What is Rob Bell really saying??

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.

~ by natedawson on 2011/05/04.

7 Responses to “What is Rob Bell really saying??”

  1. Thanks, Nate. I have neither seen nor read Wittmer’s book. I heard about it.

  2. Nate, You stated that you would have to critique Rob Bell’s style of communication (and I would assume his hermeneutics as well). I understand that you look up to the man dearly and see many positive characteristics of Rob Bell. However, I’d like you to be fair and offer your critique of Rob Bell’s methodology. I would suggest this so that you do not sound like one of those drinking the Bell Kool-Aid or just accepting what he says ‘lock, stock, and barrel.’

    Also, I would remind you that you grew up in the Conservative Evangelical movement. I understand that you resent that but please stop picking on only the Conservative Evangelicals the way that you do. Perhaps, do as your mentor does and find the good in everything–even conservative evangelicals. I, too, grew up in this environment and am thankful to the many who told me about Jesus (though some of their pictures may be skewed). I do not believe your brand of Christianity (I don’t know what to call it) has suddenly found all of the answers to life’s most perplexing problems; neither has the evangelical camp. I try to stay out of both.

    I know Dr. Wittmer and have great respect for him (as you do for Rob) and he does not claim to have all the answers either. At least give him credit for grappling with the biblical texts (you may not agree with his hermeneutics which is neither conservative or liberal but post-conservative like Vanhoozer). He is a historical theologian and has seen, read, and studied many things from church history. Like Ecclesiastes says, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” All Wittmer is doing is showing where these things have shown up before and sometimes attaches labels that were used historically (for good or for bad). However, he makes it quite clear that he did not write the book out of spite for Rob (first page “I like Rob Bell”).

    All I am trying to say is deal with the substance of what is being said without using the labels in a derrogatory or spiteful way–you are a better thinker than that.


  3. Thanks Brian,

    I should clarify a few things. And maybe let the cat out of the bag for you. I know you are extremely charitable and I hope I can do the same by being honest with you about the following. I actually don’t critique his communication style because it works to its aim and ends. Yes, I would critique his biblical form of hermeneutics. I would suggest its not theological enough. I’m not looking for him to be overly doctrinal or dogmatic, but using more history of biblical interpretation (beyond the first century, would be nice). And yes, that might clear up some of his own theological thinking too. I really hope you don’t think I have bought into his theology hook, line and sinker. It is true I have very little problem with what he is saying theologically, but that is not because I agree. It is probably because I agree with how he speaks of Christianity being a broad stream, which can include universalism. Now, that my not be orthodoxy (but I make this point below).

    First, my brand of Christianity is probably something like an Anglo-Catholic. I take a lot from the so-called post-liberals and philosophical theology of the ad hoc group known as Radical Orthodoxy. I am appreciative of Stanley Hauerwas and those he has mentored. I should add, all these groups have a deep critique of liberalism, but it is a bit different than the conservative critique. These Hauerwasians and Milbank types would suggest even much of conservativism has bought into secularism. That is, a separation of the sacred and the secular. Which as Americans, we are sort of expected to do. For example, separate the church and state. I don’t necessarily think we needed to do that. Further, my ecclesiology has become quite episcopal. Apostolic succession has thus become quite important to me.

    Second, I think Rob is basically moving toward a progressive form of evangelicalism, the ‘other’ evangelical I don’t want to be. My biggest critique of Mars Hill would be ecclesiological as I have already suggested. It is much too flat, independent, or one might say Baptist for my taste. But that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s a flavor I’m not interested in being a part of, but still can respect it for its purposes.

    Finally, while I like that Rob could find some solid theological grounding in Radical orthodoxy and maybe even Eastern Orthodoxy – I am not sure how familiar he is with either. And while I might have commonalities with Rob, I would critique his desire to remain evangelical and keep a flat form of ecclesiology. I am less interesting in claiming to be evangelical, or re-defining evangelicalism, or broadening the scope beyond the more appropriately historical understanding of evangelicalism.

    A bit more…

    Further, I could critique Rob’s use of the term Orthodoxy. He seems to understand it to be the whole of the Christian tradition. I am not sure I would do that – though I wouldn’t use the term Orthodoxy to describe much of anything. Other than Easter Orthodoxy. I would rather speak about the breadth of the Christian tradition that includes all sorts of traditions and beliefs.

    I do understand that Wittmer is just showing things that have shown up before, but I don’t think that is very much help. He clearly has it out for so-called liberals and those who are not in the conservative evangelical stream. But for me to say this, I must clarify that I don’t see him as a post-conservative. His comparisons help only a bit and frame Bell to be not-evangelical. I know there are stronger influences on Rob that Wittmer is even unaware of. But yes, he is a historical theologian, so he is doing that sort of comparison. Personally, I don’t think Love Wins deserves a theological critique because it isn’t academic enough. It is for other purposes, namely, to get people to converse.

    I don’t think Love Wins needs an evangelical response either, which is why I wrote the MLive bit. If anything, it should bring Evangelical and Catholics into deeper dialogue, not set conservative evangelicals in opposition to more progressive ones. The subtitle “Christ Alone” suggests to me that Rob is not an evangelical – which he may not be in the historical sense of the term i.e. Justification by Faith and Scripture Alone, but he clearly falls into the neo-pragmatic school of thought associated with many Fuller grads and the likes of Richard Mouw.

