Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, and Rob Bell.
All three of those men held/hold views on things like Scripture, the afterlife, and so forth, that as a decently conservative Evangelical I would deem wrong and, at times, quite unhelpful. (Although, to be clear, I think Lewis is very misunderstood and badly appropriated w/ respect to his views on the afterlife in The Great Divorce and atonement in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.) Still, for some reason, my reaction, in many ways mirroring that of most contemporary Evangelicals, to the three is quite different.
Of non-canonical authors, few rival Lewis’ impact on my own thought. His apologetic and fictional works were deeply formative for me, though I’ve since moved on from my early, nearly-slavish following of his theology. Barth, for me, is a towering figure whose every sentence (at least the fraction that I’ve read), ought to be considered quite carefully. Even when I find him wrong, even terribly wrong, it doesn’t put me off from reading him one bit, or drive me to see him as, well, a false teacher, or what-have-you. And yet, when I get to Rob Bell, a man whose early books I used to love, whose sermons I used to podcast, and whose style I wanted to emulate when I was younger–I think of him now and all of these flashing red lights start going off. I know I’m not the only one.
Since people have been questioning Evangelicalism’s apparently inconsistent approach to theological diversity of late, I was prompted to ask myself “What’s going on? Is there some double-standard at work here? I mean, clearly, I’m aware of Lewis’ and Barth’s theological views on Scripture and so forth. Am I just being inconsistent, then? Is this a reflection of an Evangelicalism that’s tightened up its ship too much? A narrowing of my own horizons? Or is it something else?”
While I don’t think I can speak to the rest of Evangelicalism, I did have a few quick thoughts about my own differing attitudes towards Bell as opposed to Barth and Lewis, which may be helpful in thinking through an approach towards differing theological sources. To be clear, this is not an in-depth theological analysis of their varying theologies. (Although, I do think that a study of that sort would probably reveal larger differences between them than has been claimed of late.) Think of it more as an exploration in intellectual disposition.
So then, first Barth, then Lewis.
Were someone to ask me about different approach towards Barth and Bell, my initial instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Dude, Barth is Barth. He can kinda say what he wants.” Now, that’s not exactly true, but it reflects what I think is the first difference between the two, and that is, I know he’s done the work.
Looking at the Church Dogmatics sitting there on my shelf, I know that I can pick a page at random and Barth will give me some lengthy digression on the minute implications of any adopted doctrine, plus the history of its development from the Fathers onward, as well as extensive interaction with contemporary witnesses. When he differs from the tradition, even widely, you can sense the requisite respect for his theological and spiritual elders present. What’s more, though Barth can, at times, be a bit rough with this theological opponents (natural theology anybody?), I mostly get the impression he’s done the work required to understand them, explain them properly, and then come to the conclusion he has.
While I won’t go into detail here, this is not what I get from Bell. That could be an unfair impression, or simple elitism, but, I doubt it.
The second big factor at play, and I think this might be the bigger issue for me, is that Barth’s trajectory was from liberal to conservative, not the other way around. I look at where Barth started–a young pastor heavily influenced by Kant, Schleiermacher, Hermann, and so forth, who then, after engaging in actual pastoral ministry, and a sort of rediscovery of the Reformers, moves in a more Evangelical and Orthodox direction, against the theological tide, and I see a different situation going on. While some would say he never fully moved past those mistakes, Barth’s Neo-Orthodox theology of Scripture is an improvement in his case, not a regression.
Related to this is the issue of expectations. I already know Barth as a Neo-Orthodox, not classically-Evangelical theologian, so I expect some divergences and am not the least bit shocked when I find them. Incidentally, I think this might explain part of why can expect Evangelicals to keep reading Marilynne Robinson after her rather flip comments about abortion and gay marriage.
With Bell on the other hand, we have a movement that is, on the whole, in a liberalizing direction. Even when Barth and Bell materially end up in the same neighborhood, it’s sort of like two travelers heading in opposite directions meeting at a way station–Bell got there by leaving behind what I consider to be a more biblical orthodoxy Barth was striving towards. Again, with Bell, there’s the issue of expectations. As a putatively Evangelical pastor, I naturally expect something else and so become alarmed when I don’t hear it. There is with Bell, and I don’t know that this is rational, a sense of theological betrayal. There’s an element of “Well, you should know better. You’ve been on this from the inside and now you’re moving on to something defective.” What’s more, it’s indicative of a troubling, faltering theological sensibility. There’s a sense of, “I don’t know what off direction you’re going to go next, but I can’t imagine its very good.” Barth seemed to get better as he went on.
Well, what about Lewis? Again, apart from the material differences in their theology, Lewis is, in many ways, quite similar to Barth. For one thing, the personal trajectory issue was from atheist professor to broadly Orthodox apologist. That counts for a lot. What’s more, Lewis was not a pastor, nor a professional theologian in the church. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for his words. He was. And at the same time, he made it clear a number of times that he wasn’t an appointed teacher of the church and therefore, open to correction. (As a side-note: one of the things that I wonder about in our contemporary context is how many writers with no theological training, or churchly office are operating as teachers in the church, with no apparent accountability structure for them other than a drop in readership. And even that’s not guaranteed when a teacher goes off the rails, because usually that sells better. But I digress.)
The second factor, and this might be more the issue with Lewis, is his mode and tone. In relation to his context, Lewis was staunchly conservative theologically-speaking. His aim was never to reinvent Christianity, nor present things in such a way that he was unveiling some great truth hidden under some ugly fundamentalism. It was to present people with mere Christianity, as it had been taught in the Church for millenia. In fact, most of Lewis’ critical jabs at the Church, at least his own, were aimed at the soggy liberalisms the Anglican communion was finding itself mired in, by engaging in the kind of chronological snobbery that rejects orthodoxy for “progress.”
Incidentally, this is another similarity I see him sharing with Barth. Both were spiritually and theologically counter-cultural in a way that pushed against the cultural capitulation they saw their national churches engaged in. In keeping with that that spirit, Lewis aimed his polemical guns outwards at the big issues of scientism, relativism, and so forth, in defense of the gospel the old teachers had always proclaimed.
In reading Bell’s oeuvre, especially his last work (reviewed as charitably as possible here), the direction and thrust all pushes a different way. While Bell and Lewis are both trying to reach the lost, Bell does so more by softening, modifying, or chucking traditional doctrine and less by pushing back on cultural pretensions that make them difficult for postmoderns. I mean, that’s kind of the approach on display in his conversation with Andrew Wilson on same-sex marriage, which is sort of a natural outflow of the approach to God, revelation, and culture in the last couple of his works. It’s not so much a defense of the “truth once for all delivered to the saints”. but an invitation to the “truth sadly covered over and mucked up by the religious”–until now, that is.
Now, please don’t take this as an exercise in “farewelling” Rob Bell all over again, or an expression of animosity on my part. It’s not. In fact, if I ran into him on the street, he’d probably get a smile, a “hello”, and an invitation to coffee or dinner. As I noted the other day, one of the main things we ought to do for those we consider to be drifting theologically is pray for them,
All the same, it seems fruitful to attempt to give an accounting for one’s own theological proclivities and affinities. Andrew Wilson did something of the sort the other day when he spoke of affinities due to key issues in theological battle-lines, and while I largely agreed, I also think the issues of trajectory and tone have a big role to play in my approach to these three thinkers.
Well, that’s enough of my rambling. What say you?
Soli Deo Gloria