It seems like the conversation in many corners of the Christian Church this week has been overtaken by discussion of Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins.
Last Monday I was in New York for his launch and interview with Lisa Miller. I didn’t stick around to buy a book and get it signed, but I did download it to Kindle the next morning. I finished it today.
After all the pre-release hubbub, I was expecting Rob to say something really off-the-wall. I have to admit I was a little nervous. I was worried that in his interview with Lisa Miller he would announce something that would demonstrate his radical departure from the Faith as we know it.
…When that didn’t happen, I was then worried that he left something major out of his talk, and had left a “bomb” in the book. So, I read the book always waiting for the “bomb” to be lurking on the next page.
It never came.
Simultaneously, I was (at first) intrigued, and then later appalled by how some in the church and media were treating Rob. I read Al Mohler’s response that “we’ve seen this all before,” I saw the horrific interview that Rob did with Martin Bashir, and then heard the ridiculous interview that Martin Bashir did with Paul Edwards about the Rob-Bell-interview-debacle.
Martin Bashir brazenly claims that Rob’s book makes a radical departure from “historic Christianity.”
Really? Is he kidding?
Al Mohler called Rob, and those who theologically agree with him, “no friend of the Gospel.”
THE statement of faith that has unequivocally defined The Christian Faith for over 1,600 years is the Nicene Creed. At no point in the book does Rob dispute the existence of God, the historical life of Jesus, the Divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the pre-existence of Christ, the bodily Resurrection or the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t reconfigure the Trinity, deny the salvific power of the Cross, or throw out the Sovereignty of God.
Love Wins isn’t some liberal screed about how Jesus is just some “nice guy,” who probably never said half the things he’s recorded as saying, whose Resurrection was a group hallucination, and who just wants us all to join hands and sing kumbaya.
In fact, not only does he not say anything against the various doctrinal points of the Creed, but he gives full-throated and passionate defences of the Incarnation and Resurrection.
The book totally and absolutely supports and affirms Creedal Christianity.
Martin Bashir would be better off sticking to Michael Jackson and leaving theology to the theologians.
The Nicene Creed doesn’t specifically invoke one theory or doctrine on salvation or atonement for a reason: it’s hard to nail down in the Bible. Sorry, Al.
It’s why Penal Substitutionary Atonement and “conscious belief” doesn’t make the Creedal cut.
So, Bell doesn’t abandon historic Christianity.
He DOES make a striking departure from some of the basic tenants of Evangelical/Reformed theology though.
And there’s the crux. And I think it’s an important distinction to make.
What has Bell’s book at the top of the charts (and top of the to-be-burned/banned list) is that he is challenging Evangelical/Reformed theology from WITHIN the Evangelical/Reformed tradition. Had this book been written by a Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, etc., it wouldn’t be making a ripple. Nor selling as many copies.
When most Reformed/Evangelical preachers and teachers teach on salvation they stick to a few verses of the Gospel of John and the writings of St. Paul.They avoid Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s treatment of salvation like the plague, because when Jesus talks about salvation in those gospels he is preaching anything but reformed theology.
A rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus tells him to follow a short-list of the Ten Commandments. A lawyer comes to ask Jesus the same question, and Jesus tells him to love God and his neighbor. Jesus says that it easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it into Heaven. The goats are cast into Hell because they didn’t help those in need, and the Rich Man is found hot and thirsty in Hades because he didn’t share what he had with Lazarus.
Each of those teachings are about salvation, are from Jesus, and in the Bible. And each of them have nothing to do with Reformed Theology.
Now, belief/faith, repentance of sins, the sinfulness of humanity, and the saving grace of God are ALSO taught in terms of salvation throughout other parts of the New Testament. But, the New Testament as a whole isn’t monolithic or specifically clear on how exactly one inherits Eternal Life with God.
The New Testament IS clear that Jesus brings the Salvation of God, and Eternal Life springs from Him. And, Rob is clear about that too.
What Rob Bell does do open the door up a little wider than some are used to, and try to keep one foot in the belief-and-repentance stream of soteriology (Reformed), while at the same time sticking another foot in the stream of right living (as Jesus also taught).
It appears that the “other” stream is the one full of hot water, because he’s in a lot of it with those in his home-town camp.
In Love Wins he paints a picture of what the Life God gives us to live looks like now, and what it might look like in the Age to Come. And in this book he paints this picture sometimes helpfully, oftentimes poetically, and yes, at times clumsily. But, when you boil it all down, he says that the business of Heaven, Hell, and Eternal Life just isn’t as simple as it all sounds. It’s not all about us. It’s not even the main-point of Christianity as Jesus taught it. And, in the end God, and God’s love, will reign and prevail.
But, don’t try and tell that to Martin Bashir.
Rick Morley is an Episcopal priest, and his forthcoming book “Going to Hell, Getting Saved, and What Jesus Actually Says” is available on Kindle now.