This is the SECOND in a four part series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD, President of Asbury Theological Seminary
My problem with Rob Bell is not so much with his diagnostics regarding contemporary popular evangelicalism, as it is with his prescription. The real question is not whether Rob Bell’s description of contemporary evangelical poor theology of “salvation” “New Creation” and “kingdom” is worth the attention the book is receiving. Bell is writing a popular book. The book has received attention because of its prescription. Rob Bell is not just telling us we are sick, he is providing a remedy, a prescript for the theological malaise we are in. He may not be aware that his “solution” is not new, but dates back to at least 1963 and the writings of Karl Rahner. Nevertheless, for many evangelicals who avoid any books with footnotes, Bell’s “solution” will be received like a fresh new “third way” between a highly caricatured, mean-spirited “exclusivism” and an unbridled, relativistic “pluralism” which levels the playing field between all religions. The question is this: Is Rob Bell’s prescription worthy of wide dissemination in the church? Should I commend it to our seminary students preparing for ministry today? The answer is a resounding no. Here are five reasons which give me pause.
First, Rob profoundly misunderstands the Biblical notion of God’s “love.” The entire premise of the book is to declare that God’s essence is “love” (which Bell states repeatedly). However, Bell never actually describes the biblical and theological relationship between God’s joyful engagement with the human race and God’s justice upon which the very gospel he celebrates is declared. Bell sentimentalizes God’s love throughout his book, making it almost equivalent to God being nice and reasonable to modern sensibilities. I suspect that Bell has underestimated how shockingly tepid and sentimental our understanding of biblical love has become. If he had inserted the phrase “God’s holy-love” for every place he has used “God’s love” he would have gained more biblical traction, but, in the process, much of his own argumentation would have become unraveled. Bell’s argument actually requires a logical separation between God’s love and God’s justice which is quite untenable in biblical theology.
Second, Bell has an inadequate understanding of Sin – not the little ‘s’ kind, but the big “S” kind. In other words, Bell understands that we all sin, but he doesn’t seem to comprehend that we, as a race, are part of a vast rebellion against God’s holiness. Without Christ we, as a race, stand under condemnation and desperately need a divine rescue. Sin doesn’t just impede our progress and slow down our autonomous capacity to receive God’s love. We are spiritually dead apart from God’s prior action. Both Reformed and Arminian Christians affirm the cosmic consequences of the Fall of man. We are not Pelagian. Bell’s solution takes humanity out of the dock and puts God in the dock. After reading Bell’s book one gets the feeling that Bell has put God on trial. It is God who now has to justify why he would be so cruel as to sentence a sinner to eternal separation from his presence, especially given the “few short years” we have had to commit sins. An eternal punishment for temporal sins is just too much for Bell to bear and so God had better provide an explanation – a good one. The unfathomable love of the Triune God which resulted in a sending father, a crucified and risen Son and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who ushers in the glorious realities of the New Creation into the present age is lost in Bell’s description of a “Son” who protects us from an angry “God.”
(To be continued….)