Bell, Mohler, Driscoll, and the theological house of cards

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There have been quite a few well-known Christian leaders taking a swing at Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins.  Probably the article I see getting the most circulation is Al Mohler’s article, “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology.”

While most of what Mohler said came as no surprise, one paragraph in particular actually shocked me initially:

Like so many others, Bell wants to separate the message of Jesus from other voices even in the New Testament, particularly the voice of the Apostle Paul. Here we face the inescapable question of biblical authority. We will either affirm that every word of the Bible is true, trustworthy, and authoritative, or we will create our own Bible according to our own preferences. Put bluntly, if Jesus and Paul are not telling the same story, we have no idea what the true story is.” (emphasis mine)

My initial thought was, Wait a minute, Mohler can’t really be saying that if he was forced to choose between Paul and Jesus, he wouldn’t know who he’d choose, would he? If I was forced to make that choice, then it is obvious and easy. I’d choose Jesus.  You know, the guy who is God, and came to save the world from their sin?  Yeah, that guy.  Paul’s great and all, but he would be the first to say (and did say) that he doesn’t hold a match to Jesus.   It seems like an obvious answer to an easy question, so Mohler couldn’t really be saying that he wouldn’t be able to choose which of their stories to accept if he had to, could he?

But then I realized that this is exactly what Al Mohler is saying.  He is quite clearly saying here, and makes no apologies about it, that if someone were to genuinely convince him that there were unresolvable conflicts in the Bible, he would be completely lost.  Al Mohler puts the authority of scripture as the foundation of his faith as a Christian, and is quite eager to let people know.

And putting the authority of scripture as our foundation would make sense, I suppose, if we were “Biblians”.  But we’re Christians, and that means that Christ must be the foundation of our faith.  We don’t follow the Bible – we use the Bible as a means to following Jesus.  We as Christians should not believe Jesus is Lord because the Bible is authoritative, we believe the Bible is authoritative because Jesus is Lord and he believes the Bible is authoritative.

By placing scripture (or perhaps, more aptly, our interpretation of scripture) as our foundation, we end up building a theological house of cards, where our faith in Jesus is built on top of many various doctrines, and if any one of them falls over, our faith in Jesus does as well.

Rob Bell address this idea as well, in his book Velvet Elvis.  He gives the example of the virgin birth, and how, although it is an important doctrine that he affirms, if we were to discover incontrovertible proof that the virgin birth wasn’t true, that our faith should start with Jesus, and that this news should not crush our faith.  Mark Driscoll took particular exception to this idea.  He responds to it in his book, Vintage Jesus, but you can read the specific response online here.  His response is quite clear.  He states that the virgin birth is foundational to his faith, and then lists 4 reasons why.  He essentially says, You don’t think it would crush my faith to find out the virgin birth is false?  Of course it would!  It is one of my foundational cards, and here are 4 other cards that rest on top of it. Driscoll shows here that he doesn’t understand Bell’s point and then simultaneously proves it, by showing how his own faith is a house of cards where if you take out one piece, it all falls apart.

By not putting Jesus as our foundation, we set ourselves up for failure.  By making our faith in him conditional on other doctrines or ideas, we are setting those ideas before him, and scripture itself states that we should not put anything before God.

The point here isn’t to point fingers at Al Mohler or Mark Driscoll.  We all, including myself, are often putting things before God.  The Bible has a word for it – idolatry.  Some would say that any sin ultimately comes to idolatry – putting something in front of God, even if it’s simply our own desires.  Also, this theological house of cards isn’t an issue exclusive to conservatives.  Liberals have their own version, where they see Jesus’ precarious position in their theology, and so to compensate, they take away things from Jesus, such as his divinity, or the resurrection, so as to hedge their bets in case their card house tumbles.

There are other things at stake though than just the balance of our faith.  Our interpretation of scripture begins to change once we put Jesus right in the centre of our faith where he belongs.  When we put the authority of scripture at the centre, then when we see Paul and Jesus talking about the same topic from slightly different perspectives, we just mash their ideas together, as if we’re making a cake and it calls for “equal parts Paul and Jesus.”  But when we put Jesus at the centre, we view what Paul says through the eyes of Jesus – we read Paul’s words in the context of Jesus’ teachings.  We should do this for all of scripture. We do not read about Jesus and see how we can fit him in and amongst the rest of scripture; we read all of scripture and view it in light of Jesus, with an understanding that Jesus is the truest revelation of who God is.

