Rob Bell, Love Wins 3

(2500 words, and I’m not past the three-page preface. This could be a long series.) ‘Many have these questions…’ (p. ix) The last couple of pages of the preface discuss what in academic terms is called methodology. Bell is concerned to allow, even encourage, questions about central matters of faith. He criticises those communities which shut questioning down, asserting that ‘I believe that discussion itself is divine.’ (p. ix) pointing to Job and other Biblical examples. There is no doubt that restless and urgent questioning is an authentic part of Biblical spirituality. If something seems wrong or unfair to us, we do well, Biblically, to speak openly about our doubts and questions, to refuse to be told to simply accept a received orthodoxy (Job…), to take our questions to God in prayer (see the psalms!). There is also no doubt also that asking provoking questions is a good teaching technique, sometimes – Bell points to Jesus, appropriately; within the world of education we more often reference Socrates. But… Biblical spirituality is honest and open about doubt and questions, but never celebrates them. Job wants answers, he wants to understand, he doesn’t just want a good discussion with no resolution. And (as any teacher knows) all the skill in education is asking the right questions. Rather too many of Bell’s questions through the book are unhappily loaded, of the ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ variety. Others implciitly invite us to assume that caricatures are accurate portraits. Bell, who in his previous work has always come across as laid-back and amiable, is out to bait people here. That seems a great shame. The graciousness and generosity of God should be defended in a gracious and generous...

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Rob Bell, Love Wins 2

The ‘Preface,’ entitled ‘Millions of Us’ contains one of the passages that has already become notorious – entirely wrongly, in my view. I’ll get to that. Bell begins with the comment ‘I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.’ (p. vii) I struggle to have a problem with that. He rapidly moves on to the claim that ‘…Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories…’ (p. vii) and states that the book is written ‘for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that.”‘ (p. viii). OK again – most of us have heard presentations of the gospel that were so distorted as to be offensive. The blue touch paper gets lit in the next assertion, offering an example of one of these distorted gospels. In Bell’s own, already endlessly-quoted, words: A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better … This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message (p. viii) This is a full-frontal attack on historic orthodoxy, isn’t it? Bell must be opposed, denounced, corrected, and bid farewell, because he has ceased to believe the gospel found in Scripture and taught by the church down the ages, and this paragraph is sufficient proof of that, surely? This proves that Bell is a heretic, right? Wrong. This is going to be a long discussion, because some historical detail is necessary. So let me state a conclusion as briefly and bluntly as I can: in saying this, Bell is saying nothing that has not been held by the vast majority of Christian theologians down the ages, taught explicitly by many of them, and repeatedly defended as Biblical by the most conservative scholars. What is Bell actually saying, first? If we read the passage carefully, the core claim is about proportion: the offence is in the ‘select few’ who are saved – not the nature of heaven, nor the nature of hell, but in their relative populations. The message of God’s love demands that we hold that God saves many, or most, or all – that the gift of grace is not given parsimoniously. And this is not about the nature of hell, but about who God is – the claim of the book is that love wins. The question of the relative populations of heaven and hell come the eschaton was asked quite frequently in the Reformed tradition. B.B. Warfield published an essay under the title ‘Are they few that be Saved?’ His argument was exegetical; his answer a resounding negative. In closing, he paused to point to others who held that the number of the saved would far outnumber the lost: R.L. Dabney; Charles Hodge; W.G.T. Shedd. I could add A.A. Hodge and Jonathan Edwards. This is not a catalogue of woolly-minded liberals. This was the united witness of Old Princeton, a position taken by at least two of the writers of The Fundamentals. These names are the very definition of Calvinist orthodoxy. These are the people whose respect for Scripture was such that they developed and defined the doctrine of inerrancy. These are the people with whom Bell is agreeing. And when you burrow in to what they actually said, the point becomes more striking still. Charles Hodge calls the number of the lost ‘very inconsiderable’ on the last page of his Systematic Theology. Shedd actually suggests that the error of believing that only a few are saved is equal and opposite to the error of universalism. That’s Shedd, the Calvinist’s Calvinist, asserting that the point Bell writes to oppose is a grave heresy – albeit one that seems presently to be being vigorously defended by all manner of men (they do all seem to be men…) whose zeal, unfortunately, apparently far outweighs their knowledge. (Warfield does point to one Reformed writer who holds that the number of the saved will be few, Johann Heidegger. Remember that name; I’ll come back to him in the next post. He also mentions a couple of Lutherans, including Quenstedt, so the doctrine was held by at least one theologian whose fame and intellect are both of the first order. I have done a quick search through those Reformed sources I have...

