Tomorrow is the beginning of the itunes Festival 2011, live from London. I will post as many videos as possible. But before the big day, here is a teaser of Paul Simon’s new groove, THE AFTERLIFE…
I dislike the title of my post, but I assume it will attract a few more readers. I dislike the title because the hell Rob Bell describes sounds similar the one David Bentley Hart described in an interview in The Christian Century several years ago. I actually like this understanding of hell, but to title a post this way could suggest Rob Bell came up with a new description of hell. He has not invented a new version of hell. However, many evangelicals are concerned with his explication of hell as not eternal. Is this really un-orthodox? Well, it depends on what you think of orthodoxy? Unfortunately, many have come to understand orthodoxy as ‘right thinking,’ or ‘correct doctrine,’ or as a way to describe who is a Christian and who is not.
First, check out the article by Robin Parry in the Baptist Times. Also known as The Evangelical Universalist, Parry suggest most people misunderstand the variations of universalism. I want to suggest the only sort of universalist Rob Bell could be, is a “hopeful universalist.”
Second, David Bentley Hart was asked by The Christian Century, “is universal salvation a corollary of his view of the absurdity of evil?”
He responds: “Probably not; but Gregory of Nyssa would say otherwise. The preferred Eastern Orthodox understanding of hell, one with profound patristic pedigrees, defines hell as something self-imposed, a condition of the soul that freely refuses to open itself in love to God and neighbor, and that thereby seals itself against the deifying love of God, thereby experiencing divine glory as an external chastisement. That hell I believe in, insamuch as all of us from time to time have tasted it in this world. The refusal of love makes love a torment to us.” Reprinted in, “In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments” David Bentley Heart (Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 122-123.
Perhaps the best wisdom on hell is summed up by this old axiom: “Only an ass would deny the existence of hell, and only an ox would pretend to know who is in it.” (author unknown)
But this and Rob Bell suggests Hell can be understood in a number of ways. Here and now, then and there.
I wish people would listen to what Rob Bell is really saying. I wish they would consider the nuances he speaks and communicates with. I have listened and studied the communication methods and style of Rob Bell for nearly 10 years – he is a master storyteller with a hopeful imagination. He helped instill within me a deep love for the universal church. That is, all those who image God to the world. While some might argue his methods are too hopeful – they need to consider his audience. He is speaking to a massive audience and connecting with each and every one of them, even if they disagree. It is interesting that when he realizes something hasn’t landed with his listeners – he changes it, instantly, in mid-sentance. He merges the story into another story in order to get his point across and then jumps back into the former narrative. This does not suggest he is leaving the biblical narrative behind, rather he is merging your story with the biblical story. GET IT! GOOD! In some ways he is doing classic historical reconstruction but connecting it with everyday readers of Scripture. N. T. Wright does the same thing. He uniquely constructs a storyline behind the texts of Scripture, brining it to life. This is was first turned me on to Bell’s teaching and Wright’s biblical studies.
While I have a theological and academic critique of Wright’s biblical scholarship (which would mean I would critique Rob’s methodology too), as communicators with the aim of ‘forming Christians and non-Christians’ to become a particular kind of people, these two gents get it. They know what they are doing. They are leaving a Christian apologetic legacy, much like C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers. They are preaching to large audiences and redefining the gospel for the culture at hand
YES I SAID REDEFINE. AND LET ME BE CLEAR – George Whitefield REDEFINED the gospel to be understood as “new birth,” by which he meant a conversion experience. He never pleaded with people to convert, but only announced, and dramatized, his message. Bell and Wright announce a new creation here and now. Not far off from some Pauline language. We must remember – we have four Gospels and Paul, an interpreter of Israel’s Scripture and his current culture. Not least the other New Testament writers.
