Wednesday, 16 March 2011

love wins?

Only a short discourse here, as I'm not going to tempt fate by saying much on the topic (or for that matter, showing my hand much.) So Love Wins is out Stateside, soon to come here. Pastor Rob Bell, known best this side of the pond for that friend of the youth-worker-at-a-loose-end, the Nooma series of short videos, has finally done the rounds on the national press, plus the launch interview, to put forth his argument, and in doing so attempt to enter dialogue with the huge swell of criticism that has come his way over the last few weeks. (Interestingly, when I went to link to it on, I found that the UK edition of the book has a completely different cover and subtitle. It's still published by Harper but under the HarperCollins label, and not HarperOne as in the USA.)

Of course, I say dialogue, but he remains suitably vague as ever. (Not an un-Christlike quality, I should hasten to add, but that is in no way to compare Rob with Christ!) And I say criticism, but, in classic conservative American style, that would be putting it politely.

I don't want to agree or disagree with Rob Bell's theology: firstly, as I haven't read Love Wins yet, but probably will at some point soon; and secondly, because of my firmly held belief in the conversational nature of theology.

That is to say, I firmly hold that, in the same way to rule on a case, a court must hear arguments and evidence from all sides concerned, I believe that if we want to try and discern the true nature and purposes of God, we must spend - quite literally - our lifetimes trying to discover them. Like it or not, it is not often disputed that the Bible cannot comprehensively provide to us a full picture of God. It just can't physically fit in. The Bible is snapshot - the trinity is not, as some might seem to hold at time, the Father, Son and Holy Bible. Only from God's own self-revelation can we try and behold His glory.

(That sounded very evangelical. My apologies. Time to get back on track.)

I'll say one thing. I was very, very disappointed in the now-infamous John Piper tweet. You can be damn sure Jesus wouldn't have made that quip. Piper is a great theologian and teacher, but you can't account for a very human case of the headstaggers I guess. Put me right off my quest for more gelato for at least thirty seconds.

Here is my real point though, and it has troubled me for the past couple of weeks. I have no doubt that there's the possibility of cavalier attitudes going on in Bell's latest discussion. I lend some credit to Mark Driscoll for his explanation as to his symbolic departure from the Emergent Church circle - that, although there is value in asking doctrine-shaking big questions, there is a point which you should not pass, Biblical truths that are axiomatic. I would dismiss the extreme of American conservative Christianity in its criticism, because of course as Europeans we are above that level of knuckle-dragging thinking. (US readers please note: this is what we older nations call "humour". Spelt correctly too, mind.) But I would question that the same neo-Calvinists, and in particular the Gospel Coalition style folks who have been especially voracious in their opposition. And this is why.

The typical position for the criticism has been that Bell is heretical. That he is wrong. I don't mind that. But how do you, dear critic, know he is wrong? And this is the crux of what bothers me. Those who are most famously criticising the likes of Bell, McLaren, Campolo et al on their theology speak from the position of this troubling statement:

Because if you disagree with what I am saying, then you disagree with God.

That's it. End of discussion.

But what position does this place the speaker in? Are those critics claiming to have the complete definition of God's character? Perhaps they would argue that the only knowledge they need for these arguments are those axiomatic truths we just referred to, those obvious Biblical facts that are so fundamental to the Christian faith, they cannot be questioned. Perhaps. But I wonder.

Anyway, I'm done. Kevin DeYoung has posted the definitive Gospel Coalition review of the book online today. However, for balance - and I would strongly urge you to take a few minutes to read this - Prof. Eric Kaitan has written a short essay articulating, amongst other things, a similar idea to what I have tried to put forth, and some Biblical questions to consider when approaching Bell's controversial work.

Will faith overcome in all this? I doubt it in terms of the debate. But thankfully, I don't think God is too bothered by our quabbling. Mercifully, regardless of the holes we dig ourselves in to, Love does, in the end, Win whether we realise it or not.

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