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

This is the fourth in a series of (probably five) posts reviewing not Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but the public conversation about that book. More than that, 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, Part Two, and Part Three of this series before you read the words below.

Please take heed: The words below are built on an assertion that love – the kind Jesus models and empowers and the kind that the New Testament reveals and insists on for God’s people – is a core doctrine, essential to orthodoxy and not conditional to culture or season. I spent 1,691 words making that case. You don’t have to read those 1,691 words, but this post is the direct offspring of that one. Don’t be a knucklehead. Go read the other one (or three) first.


This conviction that real, biblical love – for God and for other people – is a core Christian doctrine brings me full circle. I began this series examining how charitable (or uncharitable) we are, not only in discussing doctrine in a given moment, but in drawing broader conclusions about someone’s orthodoxy or lack thereof. I observe in our tribe an irony: We seem to be quite charitable, at least in some cases, to those who taught and practiced apparent heresy with respect to the core doctrine of love while we are often less charitable to those who teach or practice heresy in other areas.

What I mean is if love for other humans in the way the New Testament describes it is a core doctrine in any sense, we have permitted men and women across the centuries to violate that doctrine in some egregious ways – and consistently, not as a matter of momentary sin later repented of – yet affirmed them as orthodox, even elevating some of them as the vanguards of orthodoxy.

I’m not wondering if we should be meaner to those folks; I’m wondering if we should extend to other heretics the same grace we extend to love-heretics. I’m wondering if in understanding the centrality of love to orthodox Christian doctrine, we might more humbly assess the state of our own doctrinal purity and, in so doing, be inspired to love other heretics as we love our(heretical)selves.

At the risk of being redundant (I dare you to accuse me of being redundant for repeating what Jesus said was most important), Jesus said the most important instructions from God – the ones on which all the law and the prophets hang (or, one might say, the foundation of orthodoxy) – are to love God and love your neighbor. Right? And Jesus did not then suggest that your neighbor should have an impeccable theology in order for him to merit you showing him the kind of love that you show yourself. Right?

Both Jesus and John elaborate on this picture of the orthodox Christian life by telling us that real obedience to that command – real love for God and for others – means laying down your life in service to God and to others. “Love as I have loved,” he says. And how did he love? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

My rough summary: Jesus saw we were bumbling heretics. This is not an untrue way of describing ourselves, certainly at least in our “still sinners” state of being – people not affirming what is true in word and/or deed. Even while were still heretics, Jesus loved us enough not only to tell us the truth, but also to lay down his life to restore us to the truth. Then he told us – and gave us the Spirit to empower us – to love other folks in the same way he loved us. Then Paul broke it down in even more detail as I have described before – you know, all that crazy talk about unrelenting forgiveness, humility, selflessness, bearing all things, and so forth.

So one would assume in our diligence to ensure our orthodox theologians are, indeed, orthodox, we would require of them adherence to this core doctrine. Love. Jesus-love that rejoices in the truth and lays down its life to reconcile people to the truth and demonstrates forgiveness and patience and so on, all because it recognizes this reality: If I know any truth at all, it is only because the Truth loved me enough to lay down his life for me. Orthodox theologians have to teach that, right?

If you aren’t smelling the trap by now you might have an errant smeller, because I’m not very subtly setting this up to make a run at a legend of orthodoxy. Before I do that, let me clarify something – I’m not taking cheap shots. What I’m about to describe really happened. And it’s really a problem that we have to deal with honestly. I know this story has been used as a “gotcha” to discredit a particular stream of theology over the years. Know this for sure: that is not my goal or my heart. I have no agenda with respect to the theological viewpoint derived from this fellow. If this guy is one of your heroes, bear with me. I believe the balance of what I’ll write about him will reveal love and grace if you’ll stay with me to the end. But I believe there is a fair point to be made in dealing in the facts, so give me a few paragraphs to try to make it.

