“It’s about Community”: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 3

In the introduction to this series (March 28th post entitled “Catechesis is the first step in ‘making culture’”) I noted that we encounter a wide array of models for how the church passed the faith on to the next generation.  I briefly highlighted the catechumen-mystagogy model of the Patristics, the monastic/service  model of the Celtics, the Longer and Shorter catechisms which emerged at the Reformation, and so forth.  My overall argument (which is taking quite a few entries to unfold!) is that the Wesleyan model draws strengths from each of these earlier models.  I am hoping that some of my thoughts might stimulate a renewed appreciation of the Wesleyan model.

I think that the best current book in print on catechesis is Teaching the Faith – Forming the Faithful by Dr. Gary Parrett and Steve Kang.  The good news is that it is a GREAT BOOK.  I had the privilege of teaching alongside of both Parrett and Kang for many years and can testify that they are insightful, generative, theologically sound and have a deep heart for catechesis in the church.  My one criticism of the book, however, is that this landmark book makes no reference to Wesley and the genius of Wesleyan catechesis at all.  Thus, I think it is fair to say that there are huge swaths of Christian humanity out there who have no idea that Wesley is actually one of the great genius’ of catechesis.  If there was ever a leader who knew how to teach people to “echo” the faith, it was John Wesley.  This is why I thought it was worth a few blog entries.

So far, we have explored the role of prevenient grace (part 1) and waiting “in the means of grace” (part 2) which were both important building blocks to a fully Wesleyan understanding of catechesis.  The third genius of Wesley was his profound appreciation for the importance of small groups in spiritual formation.  In other words, catechesis happens in community.  The default idea in the mind of many people suggests that the best spiritual formation occurs when we are “in retreat” or in some solitary place.  As we will see today and in another blog entry in the future, Wesley challenges this notion on several fronts.

18th century Oxford was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism.  In short, it was quite a bit like North America and Europe today.  John and Charles Wesley decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.”  The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.”  The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament.  It became known as the Holy Club.  They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname, “Methodist.”  So the very origin of the word “Methodist” is rooted in a small group formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation.   For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life.   To put it bluntly, it wasn’t just about becoming a Christian, it was about being a Christian.   Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was the instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.  Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands.  The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care (Yes, there were all female groups with female leaders, there were all male groups and there were mixed groups as well).  They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins.  Members in sin would be disciplined.  They would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith.  They would worship together by singing a song.  Everyone would participate.  The meeting would be over in about an hour.  It is still an excellent model.  Wesley was an expert organizer.  But, there are other features of Wesleyan catechesis which are even more remarkable which I will explore in the days ahead.

Waiting “in the means of grace”: Wesleyan catechesis, part 2

The last blog explored how we cannot begin the road to catechesis until we first recognize God’s prior action in our lives.  For Wesleyans this is normally captured in the doctrine of prevenient grace.   This is that grace which “goes before” or “leads the way” whereby God acts to free our human will from the bondage of depravity (non posse non peccare) so that we can then freely choose according to God’s will.

It is here that Wesley inserts the means of grace.  Wesley defines the “means of grace” as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace).  Wesley goes on to identify three primary “means of grace” which God has given to us:  prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper.  Now, quite a wide array of Christian groups accepts the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace.”  They are widely understood as the general means by which Christians grow stronger in their faith and grow in the grace of Christ.  In other words, they are God’s instruments to sanctify us.  However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace.  What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also preventing (prevenient), and justifying grace.  In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith.   Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” have no power in themselves to save anyone.  Rather, they have the power to convey all forms of grace precisely because Christ himself is present in prayer, in the reading of Scripture and in the Lord’s Supper.  So, for Wesley, there is no such thing as an autonomous person reading Scripture, or praying or taking the Lord’s Supper.  These are all done in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Remember, Christ is the only true “means of grace.”  The customary “means of grace” are given to the church as channels to Christ himself.  So, we should exercise our freed wills and avail ourselves of the full range of the “means of grace.”  Wesley encouraged people to wait in the means of grace, not outside them.  He wrote, “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.”

We learn through this that catechesis for Wesley is fundamentally relational.  It is about drawing us near to Christ himself.  In Wesley’s journal we read about a time in his life where he felt a complete lack of faith.  He writes about it on March 4, 1738 (remember, Wesley’s heartwarming experience at Aldersgate does not occur until May 24, 1738).  Wesley decided to quit preaching because, he reasoned, “how can you preach to others when you have no faith yourself.”  Wesley asked his good friend Peter Böhler if he should give up preaching.  Böhler famously replied, “preach faith till you have it; and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”  This captures well the next step in Wesleyan catechesis; namely, waiting for God in the means of Grace, not outside the means of grace.  So, brothers and sisters, however you “feel” keep reading, keep listening, keep praying, and keep coming to the Lord’s Table.

