Huckabee and the Heresy of Americanism (CaPC)

Cross Spangled Banner Wallpaper“America is a unique nation.”

“America is exceptional.”

“America is specially blessed by God.”

“America has a particular purpose in God’s plan.”

If you’ve grown up in the US, especially her American churches, all of these are pretty common refrains you hear bandied about. They usually come up around election time, the Fourth of July, or on the National Day of Prayer, when we’re urged to pray for our nation’s “return” back to her God and her former holiness. Mike Huckabee recently released a free video entitled “One Nation Under God” in the “Learn our History” video series, promoting it on Facebook: “Sadly, not enough of our kids appreciate God’s love for America.”

Now, there are two different ways of taking these statements.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture (<—-link) I talk about how one of those two is basically a heresy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Podcast: Is there such a thing as Moral Orthodoxy? Heresy?

Mere FidelityWell, after a couple of weeks at the podcasting game, we’ve already changed the name. From now on these conversations on theology, culture, and life will be known as Mere Fidelity, an excellent suggestion from Jordan Ballor. The hope is that as we discuss these issues, those listening will be encouraged to live faithfully as the Church in the world.

Second, here is this week’s episode in which Alastair, Andrew, and I are joined by our website host Matthew Lee Anderson in order to discuss the question of “moral orthodoxy” I raised a couple of weeks ago. With all the conversations swirling around the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy, we think you’ll find it interesting:

As always, thanks for listening. If you find what you hear helpful, please feel free to share this through social media or emails, or nights sitting around the fire listening with your friend. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Beyond that, for those of you who are asking, yes, an iTunes podcast feed is coming. We’re working out the details through SoundCloud, so we thank you for your patience.

Finally, the boys and I all have a deep desire for this to be a blessing to the Church and not just way to rack up clicks or notoriety. To that end we will the Spirit’s empowerment and so we covet your prayers for this new endeavor.

Soli Deo Gloria

Abraham Kuyper Was a Heretic Too

kuyperOver the last few years I’ve been saddened to see a number of teachers and preachers of the word of God, along with friends in the pews, begin a sad doctrinal decline, wandering into either questionable teaching, or even outright heresy. (And believe me, though I’ve given the issue a bit of thought, I’m not one to quickly throw out the ‘h-word.’)  The narratives are diverse, and the motivations multifarious, but in all, there is a tragic departure that brings me to distress for their spiritual lives and sometimes, for the churches they serve.

What do we do in these cases? What should we think when someone we know departs from the truth of the faith “once for all delivered” and veers into what we believe to be serious, and dangerous, error? While I don’t have an exhaustive answer, I think one course of action we ought to rule out categorically is completely writing them off as lost and beyond hope.

G.C. Berkouwer tells this story of theological giant, Abraham Kuyper:

When Kuyper referred to Modernism as “bewitchingly beautiful,” he doubtlessly recalled the fascination which the modernism of Scholten had exerted on him as a student. He acknowledges in 1871 that he too had once dreamed the dream of Modernism. And when at the age of eighty he addressed the students of the Free University, he harked back to the “unspiritual presumption” which had caused him to slip. “At Leiden I joined, with great enthusiasm, in the applause given Professor Rauwenhoff when he, in his public lectures, broke with all belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.” “Now when I look back,” he writes, “my soul still shudders at times over the opprobrium I then loaded on my Savior.” Kuyper concludes his lecture with a reference to the Incarnation of the Word and points out the unfathomable cleavage between the church of Christ and Modernism. Now that endorsement of Rauwenhoff’s negation and criticism has given way to adoration of the Son of Man, Kuyper recognizes in Arianism the image of the Modernism of his own day. “One merely has to write other names and other dates into the history of the Arian heresy, and, provided one takes it in broad outline, the course of Modernism is repeated.” –The Person of Christ, pp. 9-10

Early in his theological career Kuyper flirted with Modernism of the worst sort, and could even applaud the rejection of that most central, pivotal of gospel truths: the Resurrection of Christ. Let’s remember what the apostle Paul tells us:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:16-19)

This is no ancillary, disputed, or adiaphora truth that Kuyper was fussing about with, then. This is the definition of denying the truth of the Gospel in the most pernicious way possible–much in the way some false teachers had in Corinth. And yet, in later years, we find this man at the center of one of the most powerful revivals of orthodox Reformed thought in Europe.

What this little story demonstrates, is that, while heresies need to be forcefully rejected, by the grace of God, even heretics can repent. To believe otherwise is to neglect two pertinent realities:

  1. Narrative – Persons are not static realities. We have storied identities full of development, regression, and plot turns galore. That’s what we see on display is the story of Kuyper. For all intents and purposes, Kuyper was a heretic. He ended a stalwart defender of the faith. Doubtless, countless others could be added to this list.
  2. Grace – No matter how grave the error, it seems that God can work in the lives of those who currently are turned against his gospel. Isn’t that what he did for you when you were in your unbelief?

Don’t get me wrong here. I think false doctrine needs to be confronted, rejected, and exposed. I also think that pastors who go off the rails and start preaching things contrary to the scriptures, especially central gospel issues, ought go through the proper disciplinary procedures instituted within their denominations or bylaws. The health of the flock and the truth of the gospel is too precious to be trifled with. What’s more, this isn’t even only for the good of the broader flock–it’s supremely unloving to allow the teacher who is in error to continue to propagate a false Gospel.

Still, what I would argue, is that beyond being confronted, in the economy of God, heretics, or those wandering into error ought also be forcefully prayed for. Let’s not forget that, “prayer enlists the help of him who can move heaven and earth” (Ryle) I don’t know what human means finally brought about Kuyper’s theological and spiritual renewal, but I do know that whatever it was, it came about through the grace of God who is sovereign over human hearts and minds. Who knows which of those walking in error today are being prepared for a mighty work for the Gospel tomorrow?

Soli Deo Gloria

A Lie About God is a Lie About Life

liesOur culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heresy’ used on your average blog or article it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It is thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m clueless. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians? Maybe frighten some physicists?)

In some quarters, heresy is sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that we entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness.

So Why Does Jesus Think Differently? So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Because they do. Very differently. A sampling:

Jesus: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Paul: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

John: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we are to care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

To sum up, we might ask a final question: “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” Because He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin Summarizes Chalcedonian Christology in Two Paragraphs

chalcedonAfter much controversy and struggle in the Church, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) put out a formal definition on person of Christ, regarding his full divinity, humanity, and the union of the two natures. While not exhausting the depth and beauty of the person of Christ, it lays down important boundaries within which theologians must stay if they are to properly teach the glory of the Son who took on flesh for our salvation.

Chalcedon has stood as the bulwark of orthodox-catholic Christology across traditions for a millenia and a half, and yet, while good expositions of it are available, it still takes some time digging to find a good, clean summary of what the Definition actually says. That’s why I was pleased to find this passage in Calvin’s comments on John 1:14, “and the Speech* (Word) became flesh, and dwelt among us”, in which he briefly and clearly expounds the scriptural truth that Chalcedon teaches:

The plain meaning therefore is, that the Speech begotten by God before all ages, and who always dwelt with the Father, was made man. On this article there are two things chiefly to be observed. The first is, that two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man. The second is, that the unity of person does not hinder the two natures from remaining distinct, so that his Divinity retains all that is peculiar to itself, and his humanity holds separately whatever belongs to it. And, therefore as Satan has made a variety of foolish attempts to overturn sound doctrine by heretics, he has always brought forward one or another of these two errors; either that he was the Son of God and the Son of man in so confused a manner, that neither his Divinity remained entire, nor did he wear the true nature of man; or that he was clothed with flesh, so as to be as it were double, and to have two separate persons. Thus Nestorius expressly acknowledged both natures, but imagined two Christs, one who was God, and another who was man. Eutyches, on the other hand, while he acknowledged that the one Christ is the Son of God and the Son of man, left him neither of the two natures, but imagined that they were mingled together. And in the present day, Servetus and the Anabaptists invent a Christ who is confusedly compounded of two natures, as if he were a Divine man. In words, indeed, he acknowledges that Christ is God; but if you admit his raving imaginations, the Divinity is at one time changed into human nature, and at another time, the nature of man is swallowed up by the Divinity.

The Evangelist says what is well adapted to refute both of these blasphemies. When he tells us that the Speech was made flesh, we clearly infer from this the unity of his Person; for it is impossible that he who is now a man could be any other than he who was always the true God, since it is said that God was made man. On the other hand, since he distinctly gives to the man Christ the name of the Speech, it follows that Christ, when he became man, did not cease to be what he formerly was, and that no change took place in that eternal essence of God which was clothed with flesh. In short, the Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal Speech who had no beginning of time.

Commentary on John 1:14

The whole section is worth review as Calvin deftly comments on controversies both ancient and contemporary to his own day. Indeed, as challenges and confusions about just who Jesus is continue into our own, students and disciples of the Word would benefit from listening into the disputes of another age. While they’re framed in different ways, they are often-times structurally similar such that hearing the answer discussed in a context less immediate and personally-charged for us, can cast a clearer light for our own days.

Of course, the point of all this is not mere doctrinal correctness, but the life of doxology that follows. Christ is not properly worshipped and glorified, unless his magnificent person is properly taught and displayed according to Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*Calvin follows Erasmus in rendering the word ‘logos‘ as ‘Speech’ instead of ‘Word’. For his explanation, see his comments here.

The Theological Importance of Knowing What ‘Time’ It Is

old-clockMost of us don’t think of knowing what time it is as a significant theological issue. Beyond showing up promptly out of respect for an acquaintance, or knowing when to get to church on Sunday, how could it be? According to Athanasius it could mean difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In his First Discourse Against the Arians he sets about answering objections to the Son’s deity from Scripture, showing that the Arians’ hermeneutics were hopelessly misguided and indeed, characterized by interpretive folly.

Bringing forward texts like Hebrews 1:4 “being made so much better to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”, they argued from this that it is clear that the Son is made ‘better’ in which case he could not be eternal, uncreated, admitting of improvement. Athanasius says that this exegetical failure is rooted in their ignorance of time.

Appealing to the Eunuch’s question to the apostle Philip, “of whom does the Prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 7:34), he expounds the very important interpretive rule that:

…it is right and necessary, as in all divine Scripture, so here, faithfully to expound the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point; lest the reader, from ignorance missing either these or any similar particular, may be wide of the true sense… (7.54)

Athanasius notes how persistent the disciples were about understanding these particulars, especially the time, so that they would not fall into error:

…And the disciples, wishing to learn the time of what was foretold, besought the Lord, ‘Tell us,’ said they, ‘when shall these things be? and what is the sign of Thy coming?’ And again, hearing from the Saviour the events of the end, they desired to learn the time of it, that they might be kept from error themselves, and might be able to teach others; as, for instance, when they had learned, they set right the Thessalonians. who were going wrong. When then one knows properly these points, his understanding of the faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy… (ibid.)

Scripture also gives us the negative example of what happens when one is temporally disoriented:

…Thus Hymenæus and Alexander and their fellows were beside the time, when they said that the resurrection had already been; and the Galatians were after the time, in making much of circumcision now. And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’… (ibid)

Arius and his followers were making Hymenaeus and Alexander’s mistake, not noting the time with respect to the texts in dispute. If they had, they would have observed that the apostle is not referring to the Lord with respect to his pre-incarnate state, but within the economy of salvation with respect to his humanity. That is the time when God “spoke to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the Son obtained a more excellent name than the angels (Heb. 1:3, 4).  In other words, they didn’t understand the hermeneutical difference it makes that the story’s main character has a “history” that begins in eternity.

Christianity is a historical faith about things that took place in particular locations at precise times. Salvation is a dramatic reality which means that knowing which act we’re in can drastically impact the way we read the lines. While modern biblical studies have directed us to pay closer attention to the concrete socio-historical circumstances surrounding the texts, and recent narratival/canonical approaches have re-emphasized the redemptive-historical location of the text, Athanasius reminds us to keep an eye on the distinction between history and eternity.

Soli Deo Gloria

T.S. Eliot’s Definition of Heresy and the Value of Heretics

EliotT.S. Eliot is one of my favorite poets that I don’t read–at least not his poetry. When reading Scruton I found out he had a lecture series involving the notion of heresy, so of course I was intrigued.  It took some digging to track them down though, because they had been suppressed by Eliot himself due to some unfortunately anti-Semitic content. In any case, I found them and tracked down his definition of heresy and heretics:

Furthermore, the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong: it is that it is partly right. It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics, in the context in which I use the term, that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth; an insight more important often than the inferences of those who are aware of more but less acutely aware of anything. So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation, ourselves, we may find such authors of the greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right; we must remember too, that an heresy is apt to have a seductive simplicity, to make a direct and persuasive appeal to intellect and emotions, and to be altogether more plausible than the truth.

-Eliot, T. S., 1888-1965. After Strange Gods : A Primer of Modern Heresy; London : Faber and Faber.

In other words, heretics are usually never totally wrong. In fact, they often-times grasp a vital truth more profoundly than others, but let it distort their thought when it becomes a focal point dominating all other truths. For that reason, sometimes interacting intellectually with heretics, or distorting teachers, is helpful–albeit in a negative way. One thinks of the way that Calvin’s interactions with Osiander on the issue of union with Christ which forced him to clarify his own thought on the matter. This doesn’t excuse heresy or mean we shouldn’t strive to avoid it and cling to the truth any less. It does mean that sometimes it’s good to try and understand what motivates it in order that our orthodoxy might be all the stronger. If I can understand the repugnancy of the absolutist dogmatism that drives some towards relativism, I can learn to present truth in a more gracious and understanding manner. If I can understand what would motivate a panentheistic denial of transcendence, I can know better how to communicate the beauty of a God whose transcendence is the ground for his immanence.

In other words, in the sovereignty of God even heretics can teach us something about the truth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Turning the King Into a Fox (Or, Irenaeus on the Silliness of Heresy)

fox

I love foxes, but still, not as good as Jesus.

Among other things I’ve been reading Irenaeus’ classic Against Heresies and loving it. His goal in the work is to describe and debunk the heretical teaching of the Valentinian gnostics who were perverting Christian teaching into their bizarre, absurd system. The most frustrating part was the way these gnostic teachers, in their attempt to fool the faithful, were twisting scriptures in order to support their teaching:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. -Against Heresies, 1.7.1

Explaining the way the gnostic use of the Bible was unbiblical, he came up with a brilliant analogy for their method of scriptural interpretation:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma. -ibid, 1.7.1

Basically it’s like they’ve taken the Mona Lisa, cut it up, and re-pasted it together in the shape of a toilet and called it Leonardo’s masterpiece–or rather an improvement on it. Now, the fact that this can happen with the scriptures, that people can take them, quote them, and use them to justify all sorts of doctrines is troubling to some. Many, in seeing the way scripture is used in the mouths of false teachers and heretics, might despair of them, or doubt their beauty and efficacy. Not Irenaeus. He says that for the faithful, this shouldn’t invalidate the scriptures or make them any less true and precious:

In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics. -ibid, 1.9.1

The key is taking the precious stones and restoring them to their “proper position”; contextual reading of the scriptures according to basic principles of exegesis matters. Verses need to be taken within chapters, chapters within book, books within the canon, and, yes, for those of us at the end of the 20th century, canon within the broader churchly tradition of interpretation. (Not that the tradition stands over the scriptures, but at the very least it doesn’t hurt to listen to what wise biblical teachers of other generations past have found in them.) When we do these things, instead of the fox, the beautiful picture of King Jesus emerges once more, ready for the adoration and worship God intended to lead us into through his Spirit-inspired scriptures.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ireneaus Summarizes the Faith

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_FatherHistorical myopia is a perennial danger to Church, especially in the area of theology. Every generation has its own particular, culturally-conditioned ways of talking about the Gospel, even when it works from the same biblical texts and recites the same creeds. In our own sin and shortsightedness, we have themes we love to highlight and those topics we’d rather not bring up in polite company. This is why every once in a while it’s good to stop, expand our vision, and listen to Christians of other generations expound or summarize the faith, especially the giants, those respected teachers known for speaking well for the Church as a whole.

On that note, here’s St. Irenaeus, the first great church theologian of the post-Apostolic period, laying out the Church’s faith in contrast to the convoluted Valentinian Gnostic system:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 1.10.1

Soli Deo Gloria

So Rob Bell Wrote Another Book About God — Some Thoughts Before Actually Reading It

Rob BellA couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a little book about Heaven, Hell, and all that God stuff. You might have heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it–he didn’t say anything new. (Or necessarily very good. I’ll be honest, even though I was a Bell fan in college, I was pretty disappointed with that last one.)  In any case, it kicked off a little bit of a crap-storm in the Evangelical world. Well, actually, it was the online theological storm of the century. There were pre-emptive tweets by Evangelical megastars, negative reviews, glowing recommendations, counter-reviews, charges of heresy, charges of heresy-hunting, gangs roaming the internet with clubs watching for signs of dissent or support, refugee camps, and basically all that is unholy in the blogosphere.

At the same time, some good conversations and decent theology got out too.

Now, thankfully this all went down before I had a blog up and running. Given the amount of Facebook conversations I was involved in during that whole imbroglio, I praise God that in his providence that he spared me from my own immaturity. It seems though, that Rob Bell has written another book. It’s about God, or at least, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Well, here’s the trailer:

Before I read it, or anybody else reads it, or writes a review, or tweets some 140-character gem and the whole blogging world explodes with outrage and applause, I have a few thoughts to offer up to the online world, both within my own Reformedish tribe, as well as those outside it:

1. Calm Down – First things first–calm down. Whoever you are, turn it down a notch. If you’re a Bell fan, slow your roll. No, he’s not going to unveil the secrets of the universe. It’s not revolutionary or visionary. He’s probably just written down something somebody else has written in a printed blog format

with

oddly-spaced lines that

emphasize some

point

that you’ve never heard of because you’re not reading

academically-hip

theological literature

like he

does.

If you’re a Bell critic, especially if you’re Reformed, calm down. Realize that if you really believe the confessions, none of what he writes means God isn’t actually sovereign, won’t take care of his church, or that the whole church will drift into heresy and death because of it. Yes, given the last book, you will probably not like a lot of this one. Yes, many people will read it and agree to propositions about and perceptions of God you find to be unworthy and un-scriptural. Yes, you might have plenty of correcting to do. But once again, this has been the situation of the Church for the last 2,000 years. It will survive one book.

In fact, just take a minute to recover by reading Romans 9 or some of the Institutes. There. Feel better?

Okay, let’s move on.

2. Read First, Shoot Later (Or, Don’t Shoot, Pray Before You Write) – This one’s mostly for critics–read the book before you say anything super-critical about it. Seriously. It doesn’t help to declaim something as full of heresy and beyond the pale if you’ve never read the dang thing. Also, when you do read it, do it with the spirit of generosity, trying your best to love your neighbor as yourself, reading as sympathetically as you’d like to be read. Don’t caricature or misquote, or uncharitably misrepresent. You might still find a whole bunch of stuff you don’t like–stuff that troubles and disturbs you so that you feel the need to correct in print. That’s fine. I believe firmly that any publicly-promulgated doctrine or false teaching needs to be corrected publicly for the health and life the church. Jesus and the apostles hated heresy, so if there is any, by all means, declaim away. That said, remember that it needs to be done in a spirit of love and with the integrity that flows from the Gospel. Our polemics may be passionate, but they should always be principled and never be putrid.  Truth cannot be championed by dishonesty, and especially if you’re a pastor, remember that you’re setting an example for your hearer/readers. The way you react often sets the tone for your people, as well as the watching world. As the old hymn goes, they will know us by our love. Love doesn’t exclude disagreement and confrontation, but it should change the way it goes down. Pray before you hit ‘publish’ on that blog.

3. Try to Understand the Other Team – I hate to call them teams, but yes, in issues like this, realistically the theological spectrum ends up splitting into opposing teams who drive the conversation, with some people trying to occupy the center but usually leaning one way more than the other. I’ll just say that both sides need to strive to understand the other’s concerns. For instance, if you read Love Wins and you didn’t for an instant sympathize with the criticisms that Bell was launching against some traditional doctrines, I’m just going hazard a guess that you’re probably not an effective evangelist, because he was hitting at legitimate (or at least common) theological and cultural concerns. I’m not saying he gave the right answers, but if you can’t understand why those answers resonated with so many in our culture, then you’re not going to be able to thoughtfully and compassionately provide the answers you deem to be the biblical ones with any kind of charity or grace to those without as clear of a theological vision as you. At the other end of things, if you were a Bell fan and you absolutely loved the book, and were unable to see the criticisms as anything more than insecure heresy-hunting conducted by narrow-minded gate-keepers, then I’d hazard a guess that you might be suffering from a sort of reverse-theological boundary keeping, which immediately privileges anything deemed to be “unorthodox” by the Evangelical majority. If you can’t see why more thoughtful, sensitive believers of a more “conservative” bent might have felt attacked or caricatured in that book, you probably won’t be someone who can graciously and thoughtfully correct them on what you deem to be their theological deficiencies.

4. Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression – Expanding on that last point, realize that we wouldn’t have half of the New Testament if the apostles like Paul, John, or Peter weren’t passionate about correcting errors both in doctrine and practice. Colossians is an attack on syncretistic theology of a Jewish-Hellenistic sort that threatened to lead the Colossian believers back into a beggarly superstition, trusting in various intermediaries instead of the supremacy of Christ. Galatians combats the Judaizing failure to recognize the eschatological shift in redemptive-history brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection due to nationalistic self-righteousness, which threatened to split the community between Gentiles and Jews. John combats love-denying proto-Gnosticism that, again, tears at community. The list could easily go on. The NT authors pursued public false teaching with passion because they knew that there was a real link-up between sound doctrine and a life-giving love of God in their flocks. The point is, Bell fans need to realize that when he writes a book publicly expounding a theological position that sets itself in direct, or even tacit, opposition to a large portion of the theological populace, criticizing and writing it off, it is not unreasonable to expect some push-back–not because his theology is necessarily heretical. It might not be. But even if it is merely perceived as such, understand that it might be very real, pastoral concern that drives the criticism, not personal animosity or jealousy. Because he’s a teacher, even if he’s just “asking questions”, (there’s a way of “asking questions” that’s really answering them), every public word is held to account. (James 3) My point is, not every criticism is narrow-minded oppression of theological diversity, but might be real pastoral accountability being exercised, even if you think it’s mistaken.

5. Cling to What is Good, Hate What is Evil – Depending on which translation you use, Romans 12:9 might place the “hate what is evil” or the “cling to what is good” first. In this case, as a word to the initially apprehensive, I would say go in with an attitude that seeks to learn or discern whatever good you can from the book before you find the less-than-good. Of course, be like the Bereans and test everything against the scriptures. (Acts 17:11) If you find something in there that doesn’t line up, reject it. That’s a given. Still, it bears repeating that before you go hunting for everything that’s wrong with it, try to find the good you can affirm on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the scriptures. If for no other reason than to be able to have a fruitful conversation with someone who actually enjoyed the book, you need to be able to affirm the good before you move to critique the bad.

I don’t expect that this is the only thing I’ll say on the whole issue. I might even write one of those critical or, I wish, glowing reviews. (I’d love to love this book.) But for now, before I’ve read a single word, here’s what I’ve got to say. I pray it blesses God’s church, bringing more light than heat.

Soli Deo Gloria