D. A. Carson. The Intolerance of Tolerance. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Reviewed by Nate Wood–

On May 8th the state of North Carolina approved a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. The next day, Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times, offered his take on the decision in his article, “A Trifecta of Intolerance.” He opens the article with these words: “Tuesday was pretty great for the forces of intolerance. North Carolina voters approved an amendment that makes discrimination an official part of their state constitution.” Regardless of one’s convictions concerning constitutional marriage amendments, one must reckon with the fact that the cry of “intolerance” is all too often heard in the West. In The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A. Carson seeks to understand this cry and respond to it from a biblical worldview. The notion of tolerance has changed, and Carson argues, as implied by the title, “contemporary intolerance is intrinsically intolerant.”

In the introduction, Carson lays out the issue of the book and sharpens the contrast between the old and new tolerance. Under the old view of tolerance, a person was considered tolerant because they insisted others had the right to dissent from their own view and argue a different case. They assumed there was objective truth, and the best way to discover the truth is to pursue it and persuade others with reason and unhindered exchange of ideas. Even if the truth cannot be known in all domains, it was assumed to be wise to allow others to hold dissenting views. In contrast to this old view of tolerance, the new tolerance, grounded in a relativistic and postmodern worldview, argues that there is no one view that is true. Thus, one must be tolerant of all views, because there is no way to say one view is right or true. All paths are equally valid. Tolerance is now the supreme virtue in the “hierarchy of moral virtues,” and intolerance is the “supreme sin.” Carson argues that intolerance in the new view must be understood to be “any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid.” The irony of such a position is that it allows no claims to exclusive truth except the claim that there is no exclusive truth. There is simply no “tolerance” for those who disagree with this view of tolerance.

Carson reminds us how widespread this problem is, giving examples from the domains of education, media, homosexual behavior, as well as how this new tolerance is directed against Christians and Christianity. He then gives a helpful summary of the history of tolerance and intolerance, which brings into focus the “innovative and dangerous nature of this new tolerance.” The new tolerance arguably has other agendas at work, while seeing itself as intrinsically neutral and free from any other systems of thought (ethical, moral, religious). Carson rightfully shows how the problem is worse than mere inconsistency; the new tolerance brings in underlying assumptions and structures of thoughts and imposes them on those who disagree, but still insists it is others who are the intolerant people. What is even more striking for Christians are the challenges this new tolerance brings to Christianity and Christian truth claims, both inside and outside the church. Carson says there is a “subtle pressure to dumb down, dilute, and minimize the Gospel.” He wants to be clear that faithful Christians are bound to Scripture and bound to uphold certain truth claims, but this does not mean that Christians are “intolerant.” There is still evil in our world, and the new tolerance proves unable to deal with this reality, even though proponents would lead us to believe the world would be a better place if we were all more “tolerant.”

Carson’s cultural exegesis and application of a biblical worldview to the issue of tolerance and intolerance is quite astounding. Cultural examples that support his position abound throughout the book, making the weight of what is at stake all the more heavy. There is a interweaving of biblical, theological, and cultural awareness that is an example of scholarship and exactly what one would expect from Carson. Chapter eight, “Ways Ahead: Ten Words,” is worth the price of the book for those who are seeking the way ahead. Many will be interested in this book who have yet to grasp the issue, but feel the uncomfortable tension when they are charged with “intolerance.” This volume will wonderfully assist them in understanding what is at stake, expand their knowledge of the history of thought and how we arrived at such a place, and provide them numerous examples that demonstrate how this new tolerance is working itself out in our culture. There will also be those who already understand the issues, but have not completely worked through the implications for the Christian faith or how to respond in a loving and biblical manner. Again, this volume will be an invaluable resource to these people, and Carson’s “Ten Words” will provide counsel and encouragement to those who want be bold in the face of challenges to the exclusivity of Christ and his claims. Moreover, this volume is a great resource for Christians and non-Christians alike to understand and debate these issues in a rational manner. One may not be fully convinced of every single argument made in the work, but one will not be able simply to dismiss Carson’s overarching case against the intolerance of the new tolerance. 

Nate Wood, Axis Church in Nashville, TN

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