INTERVIEW – Don Carson at New Word Alive, Part 1

I had the great privilege of talking to Don Carson in April at the New Word Alive Conference, when this interview was recorded. I have already shared the video of the interview here.

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Adrian
Hi! I’m Adrian Warnock. I blog at http://adrianwarnock.com/. and I’m also privileged to serve as part of the leadership team of Jubilee Church in London. I’m here at New Word Alive, together with Don Carson, who has kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions. Thank you for joining us, Don.

Don
My privilege.

Adrian
Excellent. So, Don, you’re obviously a busy man. You do all kinds of things—write books and lecture, and all the various things you do—and yet you, and John Piper, and later this year, Mark Driscoll, all sorts of American guys keep coming over here. Why do you think that is? Why do you come?

Don
Donald A. CarsonThe Church of Christ is world-wide at the end of the day, and partly because of Trinity’s reach, we serve many countries, and partly because of my own roots over here (I lived here for nine years, my wife is English), and partly because there is a camaraderie in the ministry itself. Not only do we come here, but there are a number of Brits who come to where we are, and then we might even meet up in Kuala Lumpur. That’s the way the Church is, increasingly. There’s a global reach, and we lean on each other, gain support from each other, and try to bring glory to Christ in different ways in different parts of the world.

Adrian
Fantastic. Well, we’re certainly glad you’re here. I have very much enjoyed listening to your talks. What’s your impression of the conference as a whole?

Don
The buzz I’m hearing (but I’m the outsider) is that people are really grateful for the Bible teaching, not only in the big sessions, but also in a lot of the seminars and so on. After John’s material last night, for example, on suffering, there was one woman in a wheelchair who said that she had found this one of the most encouraging things she had ever heard in her life, and the whole conference is worth it just for her, isn’t it?

Adrian
Yes!

Don
And then when you realize there are five thousand people who are receiving blessings from God from his Word in one way or another, it’s something for which to be incalculably grateful.

Adrian
Yes. I guess there’s no real substitute for gathering people to hear God’s Word, is there really?

Don
That’s right. That’s right.

Adrian
Whatever context it’s in. And it’s interesting because I’ve just been talking to John, who obviously gave up theological life to become a pastor. And I guess you’ve devoted your life to training pastors. Is that a fair way of describing it?

Don
Yes. I started off in pastoral ministry. He started off with theological . . .

Adrian
So you did it the other way around?

Don
I went the other way around. And there are dark moments when I wish I hadn’t. But you can’t second guess either yourself or God all the time. It’s not right. But about fifteen years ago I almost left Trinity to go to a church. It was a church near a major university and I wanted to do the sort of thing that John is doing. I had two or three senior men in the ministry, both already at that time in their early 70’s, descend on me and tell me in very authoritarian terms that I just must not do it because they were afraid that if I did I wouldn’t reserve enough time to do some of the writing I was doing.

Now whether that’s right or not, I don’t know. You offer yourself up to God and try to do what’s right. But I would say that the front line is the local church. And there is a sense in which seminary is a back-up slot. The front line is the local church, and the first impetus towards ministry and towards stamping people for what ministry ought to be should be within in the context of the local church. And then a good seminary, a good theological college, helps to provide the kind of training and further exposure to more technical knowledge, a grasp of the languages, and this sort of thing. Virtually no local church can provide that, and yet it’s really important for those who teach in such places, nevertheless, to be pastors first, because if they think of themselves of teachers and scholars first, then they tend to produce teachers and scholars. So there’s a stamping, not simply from the course material, but from your own values, what you dream about, what you think about. So, at our seminary, we always want to hire a certain percentage of faculty who wish they were in the pastoral ministry, or else quite frankly, we don’t want them. Now, they have to be academically competent and all the rest, but we don’t want people who just want to be in a seminary. We want people who in many ways would prefer to be in the local church. So, that’s as close as I can come to explaining where I’m at.

Adrian
Oh, that’s good. So, of all the many books that you’ve written, Don—this is again a question I asked John about his books—but of all the books that you’ve written, what would you say would be the most important two or three books—the ones that perhaps people should start with reading, let’s say?

Don
I have no idea how to answer that because people find books are important for different reasons. So for some people working through the front end of post-modernism, the 1996 book or whatever date it was, The Gagging of God, they found very helpful at the time. On the other hand, widely read by pastors was my John commentary, for example. I just don’t know how to answer that sort of question.

Adrian
I guess it’s what fits that person.

Don
That’s right. And as you say—What should they read first? Well, an awful lot depends on who they are. If they’re a lay person, [they] might start off with a book like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or something like that. I just don’t have a formulated answer for that. For pastors today who are in small churches and sometimes feel discouraged and wonder if their life is worth it, what I’d now recommend is the one that came out just a month or two ago called Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. It’s short—only 160 pages— and it’s really on my dad. He was a quintessential, ordinary pastor in many ways. He never preached in another country. He never wrote a book. He was never a conference speaker or the like. Most of the congregations most of his life were 30 people. But he exemplified faithfulness in some pretty grueling circumstances. He nursed my mother through the Alzheimer’s years. He was a church planter cross-culturally moving from the English to the French side of Canada, and had a passion for faithfulness in all kinds of small ways. Yeah, it’s not so much a critical history as a collection of our memories of him and a lot of his diary entries and so on as he struggled with these kinds of things and tried to be faithful in small corners.

Adrian
I’m guessing that he was probably one of the main influences on you growing up and into ministry, was he?

Don
Not directly. When I left home I had no intention of going into the ministry. In some ways I was closer to my mother. Nevertheless, his pattern certainly has stamped me. But I started off in chemistry and mathematics. I had no intention of going into the ministry. That came about by other things. But, undoubtedly, in all kinds of subliminal ways I scarcely recognized, his pattern has affected me. But it wasn’t a kind of direct thing—“Oh, I want to be like Dad!” sort of thing. It wasn’t that at all.

Adrian
So who did influence you most to make that kind of jump from chemistry to theology?

Don
That wasn’t a single step either. I worked in a research lab in Ottawa for the federal government in air pollution. I discovered that the people in this lab—I had a good budget, I had a good project, I enjoyed what I was doing—but most of the people in the lab were either resenting it and waiting for retirement or, alternatively, chemistry was their god. And I didn’t fit in either camp. I was enjoying it, but at the same time another chap and I were trying to start a Sunday School in a new church in the upper valley, and that became more and more important to me as time went on. I remember a chorus that I learned as a boy playing out in my mind again and again:

By and by, when I look on his face,
Beautiful face, thorn-shadowed face;
By and by, when I look on his face,
I will wish I had given him more.

And in that autumn, I heard a sermon from a man—I think I’ve only ever heard him preach two or three times—a sermon on Ezekiel 22, where God says, “I sought for man to stand in the gap before me for my people, but I found none.” And God used that in a powerful way in my life so that I wanted to cry with my whole being, “Here am I, send me!” But none of that was planned.

Another earlier step was the minister of the church I was [attending] in Montreal said that he wanted me to be his assistant one summer. And I said he had confused me with a theological student—I was chemistry. I never did go and do it, but it was the first time I started thinking about it because some minister had tapped me on the shoulder and said I ought to be thinking about it. So there were many different things that God used providentially to woo me away from chemistry and science and towards vocational ministry.

Continued in part 2 . . .

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock has been a blogger since April 2003, and a member of Jubilee Church, London since 1995, where he seves as part of the leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso.

Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus.

Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway.

Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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