Throughout Western culture, more and more emphasis is being placed on the importance of tolerance. However, as society has elevated the position of tolerance in recent history, it has simultaneously changed the idea of tolerance to mean something subtly different from the formal definition. This shift in the meaning of tolerance has produced an ideology that is largely intolerant of true Christianity, and thus relevant to the Reformed believer. Donald Carson, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, addresses this subject in his recent book The Intolerance of Tolerance.
Carson begins his treatment of this matter by presenting two different definitions for tolerance, which he refers to as the old tolerance and the new. The old tolerance allows people to adhere to a particular set of views or beliefs, but also insists that others have the right to a different stance. In contrast, under the new tolerance, all views become equivalent and thus must be accepted by everyone. As Carson writes, “We leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid” (p. 3). This shift in the meaning of tolerance results in a similar shift in the meaning of intolerance. This new tolerance labels intolerant any who claim to know truth and oppose the idea that “all beliefs and claims are equally valid.” Thus, when tolerance becomes the pinnacle of morality within a society, then intolerance becomes the most grievous offense someone can commit. This stance on intolerance leaves no room for the existence of absolute and dogmatic truth; therefore, truth becomes relative.
Having established the two competing definitions for tolerance, Carson provides an array of examples that amply demonstrate that this new form of tolerance is quite often intolerant of Christians. Therefore we often observe attempts to suppress Christianity under the banner of tolerance that “thinks of itself as intrinsically neutral” (p. 96). In response to this, Carson offers the reader a series of ways to move forward that focus on exposing this new form of tolerance as intolerant.
The majority of Carson’s arguments rely on a large number of well-researched case studies that support his thesis. However, this book fails to incorporate a biblical response to the issues that Carson addresses. For example, no mention is made of the parallel between the growing prominence of this new form of tolerance and the coming of the Antichristian kingdom. Furthermore, while the author does make the necessary connection between the development of tolerance and the post-modern movement, he fails to recognize that both of these have greatly influenced nominal Christianity. Churches throughout the world readily apostatize by allowing for the inclusion of homosexuality or divorce and remarriage in the name of tolerance. The language Carson uses can be difficult to understand, and the connection between the evidence he provides and his thesis can be unclear, making this a challenging read. Overall, while the book is well written, I would not recommend it unless you desire a detailed explanation for the progression of tolerance or an increased awareness for how frequently true Christians are viewed as intolerant by a society that claims to be tolerant.