I find it interesting that those steeped (or maybe stooped is a better word), in conservative evangelical systematic theology are unable to exit their own storyline to engage (that is listen) the likes of Rob Bell. They want us to conform to their thinking. They suggest that we are to conform to what the Bible says, but who says what it says? Conservative Evangelicals. I don’t think so. Dr. Wittmer has offered an Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I suggest his subtitle isn’t descriptive enough because it lumps all evangelicals into his Baptist heritage and Lutheran reading of Justification.
But even David Heim is influenced by Baptist piety and Lutheran theology. And take a look at what he says in the Christian Century.Yet, in the very subtitle of Wittmer’s response the Love Wins suggest he suggests his understanding has the corner on evangelicalism. I understand he is working with two primary categories. 1) The Protestant understanding of Justification by Faith as declaration and imputation. 2) Scripture alone — but what he doesn’t seem to take into account is that Scripture can and IS interpreted in all sorts of ways. For some of us – orthodoxy – is a wide stream. For others, it is narrow and equates to conservative evangelicalism as defined by Wittmer’s response to Love Wins. But he doesn’t even speak for all evangelicals and Rob Bell has proved this point.
Bell is not suggesting that there is no hell, nor that there isn’t anyone there. Rather, he is suggesting that we all have hope. This is because our identity as humanity is to be “image bearers” of our Creator. Male and Female image God, not a select group of people. Which is NOT to suggest that there isn’t a community of people called by God to ‘image Christ in a particular manner.’ Christians believe the Church is simply a community of people who are to be witnesses to God’s kingdom. That is to say, the Church images God in a unique way by living out the gospel in all sorts of ways.
One brief comment on an odd argument in Wittmer’s new book. In response to Rob suggesting that the paralyzed man might be saved by his friends bringing him to Jesus. Wittmer retorts, if the man didn’t believe or want to be healed he simply wouldn’t be there (paraphrased, but this is really close, I’m to embarrassed to carry the book around with me).
REALLY?? How would a paralyzed man fight back!! He may be able to speak and yell. But, I have worked with people who are paralyzed or have very little control of their bodies. Trust me – they would do anything to be healed. They wouldn’t fight their friends (they couldn’t). Even if they could – they wouldn’t. If his or her friends believed that they might walk again – they would go. They would believe. At one level Wittmer is correct – his own belief would be the reality. But lets not suggest that a paralyzed fellow would somehow fight off his true friends if they suggested to him that he could be healed. This is downright inconsiderate to our fellow handicapped friends.
While historical evangelicalism could be summed up as believing in the sole authority of Scripture and justification by faith, the more recent trend in evangelicalism is to be understood in more broad-brush terms. Broad-tent evangelicalism could also be called pop-chritianity – often transcending denominations – though remaining thoroughly Protestant. My own hope is that evangelicals and Catholics continue to grow closer together. Jamie Smith recently parsed the term “universalism,” suggesting there is an older and newer sense in which to understand it. Though, I think the OLD universalism he suggests is closer to what I might call pluralism. Either way, both clarify the growing difference in ‘senses’ of the term.
There are several books that should be read to broadly understand the place “universalism” and “pluralism” play in the world of evangelicalism. While most Christian groups have ‘staked their claim’ for or against universalism, they must reconsider in the context of the various ways the terms are now being used. I hope these books help…
In Part One I quoted from David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (Paperback, Eerdmans, 2011).
I want to reflect here on the title of the previous post which is mostly quotes from Hart’s book. I’ll then offer some brief reflections. The previous title was, “The Heresy and Mischief of Limited Atonement.”
First, heresy. I’m not one to call out heretics. Actually, I’m not sure Christians have the right to call one another heretics. Not least by local so-called ‘evangelical pastor-theologians.’ The point at which one has the gaul and angst to call another Christian a heretic, suggests to me, that hell has won the day. Interpretive charity has thus been lost. As a student of theology learning to navigate between church and academy, I am often disheartened by the ways in which Christians treat one another. Let me begin by laying some groundwork.
The narrow understanding of orthodoxy that is being thrown around these days is similar to an issue raised in hermeneutics, the discipline I like to call ‘the art of understanding and interpretive charity.’ Interpretive charity places the other above ones own opinions and interpretations. I will try to draw out the parallels in what follows.
