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Friday, March 18, 2011

Response to Kevin DeYoung, Part 1

The most thorough and widely touted refutation of Love Wins is a lengthy review by Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in East Lansing. I applaud Pastor DeYoung for his thoughtful and substantive approach. He's done an excellent job of explaining why conservative Reformed evangelicals (and no doubt many conservative Arminians as well) find Bell's views so troubling. Pastor DeYoung clearly takes seriously his responsibilities to defend the faith once delivered to the saints and to protect the sheep of Christ from false doctrine, but he carries out this task in a respectful and charitable way. I in no way endorse the common attitude among "emergents" and other less traditional evangelicals that substantive theological definition and debate is somehow "un-Christ-like."

I disagree substantively with Pastor DeYoung on a number of points, with regard both to his interpretation of Bell and to the theological standards he is using to critique Bell. Since his review is very well organized, I will follow his arrangement of topics, noting agreements as well as disagreements with his critiques.

I will start with DeYoung's third "preliminary," which attempts to close some "escape hatches" found in Love Wins.

As you’ll see, the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds “misguided and toxic” (viii). But in one or two places Bell seems more agnostic.

Bell is agnostic not about the claim that all who do not believe in Jesus in this life will suffer eternally (he clearly rejects this), but about the question of whether there will be some who, in spite of God's persistent offer of grace, eternally choose to turn God down. DeYoung continues:

These are strange sentences because they fall in the chapter where Bell argues that God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants. He tells us that “never-ending punishment” does not give God glory, and “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). So it’s unclear where the sudden agnosticism comes from. Is Bell wrestling with himself? Did a friend or editor ask him to throw in a few caveats? Is he simply inconsistent?

The answer is much simpler. Bell is describing a position he regards as a serious theological option, held by "an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years," not necessarily the position he himself holds. Bell's position is not self-contradictory or dishonest. He is consistent from beginning to end about his "agnosticism" concerning the question of whether some will eternally persist in saying "no" to God. He considers universalism to be a live option within Christian orthodoxy, but he does not consider it to be unquestionably true.

Similarly, at the end Bell argues, rather out of the blue, that we need to trust God in the present, that our choices here and now “matter more than we can begin to imagine” because we can miss out on rewards and celebrations (197). This almost looks like an old-fashioned call to turn to Christ before it’s too late. When you look more carefully, however, you see that Bell is not saying what evangelicals might think.
You don't have to look that carefully. DeYoung is proceeding on the assumption that Bell is somehow trying to pretend to be a traditional evangelical. He isn't. DeYoung doesn't want to allow Bell to say that our choices here matter unless Bell says that they matter in the same way DeYoung thinks they do. This is not a fair way to argue. By all means disagree with Bell. Condemn him as a heretic if you think you need to. But don't try to argue that he's being shifty or dishonest when he simply doesn't accept the dichotomies that you wish to impose.

He wants us to make the most of life because “while we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again” (197). In other words, there are consequences for our actions, in this life and in the next, and we can’t get this moment back; but there will always be more chances. If you don’t live life to the fullest and choose love now, you may initially miss out on some good things in the life to come, but in the end love wins (197–198).

"Love wins" for Bell because God respects human freedom, so if people do choose to reject Christ eternally (something Bell hopes they won't do but recognizes as a possibility) love still wins. This isn't too hard to understand. The fact that DeYoung and other critics are confused by it says a lot for how their theological commitments restrict their ability to understand those who differ from them. If you have a theology that tells you that people who differ on major issues are probably not real Christians and thus are spiritually blind, then you aren't likely to take the trouble to think in the unfamiliar ways necessary to understand them. This is not a personal judgment on the character of Pastor DeYoung or his theological allies, but a judgment on the general tendency of conservative Calvinist theology.

The same problem plagues the next section of DeYoung's review, "Not Your Grandmother's Christianity," in which DeYoung argues that Bell is deeply conflicted about his evangelical heritage, wishing to criticize it while remaining faithful to it. To which I respond: you make this sound like a bad thing! I've noticed that conservative Christians, especially Calvinists, frequently portray any kind of mediating position or any position including tensions or paradoxes as a dishonest compromise, and urge folks occupying such a position to be "honest" and go all the way. After all, it's easy to deal with someone who rejects orthodox Christianity outright. But someone like Bell is annoying because he persists in identifying himself as an evangelical. DeYoung insists that Bell is trying to "evolve out of" his heritage, when Bell would say that he is calling evangelicals to be faithful to the best and truest elements of their heritage while questioning some other elements.

I understand how traditionalist Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox find this kind of language objectionable. But how can any Protestant object to such an approach on principle?

DeYoung ends this section thus:

This [Bell's supposed desire to "evolve out of" his evangelical past] presumes, of course, that the Christian faith is not a deposit to guard or a tradition that must not change (2 Tim. 1:14; 2 Thess. 2:15). Much of Bell’s polemic fails if there is a core of apostolic teaching that we are called, not just to embrace as part of our journey, but to protect from deviation and defend against false teaching (Acts 20:29–31).

I agree to some extent with DeYoung here. Bell is prone to rhetoric implying that any drawing of doctrinal lines is wrong and that there is really no such thing as heresy at all. This is an untenable position. However, the point at issue with regard to Love Wins is whether the particular claims made by Bell are at odds with the "core of apostolic teaching." I do not believe that they are. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything Bell says, and I certainly think he is often not the best advocate for his own positions.

I will end my response here for now. I will continue, when I have time, with a response to DeYoung's historical criticisms of Bell (and as a teaser: this is the place where I'm most inclined to agree with DeYoung--Bell's history is often very sloppy).


Jason said...

If Bell writes that God's love "will" melt all hardened hearts, then how can Bell believe that some people could reject God. Either He softens their hearts or He doesn't. What am I missing?

Contarini said...

Jason, you're missing what I said in my post, and for that matter what Bell himself clearly says in the book: that the statement quoted by DeYoung about God "melting hardened hearts" is a position held by many Christians historically.

I don't understand why people leap to assume that Bell is contradicting himself, when the only way to get that conclusion is to read into his statements something he's not saying. The problem is that people come to the book programmed to think that Bell is a universalist, so when they see Bell saying nice things about universalism they assume that he's endorsing it 100%. He says very clearly and explicitly that it is _one_ of several orthodox options in his view.

Bell is a "hopeful universalist." He _hopes_ that no one will finally choose to reject God, but he recognizes the possibility that some will. What is so hard to understand about this?

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for this. You are putting into words some of the discomfort I feel with DeYoung's review. There are some valid criticisms in his review, but in many ways he is confused.

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for posting this response to DeYoung. It prompted me to re- read the review. There are definate problems in it, and he certainly did not understand the book.