Prevenient Grace as the Foundation for Wesleyan Catechesis: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 1 by Timothy C. Tennent

During these days I am reflecting on how Christians are to “make culture” by reconstructing the grand narrative of the gospel.  The grand story stretches from creation to fall to covenant to incarnation to resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to church to return of Christ to New Creation.  This big narrative of God’s mighty redemptive acts loses its coherence when we only tell bits and pieces of it.  In earlier blogs I have explored how the surrounding post-Christian culture has nearly forgotten the grand story completely.  However, the greatest tragedy is that the church itself has so fragmented and domesticated the grand story that we are called to rebuild the broken walls almost from scratch.

Yesterday’s blog pointed out that the first step is catechesis (church and home – sometimes called altar and hearth catechesis).  I explored some of the major models of catechesis in the history of the church and we are now exploring in more detail the distinctives of Wesleyan catechesis.

Often when Christians begin to think about catechesis they often begin by brainstorming about either what Christians should “do” or “know.”  The “do” list would include such spiritual disciplines like prayer and scripture reading.  The “know” list would likely include such key doctrines as the two natures of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity or the specifics of the Ten Commandments.  It may surprise you but this is NOT where Wesleyan catechesis begins.  For Wesley, catechesis begins with Christ himself.  For Wesley, spiritual formation and catechesis does not begin with human initiatives to “do” or “know” anything.  Rather, catechesis begins with the prior act of God in prevenient grace.  For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s action on behalf of the sinner.  Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will.  Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace.  Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).  This clearly refers to a drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification.  It is God’s act of unmerited favor.  It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ.  Thomas Oden puts it well when he says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will” (Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life, 189).

Wesleyans are often wrongly accused of denying human depravity because of our emphasis on free will.  However, Wesleyans believe in total depravity every bit as much as any five point Calvinist.  The difference is that Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then serious theological difficulties arise. (Perhaps a future blog post might explore the many theological conundrums which emerge with the loss of the doctrine of free will).  Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace.  Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God (Love Wins, yes, but Justice also wins).  Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adams nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement).  What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e. a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace.  It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways, but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind and will to respond to God’s grace.

What does all of this have to do with catechesis?  For Wesley, it has everything to do with it, because he believed in waiting upon God “inside the means of Grace” not “outside the means of Grace.”   In the next blog I will explore why this is so important to a proper understanding of Wesleyan catechesis.

The first step in “making culture” is Catechesis!

Andy Crouch, a senior editor at Christianity Today, was at Asbury last week.  What a great blessing he was to our community.  I first encountered Andy Crouch back a few years ago when he published his book, Culture Making.  One of the insights in that book is that it is not enough to simply critique culture, we have to make culture.  Crouch argues that it is important to be able to articulate and identity what features of a particular culture need transformation.  However, he argues we will never turn things around by simply criticizing.  We have to actually create new culture.  We must insert “New Creation” into the present creation.   Amen, Andy!

I am convinced that one of the best ways to create culture is through catechesis.   The word ‘catechesis’ refers to a form of religious instruction, often oral, which allows the essentials of Christianity to be passed down to a new generation.  The word catechesis comes from the word ‘echo’ reminding us that it is our duty to echo the Apostolic message.  One of the great losses in today’s church has been the collapse of catechesis, both in the church as well as in the home.  The faith is not being passed down, so the next generation often does not “echo” it.  We are left with an increasingly domesticated gospel which is far less reproducible than the gospel of the New Testament.

If you look down through the history of the church you will discover many rich traditions of catechesis.  In the New Testament we find catechesis central to the Apostolic message (See 2 Timothy 2:2).  The period after the close of the New Testament, known as the Patristic period, had a rich tradition which put catechesis into two parts.  Part one stretched from Lent to Easter whereby the catechumen was instructed in the basics of the Christian faith.  The instruction culminated in the catechumen’s baptism at Easter.  Part two, known as mystagogy, stretched from Easter to Pentecost.  During this period the newly baptized believer was instructed into the mystery of the church.  Later, we discover the Celtic model of catechesis which was less individualized and more communal.   The monastic tradition became an important model of catechesis.   The Celtic Christians also infused their catechesis with active service of the poor.  The Reformation produced some excellent catechisms which parents used with their children.  They typically focused on several key areas such as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount.  They were often set up in Question and Answer format for memorization.  The Westminster Shorter and Longer Catechisms are among the most famous in history.  You may recall the famous first question.  What is the chief end of man?  The answer:  To love God and to enjoy him forever.  And so it continued with nearly 100 additional questions.  Surely, one of the great legacies of the Reformed tradition has been their ability to pass down their doctrinal heritage to the next generation.