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Rob Bell, Love Wins

Was ever a book so eagerly awaited? Well, yes, actually, quite a few. And most of the problem with this one is there was not much awaiting visible before people formed, and published, their views of it. So much easier to judge – in either direction – if you don’t have any facts to get in the way, after all. My copy arrived yesterday. I’ve read it all, now, and intend to re-read it, slowly, and post some reflections here. It is powerfully and winsomely written, but you knew that. (‘Why can’t I communicate like Rob Bell?’ The book’s acknowledgments contain a revealing reference to the multitudinous drafts an editor worked through; perhaps with sufficient work, you could…) No book is wholly good, save those contained in the canon of Scripture, or wholly bad. This one is no exception. It contains some good ideas; some arresting images; some interesting speculations; it contains some ideas I judge to be poor; some unhelpful caricatures of opposing positions; and some speculations that are hackneyed. There are a few historical reflections in the book, some that are helpful, some that are misinformed. There are many references to Scripture, and some extended readings: some are penetrating; some rather forced. None of this is unusual; I could say the much the same about almost every book on my office shelves. Is it a good book? That depends. How does one judge the worth of a book? It seems to me that there are two possible criteria: first, on the whole, is this worth reading? Second, despite the deficiencies, is there something so significant in this book that it needs to be read? The first is easier: do the strengths outweigh the weaknesses? On the whole, despite misrepresentations or problems, does the reader come away with a better appreciation (perhaps emotionally as well as intellectually) of the issue(s) the book is intending to address? A good textbook is good on this level. It is generally authoritative; there may be mistakes, but they are few and minor. The books rarely break new ground, but almost always provide a useful and accurate map of the old ground. For the second, within the theological tradition, consider Aulen’s Christus Victor. The book had huge flaws, which beset us to this day, 80 years after the publication. Aulen’s historical claims ranged from the tendentious to the absurd; his Biblical exegesis was generally at the top end of that scale, but rarely much better. Yet he opened a question that is still driving thoughtful and worthwhile work today. The book could have been so much better – but the world, the world of academic theology, at least – would be much worse off without the book. If Bell’s book is good, and my initial – if somewhat hesitant – impression is that it is, it is good in the second sense. This is not a good guide to eschatology and atonement (the two topics focused on in most of the book), or even to theology proper (the real subject of the book). There are too many errors of interpretation, too many misrepresentations, to make it a good textbook. But it advances a thesis that is not new, and that may not even be right, but that is important and perceptive enough to be worth hearing. The thesis is something like this: our accounts of atonement and eschatology determine ourĀ  theology proper, and some recently-popular accounts lead to an unacceptable – unbiblical – doctrine of God. What about the big question? Well, here goes: I can reveal that it is true: the UK cover is much less attractive than the US one. The other big question? First, the book is not primarily about the populatedness of hell, although the subject is addressed. Second, it seems clear to me from the text that Bell does not, in fact, espouse any form of dogmatic universalism. Bell asserts very clearly that every human being is presented with a choice, and that that choice is decisive for our final fate (pp.116-17). I imagine his position could be characterised as ‘hopeful universalism’: I suppose that he would be prepared to hope and pray that all human beings do in fact make the right choice, and to resist any assertion that this is not possible. He will, not, however, assert that all human beings will be saved. This conclusion seems inescapable from the text to me, but I draw it hesitantly, since I am aware that others who have read the text have come to a different interpretation. Let me offer my evidence. Bell says: …we get what we want. God is that loving....

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