We can see that the authors of the New Testament take this approach.  The writer of Hebrews starts off their letter by taking the creation story, and affirming that Jesus was there in it, that the universe was created through Jesus.  The letter continues by stating that Jesus is, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”  God is perfectly represented in Jesus, so we must view all of what scripture says about God through the lens of Jesus.  We see this same trend in 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul states that when Moses struck the rock and it produced water, “the rock was Christ.”  Here we see again, that Jesus is the foundation for Paul’s faith, and he reads his scripture in light of that, rather than the other way around.

Should we affirm the authority of scripture?  Yes, we most certainly should.  But it is because we have put our faith in Jesus, and Jesus takes scripture seriously, so we take it seriously too.  Scripture is wonderful, and I affirm that it is “God-breathed”, but we should never put the creation ahead of its creator.  We must affirm that, above all else, Jesus is Lord.

Did Love Wins win my love?

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have most likely at least heard about the big debate going on about Rob Bell’s new book, entitled, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  Before anyone had even read the book, Rob Bell was being labelled an ultra-liberal universalist heretic, based on a promotional video and a few snippets from the book.  I hadn’t read any of Rob Bell’s books since “Velvet Elvis”, which I enjoyed but wasn’t enthralled by, but I’m a sucker for theological controversy, so I pre-ordered the book on my Kindle.

The book came out this Tuesday and I finished it on Thursday.  As is usual with Rob Bell’s books, it’s not very long, even if it looks like it is.

He likes short sentences and short paragraphs.

Like this.

But I digress.

Before I read the book, and as I was reading it, I was inundated with facebook, twitter, blog, and news posts about what people were saying about Rob Bell, mostly pretty nasty negative stuff.  It made for an interesting reading experience.  So I’d like to share my thoughts on the book.

First, here, in a nutshell, is what Rob Bell is trying to argue in the book.  Rob (his style of writing makes it feel like we’re on a first name basis, so I think it’s ok to call him Rob) argues that the infinite nature of God’s love means that He will be forever patient with us, even into the afterlife, and there will never come a time when we have lost our chance to repent and put our faith in Him through Jesus.  He also argues for a definition of Heaven and Hell that means that both are existent now, currently, in our world, as well as in the afterlife.

The point Rob is trying to make is that we should approach God with a child-like attitude, trusting in His love, and not being distracted from that focus by ideas that God is a schizophrenic psychopath, where God’s love is saving us from God’s wrath, God saving us from God.  We also should not judge those outside the church; we shouldn’t be wishing Hell on them and should not be expecting them to rot in Hell for in eternal conscious torment.  He also stresses that God’s plan is redeeming this world, not escaping it, and thus we need to be focused, both in this life and the next (and the one after that) to be giving our lives over to God to partner with Him in redeeming the world.

So that’s basically, from what I could tell, what Rob is trying to get at in his book.  So here are some of my thoughts on it:

Things I liked:

Rob clears up many misconceptions about Heaven and Hell.  Heaven is not a place of disembodied timeless bliss where we sit on clouds and play harps and eat cream cheese, but there will be a life after death (in Sheol/ Hades) and then a life after life after death, with a bodily resurrection, where Heaven meets Earth and the Earth is redeemed.  He also clears up a lot of mistranslation issues with Hell, where “Hades” and “Sheol” are often (especially in older Bibles) mistranslated as “Hell”, when they mean very different things.

The book contains pretty decent arguments for the idea that people can come into a saving relationship with Jesus without necessarily recognizing the relationship as such, citing both philosophical arguments as well as Biblical texts that clearly support the idea.

There’s a really interesting little discussion on the book of John, and how the writer makes a point of numbering Jesus’ “signs”, and that the resurrection would be the 8th sign in the book, metaphorically referring to a new week, and thus a new creation.  It was something I hadn’t come across before.

