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Saturday, March 12, 2011

George MacDonald, Rob Bell, and standards of orthodoxy

The evangelical world seems to be in a tizzy about a book that almost no one has yet read. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. That's how the world of the tweet works. As a guy who blogs about every year or so, I find it hard to keep up. I'm still trying to digest things that happened hundreds of years ago.

In a rare foray into modern times, I attended a talk last night about George MacDonald (1824-1905), an author who has played an important role in my life since I was about thirteen and discovered the wretched modernized versions of his novels available in Christian bookstores. And that got me thinking about how relevant Macdonald's legacy is to what shows some signs of becoming the next "big controversy" in evangelicalism.

MacDonald was kicked out of the Congregationalist ministry for suggesting that salvation might have a broader scope than traditional Calvinism allowed for. He eventually embraced a kind of universalism quite common in 19th-century "Broad Church" circles, though few expressed it as powerfully or as pungently as MacDonald. MacDonald believed that God was every bit as awesomely sovereign and terrifyingly holy as Calvinism taught, but that the consuming fire of God's love would eventually overcome human sin and rebellion.

The talk last night was under the auspices of the "C. S. Lewis and Friends" group at Taylor University, and focused on the well-documented influence of MacDonald on C. S. Lewis (who called him his "master"). Lewis never adopted MacDonald's eschatology entirely, but he devoted a good deal of energy to developing a doctrine of hell that took on board MacDonald's criticisms of traditional Western Christian ideas. Lewis's _The Great Divorce_, in which MacDonald appeared as a heavenly guide, explores just how it might be that a person could finally reject God's love and thus be damned eternally. When challenged by "Lewis" the character with the fact that he had been a universalist on earth. "MacDonald" the character responds that yes, it is possible that everyone will eventually be saved, but we cannot know this. What we know, _The Great Divorce_ argues, is that the action of God's mercy is endless and that we can only defeat it by ceasing to be in any meaningful sense human beings at all. And at the same time, we know that certain choices on our part close us off from God's love and drive us farther into the "outer darkness." That's all we need to know. (Jerry Walls has developed Lewis's views in a more systematic way, though without the hint of "hopeful universalism" found in Lewis, in his excellent Hell: The Logic of Damnation.)

Given Lewis's immense popularity in evangelical circles, it's disappointing that so many folks are responding to Bell as if Lewis's thoughtful reworking of MacDonald's ideas had never occurred. Certainly Lewis's name has been invoked in the blogs dealing with Bell, and a number of people have made the same points I've just made (like I said, I'm slow. . . . ). But there seem to be quite a few folks out there who admire Lewis while being willing to write Bell off altogether as a heretic. And one has to ask, why? One blogger suggested that Lewis was much more tentative in his positions than Bell, and that may well be true. But it doesn't seem to me to explain the disconnect.

John Piper, who has distinguished himself in an unfortunate manner by bidding "farewell" to Bell in a Tweet, has a thoughtful lecture available online addressing precisely this disconnect between how he views Lewis and how he views the "emergent" writers (this lecture was given last year, before the controversy over Bell's new book). Piper argues that Lewis is not a good source for "Biblical exegesis" or even doctrine, and that pastors should not rely on Lewis's writings as resources for their preaching. He claims that Lewis's "Mere Christianity" omits many points essential to the true Gospel. And yet, Piper invokes Lewis as one of the major influences on his life and work, because of Lewis's focus on "the unfathomable rock-solid objectivity of God and his Truth and his gospel as infinitely Beautiful and infinitely Desirable and, therefore, as the unshakeable ground of unutterable and exalted Joy." (Piper goes on to give more reasons, but this is the most "fundamental.")

I think one could make a case that there are serious internal tensions in such an attitude--how can Lewis really be so deeply rooted in the reality of God, on conservative Reformed terms, if he basically got the Gospel wrong? But whether that's the case or not, I think that this attitude is fairly common among conservative evangelicals and needs to be challenged. For me, on the contrary, Lewis was a powerful influence precisely because he drew me out of sectarian Protestantism into an appreciation for the breadth and depth of true Christian orthodoxy. Lewis is a conduit to the "Great Tradition" of Christianity. And that tradition has been wrestling with the questions raised by Bell for some time now, with productive results which conservative evangelicals would do well to take more seriously. (Note for instance the acceptance of "hopeful universalism" among fairly conservative Roman Catholics, and the explicit adoption of an "inclusivist" position by Vatican II.)

The deeper issue raised by the Bell controversy is this: is the Reformed tradition (as interpreted by "new Reformed" folks like Piper) to be accepted by evangelicals as the center of orthodox Christianity? Are Arminian evangelicals to go on attempting to justify their orthodoxy by appealing to standards set by the Reformed? I object to this approach not because it makes us "second-class citizens," though it does (that's an unworthy consideration when speaking of Christian truth), but because it puts the center in the wrong place. We ought to be asking how we would justify ourselves to Athanasius and the Cappadocians, not to John Calvin or even Augustine.

By all means, let's care about doctrine, as the new Reformed urge us to. Let's avoid fuzzy thinking. And let's first of all avoid the fuzzy thinking of taking a relatively marginal, dubiously orthodox strand of Christianity (Calvinism) as the standard against which new ideas (or not-so-new ones!) must be measured.


Stephen said...

Well said. Here, here! It is interesting that in such debates, it is usually the loudest ones that set an "invisible standard" for all the rest. They tend to make their own point of view seem like it is the norm with such verbage as "true" and "authentic" and the like. That seems to be what this new-Reformed group attempts to be doing. Surely it is most probably not on purpose, they are just a bit more high-strung theologically speaking and therefore much more perturbed by such questions and viewpoints as Bell's or MacDonald's.

Nathan said...

We ought to be asking how we would justify ourselves to Athanasius and the Cappadocians, not to John Calvin or even Augustine.

Now that's a proposal I can sign up for! Determinism and compatibilism in Christianity have historically been quite marginal notions, if not treated as outright heretical. Not unlike univeralism…