Love in Hard Places

  • D. A. Carson
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Carson, D. A. Love in Hard Places. Wheaton: Crossway. 2002. $14.99. 207 pp. Pb. ISBN 1-58134-425-2

Few New Testament scholars in the world are as prolific and versatile as Don Carson, Research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Still only in his mid-fifties, he has authored more than forty books, from meaty commentaries to popular exposition, from a bestselling philosophical analysis of postmodernism to devotional books to accompany a program of reading through Scripture in a year. He writes poetry, composes hymns, and travels the world doing everything from university evangelistic outreaches to guest theological lecturing. This book spans a number of these interests and activities; it grew out of a few sermons and a guest lectureship at Oak Hill College, England, is grounded in the exegesis and exposition of New Testament texts but demonstrates a grasp of issues and literature in systematic theology, Christian ethics, world religions, political analysis and contemporary church life. And yet it is eminently readable and succinct.

Love in Hard Places picks up where Carson's earlier Crossway offering, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, left off. There Carson stressed the distinctions between the various kinds of love attributed to God in Scripture: intra-Trinitarian, providential, invitational, elective and conditional. While humans are unable to imitate God in all of these dimensions, our love for God and each other is supposed to model significant elements of his love for us. The opening chapter thus both reviews Carson's earlier work and develops a sustained exegesis of the double-love command (Mark 12:28-34 pars.). Among several implications of this study is the need for Christians to immerse themselves daily in Scripture, in an age when this is becoming increasingly rare, in order to understand adequately the God and the love to which they are called.

Chapter two presents the first category of love in hard places, namely, love for "enemies big and small." Matt. 5:43-48 provides the locus classicus for analysis. A recurring theme introduced here is that God's love never obliterates the possibility of his wrath. It is possible to act in a loving way, especially to those who are the victims of injustice, but even to love the perpetrators of that injustice, while still taking action to prevent them from continuing to harm others. But recognizing that God will ultimately avenge all wrongs, and do so more fairly than ever we could, should keep us from taking such action vindictively or harboring grudges en route. Carson also considers enemies from within the church and the situations that call forth church discipline according to Matt. 18:15-20 vs. those in which we should simply show grace, forgive and move on.

If there are different kinds of love in the Bible, there are also different kinds of forgiveness. Chapter three thus distinguishes a Christian response to repentant offenders vs. dealing with the unrepentant, forgiveness in interpersonal relationships vs. a God-ordained role for the state to punish evildoers, temporal forgiveness in this life vs. eternal damnation for the ultimately unrepentant.

The heart of the book for post 9/11 readers comes with chapter four, which Carson entitles, "Love and Forgiveness: Two Hard Cases." The first is racism, the second involves Osama bin Laden and his kind. Under racism, Carson helps us think through which dimensions of segregated church life are truly unhealthy and even unbiblical, which are culturally chosen and neutral, and when homogeneous grouping may even further kingdom objectives. In general, members of races or ethnic groups that have been discriminated against need to temper their demands for justice with love and forgiveness, while members of groups that have benefited from discrimination need to temper their calls for love and forgiveness with a passion for justice. The former may need to read more of 1 Peter; the latter, of Amos.

As for terrorists, it is here where Carson engages in some of his most sensitive and helpful contemporary cultural, ethical, and political analysis. He ultimately opts for a modified version of the just war theory, while recognizing that many aspects of recent wars defended under that rubric have violated its principles, that our unique world of non-governmental sponsored terrorism adds a dimension to the theory of just war that raises many as yet unanswered questions, and that what we are seeing is really a clash of civilizations. For all of the Western, pluralistic distinctions between the heart of Islam and the evil actions of a small group of fanatics that have distorted it, a close study of its principles demonstrates that there is a militaristic dimension and a lack of compassion for the needy centrally embedded in the religion itself in a way that is not at the case with Christianity. Despite many statements to the contrary, Islam does not mean peace but submission, including the submission of all the world to Allah, by force if necessary. Osama may not reflect the only consistent outworking of Muslim principles, but his actions do reflect one genuinely logical outgrowth of Islam that is not just another religious option in a pluralistic age, but a genuine evil that must be stopped--if we love him, if we love Muslims, and certainly if we love past and potential victims of Muslim violence. At the same time, Luke 13:1-5 reminds Christians that when catastrophic deaths occur, we must not assume that we are more righteous than either their victims or their perpetrators. Every brush with death close-hand reminds us we need to make sure we have repented and have our spiritual houses in order, lest it be our turn next.

