A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, May 09, 2011

What Love Wins Tells Us About Christians

From Scot McKnight:
Everyone knew in advance that Rob Bell's next book, Love Wins, would surely raise eyebrows and create some debate. But no one, including the author and his agent, expected what did happen. From the moment Justin Taylor uttered that opening warning and John Piper tweeted "Farewell Rob Bell" until many of us had a week or two to read it, Rob Bell's book was at the forefront of American Christianity's sensational tabloids. I've never seen anything like it, and it may well be a one of a kind brouhaha for the next generation or two.

But what can we learn from what happened? I want to suggest we can learn ten lessons.

First, social media is where controversial ideas will be both explored and judged. We no longer read books patiently, type out letters to denominational offices, find common agreements and then summon the Christian leader behind closed doors to ask questions and sort out concerns. It's all public, it's all immediate and everyone weighs in because social media is about as radical a form of democracy as exists.

Second, megachurch pastors are being watched closely. "Who says what" has always mattered. But because of social media, the who-says-what takes on new significance: megachurch pastors—and this applies to Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Andy Stanley and Rob Bell—are being watched and their critics only need one off-line comment to stir into action.

Third, tribalism pervades the American religious scene. On my blog we went through Love Wins patiently chapter by chapter, and daily I observed both in the comments and in private e-mails exchanges (and telephone interviews) that some thought everything Bell said was wrong while others wouldn't admit he had said one thing worth worrying over. Call it groupthink or call it tribalism but such divisions will emerge especially over controversial ideas said by well-known leaders. Tribalism produces imbalanced and fuzzy thinking.

Fourth, hell remains a central Christian conviction and concern. There are some topics that are either taboo or almost taboo, and hell is one of those. Defending traditional views that are almost taboo is a game few want to play because the defender senses he or she is about to be called a bigot.

Fifth, Christian views of hell are both incomplete and in need of serious examination. ...what we think about hell... deserves careful exploration of what the Bible says and what the church has taught, and we need to do both very carefully and patiently and we need to present our conclusions both sensitively and faithfully.

Sixth, pressing questions require serious thinking. I said above that Bell's not a universalist, but I want to nuance this by saying Bell's prose is not always clear. He thinks he can get off the hook of precise thinking by saying he's not a theologian but a pastor, and I'll come right back and say "You may be, but you wrote about the topic and this topic has generated fierce discussion and fine distinctions for more than 1700 years. Anyone who enters this discussion needs to know the lay of the land before uttering a published word."

Seventh, missiology remains the center of gospeling in our world. You can talk all you want about eschatology and about atonement theory and about evangelism and about worship, but the moment you cross a line others perceive to be too far in the wrong directions, you will be called out on it. The essential line in Christianity is the gospel, and all theology is measured by its fidelity to the gospel or its denial of the gospel. Why? Because the church's message is one about salvation and how we get saved and who gets saved and what one has to do to get saved. The gospel is more than salvation, but anything that softens salvation or hardens salvation is in for immediate debate. Frankly, Rob Bell's book called into question the gospel essence evangelicalism has defended since the Reformation. That is the fundamental reason why this book caused such a storm.

Eighth, low church, non-denominational evangelicalism, of which Rob Bell is an exceptional representative, carries its own dangers. As I was reading Love Wins the first time, one thought kept coming back to me: this book could not have been written by a traditional Presbyterian or Methodist or Lutheran or Southern Baptist … or by anyone who is accountable to a stable and long-standing theological tradition. Rob Bell is a stand-alone pastor, and Mars Hill is a stand-alone church. While it may have some responsibility to its mother church, it is more or less on its own.

Ninth, we are still asking a big question: What is the gospel? Time and time again Bell mentions the gospel, and it appears to me that Bell defines the gospel as God's utter love for us. How odd, I muse at times, that so many claim "gospel" for what they think but at the same time don't recognize that the word "gospel" seems to be a contested term and category that demands careful words and definitions.

Tenth, what is evangelicalism and what is orthodoxy? I heard Rob Bell say in an interview that he is evangelical and orthodox to the bone. What do these terms mean?...  Essentially, evangelicalism is a movement that believes in the necessity of personal salvation and personal conversion now in order to inherit eternal life after death. Rob Bell, to put it mildly, shows little tolerance for that way of framing salvation and one has to ask what he means by the term "evangelical" and whether he fits the term as defined by the best thinking on this term in our world. And what does "orthodoxy" mean? Ask the best church historians and theologians and they will point you to the classic creeds, from Nicea on, and that means orthodoxy defines and articulates the Trinity.  An orthodox person is someone who believes those creedal formulations. But I'm encountering a generation of young thinkers who really don't care what these terms mean.

What we have learned from the heated debates and conversation about Love Wins should not be ignored. The vitality of our movement and the need for goodwill are at stake in these sorts of debates. When the next controversial book comes out, I hope we pause long enough to read the book, ask the author for clarifications and only then to go public with our concerns and criticisms. What we can learn to do is model how to listen, how to disagree, and how to express dismay with one another—before the watching world. If we choose to repeat what happened with Love Wins we will damage the Body of Christ.
You can read Scot's entire article here.


