Book Review: The Intolerance of Tolerance by D.A. Carson

The Intolerance of Tolerance by D.A. Carson is a masterful exploration into one of the greatest cultural issues of our day—tolerance by one of the greatest Christian minds of our day. In post-modernism, tolerance—the affirming and celebrating of virtually any exercise of personal autonomy- is the prime value. The unforgiveable sin is being judgmental, that is, believing that an activity or lifestyle choice that does not hurt another person is wrong, immoral or sinful. A second related unforgiveable sin is claiming that what you believe is objectively true and thus binding on another person. A person who holds these beliefs is considered to be bigoted, narrow-minded, and arrogant, just as was true in Ancient Rome.

In our twenty-first century culture, Christians are be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). The Church has been charged with proclaiming the unchanging unadulterated truth of God’s Word to an adulterous, materialistic culture that lifts up itself in rebellion against the God who created them.

Debates about Christianity have shifted from whether it’s true to was anyone offended. The Gospel is offensive but the gospel messenger must be loving. The new tolerance which Dr. Carson rightly exposes in this book will help Christians to understand what this new tolerance is and why it insists that no one should hold firm convictions.

The Intolerance of Tolerance contains eight chapters where Dr. Carson lays out the changing face of tolerance, explains how we came to be where we are, gives a history of tolerance, exposes its inconsistency, how the Church has responded to the new tolerance, along with tolerance, democracy and majoritanism and concludes by providing ten ways forward towards a biblical view of tolerance. Throughout the book as is typical with Dr. Carson’s other books, he provides penetrating biblical-theological analysis along with keen cultural observation and practical implications for how the issue attacks Christianity.

The heart of the book is about the notion of tolerance which is changing, and with it new definitions that shape tolerance.

Carson argues that, “Although a few things can be said in favor of the newer definition, the sad reality is that this new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant. It is blind to its own shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral high ground; it cannot be questioned because it has become part of the West’s plausibility structure. Worse, this new tolerance is socially dangerous and is certainly intellectually debilitating. Even the good that it wishes to achieve is better accomplished in other ways” (2).  The shift “from accepting the existing of different views” to “acceptance of different views,” from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people is subtle in form but massive in substance. The accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actual accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own” (3).

Understanding this issue is important because when people think of tolerance they think of the older definition of tolerance and not the new definition of tolerance. Thinking clearly is important as Christians are to be people of the Book and to study to show themselves as workman who do not need to be ashamed (2nd Timothy 2:15).

Carson notes that the older view of tolerance “held either that true is objective and can be known, and that the best way to uncover it is bold tolerance of those who disagree, since sooner or later the truth will win out; or that while truth can be known in some domains, it probably cannot be known in other domains, and that the wisest and least malignant course in such cases is benign tolerance grounded in superior knowledge that recognizes our limitations. By contrast, the new tolerance argues that there is no one view that is exclusively true. Strong opinions are nothing more than strong preferences for a particular version of reality, each version equally true” (11).

Beginning with this new view of tolerance elevates one’s view to the supreme position in the hierarchy of moral virtues, the supreme sin is intolerance. “The trouble is that such intolerance like the new tolerance also takes on a new definition. Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in nature, that all worldviews have equal worth that all stances are equally valid. To question such postmodern axioms is by definition intolerant. For such questioning there is no tolerance whatsoever, for it is classes as intolerance and must therefore be condemned. It has become the supreme vice” (12).

The implications for the old and new tolerance are huge and need to be considered by every Christian whether they are preaching from the pulpit or working in a cubicle. Consider a Christian who offers a well-thought out exposition of who Jesus is and what He has done, including how His cross and resurrection constitute the only way by which human beings can be reconciled to God, the person who holds the defeater belief may listen with some intellectual interest but readily dismiss everything you say without much thought. The scope of this problem then comes into focus. “The new tolerance tends to avoid serious engagement over difficult moral issues, analyzing almost every issue on the one axis tolerant/intolerant, excluding all others from the pantheon of the virtuous who do not align with this axis” (15).

Dr. Carson concludes this book by giving ten words about how to engage the new tolerance. First, “expose, the new tolerance’s moral and epistemological bankruptcy, 2) persevere a place for truth, 3) expose the new tolerance’s condescending arrogance, 4) insist that the new tolerance is not progress, 5) distinguish between empirical diversity and the inherit goodness of all diversity, 6) challenge secularism’s ostensible neutrality and superiority, 7) practice and encourage civility, 8) evangelize, 9) be prepared to suffer, and finally, delight in and trust in God” (161-176).

The problem with tolerance is that it is not tolerant at all. Tolerance promises much, but at end of the day is another false gospel the world proclaims in order to distract men and women from the Gospel. As Paul did with the false teachers at Corinthians, so Christians must today do, which is to not preach their opinions nor accommodate false teaching, but to proclaim that the Gospel is the power of God unto the salvation of mankind. The Gospel shines the light of the “knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:5) upon sinners who need to see their sin for what it is, and come to Jesus in repentance and faith. The Gospel is not an opinion or a fairytale, but the power of God to transfer sinners from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Jesus.

The “gospel” of tolerance is another lie designed to lead the people of God away from God. Tolerance promotes a low view of God and a high view of man. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is supreme over the “gospel” of tolerance, because the Gospel carries with it the power of God to open sinner’s eyes to the Truth about who God is, who Jesus is, and what He has done in His death, burial and resurrection. The “gospel” of tolerance proclaims a false view of God by teaching people to turn to themselves which taken to its conclusion will not result in happiness, but rather in eternal unending, unrelenting separation from God in hell. The byproduct of believing pluralism and tolerance is that people have no fear of God, which means they do not believe that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead.

The gospel of tolerance and pluralism is destroying generation after generation, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to open people’s eyes to the Truth about who Jesus is and what He has done in His death, burial and resurrection. The Gospel is superior in every way to the inferior gospel of tolerance and pluralism, because the Gospel alone contains the power of God to accomplish all that it aims to do, which is to effect the salvation of the lost and gather and scatter the people of God to bear witness to Jesus Christ the Chief Shepherd of His People.

In this reviewers assessment, The Intolerance of Tolerance will make an extremely useful textbook for any Christian interested in the origins of how tolerance has come into being, and how it continues to affect our lives as Christians. First, Carson frames the issue by giving the background of what old and new tolerance is while introducing the reader to others who have thought seriously about the issue of tolerance. In addition to this fact, the book is footnoted so the reader can explore additional perspectives from others on this issue. Second, as is typical with Carson, the book is very well-written which will helps the reader digest the very heavy content in the book. Finally, reading The Intolerance of Tolerance will help Christians to understand that the new tolerance is socially dangerous and intellectually debilitating but also that it leads to genuine intolerance of all who struggle to hold fast to their beliefs. The Intolerance of Tolerance is a must own book on a very serious issue that is threatening not only Western civilization but the whole world, and will help Christians and the Church to remain steadfast in the Word of God and proclaim the Gospel to a lost and dying world.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Dave Jenkins is the Director of Servants of Grace Ministries. He enjoys biblical, systematic and historical theology and apologetics. More of his writing can be found at

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Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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