Friday, April 08, 2011

Truth & Tactics in Love Wins

The publication of ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell has opened a whole raft of debate on the subject of Hell. My own position on Hell is summarised in a sermon I preached last year (HERE) – and indeed the Biblical shortcomings and dangers of RB’s view are well outlined by others such as Kevin DeYoung.

This blog therefore is not a direct interaction with Love Wins or the subject of hell. Rather it’s a reflection on some of the tactics of Rob Bell and others in their desire to promote their ideas.

Having their cake & eating it
Defenders of RB and others (one thinks of Brian McLaren for example) have a habit of denouncing public challenges to their views as violating good Christian practise. They protest that those who have issues with RB should take them up privately – rather than create a unseemly public spat. Whereas it’s seemingly quite acceptable for RB to write an internationally published best-seller to disseminate his strongly expressed views on what others have taught.

Holier than thou
I’ve noticed in one article how those supportive of RB were cited with warm descriptions such as, ‘fairly perceptive’, ‘a fairly careful theological thinker’, ‘one of the wisest and most Christlike New Testament scholars’ and ‘tremendously dedicated disciples of Jesus’. Contrastingly those who oppose RB’s teachings were categorised as ‘uncharitable’, shameful, putting people through ‘the Spanish Inquisition’, shooting first and asking questions later, ‘vituperative’, ‘intemperate’, and ‘unreasoned’.

This is a great tactic as it avoids having to deal with the substance of any objections. Instead opponents can be written off as spiritually sub-standard – after all you might feel more obliged to actually deal with the arguments of Piper & Driscoll if you credited them as ‘fairly perceptive’ guys or ‘Christlike’ or tremendously dedicated disciples of Jesus.

Name grabbing
Defenders of RB have a tendency to appeal an awful lot to third parties (i.e. non-Biblical sources). So some of the more esoteric thoughts of writers like CS Lewis are seized upon to back-up their position. Thus his thoughts on the dehumanising effects of sin are quoted as evidence of those in hell being in some sense unhuman. Or that Billy Graham thinks there might be some third, undefined and mystical, way to be saved for ‘good’ people in other religions.

Interesting stuff, all very beard-stroking, but you only have to bump down on the Bible for a moment to realise that such speculations are going way beyond anything it actually says (and indeed quickly run into some pretty big NT buffers). That’s the problem with so much modern revisionist theology – it is increasingly detached from any clear Bible texts – it is bolted on to the end of an ever rickety series of extensions. One man’s speculation becomes the next man’s foundation and so on.

Quiet please
This follows on from the second point – but it is the tactic of pushing back challenges under the cover of, ‘we don’t like your tone’. Now, of course, tone is important but is can also be a great smokescreen for avoiding accountability. So again, evangelicals who are passionate about the pastoral and theological dangers of revisionist teaching on hell – can be dismissed as strident or disrespectful. Likewise mainline evangelical understandings of hell are characterised as ‘stingy’ – in contrast to the new ‘generous’ take on the subject.

Let’s just be friends
This is one of the last cards played in these debates – e.g. ‘well even if X is wrong, he’s a great guy and we should welcome him in our churches’. You could imagine people saying the same thing to the apostle Paul – ‘look Paul, don’t get so uptight about Hymenaeus and Philetus’s new view on the Resurrection. After all they’re really top guys, have done a lot of good work and are really popular church leaders’.

But truth is not a beauty pagent of church leaders – doctrine really matters. Getting it right can be a matter of life – getting it wrong, death. Paul doesn’t base his acceptance or readiness to partner with other church leaders on the basis of their ministry CVs – or even whether he thinks they are ‘genuine Christians’ (‘The Lord knows those who are his’ 2 Tim 2:19). Rather he basis it on his assessment of their faithfulness to the revealed apostolic gospel – and he has little time for those indulging in secondary speculations (1 Tim 1:3-6).

But what if RB is right, that we have been too strident on the subject of hell, too unhopeful about its finality, too exclusive in thinking how people might avoid it? Well then, I’ll meet folks in heaven who I thought probably wouldn’t be there – happy thought! But if RB is wrong, then missing from heaven may be folks who heard that hell was not final, repentance could be postponed, and that their own religious thoughts might suffice for God. This is serious.

The final irony is that in claiming to have the best interests of the Gospel at heart the proponents of such teachings simply cause a huge distraction to its proclamation – they suck energy out churches as yet another wave of liberalism arrives on the church’s doorstep. Because there is nothing new in this – the doctrine of hell has been challenged repeatedly over the centuries. The church has been down this path many times – the late 1800’s, the 1960’s and now at the start of the 21st century. As the Duke of Wellington once wearily remarked after one of his many battles – ‘they came on the same old way, and we beat them off the same old way’.

Ultimately, the best way for most of us to respond to RB (and those keen to push evangelical churches into a more liberal mould) – is not to get bogged down in trying to untangle the slippery knots of Love Wins. Instead we should push back such unhelpful and pastorally dangerous speculations by simply asserting clearly & calmly what we do believe is clear about hell, the exclusivity of Christ, and the need for faith & repentance. We keep on declaring the faith as once delivered to the saints – others will bear their own responsibility for what they teach.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Hard Yards of Spiritual Growth

John Newton puts the experience so vividly....

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.

I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He'd answer my request,
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with his own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

'Lord, why is this?' I trembling cried,
'Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?'
'Tis in this way,' the Lord replied,
'I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break the schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may'st seek thy all in me.'

Quoted in 'Knowing God' by JI Packer - the accompanying chapter (21) on 'Inward Trials' is well worth a read.