When I look back at these catechisms I am impressed how each one provides great insights into the the art of transmitting the faith.  John Wesley was acquainted with all of these traditions, as well as a few others I do not have space to mention.  John Wesley drew from the best of all of these and created one of the best models of catechesis in history.  In an upcoming blog I will share a few more thoughts about Wesleyan catechesis.

Robust Christianity

In reflecting on the responses to my blog the last four days, I thought it might be helpful for me to share a few of my own reactions.  My overwhelming response is gratefulness to God, to our students, various other responders and yes, indeed, to Rob Bell as well for stimulating such a healthy conversation.  Part of what made the Reformation such an amazing time in the history of the church is that it brought so many more people to the actual text of Scripture.  Today the collapse of Christendom coupled with the rise of the Majority World church is having the same effect.  New questions are being posed to the text in fresh ways.  If Rob Bell’s Love Wins forces us to become better readers of the Bible in order to articulate a cogent response, then the whole church benefits.

I am also reminded of the ongoing importance of theology in the church today.  Serious theological reflection has fallen on hard times in the world of twitter where everything must be reduced to 140 characters, simple slogans, sound bites, etc…  In a recent, very helpful  article in Christianity Today entitled The Leavers, Drew Dyck explored why young adults in their twenties are leaving the faith at “five to six times the historic rate.”  One of the themes Dyck discovered in his interviews with the children of evangelicals who had left the faith is how many young people who had serious questions about Christianity were met with youth leaders, pastors and parents who either did not know the answer or gave them some trite, shallow reply which sounded ridiculously forced and mechanical rather than thoughtful and persuasive.  Some parents and pastors even tried to hush up the questions or doubts completely.  Young people found that it was wrong to question, they were exhorted to “simply believe.”  Is it any wonder that many of those who left the faith departed because Christianity seemed to lack the kind of robust vitality they were searching for?  All of this genuine searching coincided with a massive movement across the country to invite kids to youth groups and give them pizza and movies, but was fairly light weight when it came to exploring the great truths of the Christian faith.

These are the days when Christians in the West have to recognize that we have largely propagated a domesticated caricature of Christianity rather than the real thing.  We need serious theological reflection, a keen knowledge of the Scripture, a profound engagement with the world, a willingness to really listen to the doubts and questions of those around us, and sacrificial acts of service and witness in every arena of life.   The day of entertainment driven, attractional models of Christian witness must give room to deeply missional discipleship models.   My favorite blog response was a lay person who wrote in and declared “don’t underestimate the laity.”   Brothers and sisters, one of the most profound mistakes we have made is the assumption that we must dumb down to this culture because all they are interested in is simplistic solutions and easy answers.  What an insult to this generation!  What I have found is a generation crying out for a deeper call to a genuine, robust, Apostolic Christianity.   The believing mind and heart must find an expression that is appropriate to the nature of revelation.   Think about it.

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

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

Bell’s ecclesiology has collapsed and we are left with an individual sincere seeker after God.  The mission of the church has been, at best, stunted, since the other religions of the world have already brought (implicitly and anonymously) more people to the foot of the cross than has the global proclamation of the gospel.  However, it is only through dramatic theological reductionism that Bell equates biblical salvation in the New Testament to a lone individual seeker after God in a religion like Islam or Buddhism.  Bell doesn’t just give us anonymous Christians, he gives us anonymous communities, anonymous Scriptures and anonymous sacraments.  He has effectively disembodied the faith and separated it from ecclesiology despite the fact that it is the church which is the public, redeemed community Jesus Christ declares that he will build to manifest before the world all of the active “heavenly” engagement in this world that Bell longs for.

In conclusion, Bell is probably right about several things.  A lot of pastors out there are teaching stuff which only vaguely reflects the actual teachings of the New Testament.  If Bell awakens in the evangelical community a fresh, robust conversation about what we really believe about the kingdom, heaven, hell, the lost and the New Creation, we should all be delighted.  It is important to recognize that Bell’s response reveals that the depth of his own theological reflection is a bit thin, too.  Bell has given us a domesticated gospel which tries to make the gospel relevant to contemporary sensibilities.  However, it is not the gospel which needs to be made relevant to us.  It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel.  The gospel is always relevant whether it is recognized as such or not.  In my estimation, Rob Bell and, apparently quite a few evangelical pastors, need a thorough re-grounding in the biblical doctrines of God’s love, sin, the kingdom of God, the necessity of human response and ecclesiology.

