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The plot thickens.

Just when we thought we had heard all there is to hear on the Rob Bell issue, a response emerged. Acting as a de facto spokesperson for the Rob Bell bashers, Kevin DeYoung offered this response to the saga, and more importantly the criticism that fellow TGCer Justin Taylor received for his blog post on the matter. Feel free to read DeYoung’s response for yourself, but essentially his points are (1) a public response is appropriate because the matter in question is already public, and (2) they are not issuing a warning about what he might say in the book, but what he already did say in the video. DeYoung’s final statement sums up his position pretty well: “We don’t have to guess if Bell will say something dreadfully, horribly, disgracefully wrong. He already has.” DeYoung is essentially defending the attackers, stating that “theological error of this magnitude cannot go unchecked.”

DeYoung does make several good points. First, he addresses the argument that many have made about the public nature of the response. Many have stated that Matthew 18 calls for someone to privately address an issue first. I agree with DeYoung that the Bible is here referring to issues that begin as private in nature. Matthew 18:15 begins with the phrase “If your brother sins against you,” which would lead one to believe this matter of handling an issue is referring to a private matter between two individuals, not something that is already made public such as a publisher’s description of a book or a video published on the Internet. I believe DeYoung to be correct that Matthew 18 does not apply, and a public response is appropriate because the matter is already public. I agree and have never spoken otherwise. It is the response itself that troubles me, not the matter in which it was handled.

Second, DeYoung also rightly argues that major theological errors should go unchecked. I agree, and this is one major reason for me to write a response to DeYoung and others who have attacked Bell’s theology. The difference is I believe DeYoung is erroneous and not Bell. DeYoung makes several conclusions with which I disagree in his post, as follows.

