The Intolerance of Tolerance

Introduction Intolerance of Tolerance

There has been a noticeable shift in Western culture towards increasing tolerance and acceptance. Diversity is celebrated and children are taught to embrace who they are. Yet according to D.A. Carson (Research Professor of New Testament at TEDS), author of The Intolerance of Tolerance, this increase in tolerance has also redefined tolerance. Formerly, tolerance was defined as accepting the existence of other views; presently, tolerance is now viewed as the unquestioned acceptance of other views. In Carson’s words, the shift now means “believing [another’s] position to be true, or at least as true as your own” (p. 3). Anyone who holds to objective or exclusive truth is now labeled “intolerant,” the only sin still permissible in the public square. In this book, Carson seeks to paint this New Tolerance in a new light: as an unstable and contradictory view.


In Chapter 1, Carson introduces the argument by providing contrasting definitions of “tolerance;” throughout the book he refers to them as “old tolerance” and “new tolerance.” Using a parable by Gotthold Lessing (pp. 7–9), he shows how the new tolerance forces any and all views to be held as right and true; any questioning of other views—or even this axiom—is viewed as intolerant.

In Chapter 2, the reader is provided with anecdotal evidence demonstrating the intolerance of this “new tolerance.” Whether it be banks rejecting customers based on their private religious beliefs, to doctors and professors being sued for holding to their convictions, to Christian college organizations being banned from campus for requiring their leaders to hold certain beliefs, there seems to be an intolerance for those who hold to truth. Carson notes that a large number of these issues are against Christians: we are commonly referred to as “intolerant” for holding to biblical teachings. In addition, Christians seem to be the only religious groups people are allowed to be intolerant of: “In many circles it seems that the only broadly sanctioned derision still permitted is anti-Christian” (42).

The focus of Chapter 3 is on the history of tolerance, both in the public square and in church history. Special attention is paid to the Puritans and to the religious tolerance (old definition) found at the beginning of America. Carson mentions the oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood “Separation of Church and State” doctrine, noting that this has been a constant struggle in Christianity (65).

By Chapter 4, Carson points out what the reader has likely picked up on: culture indiscriminately uses both the old and new definitions of tolerance, causing great confusion for all. New tolerance that is based on a secular culture is viewed as neutral. Yet Carson notes that this new tolerance is far from neutral; it seeks to control the discussion, pushing its own agenda, and forcing opposing views to submit. As stated earlier, Carson sees the attacks as disproportionally occurring against Christian thought and beliefs.

With Chapter 5, Carson moves the discussion to the church and how Christian truth fits in this culture of new tolerance. Unlike the older definition of tolerance, which required someone to hold a view, the new view of tolerance means that anyone that holds to a truth as exclusive is anathema; this is why Christianity is viewed as intolerant. Some steps to make Christianity more palatable include minimizing the Gospel or holding to religion without truth.

Chapter 6 deals with the problem of evil. Since it is rooted in a secular society, the new tolerance must base it’s definition of evil on cultural moral standards. This is where it gets confusing: on one hand, to claim something is evil is admitting that not all views are the same; yet there are certain things that culture views as wrong (pedophilia, genocide, etc). The one wrong that culture can agree on is intolerance, which has previously been defined as not accepting all views.

In Chapter 7, Carson looks at the uniqueness of democracies, which give voice to the people and seek to support the new tolerance. Contrary to the new tolerance, which seeks keep religion and personal beliefs out of the public square, Carson states that 1. it is impossible to fully privatize religion, and 2. it is important to keep Christian thought in the public square.

Finally, in Chapter 8 Carson provides ten words of advice for Christians on how to deal with this new definition of tolerance. Some recommendations include continuing Carson’s work in exposing the flawed logic behind the new tolerance. Others, directed squarely at Christians, remind us that God is still in control, even though culture might not reflect our beliefs. His reminder that we must be prepared to suffer is especially helpful; American Christians would rather complain about religious liberty because their favored candidate didn’t get elected, while brothers and sisters around the world are willingly walking to the gallows because of their faith in Christ.


In The Intolerance of Tolerance, Carson does a fine job of bringing to light the contradictions found in the new tolerance movement. He is able to trace the development of this new definition and reject some of the post-modern thinking behind it. His chapters on Christian truth (chapter 5), evil (6) and the public square (7) are the strongest in the book and are very helpful for Christians seeking to navigate a post-Christian culture. It is easy to read, which is often hard to do when dealing with such a topic, but is a hallmark of D.A. Carson’s prose.

I have one concern with the book: Carson relies heavily on anecdotal evidence, which never tells the whole story. While his examples are poignant and varied, there are plenty of examples of Christians being intolerant in both old and new definitions (like Westboro Baptist).

Overall, this timely book is a must read for Christian leaders, pastors, and anyone engaging in culture.

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Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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