God's perspective and pulls back the curtain allowing us to see the full breath of human history through the lens of God's purpose and plan. This one does undergird all the points before it, but needed to be stated on its own. It's a truth that bears repeating time and time again. These are just some of my own personal reflections from the day, but if you want to hear the lectures for yourself you can get them on the Heritage College and Seminary site or you can find them here.

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