Let us begin with two phrases: “limited atonement,” and “historic orthodox Christian faith.” The later, historic orthodox Christian faith is being thrown in the face of Rob Bell and the Mars Hill community. At best, Bell and Mars Hill want to define Christianity in the broadest possible sense, as a wide stream inclusive of many and varying theological choices. Much of this is because Mars Hill reaches out to a population that has either been burned and rejected by the church or have been outsiders looking in. Those looking in realized early on that Christians often say one thing and live another. As one who grew up in the church, I can affirm that those looking in are often correct. We Christians don’t get along with one another very well. We are even arrogant enough to suggest that ‘we are in the right’ and ‘somebody else is in the wrong,’ even though we are both in Christ. This is odd to me because Christians are supposed to be so self-reflective that their awareness of the sin in their own lives should not overpower their desire to point out the sin of another. Shaming another Christian has unfortunately been a long-standing trait within American Christianity. All this is a sad commentary on the current ‘conservative evangelical’ reaction to Rob Bell’s Love Wins.
So, when one Christian points out another Christian’s “un-orthodox” positions in public, what are they saying? It sounds to me they are suggesting that there is a limited number of people who have a corner on the ‘historic Orthodox Christian faith.” Really, have we sunk to an all-time low where Christians have taken the doctrine of limited atonement to a mischievous level? David Bentley Hart seems to think so.
He suggests that, “at its most unfortunate, this exaggerated adoration of God’s sheer omnipotence can yield conclusions as foolish as Calvin’s assertion, in Book III of the Institutes, that God predestined the fall of man so as to show forth his greatness in both the salvation and the damnation of those he has eternally preordained to their several fates.” (page 89-92). While I may not take this caricature as far as Hart, he help to shed some light of the current controversy of Rob Bell’s Love Wins.
Second, let us compare this so-called mischief to a sect within a sect or “the historic orthodox Christian faith,” within the broader stream of Christianity. As I already suggested, Mars Hill has in one sense redefined the narrow understanding of Christian orthodoxy by extending it to the larger Christian heritage, including those who might be evangelical universalists, for example. Though Bell and Mars Hill should not be labelled evangelical universalists, there is a stream of thought known as such. One British writer, Robin Perry a.k.a Gregory MacDonald writes and lectures on the topic of ‘evangelical universalism.’ He is an avid academic and commentator on Scripture. Let me be clear, Perry’s position is not the one Bell lays out in his book Love Wins. Bell is merely suggesting that such persons, among others, have a place at the table. Not just for a theological conversation, but they are welcome at the Holy Table, the Eucharist — the place where heaven and earth meet.
In my own Anglican mindset, excluding someone from the Eucharist – the table at which we remember the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth – based upon so-called “un-orthodox’ positions is bind boggling. I remember Bell suggesting one time “that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” I’m sure he isn’t the first person to suggest this, it seems the Episcopal Church has been suggesting it for years, but it is clear to me that the ground is also level at the Holy Table, the place where we become like the sustainer of all things. The place where we continue out participation in the life of the triune God. The Eucharist is the place we come to be fed by the living God. Christians believe this living God is uniquely revealed through the person of Jesus of Nazareth and leads the church in mission by the Holy Spirit.
I must admit that I am unwilling to exclude those I disagree with theologically from the Eucharist, because I believe Jesus offers bread for all. He offers his life for all. The rich, the orthodox, the un-orthodox, the sick, the broken, everyone…everyone.
So, at one level I want to affirm Hart’s suggestion that some doctrines can become mischivious and actually support our own sin-filled judgment toward others. At another level, Hart’s aversion to limited atonement borders on suggesting it is heretical, which is something I am unwilling to do.
As we anticipate this Easter and Resurrection season, may we all come to the table together, as one.
The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart is published by the 100-year-old local publishing house, Eerdmans Publishing Company. It can be purchased at their bookstore affectionately known as “The Bookstore.”