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….)