Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rob Bell: A Lesson in Responsibility and Ethics in Hermeneutics

As I worked through Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins," a few of things stood out. First, it was clear to me that Rob Bell writes from the standpoint of extreme arrogance. Perhaps that is just his style or perhaps he has a hatred for orthodoxy that simply cannot be subdued no matter how hard he tries. The style of Bell's writing displays an attitude of disdain. His refusal to deal honestly with all the texts on the subject of hell or eternal punishment in the Old and New Testament display a certain amount of disrespect for the subject and especially for the many theologians who have and would disagree with him, both in the past and in the present. The method Bell employs when dealing with semantic ranges and meanings of words in the bible also demonstrates a deranged bias. Bell's audience, for the most part, probably do not know any better when it comes to what he says about the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words. And Bell should know this. It is his ethical responsibility to present his case as fairly and objectively as he can. Bell does not appear to take this responsibility seriously. In fact, based on the style of his writing, Bell does not seem to take 2000 years of orthodoxy seriously either. The manner in which Bell throws out names like Luther and Augustine as if they would have either agreed with him or even been sympathetic toward his view is nothing short of disingenuous. The purpose of this post is to point out a few areas in Bell's book where he is clearly being unethical and deceptive as he attempts to sway his audience that hell is not to be taken as a literal abode for those who reject God to the end.

To begin with, on page 106 of "Love Wins," Bell contends that Luther agreed with him, quoting a letter Luther addressed to Hans von Rechenburg in 1522. Bell says,
In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenburg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: "Who would doubt God's ability to do that?"
By invoking the name Martin Luther in such a manner, Bell leaves the impression to a less informed audience at least, that the great reformer may have actually agreed with him on the subject of post-death repentance. Wham! Instant credibility! For others perhaps, who are a little informed, instant doubt. And Bell accomplishes exactly what he wishes or so it seems this is what he wishes. But is this really an accurate and honest handling of what Martin Luther said in this letter? Did Martin Luther, the great reformer actually believe in post-death repentance? Actually it is not, and Bell, being an educated man, if he does not, should know better. If we grant Bell the benefit of the doubt, we end up concluding that he is at least irresponsible, and exceptionally sloppy with his research on the subject. If we do not extend such grace, we must conclude that Bell is downright unethical in his work. That is to say that if he knew better and still presented Luther in this light without full disclosure, at a minimum, Bell is being terribly dishonest. Either way, both conclusions are regrettable. And it should be pointed out clearly that Bell's handling of the material must fall into one of these two categories. So for those who are defending Bell, they are placed in a position of defending an irresponsible author or an unethical one. There is no room for any other conclusion.

Second, as if the use of Martin Luther in a most underhanded way wasn't enough, Bell apparently needs to really build his credibility by invoking names like Clement, Jerome, and even Augustine in his attempt to solidify his position. I find it interesting and humorous and extremely ironic that Bell would attack orthodoxy by using the names of some of the greatest orthodox theologians of all time. These are the guys who are, to a large degree, responsible for hi-jacking the Jesus story to begin with according to Bell. Now, all of a sudden, Bell wants to use them where he thinks he will benefit from it. How convenient!

In response to Luther's letter, Bell couldn't be more culpable in demonstrating his disinterest in being fair about Luther's view. Here is the quote that most people pin on Luther:
God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.
And here is the quote as it is properly translated:
It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?

And not only this, Martin Luther followed that comment up with this comment, proving that he did not actually believe this to be the case:
No one, however, can prove that He does do this.

Yet Bell quotes Luther as if he would have approved of his views on the subject. Bell conveniently ignores the fact that his own definition of hell has nothing in common with Luther's. Bell, as far as one can tell after reading his book redefines hell as a life that is missing God's intent. Trying live a life apart from God, according to Bell is really what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell. There is nothing in Bell's chapter on hell that would lead one to believe otherwise. Martin Luther's views on a literal hell are what contributed to his joining the monastery. One must conclude that Bell is either being irresponsible or unethical by handling Luther's views on the subject in such a fashion. By doing so, he slights one of the greatest theologians of all time.

Bell contends that Clement and Origen affirmed God's reconciliation with all people. But he fails to provide specific quotes of either man's view on the subject. It is no secret that Origen held to many pernicious heresies and caused a wide variety of disturbances within the Christian community during his day. As for Clement of Alexandria, the evidence remains obscure. Bell seems to think otherwise. But one quote from Clement will serve to demonstrate that Bell is standing on very shaky ground indeed:

For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire. [Clement of Alexandria: Who is The Rich Man that Shall be Saved?]

From this quote and many more like it, it would be quite impossible to arrive at a clear understanding of Clement of Alexandria on this subject. It should also be noted that Clement lived from c.150 to c.215 and this should be given serious consideration as Christian certain doctrines were still being worked through. Bell likes to pretend that Christianity had reached a more mature place than it had, and use this lack of coherence in the very beginning of the church to cast doubt on what the church actually believes. This is an unfortunate strategy that serves more to discredit Mr. Bell than it does to build his case against the view of eternal punishment or even a literal hell.

It seems to me that one final example of this sort of strategy will suffice in demonstrating that Bell's tactics should be questioned just as much as his views on hell. Bell says, "...and Augustine Acknowledged that "very many" believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God." What Bell does next is considerably unfortunate. The very next thing he writes is, "Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn't bring God glory." By making these two statements side be side without clarification or qualification, Bell insinuates that Augustine was on board with such a view. Such a tactic is quite disingenuous. If challenged on it, Bell could answer that he did intend such a connection. Nevertheless, his style seems to clearly betray that he does intend to make such connections. J.D.N. Kelly comments on this, saying, "The motive behind these ideas, Augustine claims, is a misplaced conception of God's compassion, and Holy Scripture contradicts them: the everlasting death of the damned, i.e. their alienation from the life of God, will abide without term." [Kelly, J.D.N. Early Christian Doctrines. 484] It is clear that while Augustine may have commented on what "others" were saying, he himself categorically rejected this idea. If Bell wanted to be honest, just as he should have done with Luther, so too he should do here. He should provide clear disclosure and paint a more accurate picture of what these men believed. Instead, we are left wondering if Luther and Augustine were universalists. This is both regrettable and unfortunate and Bell should be called out, not only for his teaching, but specifically for how he goes about making his case.

One of the most important responsibilities of the church is to hear the gospel. Hearing the gospel requires rightly interpreting the service of the gospel. And the service of that gospel is Holy Scripture. John Webster writes, "The definitive act of the church is faithful hearing of the gospel of salvation announced by the risen Christ in the Spirit's power through the service of Holy Scripture. As the creatura verbi devini, the creature of the divine Word, the church is the hearing church."

There is an ethical component and along with it a great responsibility any time we pick up a text and set out to interpret the meaning of the author. This is especially true of sacred Scripture. And it is no less true of another authors who have invested the energy to pass along their work to others. As Christians we are to respect others who have taken the time and invested the energy to provide us with their views on particular subjects. We show this respect by doing our best to get at their intended meaning so as to be fair to them and to avoid misrepresenting their view. As far as I can see, Rob Bell takes a very disdainful and even snobbish approach, not only to authors like Luther and Augustine, but even to Scripture. The manner is which he muddies the water by how he approaches certain words in the Hebrew and Greek text, along with how he lifts statements out of context from various authors without giving full disclosure leaves little room for one to extend the possibility of sincerity to Bell. I pray that Bell will turn from his egregious error and at a minimum, that he will write with respect, responsibility, and fairness in the future. After all, Christian love does everything in its power to always be fair in all things, including properly representing other's views on subjects as important as this one.

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