Rob Bell and Reformed Madness

By: Dale M. Coulter
Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

When Marc Santom emailed the blog team at Renewal Dynamics about the recent round of comments over Rob Bell’s unreleased book, I thought to myself that it was not worth the effort to respond. I mean, the book has not even been published. Moreover, I tend to think that the entire situation is a tempest in a tea pot. Then I read Kevin DeYoung’s blog…

In his blog, DeYoung attempts to defend the early criticism that he, Justin Taylor, et al., have given of the book from the backlash that has apparently come. DeYoung’s criticism is basically that, in his short promo video, Rob Bell has already endorsed heretical views.

Here is DeYoung’s claim: “the force of these sentences is to undermine—nay, to ridicule—the reality of eternal conscious punishment, the wrath of the God, and penal substitutionary atonement.”

DeYoung makes this claim based on these words from Bell’s promo video:

Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?

Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.

The good news is that love wins.

It seems to me that you have to be hard core Reformed to read these paragraphs as implying heresy. When I attended Reformed Theological Seminary we used to call them TR’s, which is short for Truly Reformed. They are the Reformed equivalent of a yellow-dog Democrat. Now, Kevin DeYoung may not be a TR, but his post on Rob Bell sure reads like one.

Before going further, I must say that I am not anti-Reformed, and if you read my previous posts about the Reformed tradition, you will see that I have great respect for it. I do, however, think that there is a particularly virulent strain associated with Old Princeton and now Westminster that has greatly impacted U.S. Christianity largely for the negative. Whether DeYoung is influenced by Old Princeton or its spokespersons I cannot say, but there is a lack of charity in his comments that does not reflect the Dutch Reformed or the Edwardsian wing of the American Reformed world.

Here’s my take on Rob Bell’s three paragraphs.

The first paragraph is really a set of provocative questions designed to have the effect that they had on DeYoung and others. They really do not commit Bell to much. For example, the first two questions could imply that Bell is moving in a Wesleyan direction and thus represent a rejection of Reformed understandings of predestination and divine election. They need not imply anything more than that.

The last three questions of the first paragraph merely set the stage for what I presume will be Bell’s answer to how one does become a Christian. Again, provocative. . .but inconclusive.

For DeYoung, the second paragraph is where the rubber starts to meet the road. I take it that this is because the questions asked in the second paragraph can, and probably do, lead one away from penal substitution. And this seems to be the real issue. If this makes Bell a heretic, then I suppose DeYoung must think that penal substitution is THE orthodox position on the atonement, and that any deviation from that position would mean heresy.

But then, this would mean that Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Ephrem the Syrian, and a host of other patristic writers were indeed heretics as well. Christus victor in all of its forms is a distinct family of atonement theories separate from satisfaction theories. Even more shocking is that this would also mean that Anselm of Canterbury was a heretic because he did not endorse penal substitution either. Anselm’s understanding of satisfaction, much to the chagrin of some Reformed comrades, is not penal substitution, although in fairness I would see them as part of the same family of atonement theories. My point here is that one could be against penal substitution, as many Wesleyans are, or not hold it, as many patristic writers do not, and still be within the bounds of the orthodox Christian theology. That is, unless penal substitution is THE orthodox view from which no deviation can occur.

The final paragraph and statement that “love wins,” could really be nothing more than an endorsement of a kind of Wesleyanism. I know that some Reformed folk like to throw around the by-word semi-pelagian so that they can consign any view that does not endorse monergism to the heretical (or at least semi-heretical, which is close enough) trash bin. But, let’s not be hasty here.

If the entire Byzantine and Syriac traditions, all Wesleyans, many Lutherans who follow Philip Melanchthon, and most Pentecostals, not to mention a lot of Catholics, can endorse synergism, then I think we need to be a little careful before attempting to classify this position as “the almost heresy that really is heretical.”