John Calvin wrote Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536 and played a major role in the Protestant Reformation. Among Reformed Protestants, he is widely venerated as one of the most important theologians who ever lived. An entire theological system – one with enormous sway in the American church – bears his name.

Charles Spurgeon wrote about Calvin in his autobiography and had this to say of him:

Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance — as comets go streaming through space — with nothing like his glory or his permanence.

Not to pick on Spurgeon, who I certainly admire, but that statement always has puzzled me. Spurgeon knew Jesus was born of a woman, right? It’s in the creeds and stuff. I’m sure Spurgeon did not mean to suggest Calvin was the equal of the Son of God and his moment of effusive praise just got the better of him. I can relate. Once in the summer of 1985 after watching The Karate Kid 17 times in 9 days at my cousin’s house I declared that Daniel Larusso had the best life of anyone who ever lived – he won the All Valley Championship, he lived near Golf N’ Stuff, and Elisabeth Shue was his girlfriend. Thankfully I wasn’t writing my autobiography at the time.

Anyway, you get the point. John Calvin is not lacking for esteem as an orthodox theologian.

A large contingent of Reformed, Calvinist folks (who obviously look to Calvin as soundly orthodox) are among those who are ill-at-ease with Rob Bell at the moment. Generally speaking, this crowd pays attention to truth, takes seriously the biblical instruction to defend sound doctrine, and engages publicly when they believe something meaningful is at stake. That description is not meant to be snarky in any way. Really. I’m just explaining the relevance of my aside about Calvin.

So here’s the rub. Calvin’s method for dealing with heretics was slightly more bloody than tweeting them farewell. During the Reformation, there was a Spanish theologian named Michael Servetus who was teaching what amounted to a non-Trinitarian version of Christianity. In essence, Servetus suggested that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not three separate divine persons, but that the Son and Spirit were essentially manifestations of the One God. He did not deny the existence, importance, or deity of either, and he did teach salvation through Christ alone by faith alone. But his teachings on the nature of Christ and the Spirit are not the traditional Trinitarian view.

Servetus wrote:

There is nothing greater, reader, than to recognize that God has been manifested as substance, and that His divine nature has been truly communicated. We shall clearly apprehend the manifestation of God through the Word and his communication through the Spirit, both of them substantially in Christ alone. The incomprehensible God is known through Christ, by faith, rather than by philosophical speculations. He manifests God to us, being the expression of His very being, and through him alone, God can be known. The scriptures reveal Him to those who have faith; and thus we come to know the Holy Spirit as the Divine impulse within us.

As you can see, he was orthodox in many ways, including in his view of salvation through Christ alone by faith alone, but he disagreed with both the common Reformation and Catholic views of the Trinity. For the record, I don’t agree with Servetus regarding the Trinity. I’m just describing what he did and did not teach.

Servetus also rejected Calvin’s strong doctrines of predestination, and he and Calvin got into a bit of a letter-writing war over their differences. It was more or less a 16th century version of what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks surrounding Rob Bell and his critics sans the iPhones, MacBooks, and marketing machines. The dialogue between the two deteriorated from tense to ugly. In 1546 Calvin wrote this to a friend:

Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive

There is no metaphor there. Calvin is saying: “Mike is asking to come talk with me about this in person, but I’m not going to invite him because if he comes, he won’t leave alive if I have anything to say about it.”

In 1553, Servetus, apparently looking for trouble, showed up in Geneva and sat in on one of Calvin’s sermons. He was recognized (which makes me think they had the internet already and Al Gore is a total liar because, really, how do you know what this guy from another country looks like in 1553?) and arrested. He was charged with heresy on two specific counts: (1) his non-Trinitarian teachings and (2) his disagreement with the practice of infant baptism. Calvin was not the chief “prosecutor” because he was in poor health at the time, but he affirmed that Servetus should be executed. Calvin favored beheading. They burned him alive instead.

Calvin’s post-mortem commentary was this:

Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.


Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.

It’s lucky for Rob and Zondervan that Calvin wasn’t born 450 years later than he was. They probably never would have gotten Nooma 2 out the door.

