Wednesday, 9 March 2011

If I put 'Rob Bell' in the title of this post people will read it!

For those who have been reading in the Christian blogosphere there is one name that everyone seems to be talking about: 'Rob Bell.'  I have a copy of Velvet Elvis (one of his first books) but never got into it.  I don't know much about the man, even though I did feel like I was imitating him when I recently purchased a pair of trendy glasses. 

His latest book, 'Love wins,' has not yet been published, but it has already got people hot under the collar.  The reason for this is that people say that he will teach universalistic salvation (that everyone goes to heaven in the end).  He won't be the first person to teach such universalism: Origen, in the early centuries after Christ, did  and so to did William Barclay (who wrote a lot of commentaries, some of which I have).

It is a nice idea but one that I find totally unconvincing.  I suspect that it is a view shared by many in the 'emergant' circles.  Given some of the other things that Bell has said in recent years, the fact that he holds this position shouldn't have taken many by surprise. 

While those in conservative evangelical circles have got bothered about Bell's book, those from a more liberal persuasion have got equally enraged at some of the responses to Bell.  For more liberal types the focus of anger is John Piper.  Piper apparently tweeted, 'Farewell, Rob Bell.'  I am not a tweeter, and don't think this was Piper's finest move.  Yet I am saddened when I read people describe Piper as arrogant etc.  What I have heard about Piper suggested to me that he is actually a very gracious and humble man.

The whole thing raises some issues for me.
Firstly, there is the place for confrontation.  Is it wrong for Piper and co. to challenge Bell and co. about what they believe?  Of course not! Look at what Paul does in Galatians when he talks about those whom he believed are threatening the gospel.  I don't think that it is necessarily arrogant to have a strong opinion on what constitutes the gospel.  (Now I am not defending the way in which Piper has done this on this occasion.) 
Secondly, is there a place for deciding who is in and who is out of the evangelical fold?  As someone who, at times, calls myself a 'confessional evangelical' I believe there is.  While evangelicals don't have a monopoly on such things as 'evangelism' it has to be realised that the term 'evangelical' has been used since the last century to describe people who subscribe to a certain set of beliefs.  Used in this way there should be nothing offensive in saying that someone is not an evangelical, providing of course that those people are in agreement that they don't subscribe to evangelical doctrines.  If you take the Evangelical Alliance basis of faith as a typical statement of evangelical belief then people who don't subscribe to such things as the infallibility of the Bible, penal substitutionary atonement and the reality of hell are simply not evangelicals in this confessional sense.  That is not to say that they aren't evangelical in the sense of wanting to share what they believe to be the good news, etc.  
As an aside, I must say that I don't like the term post-evangelical to describe people who hold Bell-like positions.  It sort of suggests that some people used to be evangelical but then they grew up.  No doubt there will be some who think this is exactly what they have done. 
Thirdly, it brings up the issue of connectedness.  I have always felt that I have more in common with my fellow evangelicals than with non-evangelicals in my own, or any other, denomination.  There is an evangelical unity that surpasses anything known in other forms of ecumenicalism.  It is a unity based on shared belief, which still matters even in a post-modern world.  I don't want to suggest that all people who don't want to describe themselves as evangelicals disagree with every point on evangelical belief, but sometimes I do wonder if I have any substantial areas of shared faith with some who take a non-evangelical stance.  For example, if you and I have a totally different understanding about what took place at the cross and the nature of God's personality are we actually subscribing to the same religion?      

Anyway these are some musings.  They are just some random, half-thought-through, opinions.  Take them or leave them! 

1 comment: said...

Thanks for your post Paul. I for one look forward to the renewed interest in the Doctrine of Hell that Bell's book will create. I think that the doctrine of Universalism is a doctrine that eternally has and eternally will hurt many people. Yet, heresy has always caused the church to relook at what it believes and then to become more clearer in its message. Maybe through this controversay the Lord will again stir the hearts of his people to look at the eternal realities, including the reality of hell. Tom Wright in his book 'Suprised by Hope' paints a harrowing image of hell. Worth a read.