Part Three is not a mythical tease…

It has never before been necessary for me to update people on when I will blog again. That doesn’t mean I’ve never done it; only that if I have, it was unnecessary. But people really are asking and, though in fewer numbers every day, apparently checking back here to see if I’ve posted Part Three of my thoughts on the Bellgate/Hellgate.

I intended to do so earlier in the week, but I’ve been busier than expected. I’m also a part of one of the world’s smallest and most misunderstood minority groups: I hate Spring.

Before you judge me, I hate Spring because it first hated me. And because it continues to hate me. In an effort to negotiate some sort of truce between my body and Spring, I have employed mass quantities of antihistamines and steroids (the kind you spray up your nose, not the kind that cause you to end up having ex-girlfriends insult your manhood in federal court). That strategy has found limited success, but it is very effective at cloudying up myy braines so that I don’t think or write so good.

I plan to take a swing at Part Three tonight. If that plan fails, watch for it sometime next week. I will spend Friday, Saturday, and Monday at the Final Four in Houston and will preach about sex to my people on my Final Four Weekend off day.

Thanks to those of you interested enough in what I’ve written so far to care about the eventual existence of Part Three. I’m looking forward to writing it and to coming back and interacting with some of the comments at some level.

Blessings.

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Part Two – Farewell charity: The day Rob Bell and John Piper broke the internet

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing not Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but the public conversation about that book. And more broadly, it is my attempt to examine the ways we (Christians) engage both one another and the concept of biblical and historical orthodoxy when we feel meaningful truth is up for grabs. I encourage you to read Part One of this series before you read the words below. I wrote most of this as one long essay and am breaking it into pieces for more reasonable reading (and editing), but I will pick up here on the direct heels of Part One.

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In addition to desiring a healthier ethic of family dialogue (or even enemy dialogue) at a personal and communal level (which is what Part One addresses), there is another dimension of this conversation that concerns me. Much of the fighting I’ve observed in recent weeks has been about what is and what is not orthodox Christian doctrine. I think that conversation should be ongoing within the Church. Really. We should never pause long from thoughtful and passionate engagement with the Bible, the Spirit, and one another when it comes to understanding, living, and teaching God’s truth.

The problem is not that we’re doing that; it’s how we’re doing that. And the problem is not only that we often are exceedingly unkind to each other, though that is no small problem.

We also are trying to discuss what is and is not orthodox seemingly unaware that such a conversation cannot find any productive end until we have the conversation before that one: the one about our sense of the “rules” of determining what is biblically orthodox and what is heresy.

I’ll explain using Bellgate/Hellgate as an example, but first I want to offer full disclosure of my general take on Rob Bell prior to this book. I just know some can’t help but wonder how predisposed I am to critique or defend Bell, and I’d rather you not be distracted by that.

Proof Rob Bell has been to heaven. Case closed.

So. I’m not really a Rob Bell guy. I’ve never read Velvet Elvis. True confessions: I’m a 35-year old pastor who has never read Velvet Elvis or Blue Like Jazz. My application for hipster/emergent status wouldn’t even be reviewed. I also don’t wear chokers or say “dude” enough to make the Acts 29 cut, so I’m a man without a hip home. Anyway, I don’t own Bell’s catalogue. I do own Sex God, the Everything is Spiritual DVD (which I also saw him present live several years ago), and one Nooma DVD that was a give-away at a conference I attended where he spoke. From that exposure and prior to Hellgate, my take-aways were this:

  • Everything is Spiritual is compelling and thought-provoking,
  • when I read Sex God three years ago, the chapter on lust struck me as particularly insightful, but the rest didn’t do much for me,
  • his talk at the conference I attended was about pastors learning to forgive their people for hurting them, and it was excellent and biblically sound,
  • none of the above excited me enough to try to consume his writing or preaching in other ways, and
  • people who have a monochrome wardrobe and who are not Johnny Cash make me nervous.

If I’m a Rob Bell fan, he’s in trouble (and he ain’t in trouble). I don’t dislike him, but I don’t go out of my way to keep up with him or expose myself to his teaching. I think he, like John Piper, is very smart, and I think he has a sincere passion and gift for telling stories that point to Jesus and for rooting what he does in the Hebrew tradition. My tendency with anyone I don’t know well is to weigh what they do and say with discernment and without a need or desire to classify them as a hero or an enemy. That is not a passive swipe at anyone else’s grid – just an attempt to explain my overall way of living and learning in the Kingdom.

