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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

OK--now that I've actually read the book. . . .

Here's a review of Rob Bell's Love Wins.

First of all, I had never read any of Bell's books before this. I have never been a fan of Bell or of megachurch celebrities or of people who write books
with short lines
like this and
even this.
(For one thing, it seems really mean to trees--perhaps Bell really isn't a liberal after all.)
When my students mention _Velvet Elvis_ I want to shake my head and say, "Can we please talk about Aquinas?" I bought and read this book because the controversy about it promised to get evangelicals talking about some issues that I think we desperately need to talk about. And in order to join in that conversation, I figured I'd better read the book that was causing the hubbub. I did not expect to be impressed.
In fact, I was impressed.
So impressed, that I think I'll try to write like Bell from now on.
In short, simple sentences.
Each one taking one line.
Like this.
Seriously, while I doubt I'll ever wean myself from long sentences with lots of parenthetical nuance, I and other academics could learn a great deal from Bell's skills as a communicator. The book has a good deal more depth than I expected or than most reviews so far have indicated. I wonder if in fact people aren't misled by the simplicity of style and presentation and assuming that Bell's nuance is simply inconsistent mush. It seems to me that on the contrary he is arguing for a consistent position with a good deal of room for mystery and speculation but little doubt about the main outlines. (To avoid suspense, I'll say that I think this position could be best described as "hopeful universalism"--quite a different animal, theologically, than straight universalism in my opinion.)
I certainly have a number of problems with the book (in terms both of content and method), and as I have time I'll describe them. But primarily I want to lay out what I think Bell's basic points are and why I largely agree with what I believe he is saying.

First of all, the only fair way to deal with the book is to step back from the heaven/hell question and understand Bell's broader argument about the nature of salvation. Bell is willing to be somewhat vague and elusive about heaven and hell because his broader agenda is to question a view of salvation that is primarily about escaping hell and "making it" to heaven. If these broader points are right, then his position on the afterlife is easier both to understand and to defend. As I understand this broader argument, it works something like this:

1. Salvation is God's redeeming and transforming work in the world, overcoming our sinfulness and restoring us to a right relationship with God, one another, and creation.

This seems like it shouldn't be controversial to me, but certainly many evangelicals speak as if salvation was simply about having our sins forgiven and going to heaven.

2. This saving work is God's, not ours. God has already acted decisively to save the world in Jesus Christ. Thus, nothing we do (including "accepting Jesus" or even repenting of our sins) changes God's attitude to us. Any differentiation between those who accept Christ and those who do not, those who repent and those who remain in their sins, purely affects our side of the relationship.

Here's where things get more complicated. Bell is drawing on the Augustinian/Calvinist conviction that salvation is God's work, as well as on the standard evangelical claims that Christianity is all about accepting what Jesus has already done and that true Christianity differs from "religion" because it is about grace and not works. (See p. 11.) Of course, this appears to lead either to universalism or to the view that certain people are eternally reprobate. Furthermore, historically the Catholic Augustinian tradition has insisted that the predestined need to be brought into a state of grace through baptism, to remain in it through perseverance in good works, and/or to be restored to it through penance; while the Calvinist tradition has taken on board the doctrine of justification by faith, so that all who believe (in a carefully defined theological sense) are elect and the elect are not God's children until they believe. (I will not talk about Lutherans here, because they're weird and because talking about them would lead us too far astray from Bell, though perhaps Bell ought to read more Lutherans.) Thus, the Augustinian traditions retain a tension between the claim that God has already saved us and the claim that there are conditions that we need to meet for salvation.

Modern American evangelicalism, of course, is typically not very Augustinian. As Calvinists would agree, evangelicals have turned "faith" into a human work by speaking of salvation as dependent on a choice to "accept Jesus." In philosophical terms, most evangelicals believe in "libertarian free will" (though the Calvinist minority is quite large and exercises influence far beyond its size). It is by our choice to believe or not that we place ourselves either among those whom Jesus has saved or among those who are damned. As Bell points out (still on pp. 10-11), it seems contradictory to say both "nothing you do can save you" and "you will be saved if you believe and damned if you don't."

At this point in his argument, it appears that Bell is indeed heading for universalism. If God desires the salvation of all, and if nothing we do saves us, then it seems obvious that all are saved regardless of their actions. But it becomes clear later in the book that Bell affirms libertarian free will strongly. This is why some readers have suggested that his position is incoherent. Logically, it seems that Bell must say either that all will be saved or that in fact what we do makes the decisive difference between being saved or not. Because I'm more or less trying to follow his arguments in the order he makes them (though with a good deal of summary, compression, and interpretation), I'll leave the question there for now. Same with the question of atonement theology, which may be the main difference between Bell's position and more old-fashioned Arminian evangelicalism. I'll deal with that in a separate post.

