Part 2: Reading David Bentley Hart in the light of Heresy, Politics and Rob Bell

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.”

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~ by natedawson on 2011/04/14.

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