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What Good Will Come From the Bell Brouhaha?

Over the last few weeks, since Justin Taylor brought everyone’s attention to the trailer for Rob Bell’s new book, there’s been a good deal of debate, discussion… and a bit of name calling. Bell’s been making the rounds with the media, including a story in USA Today, a live webcast with Newsweek editor Lisa Miller, and even a stop with Martin Bashir at MSNBC.


Particularly in the last two events cited, it’s been fascinating to see how Bell reacts to pointblank questions. Lisa Miller asked him outright if he was a liberal mainline Protestant posing as an Evangelical, stating that everything he’s writing in this book has been said in the mainline denominations for the last 50 or 60 years. And he squirms for a moment before answering that he believes he’s totally an Evangelical and orthodox. And while some might think that Bashir was being uncharitable, he took the opportunity to ask the hard questions that many have been wanting to ask Bell for years, giving him ample opportunity to clarify. Again, he squirms and fails to ever give a simple or straight answer, which is incredibly frustrating.

Regardless of where you stand on the Rob Bell-arama of the last month, whether you’re for or against what he’s teaching, a question we all should be asking is, “What good is going to come of all of this?”

My wife and I have been talking about this since for weeks now and she made much the same point as Kevin DeYoung in his monster review/response:

Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.

This point is bang on. There is incredible division underlying the whole evangelical movement and this is only going to make it more evident. Because the place of the Bible within corporate worship and within the lives of so many of us has been downplayed in favor of entertainment or having a good experience, we’ve forgotten what it says, why it matters and who is in authority over us (that’s Jesus, if you’re wondering where I stand on that).

So as this divide becomes more and more evident, here are a few positive things that I can see coming:

1. People will eventually have to put their cards on the table. As Jared Wilson put it well, “Thanks to the inevitable picking of sides, we get to see who aligns with heterodox views and who doesn’t.” This will actually help us all to understand how to talk to one another if we actually want to have meaningful dialogue, as many profess is their desire.

2. People will learn the difference between asking questions and questioning. This, ultimately,has to do with motivation. If asking questions about essential doctrines is based on a desire to understand how they came to be and why they matter, it’s a good and God-honoring thing. If questions come unceasingly and answers are never accepted, perhaps there’s something more going on than wanting to know the answer.

3. Doctrinal clarity will emerge. Heresy and scandal have had a way of helping the Church come to a clear position on the key doctrines of the faith. It happened with Athanasius and Arius over the eternality of Christ. It happened with Augustine and Pelagius over the sinful nature of man and our ability to attain salvation on our own. It happened with Marcion and his dualistic view of God that ultimately led to the solidifying of the biblical canon. These weren’t mere dialogues over different perspectives. They were efforts to contend for “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This debate opens the door for the Church to regain a robust understanding of, and appreciation for, the essentials of the faith and an opportunity for us to repent of being like the church at Pergamum and turning a blind eye to the false teaching in our midst (cf. Rev. 2:14-15). The Christian faith, if we really believe it’s true, is worth contending for and conforming to.

That, in a nutshell, is the good that I hope will come from the Bell brouhaha. How about you?

11 thoughts on “What Good Will Come From the Bell Brouhaha?”

  1. Bell’s basic premise – a God of love cannot permit beings to be in terrible pain forever – is certainly valid. We are so prone to believe what we have learned at our mother’s knee, and although administered in love it was not always correct. He does state that he does not necessarily have the definite answer. He is putting together a framework that permits people to view God in a more realistic way. I do think there is a better understanding to answer these concerns than he has put forward, but his ideas are nevertheless very welcome. Bell’s questions and comments are perhaps an indication of beautiful changes that are coming to the Body of Christ.
    Thanks, Aaron, for your comments.

  2. I have recently ran across your blog page and have enjoyed the comments and insight you provide.

    I personally believe the Rob Bell “stir” has been boiling for some time beneath the surface of a lot of evangelical people and pastor’s minds. It seems to me to be the logical end point of the incrementalism of what many have referred to as “seeker-sensitive”. Once you start with the premise that we are going to remove anything that alienates people from the Gospel…you eventually run into the Cross, which Paul said ostensibly, alienates many. “To the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks foolishness”… So the choice is either embrace it…or remove it. It appears as if Rob is removing it.

    My prayer would be that indeed, all the cards are put on the table and the world will see the need of the Cross and the Savior. If we can again find our way back to “sound” doctrine through this, perhaps it will be worth the debate.

