Rob Bell vs. John Piper. . .

I’ve decided to return from my blog hiatus with a different type of post than I’ve done before.

Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins is already on trial more than a month before it’s released.

On February 26, Justin Taylor denounced Bell in a post on his blog, and John Piper dismissed Bell in a post on Twitter.

Here’s the trailer for the book in question:

So where do I fall on this?

It’s no big secret to my friends and co-workers that I’m fascinated by Bell’s teaching techniques, his writing style, and his ability to captivate an audience through an artistically smart medium. He’s culturally savvy, yet not flashy or in-your-face like so many pastors and churches are becoming these days (arguing ad nauseam that in order to be hip and cool you’ve got to be loud and obnoxious. . . I love you, Perry Noble, but please, relax a little).

But now accusations are being thrown in light of the possibility that Bell might be a universalist.

This battle is nothing new. Bell has often fallen under fire from Neo-Calvinists like Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris who follow in Piper’s footsteps and view Bell as a liberal compromiser (though perhaps not in the same way that a Fundy might call someone a “liberal compromiser”). Ever since Velvet Elvis was released, the Reformed camp has been searching for one opportunity after another to roast Bell.

And in response, Bell’s supporters and the hipster evangelicals hurl accusations at the side where Driscoll, Harris, Piper, and Taylor rest, calling them “smug, legalistic jerks who care nothing for loving people.”

Lines are drawn in the sand. The Neo-Calvinists attract intellectuals because of their systematic approach to studying scripture. They work hard to affirm the orthodox tenets of historic (whether traditional or non) evangelical theology. The hipster evangelicals attract artists and their ilk because of their narrative approach to theology.

The sides are angry with each other because one side appears to be spurning the Apostles’ Creed while the other side appears to be punching people in the face with it.

“Even worse, both sides often make the assertion they stand in for God, even as they both deny they do so. When statements like, ‘Either believe this or you aren’t an orthodox Christian’ or, ‘I think God is tired of iron clad,’ get thrown around, you know that both sides believe they are speaking for God.”

~Rev. Jonathan Weyer

I’m reminded of Christ’s parable “The Lost Son” from Luke 15.11-32. We often think of this as the story of a prodigal son, but in reality, it’s a story about two sons and their father’s transcendent love.

The younger son, like Bell and his hipster evangelical followers, dismissed his father’s love by spurning the home he’s built for his children (the “home” of theological orthodoxy). The older son (Piper and the Neo-Calvinists), while staying close to home, dismissed his father’s love by rejecting his embrace of the younger son.

I want to approach this debate in a different way. If you pinned me down and asked me what my beliefs are, I would affirm the truths set forth by Driscoll, Piper, and Taylor. But I can’t line up with them on this debate.

I think there’s more at play here than orthodoxy vs. liberalism. If it were simply about that, I’d fall on the side of orthodoxy in nearly every argument. But it’s not anymore.

It’s quickly becoming about how one side of evangelicalism treats the other side of evangelicalism with disdain. “You don’t love people like we do! You’re a bunch of jerks!”

Or “You don’t affirm the tenets set forth in the Nicene Creed. You’re preaching a false gospel!”

I’ll wait to talk about Bell until after Love Wins comes out. And afterwards I will continue to read his writings, listen to his sermons, and watch his Nooma videos regardless of whether he skews orthodox or universalist.

But I will do so as I always should have—with one or two grains of salt.

Why continue gleaning from his teachings? First, because he teaches from a fresh perspective on Jesus. He still preaches Christ, the Son of God. He still preaches Christ, crucified and resurrected, however off his interpretation of heaven and hell may (or may not, we’ll have to wait till the 29th to find out for sure) be. And second, because he remembers something that many Neo-Calvinists sometimes forget: part of being missional is being approachable.

3 thoughts on “Rob Bell vs. John Piper. . .

  1. I think Scot McKnight puts it very well:

    Here’s my take. Should Rob Bell turn out to be a universalist (which, based on McKnight’s assessment of the varying forms of universalism, could prove very difficult to figure out), it could become very difficult to discern how to respond to him.

    In cases like these I sometimes wish I were still a Baptist Fundamentalist. They reject everything, and it’d be easier to just straight-up label him a “false teacher” and be done with it.

    But I don’t think we can get away with doing that. Again, I’ll reserve judgment until after his book comes out, but to play into your scenario, Scott, I think we’d have to examine his teachings with the same kind of discernment we’d examine anyone else’s teachings. I don’t think this should alter the way we react to him.

    He’s a smart philosopher and an amazing artist, so I wonder if perhaps we can view him the way Paul viewed the pagan poets and philosophers of his day. He quotes them and uses their sayings to lend critical credence to what he was teaching.

    DeYoung isn’t someone I often go to with regards to controversial topics. He has a tendency to be a bit volatile and (dare I say it?) reactionary. He’s right when he says that Bell is communicating something through his questions in the video, but is DeYoung arriving at the right conclusion?

    Let’s say that Bell comes out and affirms an orthodox stance on heaven and hell (doubtful, given the fact that McLaren has offered an endorsement, but let’s play with the hypothetical for a bit). If he does fall on the side of conditional afterlife, does that make his promo video misleading? Only if he doesn’t address the issue as creatively as he’s known to do. Bell has been known for finding a “third way” when it comes to many topics (take Sex God, for example), so the opportunity is still open for him to ruffle feathers on either—or even both—sides of the argument.

    Frankly, I’m not holding out any hope that he’s going to end up affirming what I believe. I know where McLaren stands on the issue, and his endorsement of Bell’s book is certainly bothersome. But I’ll read it and continue to prayerfully search through the scriptures for answers to my questions.

  2. Great article! Love this line: “The sides are angry with each other because one side appears to be spurning the Apostles’ Creed while the other side appears to be punching people in the face with it.” That captures it so well. I also completely agree that we need to wait till the book actually comes out before making hard statements about it.

    However, hypothetically speaking, say he is a universalist. That would put him distinctly outside the borders of the Christian tradition going back all the way to the first century. The real possibility of judgment (with the possibility of not being accepted) is a key element of every historical conception of the gospel, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. Shouldn’t that alter our reaction to him in a way that his “creativity” in other doctrinal areas (even important ones) may not?

  3. I also am waiting to read the book at the end of this month. I have to go with what Kevin DeYoung has said, though. Regardless of whether or not the book has released yet, Bell is still teaching through what he’s said so far in the form of his questions. I also have to wonder what Jesus thinks of such provocative promotional materials. That right there rubs me the wrong way.

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