How to Discuss Rob Bell without Killing Each Other
As most people probably know by now, Rob Bell has a new book out next month, Love Wins, about heaven and hell. Controversially the book will defend a view that is, more or less, universalist. Already the internet is white hot with comment, some of it helpful and some of it not.
My interest here in this post is simply with the rules of engagement—How can we discuss this book without killing each other? The comments that follow are aimed at both sides of the divide.
1. Truth does matter. It is not wrong, impolite, or ungracious to defend what we believe and to critique views that we think wrong. Not all views are equally true. The Bible calls us to speak the truth. The "whatever floats your boat" attitude may sound tolerant but it is no more than the pseudo-tolerance of indifference.
2. Those with whom we disagree on this matter are fellow Christians and not merely "Christians" (as some websites have said) nor "heretics" (as others have put it). As such we owe them a duty of love. The Bible calls us to speak the truth in love.
3. As such, we should approach this at least open to the idea (an idea that I am convinced is true) that this is an inner-Christian debate and not a debate between Christians and outsiders, nor between the orthodox and heretics, nor between Liberals and evangelicals, nor between gentle-hearted progressive and aggressive, old-fashioned conservatives. (In fact, I would go as far as to defend the claim that this is a debate, in some cases, between fellow evangelicals.)
4. Related to 3, it is not helpful to set the discussion up in loaded terms. For instance, as a debate between those who accept biblical teaching (i.e., those who agree with you) and those who do not (i.e., those with whom you disagree). Quite a few comments so far take this line. The reality is that this discussion is, for the most part, a discussion between Christians who all accept the authority of Scripture. The disagreement is over the interpretation of the Bible.
5. If we claim to accept the Bible as our guide and rule in theological reflection then the least that we can do is to take seriously the claims of those with who we disagree that the Bible supports their position. In other words, we need to listen to each other and to do so carefully and respectfully. The knee-jerk reaction of some against Rob Bell is that he obviously denies the clear teaching of the Bible. Let's not be too quick to reach that conclusion. The Bible is not nearly as "clear cut" on this issue as many people seem to think.
Of course, in the end we may feel that Bell or his opponents (or both) have indeed partly misunderstood the Bible. That is fine. But even then we need to ask, is the disagreement a matter to part ways over or a difference we can accept within fellowship? I think that it is the latter.
6. As such, we need to think very carefully about how central this debate is to Christian faith. Clearly important issues are under discussion and I am not calling for the tolerance of indifference, but is this a central matter for Christianity? Is the gospel itself under threat? Is the Bible being rejected? Are the creeds in question? Is anyone actually denying God's love or justice, say. Is mission really threatened? Is the centrality of Christ being denied? Are there any core Christian non-negotiables at stake here? I suspect that, as we look at both sides carefully and seek to understand each other better we shall find that not as much is in danger as we may imagine at first.
7. None of this is to say that we cannot robustly make our cases, rebut arguments, seek to expose the problems with our interlocutors' views, and so on. Nor is it to say that those arguments may not include some serious conclusions. To illustrate: I would argue that classical Calvinism is incompatible with the claim that "God is love." That is a serious claim! But, and this is critical, I am not claiming that any Calvinists deny that God is love. My claim is that one of their views is incompatible with another of their views but that they are "saved" by the 'fact' (if fact it be) that they have not appeciated this (claimed) inconsistency. Calvinists are then free to counter my arguments. But, and here is the point, we do so with grace, with an openness to learn and to change, and with a more measured grasp of what is and is not at risk in the debate than the knee-jerk responses so far have shown.
In my opinion, the best outcome of this discussion would be a better mutual understanding and an ongoing openness to continue learning from each other. I hope that both sides can come to view each other much as Arminians and Calvinists view each other—as mistaken but as mistaken Christ-loving, gospel-believing, disciples we are honoured to count as brothers and sisters.
If we conduct this debate in such a manner that we fail to recognize one another as beloved of God then shame on us, no matter how right we may be!