Rob asks a lot of very good questions about our eternal fate that a lot of people are asking and aren’t finding the pat answers that their churches are giving them to be helpful.  Even if people don’t end up landing in the same place that Rob does, I think it is good to recognize that these are genuine questions that the evangelical church hasn’t always done a great job of addressing.

I think Rob did a decent job of demonstrating that the gospel is about more than just deciding who gets into what bin after they die.  The gospel is so huge and all-encompassing, I always enjoy reading about new perspectives and insights on it.

He really puts Jesus at the centre of everything.  You’ll find the word “Jesus” in this book a LOT.  I always like that; it is clear to see that Jesus is the foundation of Rob Bell’s faith.

Things that frustrated me:

Rob is no logician, and doesn’t always connect the dots very well, or sometimes, he doesn’t even try.  For instance, he put forward the idea that the “elect” in scripture refers to those who are being blessed so that they can bless others, similar to the nation of Israel (as opposed to those God “saves” and who get into Heaven).  He gave no argument for it, but just said it.  He shouldn’t wonder why Calvinists are generally not too happy with his book after saying that!

Similarly, he gives little support for his definition of Hell.  While I can accept his broad definition of Hell being separation from God and suffering due to evil (and thus Hell exists right now on Earth for many people) as a useful definition, Rob doesn’t really say enough to convince me that that’s exactly what Jesus meant when He used the word.

Rob essentially trades in one paradox for new one.  He discards the “God is all-loving but sends people to eternal conscious torment” paradox, and replaces it with “God is all-powerful, gets what He wants, He wants everyone saved, but some might still reject Him and not get saved” paradox.  Those who are trying to tell if Rob is a universalist or not will be confused by this book, because in some parts he seems to clearly say that God wants to save all and God gets what he wants, but then in other parts of the book says that God gets us free will, and it’s possible that some people will continue to reject him.  He recognizes the problem, but calls it a “tension” when it is really a contradiction.  Part of me believes that Rob really does believe that eventually everyone will repent and be “saved” by God, but doesn’t quite want to say so because he doesn’t want the universalist label.  I’d have rather he just be straight up and argue for the universalist view, if that’s what he really believes.  But then again, I’m not so afraid of differing ideas than many evangelicals.

While Rob spends a lot of time giving support to his views, he spends extremely little time interacting with the key verses used to refute his views, and a lot of them get ignored altogether.  A lot of people are going to read the book, and think, “But what about this verse?” and find little or no answer.  As such, I don’t think Rob’s going to win any converts to his ideas that weren’t already considering them.

Final thoughts:

So is Rob Bell a liberal heretic?  No, not particularly.  His views on the afterlife actually mirror purgatory in a lot of ways, which may not be a popular view in most evangelical circles, but isn’t particularly outside orthodoxy, and isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” view.  After all the cries of “heresy”, I was expecting the book to be a lot more heterodox than it was; in the last few chapters especially Rob underlines many conservative views and affirms them, and he warns against Christian liberal ideas like ignoring or disbelieving in the afterlife as much as he warns conservative fundamentalists not to judge non-Christians or portray God as being hateful.

Do I think Rob Bell argues his case successfully?  While I agree with his final points and advice for Christians, I found his arguments for how the afterlife functions not so compelling.  He spurred my interesting in some of the ideas, and I will probably look further into what some more scholarly books may say on the matter, but I think Rob made too many leaps in logic without explaining them sufficiently.  Granted, the topics he addressed are way too big and complex to cover in such a short book, but he could have provided more support for his claims.

Did I enjoy the book?  There were times I quite enjoyed it, but overall it was kind of ho-hum.  I think I’m a bit more of the intellectual type, and Rob Bell is more “artsy”, so his style doesn’t always quite resonate with me.  I think those that are interested in this topic but aren’t wanting something too scholarly will probably enjoy the book a lot more.

Who would I recommend the book to?  I’d recommend it to someone who is really struggling with negative portrayals of God and who really find it difficult to see God as “good”.  I think this book would help them see some other perspectives on God’s goodness.  But that’s about it, I think.

In the end, I found it to be a decent book.  It’s an enjoyable quick read, but nothing worth the hype (negative or positive) that it has received.  I do hope people can look past the controversy though and glean out of the book the few gems that it contains.