As for Love Wins itself, I have read only the preface. I have read a few reviews from those who have read the book, so I have some sense of what seems to be there. If the sum of those reviews (which represent both – actually at least three – “sides” of the primary debate) are accurate, I don’t agree with all of Bell’s conclusions (which he insists, rightly or not, are more hunches than conclusions). I also don’t find it as abhorrent as some do that he is asking the questions he’s asking or arriving at the conclusions I’ve read about so far. I suspect that the difference between my reaction and those who are more offended is not merely our particular list of orthodox beliefs. In fact, my bet is that if we were asked to make a list of essential orthodox beliefs, in many cases there would be little discrepancy. However, I think our rules for understanding orthodoxy itself (as a realized concept) may be different.

This is where my concern about what I’ve called theological/intellectual charity lies, and it’s a function of two things:

  • the relationship between personal theology and orthodoxy for the Church,
  • and the degree to which we believe everything important to our understanding of orthodoxy has more or less already been said or written.

Historically, orthodoxy has been understood as a collection of essential beliefs that unite the Church distinctly professing Jesus Christ as Lord. Within that idea has been an acknowledgement that not every orthodox Christian believes exactly the same thing about everything. There even has been a certain amount of assumed deviation among individuals, sects, denominations, movements, local churches, etc., on the beliefs considered essential. So orthodoxy has not traditionally been understood to be either an exceptionally narrow list of beliefs or an overly broad spiritual notion of something having to do with Jesus. It is something in between.

What I believe has occurred in recent years – and is now on full display in the conversation about Love Wins – is a trend of more closely tying one’s concept of biblical and historic orthodoxy for the Church to one’s individual theology. The obvious result of that is a narrowing of the particular notion of orthodoxy. So rather than orthodoxy being a uniting center of belief for a broad range of professing believers in Jesus, it becomes a more particular theological test that distinguishes true believers from posers.

Wait. Don’t trip out on me and start thinking about Rob Bell or hell or Ghandi or Rob Bell’s glasses yet. Just stay with the concept and indulge me for a few more paragraphs as though what I’m suggesting might have some merit. I’ll try to illustrate my point soon.

What I want to surface here is not my disagreement with anyone in particular’s theology, but rather my sense of how much we use the same definition for “my theology” and “biblical and historical orthodoxy.” Of course all Bible-believing professing Christians are going to suggest that their theology is biblically orthodox. That’s not my point.

According to the historic understanding of orthodoxy, your theology most likely is going to be orthodox-plus. In other words, you believe the orthodox confessions of the Church and you believe some other things with varying degrees of conviction. Those other things are part of your theology. They are not necessarily part of biblical and historical orthodoxy for the Church. In principle, I don’t think there will be much disagreement on this. But some of you are already thinking about the applications of the principle and mentally arguing with me like I’m Rob Bell. Stop it. I’m not. Stay with me.

So as I wade into trying to illustrate my point in the context of the present controversy, consider this: I may agree with the theology of someone and also disagree with the way s/he arrives at his/her concept of orthodoxy. If it still doesn’t make sense, read the last three paragraphs again. If you do that and it still doesn’t make sense, just know this: we can believe the same things and not agree about how much everybody else has to believe what we believe to be considered part of the family. That’s the crux of my first concern.

The second has to do with this question: Has virtually everything necessary and/or helpful to our understanding and practice of biblical, historic orthodoxy already been written or taught?

Within the broadly held notion of biblical and historic orthodoxy are various theologians and Christian thinkers who we regard as orthodox. Again, there will be some disagreement on the margins, but there is a group of men (and a few women) who most of the professing Church would affirm as orthodox. Most of them are dead. Sad, but true.

Those dead folks did the hard work (before they were dead) of sorting through enormous and weighty questions to contribute to a collective sense of historic orthodoxy. When someone like Rob Bell writes a book like Love Wins, though a real critique of what he has written is taking place, often there is also this implication: We don’t need some goggled-hipster in black trying to wear Augustine’s shoes. They don’t match his outfit and, frankly, Rob Bell has hobbit feet that won’t fit in Augustine’s Hulk-sized kicks.

(Do the kids still say “kicks?” I’m sure they don’t. I have no idea.)