But seriously, if the underlying command of Christian orthodoxy is to love God and neighbor in a sacrificial-even-to-the-point-of-self-death manner and John Calvin killed a guy who taught salvation through Christ alone by faith alone but who was, in the opinion of the majority, off in some other areas including the then-essential doctrine of infant baptism, what does Calvin have to do to commit heresy against Christian orthodoxy?

No, really. What?

How can we embrace Calvin as a model orthodox theologian despite his unrepentant advocacy for killing a man, while bidding farewell to Rob Bell (who as far as I know hasn’t capped any suckas) because we suspect from a vague marketing blurb and video that his theology of hell isn’t quite right? A bad theology of hell matters, and it should be talked about openly. But how is Calvin’s error less grievous and more forgivable than Bell’s?

John Calvin wasn’t living under some different dispensation. He wasn’t operating when God was still doing the things he did in the Old Testament that don’t make sense in our modern context. He was living 1,500 years post-Christ, and this episode happened in his mature years, not his youth.

Stop and think about this for a minute. Who among us, according to Calvin, is truly orthodox? Let’s preemptively disqualify all the liberals, Arminians, Catholics, and undecideds and consider just the home team. How many self-described Calvinists these days reject infant baptism as the biblical mode of baptism? I know one or two. It seems unlikely that John would have affirmed such folks as orthodox Christians – much less good Calvinists – since he approved the execution of a man, in part, for such a belief. That leaves us with only the baby-baptizing Reformed crowd (some of whom are thinking, “it is not news to us that we are the only true Calvinists and, possibly, Christians”). Fair enough. Unfortunately, unless they affirm the execution of the rest of us, even their reformed Baptist brethren, they would “knowingly and willingly incur” the guilt of the heretics, according to Calvin.

I often hear quoted as the standard for us getting doctrine right Jude’s admonition that we “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” And man, I’m in on that. But if that’s my standard and your standard and Rob Bell’s standard, it was also John Calvin’s standard. Surely setting on fire a man like Servetus (or cutting off his head), then suggesting anyone who opposed execution for those determined to be heretics, is not what Jude had in mind. And if not, such an action – and all subsequent defense of it – is error. And if it is error, it is error not only in misunderstanding what “contend” meant, but in understanding the essence of the essential New Testament doctrine of love.

Some will have a visceral reaction to me seeming to be so hard on John Calvin, but modernize the story. Would a guy advocating the murder of theological rivals have a book deal with Crossway in 2011? I know he wasn’t the only Christian killing sinners in those days, but we simply don’t excuse our modern theologians such enormous deviations from biblical living and teaching because of their context.

If I may be frank, modern Calvinists certainly aren’t, by and large, known for their eagerness to excuse modern Christians enormous deviations from biblical living and teaching because of their context. I’m not picking on them. I don’t think any of them would dispute that observation. Most would embrace it, as they should.

If we credit Calvin with theological brilliance then we also must hold him accountable for what hardly can be construed as anything other than heresy, presumably largely a function of what was culturally normal at the time, with respect to both his involvement in the execution of Servetus and his unrepentant spirit about it after the fact.

If we still find space for Calvin in the realm of orthodoxy, it’s because of grace. Period. Grace he deserves no more and no less than fallible pastors, theologians, and other assorted jackasses today.

My point is not to undermine John Calvin. I easily could have picked on any number of other heroes of orthodoxy. If it were up to Martin Luther, we wouldn’t even have Jude’s command to contend for the faith because Luther opposed the canonization of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. No really. And thank God for Martin Luther (unless you are Catholic, I suppose, in which case you’ll just have to love us Protestants enough to afford us our own tainted history and heroes).

I appreciate the many tremendous contributions John Calvin made to Christian thought, theology, and practice. That’s not a token statement. I really do. I value him and learn from him and thank God for him. He also was a heretic with respect to what seems to be one of the most fundamental aspects of Christian orthodoxy. But we still allow his voice at the table. In some circles, he sets the table.