  3. Good job, Aaron. I think you’re mostly right. (Well, that second one I’m going to have to consider.) I was going to say that maybe we will also learn a touch more of how to debate kindly and fairly, not going for the jugular quite so quickly. But then I saw the first two comment. One, instead of hoping Bell grows towards great fidelity or even changes his views, uses the word repent, which carries with it a bluntness that I find a bit uncharitable. I get why it is used but when it is used in a terse not, it doesn’t feel sincere, just like a jab. And then the James guy calls you a “little pope” which is truly uncalled for. You, in fact, in good humor said “wherever you stand on the Bell-rama” which admitted there is a range of opinion (and not just a simple pro or con, even.) His accusation is off the wall and not Christ-like or helpful.

    Having said that, just a few little comments to consider.

    I don’t think it is always most helpful to insist that one either fully agrees or despises Bell’s view, that we line up orthodox against him or heretically for him. He is more nuanced than that and many of us have conflicted views, agreeing somewhat on some stuff, less so on others. Ditto with “mainline Protestants” who are not a uniform gang.

    And, as I noted in my longer post a few days ago, I am concerned (as I trust you are, fully) that we do not misrepresent our opponents. I realize this is a bit subjective, but, for instance, I don’t think Bell “fails to give a straight answer” although you are correct he didn’t give a simple one. Twice the MSNBC interviewer asked a question in an unacceptable manner: quoting DeYoung he says something like “you are a bad Bible scholar isn’t that correct?” Well what do you say to a direct statement like that? It’s like they teach in logic classes—how does one respond to the question “when did you stop beating your wife?” So, Bell said, plainly, “no.” He said it twice. One can’t blame him for squirming and the interviewer didn’t give him much room to explain the nuances and complexities of his admittedly perplexing view. One doesn’t have to agree with Bell to feel for him, trying to do a book’s worth of controversial theology in 15 second sound bites. It was frustrating but it is unfair to place the blame squarely on him. Your claim that Bashir gave him “ample opportunity to reply” is not how I’d call it, not at all. If the shoe was on the other foot, and you or someone you like was being accused so bluntly by a liberal journalist in that manner, there would be an outcry against the set-up. I don’t mind, of course, the hard questions, just the awkward way it was handled. You hinted at that when you suggested some might have found it uncharitable, so I applaud that, but you should have said that more boldly. Like Bell or not, he was mistreated and the interview was consequently not as fruitful as it might have been.

    And, finally, a very small point, but one I’ll share. You said that Justin Taylor told everyone about the Bell trailer. Really? Surely your aware that most readers in the broader body of Christ don’t know who Justin is (to their loss, I’d say) and Mr. Bell’s media savvy team put it out there where many saw it. It’s not like Taylor “exposed” it and he sure didn’t “tell everyone.” Maybe it would have been less pompous to say “everyone in our circles” or “the young restless and reformed blogging world” or some qualifier to indicate you are aware that your tribe is not “everyone.” Am I being picky, here? Maybe it seems so, but I hope it helps think about how to write in ways that are true and fair.

    Anyway, I mostly agree with your good summary here, and hope you are right. Thanks for asking for input. May God continue to bless your important work.

    1. Thanks Byron. Regarding that final “small point,” while there’s certainly some hyperbole involved, I’m not sure this book would have caused as much of a stir (pre-release) as it did had Justin not put it forward. The same day he did, Bell’s name ended up a worldwide trending topic on Twitter (slow news day, I’m sure, but still).

      Anyway, thanks again for the feedback; I do appreciate it.

      1. Yeah, you are probably right about that….

        Hey, on an unrelated topic (well, sort of): did you see Ron Sider’s piece in Relevant, urging hip young evangelicals to not get so enamored with the call to do justice that they forget to do evangelism? And then a second calling for martial fidelity, and a third on holding firm on traditional Bible teaching on homosexuality. Some in some Reformed circles have been suspicious of Ron by I have always known him as very solid doctrinally and very balanced about the very things you care about at Compassion. It was a joy to see him (of all people) sounding a bit like D.A. Carson on your earlier piece on that topic.

  4. The Seeking Disciple

    I pray that you are right. I pray that the truth wins through “Love Wins.” I pray that Bell does repent.

  5. I think that the best outcome would be for people to understand that there are different ways to read and understand the bible. WE should not let little popes like Aaron tell us what is true and what is not true. Beyond that we can all trust in god’s desire that all men be saved and pray ‘lord, thy will be done.’

    1. I don’t know Aaron at all, but I am curious why you would use such a derisive term like “little popes” to describe him.

      1. Hey Joshua, I’ve chosen to not permit James’ response to go live as it contains a number of personal slights against people he has not met. Based on his comment, his issue is that I believe that there is such a thing as clear objective truth that is knowable as opposed to a wide diversity of opinion. He’s certainly welcome to this opinion (although I disagree), however, I cannot in good conscience continue to allow his comments to appear.

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