In other words, it’s not that Bell is only being dismissed because he’s young and not dead, but the arguments against his writing definitely are being “enhanced” by the not-always-subtle suggestion that all of the important theological questions relevant to orthodoxy were asked and answered a long time ago.

Only I’m not sure the guys we credit with answering those questions intended their answers to be used like that. I’m not so sure some of them weren’t trying to model for the generations to come a way of continuing to wrestle with the same questions – and others that surface as the world changes – in light of the Bible through the guidance of the Spirit. They knew not everyone would arrive at the right answers (and most of them don’t claim to have arrived at all the right answers), but they generally seemed to think their particular vocation was important, not just for them, but for the future of the church. I don’t think they intended their work to be the final word on theology, and the purpose of contemporary theologians is not merely to read what the dead guys wrote to the rest of us. They continue the work of grappling with the nature of truth in the context of our world.

I don’t have an agenda for a particular breadth of orthodoxy. I just think we’re prone to cherry pick historic orthodoxy to validate our preference for a particular kind of modern orthodoxy. That doesn’t make us sinister or intentionally divisive; just wrong. Sometimes we’re wrong.

So what does all of that have to do with Rob Bell? Am I suggesting that we give Bell a pass to write whatever he wants as long as it’s vaguely Christian and he can claim to be doing the same kind of thing Augustine did? Not at all. Set aside Bell’s conclusions in the book for a minute (which I may or may not have mentioned I have not read) and just consider the outcry over the pre-release promotional material.

Bell’s words from the video:

Ghandi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or baptized or take a class or converted or born again? How does one become one of these few? And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question, “What is God like?” because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message – the center of the Gospel of Jesus – is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus.

The virtual fire was ignited when Bell’s questions and statements in the video were deemed by a couple of well read bloggers sufficient to conclude he has wandered from the faith. Whatever the book itself reveals, the rewind here matters because in so indicting Bell, these men framed the conversation for thousands of people before anyone ever laid a hand on the book’s sweet translucent cover.

To be fair, video-Bell wasn’t just provoking to sell a book that would deliver fewer sparks. In the preface of the book (which I have read), he writes:

This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story. A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.

I’ve also seen those words cited as proof that Bell is, indeed, a universalist, a heretic, a false teacher.

Now consider the following words:

I find the concept [of eternal conscious punishment in hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be — and is — not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?

I have never been able to conjure up (as some great Evangelical missionaries have) the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but will inevitably perish. On the other hand… I am not and cannot be a universalist. Between these extremes I cherish and hope that the majority of the human race will be saved. And I have a solid biblical basis for this belief.

More pot-stirring from Rob Bell? No. That’s John Stott, one of the most highly regarded evangelical theologians alive today.

What about this?

We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.

Not Rob Bell. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.

And this?

We can safely say (i) if any good pagan reached the point of throwing himself on His Maker’s mercy for pardon, it was grace that brought him there; (ii) God will surely save anyone he brings thus far; (iii) anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ.

Not Rob Bell. J.I. Packer, evangelical Calvinist theologian.

Or this?

The benefit of the death of Christ is…extended…even unto those who are inevitably excluded from this knowledge. Even these may be partakers of the benefit of His death, though ignorant of the history, if they suffer His grace to take place in their hearts, so as of wicked men to become holy.

Not Rob Bell. Robert Barclay (whose statement was later affirmed by John Wesley as orthodox Christian theology).

Last one.

And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.

Not Rob Bell. Billy Graham.

Listen, I don’t know that I agree with all of these guys. I’m certain many of Rob Bell’s critics won’t agree with all of the above statements. I’m not trying to play some silly game where I suggest that you can’t critique Rob Bell because C.S. Lewis said people who don’t “know (Christ)” might be saved or John Stott said he thinks “the majority of the human race will be saved.” I’d be a dummy to make that argument. I also recognize you can carve up what each of those guys said and distinguish it from what Bell said in the video or preface in some way.

Stott's heresy: even Nessie goes to heaven

I post the words of these widely embraced evangelical theologians and preachers to make two points:

First, Bell’s critics have argued that even his questions in the video, which suggested that Ghandi might not be in hell and poked at the prevailing notion that most humans will be in hell because they have not willfully accepted Christ, are sufficient to brand him a universalist and bid him “farewell.” The clear implication is that these questions of who is and is not in heaven and hell and how that can be discerned by us have more or less been settled, and to ask those questions as Bell did suggests that one simply does not understand or embrace orthodox Christianity. In other words, orthodoxy has been defined according to a particular theology to exclude the kind of questions and suggestions made by Bell.

