Part Two: Why Rob Bell needs to return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors

Monday, March 21st, 2011

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….)

Comments

  • Mar Michael says:

    It sounds like Bell has succumbed to popular Christianity and cheap grace, a huge problem in the US today. We need to realise how horrible sin is and how it separates us from God before we can have a true understanding of holiness.

  • One quick commnt – Bell’s description of a “Son” who protects us from an angry “God” is not his own, but a characterization of what actual pastors of actual churches actually preach.

  • Lawson Stone says:

    My own reading of the book resonates with what you’re saying. I also find it disturbing that he broaches a “new” questions and solutions that have been part of the debate for centuries, and on which various Christian groups, sometimes very widely representative ones have already developed answers, of which he is either ignorant, or chooses to ignore.

  • Two quick comments (ok, so maybe #2 isn’t so quick):
    1. You write, “After reading Bell’s book one gets the feeling that Bell has put God on trial.” So, what’s wrong with that. Demanding that God justify himself, or reject the inadequate ways in which the people of God have depicted him, is a well-established biblical activity–best exemplified in, but not limited to, the Book of Job. Maybe what Bell is actually putting on trial is our blood-thirsty, boxed-up view of God that equates holiness and justice with wrath and punishment.

    2. Many of Bell’s evangelical critics (including you apparently) respond as if they think he has somehow made a theological and hermeneutical mistake, either out of ignorance or out of too much zeal to sell books via a secular publisher, and that if he will simply listen to their persuasive arguments, he will see his error, repent, and return to the side of orthodoxy. But what if he means what he says, even though in doing so he knowingly and intentionally departs from both evangelical and traditional mainstream schools of biblical interpretation and doctrine? What if he is proposing a new way of thinking about God? Or, more accurately, what if he is trying to recover on ancient view that has been a minority voice amid all the strident Protestant evangelical literalist chest-thumping? I guess that makes him a “heretic” in the minds of most of his critics. But God may well use Bell’s “new” heretical insights to reach millions for Christ whom all the chest-thumpers have chased away.

    • stan c says:

      Keith J – of course there needs to be a corrective to pharisaic evangelicalism, but is Rob Bell’s the prescriptive? There is and will always be a tension between God’s justice/holiness and His love and that is extremely difficult for our three and a half pounds of gray matter to grasp. Jesus Christ is the answer and the mystery – justice and love. CS Lewis, not a chest thumper, even does a decent job of helping us in his children’s Chronicles books if we are open to listen. I just finished reading Ephesians 2:4-10 for devotion this morning – the words “dead to sin” and “united with Jesus Christ” sing to me. Rob Bell, who I have always respected for asking the tough questions, isn’t offering answers other than scratching itchy ears.

  • Kevin Mays says:

    Outstanding response Dr. T!

  • Caleb says:

    Dr. Tennent, I haven’t had the opportunity to read Bell’s newest book. However, I did happen to see him on MSNBC talking about it. Here is the link if you didn’t see it, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg-qgmJ7nzA

    It seems to me that a pastor of that magnitude should be able to answer those theologically base questions being asked of him. I am rather new to the study of theology but I find that I could somewhat efficiently answer most of them. So Bell is either woefully undereducated in the area of theology or he is afraid to “offend” others.

  • Pat Pope says:

    ” I suspect that Bell has underestimated how shockingly tepid and sentimental our understanding of biblical love has become.”

    I don’t think he’s underestimated it, I think he’s speaking directly to where many people live. God’s love is not like our conception of love. This message resonates with people because we have some idea of what God’s love should look like and it looks like what WE think it should look like. Instead, if God is love, then HE defines what that love is and how it manifests itself and more often than not, it won’t look like our version of love. As we grow in sanctification, we get a clearer and clearer image of this divine love.

  • I appreciated the paragraph about Bell’s misunderstanding of God’s love. I have not read the book yet, but this was a good reminder that holy love is not simply romance or niceness. Holy love is unconditional, unwavering, and powerful enough to drive out fear and conquer death!

    I also love the last sentence, which reminds us that the good news is as good as it can possibly be and that this good news has been already revealed in its fullness through Jesus.

  • I’m getting a little skeptical about this series. I agree that there are problems with the Love Wins book. But, this is starting to sound like a discussion of things he didn’t say: Where’s the doctrine of judgement, where’s the doctrine of Original Sin, and so forth. And, I’m not sure that’s valid criticism.

    So, my question to you is this: is this multi-part review based on a wide-ranging knowledge of the teaching of Rob Bell? Because if it isn’t all these points may not be valid.

    You realize that, right?

  • Clay Knick says:

    This is quite good. Very good.

  • Danny D says:

    Dr. Stone -
    Not having read the book yet but having heard a few interviews from him, he consistently mentions that he sees his views as part of the “wide stream of historic Christianity,” so I’m going to guess that he “chooses to ignore.”

  • Thanks for your insight. This is my first visit to the blog. I look forward to following you in the future on my reader.

  • Brad Kirk says:

    This is the review that aptly puts into words what I have been feeling. Thank you for the words, which I feel are even handed and not mean-spirited. Thanks Dr. Tennent. You make the Asbury alumni proud!

  • Are there going to be new crackpot Christians preaching attractive but desperately wrong theology in five or ten year cycles for the rest of evangelical history? Why do we have to bang our heads against these people and simultaneously popularize these low-level discussions? (That’s not to say your critique is bad, it’s great. But isn’t there someway to argumentatively snipe these people?) Aquila non capit muscas! It seems like my friends in Orthodox churches deal less with idiots than I end up doing because of their model of authority.

