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

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

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).


  • Brad Kirk says:

    Several moments made me want to shout “Amen” as if in a sermon. We need the Truth more than ever, but continuing to bang our heads at postmodernity by using disconnected and culturally outdated methods just further encourages our churches to become less able to be effective in our world. As a pastor is a more rural community, I must say that this is something that is true of every place, not just our urban landscapes.

  • D. Merricks says:

    Thank you so much for this thorough examination of this particular book. It is refreshing we read a real critique. One thing I’d like to ask is if you could recommend some further reading; if these blog posts had a bibliography, what would be on it?

    Thanks again.

  • Mike Voigts says:

    Thank you for such a calm and reasoned response to Bell, Dr. Tennent. You’ve demonstrated why sound theological training is so very important in today’s trendy, fashion-of-the-month ecclesiological landscape.

  • J. Paul says:

    Dr. Tennent, can you please clarify what you mean by, “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.”
    Are you saying that other religions have brought people to Jesus? If so how? In a salvific manner?

    • Edwin says:

      He’s describing what he takes to be Bell’s position. I don’t think this is a fair description of Bell’s position, however. Dr. Tennent pointed out in part 3 that inclusivism (Bell’s position) teaches that Jesus saves people who do not explicitly become Christians in this life. The view that other religions are themselves saving people is (as Dr. Tennent himself pointed out) the pluralist position, which Bell does not hold.

  • “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.”……Applause, Applause!! I’m in full agreement.
    Revealing Hope through Jesus Christ,
    Joanne Mumley

  • In reply to J. Paul, I think Dr. Tennent is explaining since the idea of “anonymous Christianity” the mission of the church has been stunted. With the idea of “anonymous Christianity” is there even a mission of the church? I did not take from his critique that he affirmed this view because of the sentence prior to the statement (collapse of ecclesiology), as well as what follows (Bell’s turn to reductionism).

  • Edwin says:

    Dr. Tennent,

    Thanks for this eloquent and charitable response to Bell. I agree that Bell’s ecclesiology is very weak and that a more robust proclamation of the narrative of salvation would address many of the problems Bell addresses and also correct the flaws in Bell’s own position. I clearly agree with Bell more than you do, and I think you misread him at times, but this response has given me a lot to chew on.

    One final note: I think you are unfair to Bell when you claim that his main concern is to make the Gospel “palatable.” He certainly is concerned about people turning away from the Gospel as it’s normally presented, but he makes it clear in the book that he is concerned about this because he thinks people are being turned off by a _false_ presentation of the Gospel. Nowhere does Bell suggest that a true proclamation of the Gospel will be inoffensive or culturally accommodating, and as you yourself pointed out in part 3, inclusivism is in fact deeply offensive to many non-Christians. Therefore, it seems to me, with all due respect, that this is a straw-man criticism.

    The heart of Bell’s position is an affirmation of God’s generous love and His salvific purpose for all of creation. It seems to me that Wesleyans of all people ought to affirm this wholeheartedly, however flawed Bell’s presentation may be.

    • Melanie says:

      Dr. Tennent, I resent your title of this bolg series. Many of us who have received a very thorough, challenging (vs. spoon-fed) theological education agree whole heartedly with Rob Bell. Many fundamentalist evangelicals are finally seeing the full extent of the Good News by going back to and deep into biblical studies for themselves. Your statement is insulting and validates my reasoning for not attending Asbury to begin with….And, yes, I am angry about the continued polarization that folks like you feed. YOUR theology is not the ONLY inspired, apostolic, orthodox, Wesleyan, spritual, biblical understanding that has come from God to Jesus followers. Just an educated and inspired thought to ponder….

  • Matt says:

    J.Paul, I think Dr Tennent was treating that like an if/then statement. If what Bell’s saying is true, then the mission of the church has been stunted. Bell is implying that other religions have brought people to Jesus in a salvific manner, and that’s what Dr Tennent is arguing against.

    • Dr. Tennent,
      How do you feel about people debating what you mean in your blog? I wonder if Jesus pondered about that happening to Him? Or Peter and Paul for that matter? Seems like you’re in good company! Keep up the good work!