What then do we do with men like Lewis and Stott and Barclay and Packer? Even if you parse their words as somehow different from Bell’s, it will only be by shades of distinction, and their statements still don’t meet the tests of orthodoxy being offered in the most stinging critiques of Bell. We must then either treat these men the same way, disqualifying them as heretics, or we must acknowledge that the Church has historically made more space within the dialogue about biblical orthodoxy for these types of questions and ideas about salvation, time, and eternity than we’ve more recently been told is true. It will come as no surprise that I choose the latter.

Second, I think implicit in the words of these men is an acknowledgement that arriving at absolutely certain conclusions about the nature of salvation and the eternal treatment of “the majority of the human race” by God is, even for revered Bible scholars and theologians, incredibly difficult. What do each of the statements have in common? They are all about the nature of salvation, time, and eternity, and they all express uncertainty. (Actually, to be fair to Packer, he seems fairly certain that some who are saved will not learn until “the next world” that they were saved through Christ.) Some offer speculations, but qualified speculations that acknowledge a meaningful level of mystery. I believe all of them assumed that part of the healthy work of the Church for the rest of time would be the complicated, controversial work of questioning, sharpening, and prayerfully working out our understandings of even the most central of Christian doctrines.

There seems to be little sense for them of the “on these matters there is no need for further speculation or deviation from the currently held mainstream view” that is so rampant in the present notions of evangelical orthodoxy in general and in the debate about Bell’s book in particular. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that these men (and others) considered the questions Bell asks in his video fair game for the work of a serious theologian.

Let me say again that I offer none of this to defend Bell’s conclusions which I have not yet read. Again, I am reviewing the conversation about the book and, moreover, what the conversation reveals about how we have come to define and communicate about orthodoxy within the Church.

Part Three (now here) still to come…a new (old) kind of heresy and the demands of honesty and love

Part One – Farewell charity: The day Rob Bell and John Piper broke the internet

Aside from one brief and (mostly) sarcastic tweet last week, I’ve managed to keep RobBellgate (hellgate?) at arm’s length since the tweet heard round the world. I consider this quite a feat since a) I am slow neither to have an opinion nor to share it, and b) I have been asked about this roughly 133 times a day for the last month.

I’ve mostly kept up with the unfolding plot, but in moderation and without feeling compelled to engage with any intensity. [If you haven’t kept up, you can get the basic summary here. Or you can try to save yourself while there’s still time, but fair warning – you may have to log off the internet for…ever.]

It’s not that I don’t believe this is an important conversation. I do. I’m just slower than I once was to give my time and energy to trending issues that don’t occupy my more immediate sphere. Mostly that’s because I’m older, slower, and busier than ever. Hopefully it’s also because I’m at least a little wiser. Let’s say it’s that, just for fun.

In this case, I also wanted some time to sift through what was happening. The tension and angst was immediate and palpable, and I didn’t think it wise for me to start spewing opinions, especially on the interwebs. So I didn’t, and I’m glad. I suspect many on all “sides” have said and written things in recent weeks they ultimately will regret, and I’ve been that guy, well, a lot. Sadly, that takes some of the fun out of throwing of rocks at those who react too quickly or too strongly. Mostly I hope to continue growing up in that area and to maybe help others do the same.

Even now, I don’t presume that my perspective is particularly original. I imagine others have said all or most of what I’ll write here in one way or another, but I don’t have time to read the whole internet to find out. I hope so. I hope I don’t find myself in a corner occupied by only me and one or two other dorks. But if I do, I’ve been in that corner before, so we’ll find something nerdy to do there and everyone else can go to a hookah bar or whatever it is freed-up non-dorky Christians do when I’m not around.

On to what you’re here for – watching me sort out this whole mess.

Bad news. This is not a review of Love Wins. The book is important. It is. I’ll get there.

Until then, I am particularly interested in the way we are talking and writing about the book. I am most concerned by what I perceive to be a rapidly diminishing capacity for grace and charity among professing Christians. This strikes me as a tragic spiritual descent expedited by our largely undiscerning use of the internet in our quest to be heard. In the furor over Bell’s new book, I’ve observed that to be true at two levels – personal/communal and theological/intellectual.

