Monday, July 11, 2011

Is Rob Bell Still an Evangelical?

In a recent interview by Kim Lawton of PBS Religion and Ethics, author and columnist Lisa Miller, Pastor Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, and Mary Vanden Berg, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, raise some important issues about where Rob Bell stands in relation to evangelical Christianity.

Miller notes that what upset people most about Rob Bell was that he calls himself a conservative evangelical Christian. If he called himself an Episcopalian, she observes, nobody would have batted an eye.

Miller, of course, is right. This is what sent Bell’s book, Love Wins, ringing throughout the land (pun intended). As Miller comments, Bell’s position on heaven, hell, and the possible salvation of every person, “is a radical upheaval of that entire worldview.” This is why popular conservative pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “So long Bell,” when he first heard of Bell’s position (even before he read the book). He was talking about Bell’s departure from traditional/conservative Christianity.

One could argue that Bell has moved out of the camp of evangelicalism into the camp of progressive Christianity. One of the fundamental differences between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity is how each group understands and interprets the biblical teachings on judgment.

Most progressive Christians do not ignore or deny the reality of judgment. In fact, I myself, as a progressive Christian, believe that judgment can be quite painful and severe. But, I believe that it is always redemptive, restorative, and corrective in nature, not punitive, retributive, or intended for punishment equal to the offense.

Bell basically takes this position in his book. In the interview with Religion and Ethics he says that judgment flows out of love, that it is important to start with love: “God’s love is for us to flourish in God’s good world. For us to flourish in God’s good world, judgments have to be made . . . that puts judgment in its proper place.”

The problem for Bell in the evangelical Christian community is that the Bible doesn’t always take that position. Both restorative judgment and vindictive/retributive judgment can be found in the Bible. Because the New Testament emerged out of a milieu pervaded by apocalyptic perspectives and beliefs, retributive judgment is quite frequent in the New Testament. Progressive Christians rightfully acknowledge that an apocalyptic orientation greatly influenced the first followers of Jesus, and many progressives would contend, influenced Jesus himself. (See my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, pp. 97–117).

I share Bell’s belief on heaven, hell, and the possibility of universal salvation. His understanding of judgment in the context of divine love is how progressive Christians interpret it. But what Bell has failed to do, and what he must do, if he hopes to stay within the evangelical Christian fold, is provide an adequate biblical hermeneutic for his position that somehow manages to maintain the high (idolatrous?) view of biblical authority that evangelicals demand.

In the interview with Religion and Ethics, Professor Vanden Berg, a representative of the majority evangelical position, says that “the Bible’s pretty clear that when the end comes that’s the end. You don’t have a second chance.” She concedes that it is possible that God could offer a second chance if God wanted, but for her the bottom line is: “What does the Bible say? The biblical text doesn’t say that at all.” This is the bottom line for most evangelicals: What does the Bible actually say?

The question is: Can Rob Bell offer a sufficient enough biblical hermeneutic to justify his beliefs that will hold water within the evangelical community. I seriously doubt it. I predict that Rob Bell will become a fresh, new spokesperson for progressive Christianity. Much the way Brian McLaren started out within the evangelical tradition, but clearly is now a champion of progressive Christian beliefs and practices, I predict Rob Bell will, also, cross over. It’s inevitable.

6 comments:

  1. Not sure I can speak to Bell's situation in particular, but there is in fact a recent blurring of the lines between various Christian camps. In fact, it's a new Reformation. See; We're in a new Reformation! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/​rev-roger-wolsey/progressive-c​hristianity_b_892727.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree that there is a clear blurring of the lines, as reflected in the controversy Bell's book has created. But the labels will not go away. They will still be used. The questions is: Will they be redefined? I don't think evangelicalsim will become absorbed into what we have come to see as "progressive Christianity." And as much as I dislike labels and classifications, they are still useful.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Agreed. They majority of Evangelicals are still easily identifiable as such.. but there is, as your article indicates, a growing fringe group. what we call them doesn't matter as much perhaps as getting out of their way as they love and serve God's people. - Roger Wolsey, http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. At stake here is what counts as "Evangelical." If it means affirming what the majority of other Evangelicals affirm, Bell isn't an Evangelical. But this relies on a "majority opinion rules" measure, which is unsatisfying for many reasons.

    One might measure who is "Evangelical" with a sociological measurement. In this sense, Bell is an Evangelical, because he currently and has in the past resided among a core of people commonly called "Evangelical."

    Scholars have debated for nearly a century on the theological affirmations one must affirm to be Evangelical. There is no consensus.

    In my opinion, a Calvinist or proto-Calvinist view of theology has reigned in the Evangelical world. Such theology does not mesh well with Bell's view of heaven and hell. But such Calvinist-informed views also don't mesh well with views advanced by Arminians, Mennonites, Wesleyans, Adventists, Pentecostals, Holiness folks, and others who also typically embrace, at least to some degree, the label "Evangelical."

    In light of these other concerns, I typically take a open and inclusive view of what counts as Evangelical. And one of the chief principles of this open and inclusive view is this: if a person calls him or herself an Evangelical, one should accept this self-designation. One could think of exceptions to this principle, but in the case of Rob Bell, I think it applies well.

    Thomas Jay Oord

    ReplyDelete
  5. Tom, I can see I have ventured down a slippery slope. Certainly, the word is becoming more complex and ambiguous in modern usage. I agree that a "majority opinion rules" measure is not very satisfying, but in light of the usage of the term by most commentators on religion and for the sake of discussion and understanding it's mostly what we have to go on. In light of the fury Bell has faced from the evangelical community, I would say that it is still dominated by conservatives who hold to some very basic beliefs, and I would say that a heaven-and-hell framework for understanding salvation is still fairly basic to most evangelicals.

    The Evangelical Theological Society makes biblical inerrancy and belief in an ontological Trinity (three distinct persons) foundational to their membership. And Phyllis Tickle, in her popular book, "The Great Emergence" still uses relatively narrow boundaries for describing evangelicals.

    I agree that we should accept as an evangelical anyone who says that he or she is one, but that does not mean that the rest of the evangelical community will accept them. And that's really the issue isn't it? It will be interesting to continue to gauge the response and discussion to Bell's book by self-proclaiming evangelicals.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Good points, Chuck.

    A few years ago, a hundred or so scholars formed a new society called Society of Evangelical Scholars. I administrate the group. It was formed in part to counter the view that the ETS decides the parameters of what counts as Evangelical. I'm hoping our group and others can widen the boundaries.

    Tom

    ReplyDelete