While I sincerely believe that the spread of wider hope inclusivism into the evangelical movement represents a serious breach of theological coherence which will undermine the gospel, I am not standing with a stone in my hand.  As a seminary president, Bell’s book reminded me anew of the importance of biblical and theological training.  He reminded me afresh why I have given my life to theological education.  If there is a “beam” in the eye of the evangelical church it is that we must hear the resounding bell (no pun intended) that a post-Christendom, post-modern generation is not hearing the gospel.  However, the answer is not Bell’s further domesticated gospel, but a more robust, Apostolic one.  We can no longer give out gospel fragments which are not clearly tied to re-building the grand meta-narrative which gloriously unfurls from creation to covenant to incarnation to death and resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to the church of Jesus Christ to the Return of Christ and the final ushering in of the New Creation.  A post-modern world which has reduced all Truth to tiny socially constructed personal narratives is in need of a big, glorious grand Story.  This is really the deepest cry of Rob Bell.  This is the deepest cry of many of us.  In future blog posts I will share some of my own thoughts and reflections on how to re-capture the grand Story for our own day.  In the meantime, Bell has reminded us that our deepest theological and pastoral work cannot be done in isolation from the world, the church and the larger cultural milieu.  The world always remains God’s greatest theological workshop.  Bell’s book, Love Wins, calls us all back to the workshop in a fresh way.  Let’s get to work, shall we?

(This is the final conclusion to a four part series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.  The author grants full permission for the reproduction and distribution of these reflections as long as all four parts are referenced).

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

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….)

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

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….)

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

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

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, is an attempt to deconstruct widely held evangelical notions about heaven, hell and the lostness of humanity and replace it with a God whose cosmic love triumphs over human unbelief. It is Bell’s attempt to counter a very poor story with a better story. The poor story is the story of a God who is an angry tyrant who sends people to hell for an eternity because of “sins committed in a few short years.” Bell writes, “telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do, or say, or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.” In contrast, Bell wants to tell a better story which is “bigger and more expansive.” It is the story of the power of God’s love to triumph over a world of unbelief.

Bell is to be commended for exposing the weak theology which apparently is present in many evangelical churches. To be fair, Bell caricatures evangelical beliefs to the limit of one’s imagination, playing on the worst kinds of stereotypes. According to Bell, evangelicals often proclaim a God who “is a slave driver” ready to “inflict pain and agony” on those who don’t pray “the sinner’s prayer in precisely the right way.” Exclusivists are stereotyped as those who insist that “followers of Jesus confess him in the precise way defined by the group” or you will not be “going to heaven.” Bell portrays evangelicals as those who are arrogantly cramming the gospel down the throats of an unbelieving world. Evangelicals as those who care nothing about the environment or poverty or nuclear disarmament, or pollution because all that really matters is “getting people to pray the right prayer,” or believe just the right things so they can die and go to heaven which is “somewhere else” and in a time which is a “different time” than that which we occupy today.

I could spend pages disputing Bell’s caricature of evangelical faith and practice. I have met hundreds of solid evangelical pastors who do not fall into the traps which Rob Bell cites. The historic relationship between evangelical commitments and social action is a powerful and compelling story. But, for the sake of the argument, let’s accept Bell’s critique as fairly exposing some serious flaws in the theology of contemporary evangelicalism. If it is true, then Bell has definitely revealed that most evangelical pastors need to go back to seminary. Apparently, today’s pastors have forgotten that the kingdom of God has already broken in to the present age and we are to live out the full realities of the New Creation in the present age. Apparently, today’s evangelicals have confused the New Creation with 19th century hymns concerning heaven which depict the “other side” as a remote, vague place of passivity with little to do but pluck our harps and walk on streets of gold. Apparently, quite a few pastors across our nation need to re-learn the basic lesson that God actually loves lost people. If half of what Rob Bell says about evangelicals is true, then we need to declare a massive recall along the lines of what Toyota did last year when so many cars were discovered to be defective. We need to declare that listening to today’s pastors is no longer safe and reliable until they are sent back for a re-fit and some major theological adjustments. Something deep inside me suspects that Rob Bell may actually be on to something here. Thank you, Rob! Indeed, it is time for a renewed emphasis on the grand meta-narrative which tells the “big story” and puts all of these doctrines in a larger and more robust theological frame. Perhaps we need a recall and a re-tooling of a largely Christendom trained clergy to a clergy better prepared for a post-Christendom world which desperately needs a robust gospel, not a domesticated one. Bell has been listening to the church and to the culture and he has insightfully diagnosed that the church is theologically anemic. Bell is saying, in effect, “Houston, we have a problem…” and for that I applaud him.

(to be continued…)