But I’ll come back to that. Let me first describe what I feel like I’ve witnessed, acknowledging that my perspective is limited…caveat emptor and all that.

Shortly after Bell’s publisher released a marketing blurb and a video of Bell himself promoting the book, the internet melted. By that I mean everyone began sounding off on whether or not Bell was a heretic. It ran the full gamut of detractors to defenders, some obviously poised and waiting for Bell to finally “out” himself as a universalist, others taken off guard by either Bell or the immediate firestorm. It was nuts. Really.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t care for the level of judgment that was issued publicly before the book was in people’s hands. For one thing, the written description of the book was almost certainly penned by some unknown marketing dweeb sixteen levels deep on the publisher’s organizational chart. I know because I spent years as that unknown dweeb. That’s how it works. So to be honest, I felt a little embarrassed for those dissecting those words. It’s completely fair to offer a critique of the publishing business and suggest that authors are ultimately responsible for how their work is sold. In fact, remind me to write about that someday. I’m just saying – whatever the book ultimately contained, it was not terribly productive to spend time on a preemptive exegesis of the ad copy.

There also was plenty of electricity from the video. Fair enough. It was Bell doing his usual routine, walking in the snow asking provocative questions and poking at the viewers’ perceptions of the obvious. I agree it is relatively clear from the video that Bell’s book was likely to go down some paths that do not represent the most common view of orthodoxy when it comes to the nature of salvation, time, and eternity. What was not clear from three minutes of video footage was Bell’s actual doctrine of salvation, time, and eternity. Consequently, I don’t think it was fair to conclude from that brief video that Bell was, in fact, off the reservation completely. I’ll come back to that too (in part two, which is forthcoming), because I know not everyone agrees.

My discomfort with the initial responses is not rooted in a soft-bellied, “why can’t we all just get along?” standard of Christian discourse. I didn’t expect silence, and it was completely fair for folks to express their concerns about what they could see and hear at that time. Some did just that. Terrific.

Others, however, used their sizable platforms to make conclusive statements about Bell and the book that were both premature and uncharitable. Even if the book ultimately demonstrates that they guessed right, I find no compelling biblical basis for that mode of operation. I just don’t. Charity aside, what seems wise or particularly discerning about drawing public conclusions about a book and its author before you’ve read one. single. word. of. the. book?

This is not Piper. Just the gear needed to read Future Grace.

Some version of the response I’m alluding to was fairly widespread, particularly among well known reformed evangelicals (a description that fits many of my friends, whom I sincerely love and respect). But one response in particular really pained me. John Piper, who I admire, posted the following on Twitter: “Farewell Rob Bell.” It was followed by a link to the most popular blog post critiquing the ad and video. Three words from a man who writes books so long and dense that the smartest people I know need decoder rings and that helmet Doc Brown was wearing in 1955 to sort of understand them.

Piper is brilliant. He’s easily one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. His passion for God and for reaching the world is contagious.

And he was wrong. He bid Bell “farewell” based on what? 128 words of ad copy and a three minute promotional video? If once upon a time you had told me that John Piper would find a way to embody my deepest suspicions of social media – drive-by reductionism – I would have laughed. But he did. And I just don’t get it.

Look, I understand Bell was not an unknown entity to Piper or the others drawing the same conclusions. I know that the publishing of this book – even before the book itself was in their hands – seemed to them likely confirmation of their long-held suspicions that Bell was a wolf wearing wool. I don’t dismiss the clear biblical call for those appointed to lead the church to guard the flock and contend for the faith. Ultimately, whether or not I agree with them or with Bell, I’m not offended that Piper or anyone else would conclude that Rob Bell has left what they consider the domain of Christian orthodoxy. I just hoped – and still hope – we find wiser, more loving ways to go about arriving at those conclusions and then communicating them publicly.

What grew around Piper’s “farewell” and similar words from others often wasn’t pretty. Many Bell supporters reacted with equally disappointing disdain for his critics, and the scrums have been many and bloody. It’s gross. I hate it. I hate it. No one wins those fights. No one.

We have much to repent of and grow into in the realm of loving, gracious dialogue at a personal and communal level.

Parts Two (now here) and (probably) Three coming soon: the rules of orthodoxy, other heretics, and the demands of honesty and love.

Can you feel the suspense?