  • What follows is the narrative theology from Mars Hill Church where Rob Bell teaches. I thought it was interesting to see this on their website following this statement from Dr. Tennent: “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.” It’s interesting to me the way Bell has been painted in spite of what seems like a very solid meta-narrative found on the church’s website that he teaches. This is an interesting disconnect where the consensus says Bell has bad soteriology and ecclesiology and then this narrative theology found by those he leads (I am of course presuming the narrative theology found below is solid). Is this disconnect between ‘us’ and Bell or between Bell and those he teaches? Dr. Tennent, how would you explain this?

    — Taken from
    We believe God inspired the authors of Scripture by his Spirit to speak to all generations of believers, including us today. God calls us to immerse ourselves in this authoritative narrative communally and individually to faithfully interpret and live out that story today as we are led by the Spirit of God.

    In the beginning God created all things good. He was and always will be in a communal relationship with himself-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God created us to be relational as well and marked us with an identity as his image bearers and a missional calling to serve, care for, and cultivate the earth. God created humans in his image to live in fellowship with him, one another, our inner self, and creation. The enemy tempted the first humans, and darkness and evil entered the story through human sin and are now a part of the world. This devastating event resulted in our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation being fractured and in desperate need of redeeming.

    We believe God did not abandon his creation to destruction and decay; rather he promised to restore this broken world. As part of this purpose, God chose a people, Abraham and his descendants, to represent him in the world. God promised to bless them as a nation so that through them all nations would be blessed. In time they became enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God because of their oppression. God heard their cry, liberated them from their oppressor, and brought them to Sinai where he gave them an identity and a mission as his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy people. Throughout the story of Israel, God refused to give up on his people despite their frequent acts of unfaithfulness to him.

    God brought his people into the Promised Land. Their state of blessing from God was intimately bound to their calling to embody the living God to other nations. They made movement toward this missional calling, yet they disobeyed and allowed foreign gods into the land, overlooked the poor, and mistreated the foreigner. The prophetic voices that emerge from the Scriptures held the calling of Israel to the mirror of how they treated the oppressed and marginalized. Through the prophets, God’s heart for the poor was made known, and we believe that God cares deeply for the marginalized and oppressed among us today.

    In Israel’s disobedience, they became indifferent and in turn irrelevant to the purposes to which God had called them. For a time, they were sent into exile; yet a hopeful remnant was always looking ahead with longing and hope to a renewed reign of God, where peace and justice would prevail.

    We believe these longings found their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, mysteriously God having become flesh. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted and set captives free, proclaiming a new arrival of the kingdom of God, bringing about a new exodus, and restoring our fractured world. He and his message were rejected by many as he confronted the oppressive nature of the religious elite and the empire of Rome. Yet his path of suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection has brought hope to all creation. Jesus is our only hope for bringing peace and reconciliation between God and humans. Through Jesus we have been forgiven and brought into right relationship with God. God is now reconciling us to each other, ourselves, and creation. The Spirit of God affirms as children of God all those who trust Jesus. The Spirit empowers us with gifts, convicts, guides, comforts, counsels, and leads us into truth through a communal life of worship and a missional expression of our faith. The church is rooted and grounded in Christ, practicing spiritual disciplines and celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The church is a global and local expression of living out the way of Jesus through love, peace, sacrifice, and healing as we embody the resurrected Christ, who lives in and through us, to a broken and hurting world.

    We believe the day is coming when Jesus will return to judge the world, bringing an end to injustice and restoring all things to God’s original intent. God will reclaim this world and rule forever. The earth’s groaning will cease and God will dwell with us here in a restored creation. On that day we will beat swords into tools for cultivating the earth, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more death, and God will wipe away all our tears. Our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation will be whole. All will flourish as God intends. This is what we long for. This is what we hope for. And we are giving our lives to living out that future reality now.