I am not uncovering any startling revelation, but at times it seems we have forgotten: even our heroes of the faith were just men. And we should rejoice in any such reminder as it sends us again scrambling for Jesus, our only reliable anchor.

See, Charles Spurgeon was wrong when he suggested that no age before Calvin produced his equal. Peter was his equal. Peter, who after eating, sleeping, healing, and praying with Jesus for years, denied him three times. Peter, whose treason and blasphemy Jesus forgave. Peter who – just days after swearing not to know Jesus – was chosen by Jesus to run point on a new little venture called the Church.

Peter was John Calvin’s equal. Why? Because he was a man, fully capable of error and fully capable, now only because of Jesus, of bearing God’s image in the world. The doctrines of grace tell us this quite clearly.

Peter. John Calvin. John Piper. Rob Bell. You. Me. Men and women created in God’s image, marred by sin, restored by Jesus, and living in the tension of perfect redemption indwelling imperfect people.

Might we learn from John Calvin’s life – or from Peter’s – that we would be wise to use discretion in dismissing people as irrelevant or, worse, malevolent to the Kingdom lest we pick the wrong moment of their lives to flush them completely?

Imagine with me for a moment that we have a Delorean, the flux capacitor, and 1.21 jigawatts of power (and if you can’t imagine that, borrow some of my faith – I have enough for both of us on this one). After brief stops in 1955 and 1984 for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and the All Valley Tournament, let’s dial up 16th century Geneva. When we get there, let’s have a conversation with one of Calvin’s contemporaries who believes his participation in and advocacy of execution for heresy is, in fact, contrary to the Scriptures and the Gospel.

What would you say to that person? Would you counsel him to brand Calvin a heretic and warn others to avoid him given his obvious and unapologetic violation of biblical teaching? Or would you suggest he bear with the man in his fallibility and find the value of his many other contributions to the Kingdom?

And what does your answer have to say about how you deal with men and women whose doctrine you find imprecise or blatantly erroneous today?

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you. I also know for some of you there is still a big “but…” in play. For me too. The New Testament warns about false teachers in various ways, and we can’t ignore that. We can’t just have a group hug and watch passively as anyone who says “Jesus” enough claims to speak for him, restrained from heeding biblical instruction with regard to error.

But I think the key to loving truth and loving people more purely is to learn to better discern and distinguish how we handle people and how we handle ideas.

And I’m suggesting that our public discourse reveals that we’re not there yet.

I’m suggesting that we need to be quicker to listen for longer and slower to speak (and write).

I’m suggesting we need to be slower to label and dismiss people for what we deem to be sins of wrong belief, even if the beliefs themselves bear addressing.

I’m suggesting that we look deeper into the future and consider, as Jesus did, that an error (or even two or twelve) of the moment is not the sum of a man or woman.

I’m suggesting that some of what we know that we know for sure probably someday will be determined to be incorrect – or at least incomplete – and that we should hope history will find us humble in our conviction, not eager to sentence dissenters to death, if not literally then – in the economy of Jesus – by doing violence with our words.

I’m suggesting we can – and must – be more intentional in our efforts to retain the union of love and truth even in our dealings with apparently poor doctrine. There is no question that the teaching of sound doctrine and the preaching of the true Gospel are essential to our obedient response to the Great Commission. We simply can’t exalt the Great Commission to the obscurity of the Great Commandments.

Jesus said all truth hinges on two truths: we were made to love God and love people. The New Testament further connects the commission and the commandments in teaching that love amongst the professing Church even in the face of meaningful disagreement is how the Church will be known – how the world will know Jesus is who he said he is.

And then there’s this: In the hours before he was arrested and executed, Jesus prayed for all who would believe in him to love one another fully – for us to be “perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” We have to quit running from that prayer while claiming to be people who are about evangelism and missions.

Coming in Part Five…Concluding (I think) thoughts on finding solid ground as people of love and truth.