Book Review – The Gospel According to John (D A Carson)

The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series

I have already blogged about the Pillar New Testament Commentary series, which is itself edited by Don Carson, so you can read my general thoughts on the layout and goals of this series there.

The Introduction

The introduction is fairly lengthy (80 pages), and dives straight in with a look at the distinctives of the gospel of John as compared to the Synoptics. Carson has of course also authored a commentary on Matthew that paid special attention to the relationship between the Synoptics, so this enables him to complete the picture.

He devotes several pages to the historical interpretation of John’s gospel, before embarking on a lengthy defence of the authenticity of the fourth Gospel. In particular, he addresses Bultmann’s antisupernaturalism and ‘demythologizing’ of the text. He points out that the Dead Sea scrolls find has removed the need to postulate a hellenistic background to the thought of John’s gospel.

Another sizable section is devoted to authorship, in which he casts doubt on the validity of efforts to detect several sources in the text. He concludes that a working assumption of Johannine authorship is the best way to approach the text. He very tentatively dates it at around AD 80.

Carson even includes some advice for those preaching from the book of John. Overall the introduction is a great read, and almost a book in its own right.

The Commentary

The commentary itself is densely packed in with little whitespace, and no inclusion of the biblical text. There are surprisingly few footnotes, since Carson prefers to do most of his interaction with other commentators in the main text. As with his Matthew commentary, he loves to take the time to defend the text against accusations of fabrication, and offers explanations for supposed problems. He is also quite happy to spend several pages digging deeper into a particular theological concern that is raised by the text.

The commentary itself is far too massive for me to attempt to summarise all the useful points. To list all the sections of John in which I found Carson’s comments particularly helpful I would be to list the entire contents.

Carson’s strengths as a biblical commentator are the comprehensive way he tackles the types of concern that an expositor will have. He incisively gets to the bottom of what the sayings mean, some of which are hard to unpack. He has a good eye for Old Testament allusions. He is willing to take on and reject other possible interpretations, both from skeptics and other Christian traditions (such as Roman Catholicism). He is also prepared to reject “sentimental” conclusions popular amongst evangelicals if the exegesis does not bear it out.


I cannot recommend this commentary on John highly enough. It is a magnificent work, and one that would greatly benefit any serious student or teacher of the Bible. Yes, it is quite long, but it is always interesting. It has actually taken me about five years to work my way through it, but I am glad I have done so, and this will almost certainly be one of the first commentaries I consult every time I am doing study on John.

Convicted of Righteousness

8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11 ESV)

I have always felt that these verses in John are quite tricky to understand. From reading some commentaries, it appears that the Greek isn’t straightforward either. The concept of the Spirit “convicting” people of sin is not problematic, but what does it mean that he will convict people of “righteousness”?

One solution that I have heard is to take the word ‘convict’ to mean ‘convince’. i.e. The Spirit will convince people that Jesus is the righteous one. Or he will convince them of their need to be righteous. Not only does this require a modification in the meaning of the word convict between verse 9 and 10, but it is in danger of making the Spirit’s work into a merely intellectual persuasion.

Don Carson offers an interesting alternative take on what it means to convict the world concerning righteousness:

John loves to quote or allude to Isaiah, and Isaiah 64:5 establishes that all the dikaiosyne (righteousness) of the people of Isaiah’s day was as a menstruous cloth. Within the Fourth Gospel, this reading of ‘righteousness’ is eminently appropriate. (The Gospel According to John, PNTC, D A Carson, p537)

What does this make of the clarifying phrase: “because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer”? Carson explains that the Spirit is simply continuing an important aspect of the ministry of Jesus, confronting and challenging religious hypocrisy:

The reason why the Paraclete convicts the world of its righteousness is because Jesus is going to the Father. … [The] Paraclete … drives home this conviction in the world precisely because Jesus is no longer present to discharge this task.

Not all commentators are convinced by this. Köstenberger considers it plausible, but prefers a legal interpretation:

… the Spirit of truth in his legal function of parakletos is said here to prosecute the world on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus, who is declared just and vindicated in court. (John, BEC, Andreas Köstenberger, p472)

However, if Carson is right, this is a very provocative concept. All Christians know what it feels like to be convicted of sin by the Spirit, but have you ever been convicted of “righteousness”? We know the Spirit’s voice telling us that our bad temper, greed or impure thoughts are sinful and we need to repent, but have we ever considered that some of our religious good deeds could in fact require repentance too?

Repentance for empty legalistic ‘righteousness’ would take on a different form to repentance from sin. Repenting from sin involves stopping the wrong behaviour, but repenting from righteousness requires something even deeper. After all, the Pharisees regularly gave alms to the poor and prayed daily. Jesus was hardly intending for them to stop these activities. Repenting from legalism is therefore a change of heart rather than necessarily outward behavioural change.

