Rob Bell was featured in Time last week, causing somewhat of a stir among the evangelical faithful that perhaps an heir apparent to the fading Billy Graham is emerging. Bell, of course, is used to “emerging” – he’s founding pastor of Mars Hill Church (which I think I visited once back in the mid-90’s but can’t remember) in Grand Rapids, as well as part of a movement known as the “emerging church” or the “emerging conversation”.
I recently took a weekend class on all this, and one of the most helpful things the speaker (Darrin Patrick, lead pastor of The Journey here in St. Louis and member of the Acts 29 Network) did was identify three predominant streams within the emerging movement. (If you’re interested in any of this, you can hear the same opening session I did here.)
According to Patrick, Bell floats on the “emerging conversational stream,” which is “mainly after theological revision by challenging evangelical theology.” Patrick’s other two streams are “emerging attractional,” which is mainly after methodological revision,” and “emerging incarnational,” which is “mainly after structural revision” (think ‘house church’ here).
Patrick’s filling in of the proverbial “lineup cards” was helpful, as I was able to mentally organize some of the names I knew were in the conversation. Regardless of what you call it (or which stream you prefer to float on – I’d be an “emerging attractional” guy myself), the ultimate question is not what the “emergent church” is emerging from, but what is it emerging to?
This is where Bell’s latest press becomes interesting. I’ve not read Sex God, but I have recently read Velvet Elvis. While I know Bell is a dynamic speaker and communicator, I have not heard him speak, and this was the first writing of his I’ve read. I appreciated his tone in presenting his thoughts and ideas, as his writing voice is one of gentle passion and reasonable zeal. I liked the combination.
However, this attractive combination – whether intentionally or unintentionally – provides cover for some ideas that, though sounding good, are more problematic than Bell’s tone implies. It’s not that all of what he writes seems wrong; it’s just not all of it seems right.
I think the biggest problematic area involves Bell’s theology of what and for whom Jesus’ atonement was. In many ways, Bell comes off as a universalist when he states that, “…this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God’. All things, everywhere.” (146) Graham has been accused of similar universalist tendencies as well.
Without more qualification (and written in his gracious tone), Bell’s conclusion that, “Heaven is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for” and “Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for” (146) implies a soteriology having more do with us choosing well and less to do with a Sovereign God’s limited (but completely saving) atonement as taught per the Scriptures (and clarified by the Reformed systematic).
Another area of concern is Bell’s leveling of the authority of “binding and loosing.” In the course of a couple short paragraphs, Bell explains how in ancient times, “…a rabbi would bind certain practices and loose other practices,” and then give his disciples the authority to do the same. He goes on to explain that Jesus followed suit with his disciples, and how we can do the same today (that is, “giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible,” and “somehow God in heaven will be involved.” (50)
The authority Jesus gave the disciples he gave to the apostles (that is, to the twelve), and this authority does not automatically pass down to followers of Christ today, as it was an apostolic responsibility ending with the apostles and the closing of the canon of Scripture, rather than a license to reinterpret Scripture’s meaning over and over through time. I believe there was one meaning intended by the apostles, and it is our goal as disciples coming after them to affirm and adhere to it.
While these (and perhaps a few other smaller) areas were problematic for me, I did think Bell had some good things to say about a variety of things, particularly the unfortunate continuation of the sacred/secular split (85), the significance of the Sabbath (117-118), and true counter-cultural living (163). I wouldn’t say I trust all of his theological insights, but in terms of common sense observation, I think he makes some good points.
Anybody got thoughts on this?