The final two chapters prove anticlimactic after this discussion but are no less needed. Chapter five considers "Love and the Denial of the Gospel." Here Carson notes how the concept of tolerance has subtly shifted in Western culture from my responsibility to defend the right of others to speak their beliefs, however much we might disagree with them (and we in turn have the right to articulate that disagreement), to the notion that certain beliefs themselves (especially pluralism and the denial of absolute truth) may themselves not be assailed, an inherently self-defeating move which then replaces tolerance with authoritarianism! Carson also deals at some length with Paul's rebuke of Peter in Antioch, and the meaning of Gal. 2:11-21. Clearly Paul could believe he was obeying God's commandments to love and still speak forcefully and contrarily when he saw his apostolic peer was threatening the fundamental core of the gospel and not just some peripheral element. But such confrontations should prove few and far between; the only offenses in Scripture that require confrontative discipline are "gross doctrinal error," "gross moral lapse" and "persistent, loveless divisiveness" (p. 169), the precise antitheses of John's three tests of life in his epistles--correct Christology, obedience and love.

Chapter six completes the volume by considering "Love and the Intoxication of the Diligent Routine," with special focus on the Ephesian church's loss of its first love (Rev. 2:4). Contextually, this cannot mean wrong doctrine or behavior in any fundamental sense. Nor can the love that is lost be viewed primarily as an emotion, since the remedy is to do the things they did at first (v. 5). Rather Carson suspects the church has "succumbed to numbing, resolute faithfulness" (p. 184). The remedy is to turn again to the double love-command, to 1 Corinthians 13, and to reflection on the amazing love God demonstrated to us "while we were yet sinners" and thus so undeserving (Rom. 5:8), both individually and as church bodies.

In a work as wide-ranging as this, there will inevitably be issues with which readers disagree. Is just-war theory really quite as salvageable in an age of nuclear, chemical and biological threat, as it was when the effects of warfare could be somewhat more controlled? Should we reflect more on the remarkably creative and effective forms of nonviolent resistance to evil demonstrated in the twentieth-century, at least in part, by movements spanning the globe from Gandhi's India, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Cory Aquino's movement in the Philippines, to East German prayer meetings and public rallies just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, as theologians like Walter Wink or ethicists like Glen Stassen have pleaded? Can one really separate the "men from James" and "the circumcision party" in Galatians 2 quite so neatly, labeling the former as clearly Jewish-Christian and the latter as clearly non-Christian Jewish? And doesn't that question itself point out the greater complexity of distinguishing fundamentals from adiaphora; after all, how many church splits have been created by those who recognized they were squabbling over non-essentials?

But these questions merely mean that Carson's book has accomplished one of its objectives, to get Christians to think in interdisciplinary fashion and with some biblical rigor about love in hard places, which is itself a hard task. Certainly this volume is filled with needed truths countering a rampant pluralism outside the church and a mindless sentimentalism within the church (or, at the opposite end of the theological spectrum, a loveless militarism among an entrenched few). While I confess at times to being a bit antsy that some long-promised, major scholarly volumes from Carson's pen seem forever delayed (most notably a large GRAMCORD-based Greek reference work and the NIGTC commentary on the Epistles of John), I can scarcely object when works of this quality and value for the entire church of Jesus Christ demonstrate his literary output in the short-run. May many more works in both categories yet appear from his marvelous ministry!

Craig Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary