Part Three: Why Rob Bell needs to return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors (cont.)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

This is the THIRD in a four part series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD, President of Asbury Theological Seminary

Third, Bell has an inadequate understanding of the Kingdom of God.  He rightly chastises the collapse of salvation into personal justification, though he doesn’t use theological terms to describe this concern.  However, in its place Bell fails to see that the kingdom has already been inaugurated, but is not fully consummated.  For Bell to say that heaven and hell are already here now is true in the sense that the kingdom of God is already breaking in (thus, heaven is breaking into the present age) and the absence of God’s rule and reign is hell.  Bell correctly points out the relationship between “this age” and “the age to come.”  Again, thank you Rob Bell!  Bell correctly chastises a church with an under realized eschatology which puts all redemption off into the “sweet by and by.”  However, Bell’s prescription is an over realized eschatology which underestimates the massive redemption which still awaits societies, cultures, the kingdoms of this world and, indeed, creation itself.   We live in an “already-not yet” tension.   The Kingdom of God has already broken into the present evil age.  Bell gets that point.  However we still await our full redemption and the transformation which is ushered in by the eschaton will be dramatic and cosmic in scale.  Bell misses that point.

Fourth, Bell’s solution exalts Christ’s work on the cross, but in the process sacrifices or ignores major themes in Scripture.  Bell’s position regarding the state of the lost is known as inclusivism.  Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell is not a universalist, nor is he a full blown pluralist.   A pluralist believes that all religions can independently save people and, therefore, there are many different, equally valid paths leading to God.  In the pluralist world, Hinduism can save Hindus just as Christianity saves a Baptist.  Bell does not take this position.  Bell’s argument is that you may, indeed, belong to a different religion, such as Islam, but it is Christ who saves you.  You may be a practicing Buddhist or Hindu, but God is counting your faith as faith in Christ.  It is a sort of Christocentric pluralism known as inclusivism and serves as a kind of half-way house between exclusivism and pluralism.  It became popular in Roman Catholic circles in the wake of Vatican II and then spread to Protestantism and finally into evangelicalism in recent years.   The idea that a Buddhist could be saved by Christ has been called “anonymous Christianity.”  In other words, people are saved by Christ but do not realize it or know it.  (As an aside, I should note how offended many Buddhists were when they realized that some Christians taught that they were actually anonymous Christians.  It is a form of stealth triumphalism which seeks to trump the dignity of unbelief.)

Bell drives a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ’s work and the epistemological response of explicit repentance and faith.  In other words, Christ’s work saves us even if we do not explicitly respond through repentance and faith.  The relationship between God’s revelation and our response is severed. For Bell, God’s love saves “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists as well as Baptists” and does so within their sincere seeking within their own religions.  Bell concedes that John 14:6 does claim that salvation is only in Jesus Christ, but he argues that the text doesn’t go on to say that we need to acknowledge this or know this truth or respond to this, in order to be saved by Christ.  In contrast, Paul says, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21).  The relational link between the Redeemer and the redeemed is quietly dropped in Bell’s wider-hope-inclusivism.   Bell makes a point that no where in the New Testament does it state that we need a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”   However, Bell should remember that  sin is not just a forensic, legal breach with God’s justice, it is also a relational breach with God’s person.  Bell doesn’t seem to realize the vast implications his position has for the church, the Great Commission and the Biblical call to repentance and faith.

(To be continued….)

Comments

  • As a student at the seminary, and hopefully one day pastor, I am concerned that there has yet to be a response to Love Wins that is understandable by the laity. Though you fault him for it, “he doesn’t use theological terms.” It is in this precise communication style that Bell wins many converts. I do not fault you for giving a theologically solid response to Bell’s book, but I wish we could receive a response that is geared to those without degrees in theology.

  • morgandcga says:

    @ concerned student. Part of the problem today is that the laity and even some clergy are “dumbed down” by our entertainment culture, and they make no attempts to step up to the level of thinking required to combat heretics such as Rob Bell. Ephesians 4:14 tells us to grow up in our thinking. “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” One of the many benefits to the Reformation and Luther putting the bible into the hands of the laity was the laity became literate thus creating a more intellectual society and one that could stand up to Rome. Bell is winning converts because some clergy have failed to do so and have failed to educate the laity in the proper doctrines and language of the scripture. I learned the grammar of Christianity not from my pastor but from The White Horse Inn radio program. Best of luck in your pursuit of the high calling and remember to feed your sheep on the Word.

    • Daniel says:

      Dear Concerned Student,
      One part of the relationship between pastors and theologians is that it’s the duty of the local pastor to digest the teachings of theologians like Tennent and then present those teachings in palatable ways to the laity. It’s not the job of the academic theologian to sacrifice precision for the sake of certain segments of drastically biblically illiterate laity. The theologian’s audience is pastors and fellow theologians. The pastor then translates those teachings in ways that meets the minds and hearts of his church context. Pastors must know their sheep and translate deep, precise theological truths in ways that his sheep can comprehend them and experience Christ-centered transformation.

      Pastor Daniel

  • AStev says:

    Don’t be concerned. I do not have a degree in theology, nor am I involved in ministry. (In fact, I’m a graphic artist.) As part of the laity, I found this review is very accessible and easy to understand. Please don’t underestimate the laity. 😉

    However, if you’re interested, here’s a review of the book, written in the informal style of Rob Bell: http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/2011/03/19/the-publisher-certainly-won/

    • As regards inclusivism vesus exclusivism, I am an exclusivist with universal opportunity (“universal opportunity through prevenient grace, which enlightens to respond both to general revelation [though this does not save] and special revelation [containing the gospel, which alone is unto salvation]). Now, I seriously wonder is inclusivism was largely spawned by an emotive response to hard, serious questions concerning those in other religions or those who have never heard. Theologically/missiologically, what secures exclusivism (an ingredient of which is that one must, to whatever quantity, acknowledge or assent to the content of the gospel) is the fact that in the OT the LORD desires that his covenant people make his name known to all the nations. In the NT, and for example, Jesus, the Lord of Glory, appears to Saul/Paul and states that Paul is to be his vessel to make his name known to the nations! The phrase “make my name known” implies the need for an explicit mention of the reputation of the Lord, which in turn implies a specific response by others to the proclamation of the name.

    • As regards inclusivism vesus exclusivism, I am an exclusivist with universal opportunity (“universal opportunity through prevenient grace, which enlightens to respond both to general revelation [though this does not save] and special revelation [containing the gospel, which alone is unto salvation]). Now, I seriously wonder if inclusivism was largely spawned by an emotive response to hard, serious questions concerning those in other religions or those who have never heard. Theologically/missiologically, what secures exclusivism (an ingredient of which is that one must, to whatever quantity, acknowledge or assent to the content of the gospel) is the fact that in the OT the LORD desires that his covenant people make his name known to all the nations. In the NT, and for example, Jesus, the Lord of Glory, appears to Saul/Paul and states that Paul is to be his vessel to make his name known to the nations! The phrase “make my name known” implies the need for an explicit mention of the reputation of the Lord, which in turn implies a specific response by others to the proclamation of the name.

  • Jeremy says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading these posts on Bell. I’m a Lay Leader in the UMC and find pride in that these remarks seem far better then many I’ve read from mainly Reformed Baptists. It’s defending doctrine I think in the correct manner.

  • Mike says:

    I thought the president’s comment in this series about evangelicals who have an aversion to any book with footnotes is spot-on. The reason Pastor Bell gets away with this is because many lose sight of who Jesus is and believe we should be able to bullet-point our religion. Pastor Bell hits his target market right between the eyes when he details Hagee-Evangelicalism as a bad product, while offering his own well-designed brand of fast-food Christian theology as something tastier (AStev – I was a designer before seminary; keep the faith). The only thing that protects the Church in cases like this is knowing what the good stuff really tastes like. I was saved from a real Hell by a real Jesus – maybe the best thing Pastor Bell will do with this book is remind us of who Jesus really is.

  • Bill says:

    The criticism of Bell’s inclusivism, and his belief that God’s love saves those who pursue righteousness even if not explicitly “Christian”, might just as well be addressed to John Wesley, who taught the very same thing.

    • Caleb Landis says:

      John Wesley was in no way an inclusivist. Steve Harper says, “…Wesley believed salvation was offered to evewryone. He did believe everyone could be saved, but he never believed that all people would be saved.” Wesley himself said, “Knowest thou not that the wages of sin is death?-death, not only temporal, but eternal…this is the sentence, to be punished with never-ending death, with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” During his Altersgate experience Wesley remembers, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation…”

      Wesley was neither inclusivistic or universalistic.

      • Edwin says:

        Caleb,

        You say that Wesley wasn’t an inclusivist or a universalist, but your response applies only to universalism. We all know he wasn’t a universalist. Tom1st posted several passages which do appear to be inclusivist, or at least to teach a “wider hope.”

    • Hi, Bill. Thanks for your post. Do you think that Wesley would have answered “yes” to this question: “Can a Hindu who follows Krishna via the Bhagavad Gita (containing Krishna’s teaching) and the Srimad Bhagavatam (containing legends of Krishna’s acts and teachings) be an ‘anonymous Christian’ if that Hindu is sincere?”

      • Tom1st says:

        I don’t know, Steven…what do you think?:

        Perhaps there may be some well-meaning persons who carry this farther still; who aver, that whatever change is wrought in men, whether in their hearts or lives, yet if they have not clear views of those capital doctrines, the fall of man, justification by faith, and of the atonement made by the death of Christ, and of his righteousness transferred to them, they can have no benefit from his death. I dare in no wise affirm this. Indeed I do not believe it. I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas. I believe he respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head; and that if the heart of a man be filled (by the grace of God, and the power of his Spirit) with the humble, gentle, patient love of God and man, God will not cast him into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels because his ideas are not clear, or because his conceptions are confused. Without holiness, I own, “no man shall see the Lord;” but I dare not add, “or clear ideas.”

        http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/125/

        • Hi, Tom. First, I would hope that Wesley would answer “no” to my question. Second, in the main body of your post above, might you be assuming too much as concerns humanity’s innocence? When I think in theodicy terms, I am not too quick to place an innocence upon humanity that is not warranted by the word of God.

          • Tom1st says:

            Steven,
            I’m not making the argument here.

            This is a direct quote from John Wesley.

            If anyone is “assuming too much as concerns humanity’s innocence” it’s Wesley, since it’s his quote.

            I made no claims above. I just cited JW to see what you thought.

      • Dr. Tsoukalas,

        A) I doubt anyone reading this other than yourself is writing an exegetical commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and therefore most people won’t have a clue what you mean.

        B) It was nice to meet you at SBL this year.

        C) Tell Dr. Richter I said hello!

      • Bill says:

        No, I don’t. I’m not aware that he had an understanding of Hinduism sufficient to answer the question and the term “anonymous Christian” was coined by Karl Rahner in the 20th Century. But here is something he would (and did) teach:

        “The next sort of faith is the faith of Heathens, with which I join that of Mahometans. I cannot but prefer this before the faith of the Deists; because, though it embraces nearly the same objects, yet they are rather to be pitied than blamed for the narrowness of their faith. And their not believing the whole truth, is not owing to want of sincerity, but merely to want of light. When one asked Chicali, an old Indian Chief, “Why do not you red men know as much as us white men?” he readily answered, “Because you have the great Word, and we have not.”

        It cannot be doubted, but this plea will avail for millions of modern Heathens. Inasmuch as to them little is given, of them little will be required. As to the ancient Heathens, millions of them, likewise were savages. No more therefore will be expected of them, than the living up to the light they had. But many of them, especially in the civilized nations, we have great reason to hope, although they lived among Heathens, yet were quite of another spirit; being taught of God, by His inward voice, all the essentials of true religion.”