Nirmal Sodemba said...

I don’t understand why most churches in the West prefer to talk more about ‘Love’ only,rarely mentioning the basic requirement of repentance, denying oneself, being separated from the world, set oneself apart for God, crucifying oneself daily etc. When the Gospel in the Church is not accurately taught or explained, people end up not understanding the message of sin, they do not repent and cannot experience salvation. In its place will always be a substitute message, for example, a message that concentrates only on God’s love for us without mentioning the ramifications of rejecting him. While it is true the Son was sent because God loves us, it is only a part of the Gospel. It does not include the implications of one’s sin and the punishment intended for sin that Christ took upon himself in our place. Without the Gospel’s presentation of Christ as the Savior of punishment from our sin, and not just the message of forgiveness of sin, one can end up with a superficial knowledge of what the Gospel is all about. This will only produce Church members, not true converts. A Gospel without repentance, (a true change of mind) which produces a change of life, leaves people trapped in their sin while still believing in Christ. All are given choices and according to the Bible no one is imposed to do anything. The heart of the matter is if one chooses to believe in God to be saved then one has to live for God, he/she belongs to Jesus Christ, they live a spirit-filled life looking forward earnestly to the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on earth when Jesus comes back and to reign with Jesus as saints and kings. Jesus speaks of “eternal fire and punishment” as the place of the angels and human beings who have rejected God (Matthew 25:41,46). He warns that those who live in sin will be in danger of the “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22; 18:8-9.) Jesus described hell consistently as “fire” and “outer darkness” (Matt 25:30; Jude 6,7,13.) Jesus, who is God’s presentation of love to mankind spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, future reality than any other biblical teacher. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” He is speaking to followers, some of whom will eventually be tortured, stoned, or burned alive. Yet, he says hell is far worse. Hell is a place of spiritual misery. The judgment is of hell not a finality, there is suffering throughout its sentence. A man who was created in God’s image is not destroyed but left in its sinful state after death. Jesus tells us it's a place of agony and suffering in the spirit, the agony they will have will be justified because of their decision to reject Christ. Hell was made for the devil and his angels, it was not intended for man. But men who reject the solution follow the rebellion of the Devil will also find themselves in the same place.
Rev. 20:11-15 explains the Book of Life and the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” The book of life is entered by having a spiritual birth, where one has eternal life from a decision on the gospel while on earth. Rev. 20:4-6 …. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” Rom 8:10-11:“And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” Is it Christ that dwells in you? That is how we receive a NEW SPIRITUAL BIRTH; these are the ones that will have eternal life.

PamBG said...

Call me "tribal" Allan, but in response to the previous commentator, I feel that, as a Chaplain I have learnt an awful lot about the genuine need for repentance and the role that it plays in people's lives.

I love the way a colleague characterizes God's view toward repentance (my colleague is Methodist and from a non-Western culture): that God desperately wants us to repent, and is eager to shower us with forgiveness, grace and mercy. I know that my colleague does not want to descend into "salvation by works" but what has "scared" me in a lot of these discussions has been people's eagerness to describe God as acting fiercely and harshly in the name of "justice".

I somehow doubt, for example, that John Stott (to name a traditional, conservative Reformed pastor and theologian) would have been rooting for a vengeful God or even gleefully trying to condemn Bell to hell.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I somehow doubt, for example, that John Stott (to name a traditional, conservative Reformed pastor and theologian) would have been rooting for a vengeful God or even gleefully trying to condemn Bell to hell.

I agree, and I agree with your colleague concerning repentance. What concerns me is that one side of the argument seems to want to emphasize God's love at the expense of God's justice, while the other side stakes its claim on God's justice to the detriment of God's love. How we understand those two things from a human point of view is difficult because they often appear to be tensions to us, whereas for God acting perfectly loving and perfectly just is intrinsic to his nature.

As far as the tribal matter, I agree with Scot. It seems bizarre to me that we cannot appreciate what Rob Bell has done in writing this book while acknowledging that it has some serious inadequacies, particularly in reference to exegesis.

PamBG said...

For better or worse, I think he intend a long written sermon/ meditation rather than exegetical or theological precision. Whether we like it or not, I think he has the right to express himself in that manner.

It would be interesting to read commentators who tried to wrestle compassionately with repentance. I think repentance is often difficult to bring ourselves to do. But the actual doing is not that difficult in many instances. And I still don't think God's justice centers around revenge. All of that IS Good News and I do think there is a streak in Christianity - and ever has been - that really would prefer repentance to be Very Bad News Indeed so that it's sufficiently "muscular".

Allan R. Bevere said...

I agree that Rob has a right to express himself, but again, I believe that Scot is right-- if you are going to write on a subject, particularly someone as influential as Bell, you need to do your homework. A sermon/meditation does not need to lack exegetical or theological precision. Otherwise, I would suggest that Christian preaching and reflection are dubious enterprises.