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).