    • David Goss says:

      I am so grateful for this four-part series, Dr. Tennent. We Free Methodist pastors in the Southern California conference engage in an online forum and have been batting around our ideas about Bell’s book and theology. It has been stimulating and these posts will enhance our conversation greatly. I was very disappointed that Richard Mouw down the road at Fuller did not criticize Bell’s theology. You have done a respectful and thorough critique of his book and it will benefit our conversation greatly. Keep up the good work!

      • Thanks for the Good response. It is needed for the churches. What is the mission of the Church, Why do we need to preach…
        We still need to be obedient to the Great Commision. I am totally surprised by Richard Mouw’s response. Will he still be the President of Fuller Seminary? God help Rob Bell, Richard and others who believe the same to change theirview and believe in the Great Commision.

  • Brother Tim,
    What a help your comments are in a situation at my church! Thank you for taking the time to write down your thoughts to share with “bums from the neighborhood” like me. It has helped me teach the men I disciple. Blessings.

  • “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” – well said. In a post modern world of subjectivity people are really longing for solid truth and for friends who can show them how to live it out.

    • Joe Cox says:

      Thank you for the balanced article on Rob’s latest book. Refreshing to read a response that was balanced and not trying to “rip Rob a new one” for the sake of the Kingdom. We are blessed to have you at ATS.

      Joe Cox
      Class of 1998

  • Tina Morgan says:

    Dr. Tennent,
    My sincere thanks for your honest and humble blog. With so many people blogging, posting and doing interviews supporting Bell’s theology, it is so nice to know that there are intelligent people supporting a Wesleyan, not mention Biblical point of view. I am currently a Youth Leader in the UMC and I will one day take the time to attend seminary. I have always looked to Asbury as my first choice due to it’s theological stance, and I am so proud to know the school, and it’s leaders are taking such stands. May God bless you!

  • Andy Miller says:

    Thanks Dr. Tennent for these helpful blogs. I just found out about your blog a few days ago. Before reading your blog, I found your opinion the hard way by reading Chapter 7, “An Evangelical Theology of Religions” of your “Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiologology for the Twenty-First Century.” I appreciated in that chapter how you gave us more than the paradigms of exclusivisim, inclusivism, and pluralism. Your “revelatory particularism” is helpful to me. I could have used this critique when I was taking PH501 six years ago.
    Our family is praying for you as you lead ATS.
    Forward to the Fight,
    Andy Miller III

  • Andy Fralick says:

    I guess my biggest problem with what I have been experiencing in questioning Bell’s writings in the church we are attending is the almost divine status Bell has attained. Anyone who even attempts to question his statements is instantly branded as being judgmental…as if that is bad. Are we not called to “test the spirits” especially in theological matters? What really makes me suspicious of Bell’s true beliefs and intentions is the response to the UM pastor who was given the “courage” to speak out by Bell’s book. He didn’t believe that a loving God would ever send anyone to hell…and was so grateful that Bell freed him to state that. Bell helped sanctify his belief that there really was no hell and that we would all get multiple chances to eventually accept God’s grace. This pastor was removed from preaching. If what he was saying was a misinterpretation of what Bell actually was teaching, one would expect Bell to have issued some kind of statement saying he was sorry the pastor misunderstood what he was saying and that he did believe in a literal hell where some would spend eternity. But he did not. Instead he condemned the district and superintendent for judging someone expressing honest doubts about orthodox beliefs. Hmmmm, does that not sound arrogantly troubling to anyone else?

  • Dr. Tennent,

    Thanks so much for this thorough and very helpful critique of Rob Bell’s book. I am an alum of ATS, (MDIV 1994) and a senior pastor in Burbank, CA. I am just now finishing Bell’s book and simply couldn’t agree more with your assessment. And with your permission, I will be posting your full critique on our church’s website. Thanks for the balance, the generosity and the specificity with which you critiqued Bell’s book. And thanks for calling us to recapture the robust grand Story God has so graciously called us and made possible for us to be a part of!

  • Esther says:

    I was outraged as i read Bell’s book. I am happy that you wrote this review. Rob Bell needs to go back and study theology again. People who don’t know what the Bible says are eating up his views and being led to hell