Like many Christians at the start of a new year, I try to make resolutions concerning things like Bible reading and prayer, as well as other spiritual goals for the coming year. But we need to beware of turning from grace to legalism and doing the right things with the wrong motivation, or before long, we will find the Spirit convicting us of our shallow religious ‘righteousness’ and calling us back to a relationship with God based on delight and not duty.

Book Review – EBC Matthew (D A Carson)

Despite being written back in 1984 and being part of a series that generally is not considered an “in depth” level of commentaries, Don Carson’s volume on Matthew still consistently finds its way to the top of most evangelical lists of recommended commentaries on the first gospel. It is, in fact, considerably more detailed than the EBC Mark and Luke volumes, and deliberately so, as it was intended to deal in more detail with issues of harmonization of the gospels.

It can be bought separately, rather unnecessarily bound in two volumes, or it can be bought much more cheaply as part of a large hardback edition including the Mark and Luke commentaries. There is a revised version of Expositor’s Bible Commentary currently in the process of being published. Rumour has it that Don Carson will be updating Matthew for the new series, which if true will doubtless reinforce its status as one of the best evangelical commentaries on Matthew available.

It is amazing how much Carson fits in. He is ready to jump in to almost any argument concerning the historicity, exegesis, theology or contemporary application of a passage. He manages this mainly due to his ability to write in a very concise fashion, enumerating his opponents’ views succinctly, before despatching his own verdict with the minimum of fuss.

The introduction is fairly comprehensive, and includes a discussion of the “synoptic problem”. He tentatively accepts a two source hypothesis and Matthean authorship. The commentary itself includes the NIV text, and sections are introduced with anything from a single paragraph to a long discussion of different interpretations. The comments are then based on one or two verses at a time. Greek and Hebrew terms are always transliterated and translated, but he assumes that readers are familiar with terms such as apodosis and chiasm.

Carson clearly loves the gospel of Matthew. Almost every section is introduced as being special or unique in some way. His great concern with New Testament usage of the Old also surfaces in many places. He has a special interest in the word “fulfil” (pleroo), in particular how it is that Jesus can be said to fulfil the entire Old Testament Scriptures.

The content of the commentary is well suited to Biblical expositors, who will want to grapple not only with the meaning of the text as Matthew intended it, but also to deal with the diverse issues that congregations will be interested in – historical (e.g. ‘discrepancies’ with other gospels), theological (e.g. do we still need to obey the law) and practical (e.g. can you remarry after divorce). He does this in a way that treats the Biblical text as the Word of God, but he is careful not to resort to contrived harmonisations, or pious but tenuous interpretations.

Throughout the commentary he shows willingness to interact with the views of other commentators (especially Hill on Matthew and Lane on Mark), often resulting in a long list of possible options. This has the effect of making the commentary somewhat uneven in coverage as the comments on some sections are only a paragraph, while on others a number of pages.

I’ll just single out two passages for particular comment. As might be expected, the Sermon on the Mount is given an excellent treatment, as Carson has written on this separately elsewhere. In the ‘Olivet Discourse’, he surveys the wide variety of interpretations, casting doubt on both Dispensational understandings and France’s idea that the fall of Jerusalem and the “coming of the Son of Man” are the same event (I would expect that the forthcoming revision will also interact with N T Wright on this point as well, and also with 21:20-22 on the mountain that is thrown into the sea). He ends up proposing that Jesus used the discourse to introduce a concept of a delay between the destruction of the temple and the Parousia, contrary to what his disciples were expecting.

In summary, any serious evangelical student and teacher of the Bible will greatly benefit from having this commentary as part of their library. It is especially useful in providing clarity on difficult passages. I haven’t read the Mark and Luke commentaries in the same volume yet, but the price is worth it for the Matthew commentary alone. Zondervan seem to be working backwards at a rate of two volumes a year in their revision of the series, so if you can wait until 2008 there may well be an even better volume available.

Carson on the New Perspective

Thanks to Adrian Warnock for alerting me to some online lectures by Don Carson on the New Perspective. Lecture 1 Lecture 2 Lecture 3.

Carson is the editor of two large books on the subject of the New Perspective (Justification and Variegated Nomism), which provide responses to the claims of Sanders, Dunn et al. I don’t have the time to read these at the moment, so the lectures are useful as a way of getting a summary of his viewpoint as well as a chance to hear his response to some of the NP criticisms of those books.

Lecture 1 gives a fairly succinct overview of the NP, while the other 2 lectures are used to provide a basic response. Carson does acknowledge that he has much respect for N T Wright, but particularly lays into his making the exile theme the controlling paradigm for his theology. Also, as a bonus, Lecture 3 includes the story of how Douglas Moo got his name!