3. "Heaven" is the realm where God's will is done; "hell" is the realm where God's saving purposes are stubbornly rejected. Thus, both heaven and hell may refer to states of affairs existing right now. However, only in the "age to come" will heaven be fully implemented on earth.

This part of the argument clearly owes a great deal to N. T. Wright (particularly Surprised by Hope, which Bell mentions at the end of the book). There are some differences, partly but not entirely due to the fact that Wright is a good deal more careful. While Wright speaks of salvation as a present reality, I don't recall him speaking of heaven or hell on earth in quite the way Bell does (58-59). Indeed, Wright resists speaking of human beings "going to heaven" and does not describe the coming Kingdom as "heaven." Wright does a better job of maintaining the distinction between this age and the age to come. Bell also gives the body relatively less importance than Wright--he speaks of the disembodied dead enjoying "heaven" now, and the reception of new bodies in the final resurrection almost seems like an afterthought (at least compared to Wright, for whom it's the other way round). However, in this Bell is actually more traditional than Wright, and I like his emphasis on enjoying the presence of God. Wright's afterlife (or excuse me--life after life after death!) seems terribly busy to me, and I think Wright's hostility to Platonism leads him to miss some of the more contemplative, mystical themes in the NT and in Christian tradition. I find Bell preferable in that respect, although on the whole Wright is (of course) a much more profound and rigorous thinker.

4. God's wrath and judgment are always directed against evil and not against persons themselves, and thus are always directed toward the final goal of repentance and restoration. Kevin DeYoung (author of a thorough review of Bell's book from a conservative Calvinist perspective), accuses Bell of denying God's wrath: "In Bell’s theology, God is love, a love that never burns hot with anger and a love that cannot distinguish or discriminate." This is plainly false. Bell says:
When we hear people saying they can't believe in a God who gets angry--yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn't get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (38)
(Note: the view that God literally feels wrath is just as marginal in Christian tradition as universalism, but clearly both Bell and DeYoung are treating wrath as synonymous with judgment, and we don't need to get into the "does God have emotions" question here.) What Bell denies is a "wrath" consisting of final retributive judgment that closes off the possibility for repentance. Bell insists that the door is always open on God's side. I understand that for conservative Calvinists and perhaps some conservative Arminians this is an unorthodox position, but it's one shared by C. S. Lewis and many others. DeYoung's review risks misleading readers who don't share all DeYoung's positions into thinking that Bell is
farther away from the mainstream than he actually is.

When DeYoung says that Bell's God doesn't "distinguish or discriminate," that's certainly true in the sense that Bell's God not only desires the salvation of all (a view DeYoung no doubt finds erroneous but with which most evangelicals would agree) but desires the salvation of all at all times. (Again, we'll get back to this later.)

5. The historical person we know as Jesus Christ is the divine Logos incarnate. Jesus' death and resurrection inaugurate God's new creation and form the decisive act by which God saves the world. However, the Logos has always been at work in the world, so that human beings who have no explicit belief in and/or knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth may still be saved by this very Jesus.

This is the most important--and most difficult--theological topic in the book, as DeYoung recognizes. DeYoung has gone after Bell in the past for Christological fuzziness, faulting him (correctly, in my opinion) for speaking in an interview of "resurrection" in a general sort of way rather than the resurrection of Jesus. DeYoung finds in Love Wins confirmation of Bell's unorthodoxy, describing the book's Christology as a "Joseph Campbell 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' view of Christ" and as "classic liberalism." As with many of DeYoung's criticisms, this claim runs squarely up against what Bell actually says (when taken in context). Here's Bell's description of the resurrection in chapter seven, "Dying to Live":
It's the eighth sign, the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus himself right here in the midst of the first creation. The tomb is empty, a new day is here, a new creation is here, everything has changed, death has been conquered. (133)
DeYoung seems to assume that Bell regards the resurrection of Jesus simply as one manifestation of the "divine energy" present in the universe. (This is certainly a valid concern in the contemporary theological context: see the
2001 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which criticizes versions of Catholic theology that reduce Jesus to "one of the many faces the Logos has assumed" (chap. 2).) But that's not what Bell says. Bell consistently speaks of the resurrection of Jesus in the terms quoted above--as an event that matters decisively for the entire universe. Bell's paradoxical claim that Jesus is "as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe" (155) is a claim about the centrality, not the relativity, of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Bell's point appears to be that this Jesus who walked around in flesh and blood is the eternal Logos present everywhere and at all times. This is not heresy. It's orthodoxy.

The claim that human beings who haven't explicitly believed in Jesus may be saved by Jesus is usually called "inclusivism." It's certainly controversial in evangelical circles, though generally not in RC or Eastern Orthodox circles. Bell is emphatically an inclusivist. I understand that some consider this heresy, but the issue has been around for long enough that no one is justified in treating this as some new, shocking claim by Bell, or in confusing inclusivism with universalism or pluralism, as some of Bell's critics have done. I won't go into that further here.

