I’m Knee-Deep in Theological Controversy…What Now?

Spring break is a category that continues to inhabit my life even now into my 30’s, no longer because I am a student but rather because I am a teacher.  This week I am looking forward to some much-needed relaxation and enjoyment of time with family.

And some spring break reading.

At the top of my list is about the last two-thirds of Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  I am going to finish the book and then post some thoughts about it here, Lord willing (and probably over the coming weekend).

I have decided to do this, not because I have an unhealthy obsession with Rob Bell.  I assure you that my days are filled up with many other things than this ongoing controversy, and I am looking forward to posting some final reflections, dialoguing about them, and then moving on to other subjects, if the Lord permits.

At this point, however, I believe I have an obligation to read this book in its entirety.  Based on what Bell has said publicly in relation to this book, I have joined others in accusing him of promoting a false gospel.  That is a very serious charge, and while I stand by that assessment currently, I believe Bell deserves a full hearing from me.  If it turns out that, after reading this book, I find that Bell is within the bounds of orthodoxy, then I will have an obligation to retract what I have said.  Note here that I am not saying that Bell has to convince me he is right (which is highly doubtful that he will, given our different theological frameworks).  All he has to do is convince me that he has not rejected the essential truths of the gospel.  If he does, I will retract my accusation.

I fully recognize in my own heart the tendency to find some kind of perverse pleasure in lambasting those with whom I disagree, and therefore to be too eager to condemn.  I have tried not to do that in this case, and I will let you know how I assess myself when I finish the book.

But there is one other thing to note here.  I am not saying that I, or Justin Taylor, or John Piper, or (fill in the blank) never should have said that Bell is preaching a false gospel.  That there are false gospels in the world today is a certainty, and that many of them come from those in church leadership is likewise a certainty.  The New Testament commands us to contend for the faith by exposing false gospels for what they are (Jude 3).  I am not at all doubting our obligation to identify false gospels as such when they arise.  If Rob Bell is really teaching what I think he is (to this point in all that I have heard and read), then my assessment is that he is teaching a false gospel by rejecting the heart of the true gospel: the death of Christ as a propitiation that turns away the wrath of God from us.  If this is, in fact, not what he is saying, then the issue is not that calling out false gospels is wrong, but rather that misrepresenting someone as teaching a false gospel when he is not doing so is wrong.  So even if, by some chance, I have been wrong about Rob Bell, that does not mean I agree with some who have said that the very act of calling out false teaching is incompatible with our Christian profession.

So I am going to do my best to finish the book this week and understand Rob Bell more fully and on his own terms.  I am well aware that I have already reached certain conclusions about him, but that awareness should enable me to identify my biases and revise my opinion if such is warranted.  I will do my absolute best to free myself from the desire to save face and follow Bell wherever he leads: whether that be through unusual but orthodox paths or into the realm of heresy.  And I am hopeful that, whatever the result, I will learn something and grow, as I almost always do when I have the opportunity to hear a different perspective.  God moves in a mysterious way.

Here are a few lines from John Newton’s letter “On Controversy,” written to a man who was preparing to take up his pen against a theological opponent.  I thought they would be a fitting way to end this post:

This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern [i.e., concern for yourself] in your present undertaking.  It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers.  If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented.  And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it.  Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value.  This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous.  What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?  Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.

Heavenly Father, protect me from the ego-driven, contentious spirit that is all too familiar to me.  Let me seek only the truth, and speak it to all in love.

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7 Responses to I’m Knee-Deep in Theological Controversy…What Now?

  1. Tim says:

    I read a little of one conversation with which you were involved. This statement in particular from one of your opponents really took the cake:

    “This is a battle for control of the American Christian Empire and for who gets to say what the gospel really is.”

    What a bunch of nonsense, and an incredibly uncharitable remark. As if Piper, Taylor, DeYoung, etc., have no interest in what the Bible says and are only motivated by their ambitions to control the “American Christian Empire.”

    Sheesh.

  2. Bill says:

    Tim – I believe I was the person who made that comment. You have thoroughly abused my quote and lifted it out of the bigger conversation. I made it in the context of also saying that it was about theology as well, not “only” ambitions for control, as you accuse. It’s about both. Furthermore, I did not say that Piper, Taylor, and Deyoung were even conscious of the extent to which their motives were political. The are likely mixed motives, and they also probably think that they are indeed defending truth. As Aaron has correctly pointed out, we should not claim to be able to look into their hearts. I’m simply saying what is obvious. Politics are involved.

    As for Aaron’s remarks about what the gospel is here:

    “the death of Christ as a propitiation that turns away the wrath of God from us”

    Rob Bell in no way rejects this. I’ve read the book, and if you were to read it or any of his other books or listen to his sermons, you would agree. What he does do, however, is show that this simple formula gives Aaron a false certainty that he has THE criteria for THE orthodoxy. That’s some bold stuff man. Really. I affirm this short sentence, but not without recognizing a lot more depth to the story than that. Formulas should scare the hell out of us. There’s a story about who Christ is in relationship to God in the first place. There’s a story about what the incarnation means, BEFORE the cross. And then there’s the question of what the teachings and the resurrection means. The cross can’t make sense apart from this other content, and Bell is bringing us back to it. I’m aware that Aaron knows all of this, but focusing too much on the formula above, as he does, without careful explanation perpetuates the very problem Bell is trying to address, which is what sounds like the worship of violence, a loving Christ that saves us from the judging God – a God that has to torture somebody to secure his holy reputation, so luckily it’s Jesus that gets it instead of us. Now let’s cuddle up with the Father and he Son in heaven, cause we were born in the West and got the formula right. Halelujah.

    Yes, I’m being flippant. And obviously I don’t think that’s what Aaron or any of these other folks believe, but that’s how it comes across A LOT of the time, and that is the problem. Can we be on the same team about this much?

  3. Bill,

    I just wanted to draw attention to two things you said. On the one hand, you said this:

    “Furthermore, I did not say that Piper, Taylor, and Deyoung were even conscious of the extent to which their motives were political. The are likely mixed motives, and they also probably think that they are indeed defending truth.”

    Are you claiming to be able to discern motives within these men that they themselves cannot discern?

    But then you go on to say this:

    “As Aaron has correctly pointed out, we should not claim to be able to look into their hearts. I’m simply saying what is obvious. Politics are involved.”

    It sounds very much like you are claiming to look into their hearts, for you are claiming to know something about them that they do not know themselves. It would seem that if it were truly “obvious,” as you claim, then you would not have an inside track on what their motives are while they remain in the dark.

    And when you say that politics is involved, there are several ways to take that. If we define politics merely as the attempt to influence people, then of course politics is involved. All of these men want to influence people to believe what they believe is the truth. But if you mean by “politics” some kind of underhanded way of exalting oneself over others in an attempt, not to establish what you really believe is the truth, but merely to win yourself prestige in the eyes of others, then I believe that constitutes slander against these men. And as Tim mentioned to me tonight, Justin Taylor is a personal friend of his, so be aware of how offensive you might sound when throwing around accusations. I’m not saying that you are taking the cynical view of politics here. I’m just offering a few words of caution.

    I completely agree that the idea that Jesus, on his own initiative, comes up with the idea to rescue us from his raging Father is heretical. You rightly point out that I do not believe that and have never taught it. But as for the larger story, I refer you to my post immediately under this one.

  4. Bill says:

    Aaron, within four days of Bell’s book release, a forum was put together to condemn it, however fairly or unfairly. How many people do you think had read the book for themselves by then? This forum was marketed all over facebook. Do you think it would be safe to call this a “preventative” measure on the leadership’s part? That is more specifically what I’m referring to by the word “political,” and you are right to point out my imprecision there. To the extent that I’ve claimed to know the motives of other people’s hearts, of course I see that as arrogant, and retract and/or apologize for those statements. But I’m glad to describe how things appear, and by any standard, these are political gestures with at minimum, manipulative potential. Any understanding of how institutions function – especially private institutions – will highlight the necessity for a degree of “battle” for control and influence. We are witnessing that right now on both sides, you can be sure. Thanks for the caution, but I really don’t think my words should have been taken in any offense unless there was defensiveness preceding their reception.

  5. Bill says:

    I’ve read your other post. It still dumbs the gospel down to a formula in a courtroom. It’s a disservice to the richness and depth of the Christian faith.

  6. Bill, I saw below under one of the posts that you said some kind words about my tone. I appreciate your kindness, and I want to return that compliment to you. I have had more than my share of internet sparring matches that devolved into sarcastic rants, and a few years ago some friends were kind enough to rebuke me for it. Since then I have tried to do better, though I know I still fail from time to time. Thank God for the cross! Even (no, especially!) when I speak of it to others, I become more aware of how much my hope resides only there.

    Well, it’s fun to see comments coming in again. I appreciate the dialogue, and I hope we can continue it.

    I do, however, need to let readers know that I will be checking in sporadically over the next week. We’ll be traveling, and my internet access will be limited. Keep the conversation going, though, by all means, and I’ll check in when I can.

    Blessings to you all.

  7. Pingback: Bell in the Dock, Part 1 | Crux Christi Salus Mea

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