    I hope this clarifies some things. Though I will think on the things you suggest for my own improvement and maybe lack of charitability. Thanks Brian, Blessing to you too,

  4. Nate,
    I appreciate your response. Honestly, I am one who tries to stay more centrist in the multi-dimensional conversation. In regards to the Bell vs. Evangelicals I do not like that either side is ‘trying’ to force someone like me to choose a side. Outside of the Bell vs. Evangelicals, I try to stay centrist as well. Unfortunately, as a result I get called both a liberal and a conservative on both sides. Honestly, I think there are other options, although they really do not have labels because the whole debate has been framed in terms of conservative or liberal. I really think that we all need to heed Jesus’ words to be unified. This means getting back to the core elements of kerygmatic faith and saying that we will unite around those. Discussions about eschatalogy and life after death are superficial discussions that obscure the mission of God in the world. There certainly needs to be more dialogue but not just dialogue alone but dialogue plus charity. I spent much of my early years in theology being overly critical and missed out on the abundant life. It seems that both sides of liberal-conservative, emergent-evangelical, etc. are too critical against each other.
    There are many things in Love Wins that I can agree with and there are some that I cannot. Unfortunately, those from both sides have lost the element of being able to think for themselves and allow their allegiances to frame the discussion.
    I, like you, have found elements of Radical Orthodoxy appealing. I am still thinking and studying much of what RO proponents are teaching. I tell my church that I seek to be a biblicist (I think you know what I mean here without having to go into all the hermeneutical chatter) and that means at times I sound like a conservative, other times a liberal, other times something else–because I do not believe that the biblical text can be put into those categories (nor was it ever meant to be). I’d like to talk with you about your ecclesiology for I think we may be in agreement as well (just don’t tell my baptist friends;-) Also, I am not like many of my separatist friends who, after reading what you’ve written above, would break fellowship with you. We’ll have to talk some more. Remember, you become what you fight against so keep charity as the modus operandi (so you do not have any enemies in which you become).


  5. I have enjoyed reading your discussion – Thank you both for your clarity and friendship – I have just started looking at Radical Orthodoxy and would love to get your take – I am not sure I totally understand it.
    I will continue to pray for both of you and your families!

  6. Brian C – Its been much too long since we’ve spoken – how are you?

    I think Brian M would agree that even the Radical Orthodoxy crew (a loosely associated group of theologians and philosophers) are not totally sure what they are about. They tend to put a positive spin on the gospel, often emphasizing the resurrection over the death of Christ. But, as I am sure you would both agree, we can’t have the resurrection without the death. And, the Bible is quite clear that atonement is a very important theme.

    I can only speak for myself here, but growing up I experienced what I thought was an over-emphasis on the death of Christ. Christianity was therefore more about waiting to die and leave this world, than living for Christ today. Moreover, I never heard teaching on Revelation 21 and 22 about the new creation. I only ever heard about leaving this world for heaven. I am thankful this has not been the experience for all Baptists – but sadly – it was mine.

    If at all possible I think people should try to stay within their own tradition, working for change from within. This is why I am thankful for Brian M – I think he embodies a charitability that few poses. Alas, after leaving the Baptist tradition I merely replaced it with a more widely understood American Evangelicalism, at Mars Hill. While at Mars Hill I discovered the Anglican tradition, mostly due to reading N. T. “Tom” Wright. Who, I think, remains a quite solidly Reformed Anglican with a brilliant speciality in academic biblical studies. While not Baptist he is quite evangelical, I think.

    I presume Tom Wright would be opposed to much of Radical Orthodoxy because of its philosophical and theological focus. But, academically speaking, that is where I would critique Wright. He is much too focussed on biblical studies as opposed to theological interpretation. Yet, these are my opinions.

    Blessings to you both,

  7. Brian, glad to have you in on the conversation. All three of us should sit down sometime and chat. Nate is correct, I don’t think the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy know quite where they are going with what they are proposing. I do, however, enjoy their positive spin on the gospel. I think Nate’s assessment of the gospel as presented in our tradition has always been about escapism-going to another world. The book that has been most influential on my thinking to get away from such a poor presentation of the gospel is Mike Wittmer’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” One of the ways that I am beginning to understand the gospel is that it is not about a place but about a person. Jesus in John 17:3 says, “this is eternal life that they may know you the only true God.” Knowing God through Jesus is eternal life and it can be enjoyed here and now. It is the good news of a reconciled relationship with God that needs to be stressed in the presentation of the gospel not some future destination of heaven or hell. I think a younger generation of post-evangelicals are starting to pick this up and run with it.
    Nate, thank you for your kind words. I’ve just read Bell’s book again and thought that he had many great points. I’m not sure I am convinced of his final conclusions. I do, however, know that he is not coming up with anything new (as he has stated). There have been many within Christianity who have stated the same conclusions on hell that Bell purports. One matter of concern to me is that it “seemed” to me that Bell relegated “Jesus” to the symbolic. I understand why he does it (Tillich did the same thing) but I don’t know if I want to relegate “Jesus” to symbol only (as Bell seems to do). I’d have to elaborate on this at another time. Please know that Piper, Graham, and others who have labeled Bell as a heretic do not speak for me. As for Wittmer, I do not think he has cornered the market on evangelicalism which is why he does use “an” in his subtitle–just one view among many. I haven’t read Wittmer’s book yet (I will soon).
    Again, thank you for your kind words–I do want to work within my tradition to help enact change. Conversations like this keep me from falling back into my old perspectives. You are becoming a fine thinker–keep it up!
    Let’s get together again, Brian C you are welcome to join in, too!

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