So what about universalism?

In chap. 4, Bell raises the question, "Does God Get what God wants?" Bell begins by pointing out the tension inherent in the claim by many evangelical Christians that on the one hand God is loving and desires the salvation of all, and on the other that God will damn those who do not believe in Jesus (95-97). Bell has gotten a lot of flak for this, but he's raising a point that Arminian evangelicals need to consider. If we really believe that God desires the salvation of all, then yes, it does seem that if some are damned "God does not get what God wants." That is, of course, a standard criticism by Calvinists. Bell then gives a range of Christian responses, from the argument that God respects human freedom (103-5), to the argument that those who reject God become "ex-human" (105-6), to a second-chance position (106), to universalism (107-9). Because of Bell's rhetorical style, it is easy to understand this section of the text as a progression from a position Bell wants us to reject to the one he wants us to accept. But he does not in fact say this. He says (109) that these are all positions that orthodox Christians have held, and that the tensions inherent in all of them are tensions with which Christians need to live (115). He appears to see strengths and weaknesses in all of them. On pp. 113-4, Bell affirms the key contention of proponents of the first position (see for instance Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation) that human beings might in fact choose damnation even in the face of heaven. And insofar as he gives a final answer to the question, it is that "we get what we want" (116ff). While I don't like this as a slogan, he seems to be getting it from Lewis's claim in The Great Divorce that there are finally two kinds of people in the universe: those who say to God, "your will be done," and those to whom God says the same thing. (I like Lewis's formulation better, because it makes it clear that salvation is a good deal more than "getting what we want.") Lewis says elsewhere (in the Narnia Chronicles) that "all find what they truly seek."

Bell's final position, then, seems to be that
a. we cannot know for sure whether anyone is damned;
b. if anyone is, it will be because they persistently refuse God's offers of grace; and
c. the door for return always remains open (see especially his interpretation of the open gates of the New Jerusalem on pp. 114-15).

To my mind, b is unquestionably orthodox. I would also defend a. I am less optimistic about this possibility than Bell appears to be, but I do not think it can be considered heretical. The most dubious claim is c. I like Bell's interpretation of the open gates, and I certainly agree with Lewis that "the gates of hell are locked on the inside." I agree with Bell heartily, in other words, when he says that God always stands open to forgive anyone who repents. The question is whether a person can become simply incapable of repenting. Bell seems unwilling to say this (though he doesn't rule it out), and he certainly doesn't seem to think that death ends the possibility of repentance. I'm unwilling to throw out the idea that this life is unique as a place where we can be converted from the way of death to the way of life. This traditional view, ironically, stresses the importance of this life, which Bell wants to do. I think there are good reasons for Christians to believe that death does in fact "fix" our spiritual condition in some way. And I wish that Bell had discussed this and many other issues more carefully and rigorously.

I have many other small disagreements with Bell which I won't go into here, since this review has become a monster already. All in all, though, I find this book to be a winsome defense of a "hopeful universalism" position, and a forthright challenge to the tensions inherent in conservative Arminian evangelicalism. Of course Calvinists hate it. Bell isn't really addressing Calvinism. He's calling Arminian evangelicals out on the ways in which we assume certain Calvinist theological positions while not thinking carefully enough about their implications. And that's a much-needed challenge.

In this respect the controversy has a lot of similarities to the open theism controversy. In both cases we see Arminian evangelicals taking certain Arminian presuppositions in directions that more conservative Arminians don't want to go. To my mind the open theist position is much more clearly in conflict with traditional Christian orthodoxy, and is generally flawed (especially in its more orthodox forms--the closer they get to process theology the less this is true) by an overly restrictive and insufficiently apophatic use of logic to limit theological options. The parallelism between the two controversies does not mean everyone who takes the "conservative" position on one will do so on the other, or vice versa (though generally open theists do not seem to be found among those completely rejecting Bell's position). But both controversies raise questions about the coherence of garden-variety Arminian evangelicalism. This tradition has historically been doctrinally amorphous. The greatest weakness of Bell and the emergents is their comfort with doctrinal fuzziness and their unwillingness to engage in rigorous theological debate. I consider this book a step in the right direction--it's still fuzzier than I'd like, but it makes substantive arguments and engages very serious issues in a readable but thoughtful way.

As I said in my earlier blog post, the big question lying behind this controversy (as behind the open theist controversy) is: what is our standard of orthodoxy? Bell's is too vague and loose, admittedly. But the standards being deployed by his critics are themselves questionable. When you have people claiming that Bell has abandoned the essentials of Christianity in this book, you either have people who are misreading Bell, in my opinion, or people who have the wrong definition of the "essentials" in the first place.


Stephen said...

