On Why Bell Is No Barth Or Lewis: A Question of Consistency and Theological Trajectory

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 to the three, in many ways mirroring that of most contemporary Evangelicals, is quite different.

Rob BellOf 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.

barthBarth is Barth

 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 a sense of theological betrayal with Bell. 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 seems 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.

LewisLewis the Apologist

 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.

The Upshot

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

18 thoughts on “On Why Bell Is No Barth Or Lewis: A Question of Consistency and Theological Trajectory

  1. Yes, that makes sense: Barth was moving in the right direction, and Lewis was defending orthodox Christianity as he saw it (I’m still very influenced by Lewis’ way of arguing, even though I’m more conservative than him), whereas Bell is moving in the wrong direction. Good analysis!

  2. Good post Derek! I think you are right on to point out these differences. Another one, related to what you say about Lewis’ mode and tone, is that Lewis wrote so much practical, edifying, basic stuff. Its obvious he was not trying to accent his points of difference, but in many cases deliberately focusing on issues of “mere Christianity.” Even Barth was pretty widespread and even-handed in the topics he treated – Bell, on the other hand, tends to go write to the controversial issues in his publications. There is a difference between having some unorthodox views but holding them humbly, cautiously, vs. taking it straight to the conservatives. Its a matter of being constructive first vs. deconstructive first. I think that fits in with what you are saying here. Thanks for this post.

  3. Great rambling Derek. I am by no means a theologian so I enjoy your insight in explaining the differences. Thanks for the reminder to pray for those who have strayed. Sadly the church tends to eat their own. We need to learn to show grace, mercy and prayer inside the church.

  4. I can’t speak to the feigned comparisons between Rob Bell and Karl Barth due to the fact that I haven’t read the latter. That being said, I do come across several blogs and their commenters bemoaning the fact that Bell has recycled Barth’s theology in a hip, post-modern fashion and no one seems to notice it.

    Now, I have read C. S. Lewis, and he shaped my thought early on; however, like you, I’ve grown up since that time. I recall encountering certain theological perspectives in some of Lewis’ writings that caused me to scratch my head or to question their theological strength. At the end of the day, I always came away with the ability to trust Lewis primarily because he neither claimed to be a pastor-scholar nor writing from a position of authority. I always found Lewis genuinely humble in this area.

    I don’t express the same confidence for Bell. He views himself as an authority, as a voice to be heard with a message that still needs to be promoted. This is why he stepped down from pastoring in order to do his show on Oprah Winfrey’s network. I echo your alarms and red lights that go off with Bell.

  5. Footnotes offer credibility and allow for some sense of accountability as well. One of my biggest frustrations with “Love Wins” was having no clear direction for researching some of his assertions, such as the authorship of Hebrews and his treatment of the Fathers, because he didn’t include any footnotes whatsoever.

  6. I agree.

    You can’t compare Rob Bell to Lewis and Barth.

    Because

    Lewis

    and

    Barth

    believed in

    paragraphs.

    ***

    😉 (I’m not a Bell-hater, but the guy’s writing style – and recent lack of footnotes – makes me crazy.)

  7. Do you think it’s possible you have a different reaction to Bell because he’s contemporary and Lewis and Barth are not? Barth and Lewis are held up as theological giants today, yet some of their contemporary readers may have had a similar reaction to their writing that you have to Bell’s. Perhaps many years down the road people will be saying, “Dude, Bell is Bell. He can kinda say what he wants,” if Rob Bell is inducted into the same Big Names of Theology club that Barth and Lewis are a part of.

    I’m not trying to say the three belong in the same camp, just wondering what your thoughts are on how hindsight bias may be influencing the conversation around comparing contemporary theologians to those who have already been heavily studied and have earned our respect.

  8. Rob Bell is very optimistic about human nature in a way that Lewis (and as far as I know, Barth) wasn’t. Bell downplays human sin as much as possible. And Lewis hinted a couple of times that he may have seen universalism as a distant theoretical possibility, but it’s clear from the broad content of his work that he did not think it at all likely (my own position would be something like this). And while it’s fair to say Lewis was uncertain about penal substitution, he did not outright reject it as far as I know.

    Also, I don’t think Bell is an orthodox Christian who also happens to be a universalist. Maybe at one point, but he has drifted further away from orthodoxy since Love Wins and seems like almost a new-age mystic now. The Oprah interview is like self-parody. I’m hesitant about saying who’s in and who’s out, but for “Christian” to have any meaning at all there have to be some sort of boundaries.

    One more thing: I doubt many of the people saying Bell is alright would have much of a problem with saying Joel Osteen’s teaching doesn’t resemble Christianity. Bell is just as far out there as Osteen, only in a different way. But people give Bell a pass because he’s hip and charming (well, I find his writing style incredibly obnoxious – but I can understand why some like it) appeals to progressive types and used to be more orthodox. While almost no one who cares about these things gives Osteen a pass.

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