Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: D.A. Carson's "The Farewell Discourse"

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Evangelical Exposition of John 14-17. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980; Repackaged Edition published in 2018.

The Gospel of John 13-17 like other parts of the Fourth Gospel is the subject of many books, dissertations, blogs, conference papers, and journal articles: these chapters are known as the upper room or farewell discourse. D.A. Carson (author of Exegetical Fallacies and a notable Johannine commentary) sets out to exposit John 14-17 for those who are not scholars, but this work does contain material that deals with textual issues and Greek syntax. Carson's book is unabashedly "evangelical" and consequently Trinitarian. Carson does not shy away from problem verses and he frequently calls attention to the deity of Christ. Moreover, this study openly affirms that John 14-17 faithfully represents the historical words and deeds of Jesus, not mere redactional material produced by some Johannine editor. The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus also helpfully points readers to more advanced works in order to access fuller explanations of Carson's hermeneutical presuppositions respecting historical-critical matters.

Carson is a talented writer: his manner of expression is clear, the examples he uses to establish main ideas are stark, and he is a perceptive exegete in many cases. For instance, this book places the reader in the very midst of Jesus' farewell meal with his disciples and we are treated to textual possibilities that might be easy to overlook, if reading the text alone; for scholars, the author's familiarity with secondary literature is quite apparent, and fortunately, Carson is far from being predictable when he attempts to explain Johannine verses. Of course, his Trinitarian presuppositions are quite evident throughout the book. Nevertheless, his penchant for locating a reader within a Biblical narrative is striking and useful.

When discussing John 13 and Jesus' conversation with Peter and the other disciples, Carson writes: "The atmosphere instantly became stultifying again. The silence returned, an engulfing blanket, as the disciples stared at each other. This time there was no doubt what the Master meant" (page 13).

Who would betray Jesus? Which follower of Christ would it be? The exposition of John 13-17 captures the tension that Jesus' disciples must have felt among themselves. Carson elevates the suspense as he makes us wonder, what must the followers of Christ have experienced that fateful night? Jesus later signaled who the treacherous apostle would be. But were his actions completely transparent to those men reclining with him at the farewell event? Did they really get the import of what Jesus did in his interaction with Judas Iscariot? Carson uses this backdrop to introduce the discussion of John 14-17 as he immediately begins a discussion of John 14:1-2--both its textual issues and expositional ones. For this reason and more, Carson's commentary made me think about many of the Fourth Gospel's discrete components and their uniqueness. I loved the challenge of this study, but the book is not without some problems in my estimation.

Admittedly, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus is a popular treatment of four Johannine chapters, but it should not give the impression that scholarly consensus exists regarding John 14:1-2 or 14:28. In what I consider to be an unjustified embellishment of the text, Carson (although he is not alone) takes John 14:28 as evidence of Christ's deity (pages 94-95): the Father is greater than I am. He believes the verse does not make sense unless one reads the passage as indicative of proof for the divinity of Christ; however, other possibilities exist for 14:28 that make better sense of the account than Carson's interpretation does. Compare the thoughtful commentary of R.E. Brown and Paul Anderson's study on John, both of whom are Trinitarians. Neither of these works reject Jesus' "deity," but at least their explanations of 14:28 are more plausible than Carson's.

While Carson sets out to defend Trinitarianism throughout this book and does not give other views equal time, the book is worth reading for ardent students of John's Gospel, its doctrine of God, and interesting Christology.

I was provided a review copy of Carson's work from Baker Books in exchange for my review. However, the viewpoints I have given represent my own impressions of his study.

See https://www.christianbook.com/farewell-discourse-prayer-jesus-repackaged-edition/d-a-carson/9780801075902/pd/075902


Duncan said...


Philip Fletcher said...

If nothing else, surprisingly he is being honest.