Well it seems that the "essentials" are where the real debate emerges, at least for the conversations that I've had. It almost always comes back to a discrepancy in what people think are the "essentials." I would really like to hear someone (or read someone) who would be honest and willing enough to make some sort of formalized framework to measure the essentials; a sort of theological filter through which we sift the essential from the non-essential. The construction of such a framework or filter is probably the key in that equation. But do you think that we could ever get any sort of majority (for lack of a higher standard of consensus) to agree upon those necessary particulars that such a framework or filter require? I admit, I am doubtful as to the reality of this. I'd love your thoughts though!

Contarini said...

Yes, that's definitely the problem for Protestants. I don't actually think that RCs and Orthodox have as much agreement on the "essentials" as they claim, but the concept of "essentials" isn't as "essential" for them. Protestants, lacking ecclesiastical authority, put a lot of weight on this idea of the "essentials," and I'm not sure it will bear it.

My own definition would start with the Nicene Creed--or more precisely with what we Anglicans call the "Lambeth Quadrilateral," but doctrinally that means the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. But I'm not sure that ends the matter. For one thing, there are things that are at least pretty important that aren't in the Creeds, and for another, what about the Filioque, which is in the Creed as used by Western Christians?

So I don't think there is a clear answer. I think there's a pretty obvious hierarchy, but many folks would differ with me on its particulars. . . . . I think it's an insoluble problem and an ecclesiology based on the ability to distinguish clearly between "essentials" and "nonessentials" will fail. When I myself speak of the "essentials," though, I'm generally referring to those things on which Trinitarian Christians agree--or more specifically, those things found in the Nicene Creed.

Craig L. Adams said...

I have no brilliant (or otherwise) comments to add to this today, but, thanks for your thoughtful interaction with the book. My impressions of it are similar to yours.

Anonymous said...

This is a fair review, thank you.

Mr. Settecase said...

Thanks for this review. You are a lot softer on Bell than I would have been. I think, perhaps, you overlook statements Bell makes such as that Jesus never intended to describe "forever" the way we think of it, etc.

Anyway, all-in-all, you are fair-minded and generally seem to be seeking unity in the Church. It's hard to fault somebody for that.

Mr. Settecase said...

All-in-all, you seem to be fair-minded in your evaluation of Bell's book. However, have you overlooked statements that Bell makes such as, Jesus never meant "forever" the way we think of it, or that salvation is not just for the "elect," or God's people? In seeking unity in the Church, have you maybe cut Bell too much slack?

Contarini said...

Mr. Settecase, I'm sorry for not responding sooner. I don't "overlook" the statements in question. I haven't addressed his use of "aionios," but I don't think it's central to the points I was discussing. I intended to get into the question of Bell's use of Scripture, but a student borrowed my copy of the book and hasn't given it back yet! Also, Ben Witherington and Scot McKnight (both of them NT specialists, which I am not) have now written lengthy reviews that deal with these issues at more length. I essentially agree with McKnight, though I'm more favorably inclined to the Christian Platonist tradition than McKnight and most NT scholars are. (So I'm unwilling to give up the Boethian/Augustinian definition of eternity altogether.)

As far as saying that "salvation is not just for the 'elect,'" that's hardly unique to Bell. I would prefer Barth's perspective in which Jesus is the elect and the whole human race is elect in Him. But in rejecting Augustinian "massa damnata" theology Bell is returning to the older and more orthodox view found in Athanasius and other Greek Fathers, that Jesus' saving work applies to the entire human race, though people can choose to "opt out of it." And that's the central paradigm shift that I think evangelicals need to make. Both Calvinists and Arminians have traditionally started with the idea that human beings are all "under God's wrath," and only get "out from under" by fulfilling the proper conditions for being incorporated into Christ, who has propitiated God's wrath. The Fathers, on the other hand, generally spoke of Jesus having defeated death (which is the consequence of God's wrath and just judgment) on behalf of the entire human race. Damnation is certainly still possible, but it is no longer the "default" condition of the human race. This theology is Christocentric in a different way than the Calvinist or quasi-Calvinist theology most of us are used to. I think Bell is stumbling in that direction.

Covered in Light said...

Good review, Bell is certianly kicking up a stir.
here are my thoughts

Chrissy said...

Hi, Edwin! I sent you two rather incoherent messages this morning on - hoping they made some sense but I made the mistake of not having my morning coffee first.

Anyway, after seeing Bell dissed on several online forums, I became curious and purchased his latest books. I agree with you about his writing style - and I also agree that in spite of that, he makes quite a few valid arguments in favor of his position, none of which (as far as I can tell) are new or unheard of in Christendom.

Perhaps the real issue re: Piper vs. Bell is that, while Piper is unquestionably the better writer of the two, Bell tends to get larger and more enthusiastic audiences. ;-)