DeYoung’s and Taylor’s posts show how deeply Reformed they are, and how they do not even seem to realize that their Reformed position is not THE position. What I see in the questions Rob Bell raises is nothing more than provocative rhetorical strategies. My real concern is that comments like DeYoung’s and Taylor’s will simply set off another round of fruitless debate between Wesleyans, Arminians, or other synergists, and Reformed folks. This is the last thing evangelicalism needs.

So, what do we need to do?

Step 1: Take a deep breath everyone

Step 2: Let’s exercise some patience

Step 3: Let’s schedule some time for coffee and friendly book banter when Bell’s books comes out

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 at 11:45 pm and is filed under Church History, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

14 Responses to “Rob Bell and Reformed Madness”

  1. Rob Bell’s check list:

    Step 1: Write book about a topic lots of post-moderns wonder about.

    Step 2: Post provocative video.

    Step 3: Profit!

  2. Ken says:

    “So, what do we need to do?

    Step 1: Take a deep breath everyone

    Step 2: Let’s exercise some patience

    Step 3: Let’s schedule some time for coffee and friendly book banter when Bell’s books comes out”


  3. Chilly says:

    Step 1a: Pray, search our own hearts…

    ~ then, your three steps! ;)

    Thanks – this was fair & balanced (hmmm, that sounds like: Fox news – whoa)!

  4. mo says:

    Well said. Nice breakdown of the paragraphs and viewpoints.

  5. Ken Silva says:

    This isn’t merely a Reformed thing.

    I’m not in the Reformed camp, nor am I a Calvinist, and I still say of Rob Bell and Universalism:

    • ken says:

      Ken, was Karl Barth a liberal?

    • Thanks for the response Ken. Not sure I agree yet. Of course, I could very well be wrong, but my point is that I don’t think there is enough to go on. You might also check out Mark Galli’s article at Christianity Today. Galli has read an advanced copy of Bell’s book and the quotes he provides don’t seem unorthodox. We’ll know one way or the other in April.

  6. Tim says:

    So, the post title reminded me of the movie “Reefer Madness”. I really hope you meant it that way. I appreciate your thoughtful writing on the (possibly) true theological grounding for much of the uber-vocal-Reformed response to a press kit. So what coffee will you be drinking with that discussion? :)

    • Tim,

      Yes, I did intend it that way. I don’t think Reformed folks are, generally speaking, insane. I might add that I’ve seen many more pentecostals and charismatics who seemed “certifiable” than Reformed folks :-) .

      This is just a big over reaction in my view at this stage. Of course, I may very well be wrong about Rob Bell, but there is not enough information to judge.

      As to coffee, it will be Star Bucks or Peet’s, both of whom do the best job roasting the beans. If the roasting process is not done right, the cup will not be good :-) .

      • Tim says:

        As a Pentecostal I can agree with the “seemed ‘certifiable’”; it just takes some getting to know their point of view and things start to make more sense. As a counselor I can say that not too many of them are certifiable either :)

  7. Marc says:

    I appreciate you “setting the tone” for the reading of Bell’s new book (due out March 15). If your blog helps just one of us resist the temptation to prematurely jump into this theological skirmish armed with nothing but typical evangelical knee jerk reactions, then it will have been worth it. And coming from a Reformed context myself, it’s so good for me to, once again, wrestle with the whole “penal substituion” thing as I wade into Love Wins. Another good blog I found in preparation for the release of Bell’s book is Scot McKnight’s blog–which may help our blog readers to more clearly define related terms and views held by different camps of evangelicals. Below I cut and pasted a few of McKnight’s paragraphs (from a Relevant Magazine blog found here:

    Which of the following views do you think are “unorthodox”?

    Universalism is the general belief that all will be saved, regardless of religious beliefs. The Muslim and the Christian are on the same basic path—and for universalists all will be saved.

    Universalism needs to be distinguished from pluralism (though as I have sketched “universalism” above there is precious little difference). Pluralism focuses on the legitimacy of each religion and belief system and that each of them prepares a person for final existence with God. For pluralists, there’s no unique saving place for Jesus Christ.

    Christian universalism is a bit different: Christian universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While many who advocate this fail to recognize that those in other religions simply don’t believe such a thing, and in fact may say they don’t want to be saved through Christ, the Christian universalist confidently trots out the idea that whether they know it or not, God saves through Jesus Christ. But the big point here is that all can and will be saved through Christ.

    Evangelical universalism is newer on the block and argues that God saves exclusively through Christ and that those who deny Christ, or who have not heard of Christ, or who have rejected God’s natural revelation to them, will be judged and will experience hell. In other words, these folks believe in hell—though they believe “less” (or as they might say “more”) than the traditionalist. But they believe hell is not eternal but instead temporary and once one has experienced judgment for one’s sins one will have, by the grace of God and through the merits of Christ, the opportunity to respond to the Gospel—and this news is so good and God’s offer so gracious that eventually hell will be emptied and all will find redemption in Christ to enjoy God’s salvation forever.

    There is yet another version: annihilationism or conditional immortality. This view is traditional in its appeal to evangelism and to the gospel of salvation through Christ alone—it is an exclusive claim—and that those who don’t respond to the Gospel will be judged and will experience hell, but that eventually their punishment will run out and they will be utterly destroyed and annihilated and cease from existence. Here one has both a traditional view of hell and, at the same time, some kind of correlation between temporary sins—say 75 years of utter rejection of all things pertaining to what they know of God and Christ—and the experience of justice. When that justice runs its course that person will be utterly extinguished. Instead of an eternal consciousness of separation from God, these folks believe only in eternal consequences.

    Then there’s the traditional view: those who reject Christ, and some believe God’s mercy will be wide enough to include those who have never heard of Christ but have responded to the light they have comprehended (inclusivism)—and there’s latitude here for variations of several sorts—will be judged on the basis of that light. For traditionalists and some inclusivists their number is few so that billions who have not responded to Christ will suffer eternal and conscious separation from God. Some inclusivists would contend that many, if not most, humans will be finally saved.

    The pressing issue today is both to comprehend the absolute seriousness of the Christian claim, to realize that the ground has shifted in that many who are associated with evangelicalism simply don’t believe the traditional view and have embraced some kind of universalism, and we need also to understand the options so we can all, one more time, go back to the Bible, to our church traditions, and study all over again—as if for the first time—what to believe.

  8. David Morris says:

    I wonder if the problem isn’t too much Old Princeton, but too little? I see resources in that tradition for dealing with people they think are in serious error, and for dealing with universalism, that are being ignored at present. For example, Charles Hodge didn’t think Schleiermacher was ruled out of heaven because of his views: “Can we doubt that he (Schleiermacher) is singing those praises now? To whomever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour.”. Richard Mouw has quotes from AA Hodge talking about the generosity of God and how heaven will be far fuller than hell and saying things that would probably get him in trouble with some of the new Calvinists; Lorraine Boettner says similar things in “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination”. It seems to me that some of the statements made by that generation of Calvinists would get me accused of inclusivism today….

    Paul Helm quotes three Calvinists here on dealing with people you think are dangerously wrong (one of the quotes is from JI Packer):

    • David,

      Thanks for your comments. With respect to Hodge, I would have to read his comments in light of the debates going on in the mid 1800s between the Reformed revivalists who had followed the Puritan tradition of Jonathan Edwards and Old Princeton. It is clear that Old Princeton wanted very little to do with the revivalist tradition. Hodge was at the forefront of kicking folks out of the Presbyterian church. So, while the Reformed doctrine of predestination commits Reformed folks to a theoretical position that says, “who are we to say God has not elected someone, and thus whom God has elected will be in heaven,” this is far different from the reality of what happens on the ground.

      The ultimate proof of this is B. B. Warfield’s full assault of the revivalist tradition in his work on perfection. Old Princeton is not as irenic as folks like to think.

      Having said that, I am in favor of reading the theology of Old Princeton, where we can, against the practice of Old Princeton.