  • I have to agree with Dr. Stone. I don’t think there’s much (if anything) new here. Thank you for taking a measured approach. I appreciate someone looking not to praise or bash, but to reasonably look at what is being said. It’s not necessarily heresy, but certainly is questionable in its biblical understanding.
    I love your phrasing of Bell’s “caricature” of evangelicals. He takes an extreme and paints it as extreme (rightly so), and then takes an opposite extreme position as if that doesn’t deserve equal finger wagging.

  • Dane says:

    Very helpful, Tim.

  • Edwin says:

    I don’t see how Bell separates love from justice. He seems to me to see them as the same thing–they are both about God’s will and purpose to renew and restore creation, to right wrongs and bring all people to unity with Himself. You can disagree with his definition of justice, but _he_ clearly doesn’t think love and justice are two separate things.

    Another way of talking about “justice” in Bell would be to talk about Bell’s view that God respects our freedom. This radical emphasis on libertarian freedom is where Bell seems most Pelagian, and where I’m most inclined to agree with Bell’s critics. (It’s also, ironically, the reason Bell is not a full-blown universalist.) But if Bell took the Fathers more seriously instead of just invoking them to keep certain options open, he’d find another possibility–that God’s “justice” consists in His refusal to use His power violently to prevent the natural consequences of creatures’ choices. Hence the language of Satan having “rights” which so offended Anselm.

    And by the way, I don’t see how replacing the word “love” with “holy love” would change or undermine Bell’s arguments in the least.

  • Edwin says:

    With regard to Bell’s view of sin, could you comment on this quote from the interview with Lisa Miller (http://www.patheos.com/community/philosophicalfragments/2011/03/15/rob-bell-interview-transcript/):

    “Well, the essence of grace is Jesus saying, “Left to your own, we are all in deep trouble. We have made a mess of this place. We are all sinners. No one has clean hands.” So, the essence of his gospel was, Trust me, I’ll take care of it. Just trust me.”

    I understand that you probably still think this is inadequate, but I don’t see that it’s Pelagian.

  • The best online review of Love Wins that I have seen is by a Reformed scholar named Paul Owen: “Love Wins by Rob Bell: A Reformed Scholar’s Review by Dr. Paul Owen” here: http://peterlumpkins.typepad.com/peter_lumpkins/2011/03/love-wins-by-rob-bell-a-reformed-scholars-review-by-dr-paul-owen.html#comment-6a00d83451a37369e20147e35db6a9970b

    I say it’s the “best” because I think Owen understood the book and is fair, brief and balanced. He criticises Bell for things he actually said, not for what he leaves unsaid.

    As of last night, I’m starting to think that Dr. Tennent is taking his cues from Albert Mohler. That would be a big mistake.

    I agree that Bell’s caracature of evanglicals is harsh. However, I was not raised in Fire & Brimstone religion. Many people on the Internet have told me that those passages ring true for them. That’s scary. Really scary.

  • Amaranth says:

    Is is worth it to continue to preach hellfire and damnation, simply because it’s Biblical, if the price is scaring scores of people away from God? Would it be worth it to stand by what’s “right” if it meant watching the rest of the world burn, if it really came down to that? Because beneath all the debating, all the accusations of heresy and false prophets and whoknowswhat flying around, all the fear of eroding “traditional Christianity”…this is what is happening. Hell is scaring people out of the arms of Jesus.

    The basic problem is that the notion of a loving God fits perfectly with the character and story of Jesus. But God’s justice, where justice = eternal torment for not only the things I did do, but for something my *ancestors* did…that frightens people. That confuses people. A God who set things up like that just doesn’t sound safe. People like Jesus. Love like Jesus’ makes sense. Justice like God’s just…doesn’t, for most people. Unless one uses a definition of justice that doesn’t mesh with any human use of the word.

    I’m not trying to be flippant; I ask in all earnestness. Because what I’ve taken away from this whole controversy is that Rob Bell has basically said: Look, people are getting these really toxic, horrible ideas about God from the church. People are walking away from God because they are afraid of him, afraid he’s a monster…and the doctrine of eternal hell is a direct cause of this attitude. The notion that God has to save us from his own wrath is abhorrent to most people, because *people* who act like that are called abusers for good reason. For a moment, let’s take a step back from figuring out who’s to blame for such ideas and examine this basic tragedy: people are being scared away from God. People do not believe that God is a God of love, because they cannot conceive of a love that would willingly allow a person be tormented for all eternity with no hope of redemption.

    In light of that simple fact, maybe we need to start talking about heaven and hell in a different way. What does it accomplish to preach hell when all it does is push people closer to it, by scaring them away from God?

  • Craig Coffin says:

    uggghh. a retelling of the sin of humanity. Man in one moment killing God.

  • [...] Tennent (President of Asbury Theological Seminary), Why Rob Bell needs to return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pas…: “Rob Bell is not just telling us we are sick, he is providing a remedy, a prescript for the [...]

  • amy says:

    In the midst of this debate, it’s great to have a book you can point people to that lays out the Gospel message in a clear, compelling way. An Anchor for the Soul by Ray Pritchard is one such book. It was just updated by the author and rereleased. It’s a wonderful book to turn people onto when they’re wrestling with big questions about God and Jesus and wanting to find straightforward, biblical answers. And, as far as I know, it’s controversy free! http://www.amazon.com/Anchor-Soul-Help-Present-Future/dp/0802415369/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297455328&sr=8-1

  • [...] me, the problem lies not in the silliness of the above, but in this egregious error that I believe Tim Tennent writes so clearly about, “Bell’s solution takes humanity out of the dock and puts God in [...]