  1. DeYoung’s response is founded on the conclusion that Bell is asking rhetorical questions. If you’re familiar at all with Rob Bell, he asks a lot of questions. In his popular NOOMA video series, Bell usually takes on a three-step approach, best summed up as “I have a friend who / the Bible says / may you.” Essentially, Bell begins with a story, relates that story to Scripture, and concludes with an exhortation gleaned from it. Along the way, he asks lots of questions, and they usually relate to characters in the story or how those characters would approach the Scripture passage. They’re rarely rhetorical. Instead, he usually tries to ask questions the characters in the story would ask or questions that you or I would likely ask while watching such a story. I believe the same to be true in his new book. Bell isn’t asking rhetorical questions. He’s asking questions that many people are asking, and my guess is that Bell’s intent was to intrigue those watching. Instead of invoking a response such as “well, obviously!” as the video is being watched, I believe the response Bell is attempting to invoke is more along the lines of “hey, I’ve been wondering that too… and he’s going to address that in his book!” This would be the essence of promotional marketing, to entice people to buy the book. People aren’t going to be enticed to buy a book that only asks questions they already can answer, so it wouldn’t make much sense for Bell to be going that route. DeYoung’s backing for the “warning” he and others give about Bell’s video centers around the idea that these questions are indeed rhetorical. DeYoung assumes that Bell is mocking those who disagree with him, and he’s assuming to know what Bell will say in his book when there’s no reason to do either. Bell has left the gates intentionally wide open, and to presume otherwise goes against the logic of promotional marketing as well as an understanding of Bell’s typical writing style.
  2. More importantly, DeYoung assumes that his method of biblical interpretation is the only correct one. If you carefully read his post, this becomes clear. DeYoung discusses “biblical Christianity,” “a traditional view of hell,” Jonathan Edwards, historic orthodoxy, and penal substitution all in the same breath. DeYoung assumes that anyone who disagrees with him is a heretic. Either you’re a Calvinist or you’re a universalist, DeYoung seems to say. There’s no gray area at all.
  3. This is a problem because the Bible is not as black and white on the topic of hell as DeYoung seems to think. DeYoung implies that the Bible makes a clear case for exclusivism. He lumps universalists, inclusivists, and non-Christians into the same category in the final section of his post, implying that all of these are outside the realm of orthodox Christianity. He appeals to “giants of Church history” (and it’s important to note that he cites Augustine, Luther, and Calvin – the three “giants” of the branch of Christianity we now call Calvinism) to see what “mainstream Christians have believed through the centuries.” The problem is that not every “giant” believes what these three did. As early as Origen, a third-century “giant,” differing views on hell emerged. Current “giants” such as N.T. Wright offer views different than those of DeYoung, but Wright is no heretic. Other current “giants” such as Eugene Peterson have defended Bell’s video. It’s just not as black and white as DeYoung makes it out to be.
  4. Essentially, the point is this: Rob Bell doesn’t attack orthodox Christianity, but his theology does counter what some orthodox Christians believe. In other words, Rob Bell doesn’t make any statements that rule him out from being a Christian. He does, however, make statements that rule him out from being a Calvinist. I think that is the main reason for the attacks from TGCers and Calvinists such as Piper. They see their theology being challenged, and they don’t like it. It’s not that Bell isn’t a Christian, it’s that he isn’t a Calvinist. The problem is that for many Calvinists, a non-Calvinist is essentially a non-Christian. John Piper has been clear in the past in saying that Arminian theology (while widely considered by most others to be completely orthodox) is “on the precipice of heresy.” This seems to be the issue for DeYoung, too. Bell is challenging that the Calvinist view of God allows God to be good. And this view should be challenged. Those who believe in double predestination and limited atonement – the idea that Jesus did not die for everyone and God randomly sentenced some people specifically to hell – should be challenged. It’s essentially saying that God is bipolar and we’d better hope the good, loving part of God (Jesus) reaches out to us over and above the scary, wrathful part of God (the Father). I’ve heard this exact phrase from the mouth of Calvinists before – “We need God to save us from God” – and it troubles me greatly that Christians believe this. Apparently, according to the video, it troubles Rob Bell too. Yes, God saves us from hell, but God does save us from… God? That would mean some part of God needs saving from, compromising God’s goodness. That’s bad theology! It’s interesting to note here that the “giants” don’t all believe in this bipolar view of God who only saves some, and specifically, John Calvin, the main “giant” and namesake for Calvinists, also didn’t. That’s right, reading John Calvin’s writings, I don’t think he believed in limited atonement. I don’t think John Calvin would have been a “five-point” Calvinist (I place the phrase in quotes because the “points of Calvinism” were only created after Calvin’s lifetime – Calvin never taught the “five points”). John Calvin understood John 3:16 very similarly to the way I do. Note his observations in his Commentary on the Gospel according to John: “Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.” Later on the same page, “[Jesus] has employed the universal term whosoever… to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life.” And also, “Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ.” Those are John Calvin’s words, not mine. Sounds very different from limited atonement, doesn’t it? (And yes, that question was rhetorical.)
  5. DeYoung clearly believes that exclusivism (only the saved/elect will go to heaven) is the only acceptable teaching, but most orthodox Christians don’t believe in and teach complete exclusivism. From my childhood on, I’ve been taught about the “age of accountability.” Most Christians I know hold some kind of belief in the “age of accountability” or “age of innocence.” Essentially the idea is that there is a time in life (generally believed to be some time during childhood) when each person becomes accountable for his or her actions. If someone was to die before that time, they would not be accountable because they were not old enough to understand. It makes sense – a child that is born with serious health problems and dies at two weeks old does not have the mental capacity to understand his depravity. There was a time in seminary when I questioned this view. I believed it was something we made up at some point to make us feel better about kids who die. When I mentioned something about this in a class, I was offered a new perspective that helped me to understand that such a view is indeed true to Scripture. Jesus spoke of childlike faith in Matthew 18:1-5, saying (in verse 3), “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus also speaks of God revealed to children in Matthew 11:25: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Believing in the age of accountability compromises strict exclusivism, because these children have not accepted Christ. Thus, important questions about exclusivism become extremely relevant. Where do we draw the line? Do aborted babies go to heaven? Do children who haven’t reached the age of accountability go to heaven? Is accountability reached at a certain age or after obtaining certain understanding or knowledge? What about the mentally handicapped? What about those who acknowledge the existence of a higher power but haven’t heard the Gospel? It’s not black and white, and DeYoung is making a terrible mistake by presuming it to be. There are important questions on this issue that need to be asked. Rob Bell simply recognizes the fact that people are asking those questions, and he asks similar ones in his video because he knows they’re important. One should not be shunned or kicked out of the Christian faith for asking them. The proper solution is to tackle the issues head-on, and that’s what Rob Bell is doing. Even if my conclusion on the matter is different from his, I applaud him for asking the hard questions.

My hope is that when Bell’s book is released, it will allow us (even more than we are already) to talk about these hard questions – not in a harsh, “you’re going to hell because you disagree with me,” kind of way, but in an effort to clarify what the Bible says on the issue. That’s been my goal all along, and I hope the bloggers from the Gospel Coalition will eventually come around as well.

For more thoughts on the topic, I’d recommend reading the following blog posts: