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