Book Review: Prophetic from the Centre

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review.

Don Carson Prophetic from the Center Book Review

Don Carson is a theological giant in the world of evangelicalism, and his books and teaching have been very important to me personally in my growth as a Christian. With a few reservations, Prophetic from the Center (apologies for the American spelling, but then he is Canadian!) is a very helpful primer on the Gospel and it’s implications, that echoes much of what Carson has said and written before. The premise of the book is that it is quite easy to sound prophetic when speaking from the margins, but actually it is keeping the Gospel central and continually teaching it and returning to it that will ultimately be powerful.

Prophetic from the Centre is a short book – 54 pages, to be precise – that is fundamentally a reworking for publishing of an address given at the first Gospel Coalition Conference. With that in mind, it is worth focusing on what Carson is saying, rather than what he isn’t. This book majors on the Gospel – particularly the summary Paul offers us in 1 Corinthians 15:1-19. Carson invites us, as believers, to return to “the dominant New Testament emphasis that understands ‘the gospel’ to be the embracing category that holds much of the Bible together; and takes Christians from lostness and alienation from God all the way through conversion and discipleship to consummation, to resurrection bodies, and to the new heaven and the new earth“. This summary, from the opening pages of the book, gives a glimpse of Carson’s majestic, fully-rounded vision of the Gospel. While the book is careful to explain the importance and centrality of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, Carson is keen that it is from that glorious centre that Christians then seek to understand and explain everything else.

After the introduction, Carson offers us ‘8 Summarizing Words’ (6 of which John Stott came up with, apparently), ‘Five Clarifying Sentences’, and ‘One Evocative Summary’. Without summarising the book, I found the 8 words very helpful, particularly with the emphasis on the Gospel being both Christological (all to do with Christ the Son) and Theological (sin as offence against God, the Cross as satisfaction of the debt owed, and restoration of relationship with God being vital), as well as Apostolic (understood as being witnessed too by the Apostles, and understood and shared by Christians and churches ever since). The emphasis on Christ and his Kingdom, rather than ideas that we hold, is refreshing and incredibly important.

Carson notes, with careful reference to Paul, that “We are not saved by theological ideas about Christ; we are saved by Christ himself“. This, and Christ’s continued life, means that I was much encouraged by Carson’s description (one of the 8 words) of the gospel as Eschatological; “some of the blessings Christians receive today are essentially eschatological blessings, blessings belonging to the end, even if they have been brought back into time and are already ours“. Amen! I also very much appreciated one of his 5 sentences, unpacked beautifully as you might expect; “The Gospel is Boldly Advancing Under the Contested Reign and Inevitable Victory of Jesus the King“.

I noted at the outset a couple of quibbles. Firstly, the American spelling of center rather than centre. Secondly, and more seriously – though it does resonate with the complementarianism of The Gospel Coalition – the slightly forced inclusion of a minor sidenote on gender roles in the church (p. 42, there’s also a hint, though not as explicit, of a linking of gender roles to the Trinity, but this isn’t explored). I’m not sure what it added to the book, and (from my perspective) simply served as a road bump rather than a key part of his argument. This means that whilst I would warmly and firmly commend the book to people, for my fellow egalitarians it isn’t quite as central and Gospel-focused as it could perhaps be. Thirdly, I did feel that Prophetic from the Center was ironically not particularly pneumatological – the Holy Spirit was somewhat noticeable by his absence!

Overall, then, this is a beautiful and robust exposition of what the Gospel actually is, and why it is both good news and a fundamental, world-changing theological principle. I can see this book being very helpful for uniting leadership teams in theologically mixed contexts – like Christian Unions, parachurch organisations, and churches which have quite diverse congregations. Thanks to Don Carson for writing this very helpful little book.

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