        In other words, love wins.

        • Hi, Tom and Bill. Thanks for responding. Tom, I do not know where the idea of a separation from “head” and “heart” came from, but I am often puzzled by the dichotomy. That said, too many of us fail to see in many instances the inextricable link between head and heart. And I am puzzled by “Love Wins.” What is love? If it is not biblical love, then “truth wins.” Bill, I most excitedly disagree with Wesley’s statement you provided above (BTW, thanks for it!). I am not going the way of teaching that people can appropriate eternal life apart from explicit faith in Christ. Here is the center of the matter: When inclusivism’s tenet’s are moved into the discipline of inter-religious theology, there is much of which to be quite concerned.

          • Bill says:

            What is love? God is love.

            Love wins, because God wins.

          • Tom1st says:

            Steven,
            Just by way of clarifying again – I did not draw the distinction between head and heart; Wesley did.

            This matters to the conversation in two ways:
            1) You asked what Wesley would and would not affirm. I provided a direct quote. It seems he affirms that people are responsible for the light they have received….no matter how shallow, misdirected, or uncertain that light was.

            2) President Tennent is criticizing Inclusivism. I’m not saying he is right or wrong. I’m merely pointing out that he’s criticizing something Wesley held to – and as he’s at a Wesleyan seminary. that makes the whole thing interesting.

            I’m not taking Wesley’s side. I’m not claiming universalism or inclusivism for myself. And I’m not bifurcating head and heart.

            I’m merely making observations for a specific reason.

          • Edwin says:

            Dr. Tsoukalas,

            I would very much like to have a better understanding of what you mean by “exclusivism with universal opportunity.”

        • I think “no” as well. But then you quoted Wesley with the issue of the Muslim. Let me, please, rephrase the question with that religion in mind. Do you think Wesley would answer “yes” to this: “If one is a Qur’anic Muslim, she would have to be in accord with Sura 4, which denies that Jesus is the Son of God and denies that he was crucified on the cross (and denies the Trinity). But this is ‘the light that she had.’ Will this Muslim be in the presence of the Lord in the eschaton?”

          • Bill says:

            Steve:

            I don’t presume to speak for Wesley, so I can’t be sure. But based upon his teachings of the universality of God’s love and his opposition to Calvinism, I would say yes, he would say that any person who pursued righteousness, even if imperfect in their theology, would fall within the saving grace of Christ. I think he was quite explicit with respect to Muslims. With respect to Muslims, Jews and “Heathens” he also said, “only we may wish that their lives did not shame many of us that are called Christians.”

            peace

          • Edwin says:

            I agree that it’s hard to be sure and we should be careful speculating about what Wesley “would” have said. The quote about “head” vs. “heart” is probably referring to Christians with what Wesley would consider defective theology (RCs or non-evangelical Anglicans, perhaps), but I think given his other statements about virtuous heathen it’s not much of a stretch to apply it to Muslims. Wesley might then respond to your specific example in some such manner as this:

            If the ‘Mahometan’ rejects Jesus as the Son of God simply because the Qur’an tells him to do so and not because he is resisting light, and if, as is highly likely, he has a highly garbled idea of what Christians mean when we say Jesus is the “Son of God,” but if he humbly believes in God as far as he understands, and reveres and loves Jesus in the imperfect degree to which he knows about him–then such a person could be saved.

      • Edwin says:

        I suspect that Wesley would have answered “no”–that he would have seen the Krishna stories as idolatrous and immoral and would have had little hope for the salvation of anyone who died believing in them. I may be wrong, though–he certainly seems to have believed that _some_ heathen have been saved without explicitly believing in Jesus.

        • Tom1st says:

          That’s fine. We can attempt to answer for Wesley all we want, but in the end, the entire question is about Inclusivism, whcih Dr. Tennent seems to come out against – but Wesley seems to embrace.

          That’s my point.

          So, I don’t want to speculate about what Wesley would or would not say. The fact is, HE DID say something…see my citation above.

          So the question is, how does WEsley’s comments fit in with this discussion by the president of Asbury?

          That’s my only interest in this conversation. Sorry if I communicated otherwise.

          • Edwin says:

            Tom,

            First of all, I’m basing my response on what Wesley did say. Note that in the quotes you cited he makes some caveats about the heathen in “civilized nations” being the most likely candidates for the “wider hope” he’s proclaiming–I think that it’s pretty clear that he’s thinking of folks like Socrates. My strict Holiness grandfather (a “come-outer” who referred to ecumenism as “that hell-inspired scheme of amalgamation” and thought Nazarenes were worldly) expressed a hope of meeting Socrates in heaven, because he believed that Socrates was a monotheist who opposed idolatry (I think this is historically dubious, but that’s what I was told as a child). I don’t think it’s wild speculation to suggest that Wesley had that sort of thing in mind, and that he would have responded very differently to something like the Krishna myths. There are plenty of statements in Wesley about pagan idolatry, and his statements about heathen cultures generally are pretty dismissive and contemptuous (see The Doctrine of Original Sin, pp. 26-34).

            The bigger question you raise is how far Wesleyans should be bound to agree with Wesley. And obviously that question applies to Dr. Tennent, as the president of a Wesleyan institution, much more directly than to me (an Episcopalian of Wesleyan heritage who teaches full-time at a UB college and occasionally teaches an ExL class for Asbury). But I’d want to claim for both Dr. Tennent and myself the liberty of disagreeing with Wesley and still calling ourselves Wesleyans. If Dr. Tennent really holds to a more restrictive understanding of God’s mercy than Wesley, I think that’s unfortunate. But I agree with William Abraham that we shouldn’t try to base our theology on Wesley, but rather on the ancient canonical heritage of the Church.

            Now I need to go and teach Religions of the World, appropriately enough! We’re discussing Masao Abe’s talk on Zen and Christianity.

          • Tom1st says:

            Edwin,
            My comments weren’t directed to you, necessarily. I understood your argument and I agree that that’s what Wesley was getting at.

            The way this blog is set up hinders replied communication and sometimes I’m not sure who’s talking to who.

            Sorry if I miscommunciated. I’ve loved your contribution here and have agreed with it. My comments were directed at Steven’s hypothetical situations and his questions regarding Wesley’s response. Not at you, brother.

            Tom

          • Tom1st says:

            And, yes, Edwin, you’re right about what we base our theology on. I was just asking Dr. Tennent how he grappled with his view of Inclusivism vs. John Wesley’s. He is most certainly free to disagree with Wesley – as are you and I. But his words seem to be so strongly against Inclusivism that I thought it might help his readers if he explained them some.

            Thanks for your engagement with me. I’m sure I’m out of my league in this discussion with you all.

  • Tom1st says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I would’ve assumed that Bell would’ve taken a different track.

    Instead of referring to Buddhists (or whoever) as ‘anonymous Christians’, I thought he would take the track of post-mortem conversion. That is, that these folks are NOT anonymous Christians (or Christians in any sense), but they are fully Buddhists who respond as faithfully as they can to the revelation they have received. Were they to receive more special revelation, they would also respond positively to that. Thus, after death, they receive the ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ and true to form (i.e. how they responded to general revelation in this life) they actually, at that point, repent and turn to Christ.

    That’s the version of Inclusivism I would have assumed Bell would take. It seems a lot more reasonable than calling current Buddhists ‘anonymous Christians.’

  • Bill says:

    Tom:

    Rob Bell doesn’t call Buddhists or anyone else “anoymous Christians.” Dr. Tennant is referring to the writing of Catholic theologian/philospher Karl Rahner. He implies that Bell uses this term or holds this belief, but doesn’t expressly say it.

    peace

    • Tom1st says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Bill; it’s always good to know exactly what one did and did not say in such situations as these. With that said, I still expected a different form of argumentation.

      • Tom1st says:

        The reason I would’ve expected this line other line of argumentation (post-mortem conversion) is because it would have fulfilled the requirement Steven Tsoukalas, above, mentions regarding the need for a specific revelation of Jesus as Lord.

        • Edwin says:

          Tom, I think this is an example of Bell’s lack of nuance, or perhaps his lack of interest in such matters as the difference between prevenient and regenerating grace. A post-mortem conversion position such as you describe is entirely compatible with Bell’s position.

          My own view, which I hold tentatively with fear and trembling, is that prevenient grace moves all persons everywhere toward Christ, and that those who respond to prevenient grace but do not explicitly believe in Jesus in this life will recognize and believe in Jesus at the point of death (as you describe). I would not, however, refer to this as post-mortem conversion, because “conversion” implies a change of direction and involves choice, and (contra Bell) I’m highly dubious about the idea that such choice is possible after death.

          However, I think this is dealing with the question in a more technical way than Bell does. His point that Jesus does all the saving that is being done, and yet that Jesus’ saving work goes in among those who do not explicitly believe in Jesus, is solidly orthodox in my opinion.

  • Edwin says:

    Dr. Tennent,

    I read Bell differently than you do on several counts, and one of them is the question of realized eschatology. He certainly isn’t as clear on this as, say, N.T. Wright, and his language about heaven and hell existing “now” can give the impression that he has a wholly realized eschatology, but I recall the book frequently speaking of a future consummation.

    With regard to inclusivism, the fact that inclusivism offends non-Christians is surely irrelevant to the question of whether or not inclusivism is true. The purpose of inclusivism, as I understand it, is not to avoid offense but to exalt the universality of Jesus’ saving work. The Gospel will offend whether one proclaims it in an exclusivist or an inclusivist manner.

    I would certainly have preferred Bell to make a distinction between prevenient and regenerating grace, but in the end I would say that grace is grace and Bell’s basic point stands: Jesus does all the saving that is going on, but Jesus’ saving work is going on among those who do not yet explicitly believe in Jesus. I don’t agree that this undercuts the relationality of salvation–it just broadens what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. Surely prevenient grace, as taught by Wesley, involves being in relationship with Jesus?

    • Tom1st says:

      “With regard to inclusivism, the fact that inclusivism offends non-Christians is surely irrelevant to the question of whether or not inclusivism is true. The purpose of inclusivism, as I understand it, is not to avoid offense but to exalt the universality of Jesus’ saving work. The Gospel will offend whether one proclaims it in an exclusivist or an inclusivist manner.”

      Well said, Edwin.

  • bobby says:

    When interviewed for ordination in the UMC, one elder said, “I believe my Hindu friend is saved.” I was too young to think he was serious. I thought he was giving me an opportunity to share the gospel to see if I would pass muster. I spoke for about 15 minutes. I preached from Genesis to Revelation about Christ, mentioned a few good Wesley sermons, and then said, “What makes you think your Hindu friend WANTS to be saved?” Only when I finished speaking, and I experienced the resulting anger directed towards me, did I realize the elder had been serious in his comments. It was a lesson to be learned – preaching the gospel puts everyone at a point of crisis – sometimes even elders of the UMC. It also costs one in what the world considers “success.”

  • John Meunier says:

    Dr Tennent wrote: “Bell drives a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ’s work and the epistemological response of explicit repentance and faith. In other words, Christ’s work saves us even if we do not explicitly respond through repentance and faith. The relationship between God’s revelation and our response is severed.”

    I do not dispute any other this as biblical, but it does raise a deeply personal question for me.

    My son has autism. He folds his hands at family prayer and attends worship with us. He has even come with me on work trips to unload food at our church food pantry.

    But I do not believe he can make either an explicit statement of faith in Jesus Christ or a private epistemological response to the saving work of Jesus Christ. He does not understand things he cannot see or touch.

    Of course, God’s grace may penetrate this. He might be healed. But assuming he is not – and we good Arminians hold that his justification and sanctification require response – what does that mean for him? Is he lost eternally?

    This is a painful question for me. I appreciate any insight that can be offered.