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Friday, 21 October 2011

Love Wins - a review of Bell's Book

Eat the fruit - spit out the seeds
I remember giving a review of Steve Chalke's book "The lost Message of Jesus" to a group of  pastors. They were expecting brimstone and fire, but I began with some positives - because there were some positives.

(Some real big negatives too....)

I am trying to learn over the years to appreciate the fruit and spit out the seeds.
Hold on to the good while rejecting the evil.

So I like some things about this book. I love the positives he highlights in the Gospel. I appreciate Rob Bell's emphasis on the greatest gift of all - love - and his concern for the practical outworking of it in our lives. We should all appreciate the way he questions acquired doctrines rather than just accepting them. (Would be that every believer's theology was first hand rather than borrowed from their church community.)

I also appreciate a fresh attempt to apply the Gospel to our present culture - question is, does he succeed?

Bell indicates his questioning nature stylistically with novel punctuation and page lay out. (Unfortunately this just gets on ones nerves after page 1).

Some background
Perhaps we across the pond can stand back from a book like this and see things native Americans can't.

It's not difficult to detect the following influences on Bell:

(1) Reaction against dead Religion. No question - Bell is reacting against a dead fundamentalist strain of evangelicalism that is all law, thunder and negatives. If you want to see it in action, tune in to some of the God channels.

(2) Western Ease. Where you write your theology, your context, acts like a filter. If you write your theology out of persecution and struggle it is likely to be cross-shaped. If you write it out of wealth and ease, you're shaped by the reaction of your culture to any hard doctrines - out must go a bloody cross, hell and judgement. Contemporary culture just doesn't do tough doctrines such as hell.

(3) Neo-orthodoxy. Unquestionably, and connected to (2), Bell, like McLaren, Chalke and others before him has been influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of scholars such as NT Wright. On the surface these men believe in doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but upon further inspection they turn out to be woolly around the edges, see (4).

(4) "You have to be a first-century historian to understand the NT". This is the cry of the arm-chair academics. If you don't know the historical setting of Jesus and first-century Palestinian Judaism, how will you understand the Gospels? This is a deep deep deep fallacy. All we need to know about first century Palestinian Judaism is in the OT and the NT. It is very likely that uninspired external writings will skew, deceive, obscure and twist.

If, as an important example, Jesus says that many Pharisees believed in works-righteousness and came to the temple telling God that in their prayers (Luke 18), we believe Him against all the writings of contemporary rabbis and what nots.

The New Testament was given by God to float outside of Palestine, around the world; it contains, along with the Old Testament, all you need to know. (This doesn't mean external sources aren't helpful and interesting when interpreting the New Testament; all it means is that they are not absolutely necessary).

(5) Only the Gospels matter, the apostles (especially Paul) are excluded. Part of this neo-orthodoxy is an exclusion of the apostles, and especially Paul as the interpreters of Jesus. The idea (primary documents historian stuff) is that all we really need are the words of Jesus (and many of the ones in our Gospels probably don't come from  him, so now we have a canon within a canon within a canon - Chinese dolls?) These are the primary sources (historian approach to the Bible) - the canon within a canon. All the emphasis is on these words of Jesus in the Gospels (and Oh yes, parts of the OT), but almost nothing from Paul, Peter, John, James.........

(6) Who are Jesus' legitimate interpreters? The moment you rid yourself of the rest of the NT you are left with the words of Jesus hanging in the air with no interpreter at all. In to fill the vacuum comes (you guessed) first-century historians. Actually, that's the job of the apostles - it's their job to interpret the Gospel of Jesus to us. Exclude the apostles, and frankly you have lost the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(7) Ignore continents that don't fit on your map. We can be all guilty of this to some degree, but most of the time we just ignore small islands and it's accidental. Bell ignores continents: like all the verses that don't fit the 'no-hell' theory, such as......  "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out of the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes.." (2 Thess 1:9) "Their destiny is destruction." (Phil 3:19) "..the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men." (2 Pet. 3:7), etc., etc., etc.

So to the book
With these seven  filters working over-time on the NT, what we have in Love Wins is a tragic misrepresentation of the Gospel in the following ways....

Hell is erased. You see if God says he wants to save people he can and will. Even if they die cursing him, could they not get an eternity of chances to change? After all we all morph and change; could it not be that such people will decide one future day 10,000 years hence that they want God? In which case the doors of heaven (always open, didn't you know?) will welcome them. 

Regeneration is not necessary. Because if men and women can change their mind about God at any time and at their own whim, no powerful tranformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit is necessary. 

God's Justice is denied. Because if there is no hell, God ultimately is unjust - he has allowed sin to go unpunished. How can we love and trust an Unjust God?  

Everyone will be saved. God - and Jesus in particular is much bigger than Christianity. No-one can tame or domesticate him. Who is to say he's not to be found everywhere? After all, if he was the rock that refreshed some weird band of desert wanderers who is to say that he is not everywhere, with everyone, in everything?

In the end, a Bell-shaped Gospel
Ultimately, what we have in Love Wins is not a New Testament-shaped Gospel at all, nor a valid contextualisation of the Gospel for modern men and women. What we have is a Bell-shaped Gospel, which turns out, like so many other gospels before it, to be no gospel at all.

This is a contemporary 'gospel' - but tragically only in the sense that it rides all the fads of western culture and thought. This is not orthodoxy, this is not the Gospel delivered once for all to the saints.

The greatest tragedy of all......
Sadly - weep for Jerusalem - sadly, the greatest tragedy of this book may have nothing to do with its contents.......

What do I mean?

The greatest tragedy may be that the wide-spread acceptance of this book reveals a shocking ignorance of the Bible and basic Christian doctrine in our western churches today. Any believer schooled in Bible Doctrine 101 (the American educational way of indicating basic this or that) ought to discern heresy in this book.

The future of other Gospels
In the fullness of time every old and every modern false gospel, whether from McLaren, Chalke or Bell, will be consigned to history, viewed as a distraction at best, a heresy at worst.

And all the while, the church will continue preaching the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners.

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