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!


Anonymous said…
Well put Robin.
Ditto said…
G.Y. said…
I appreciate your desire to find common ground and i concur but i have long thought that a more vigorous defense of Universalism from theologically astute Christians would be helpful to the Church at large.
I think that the belief that in the end God will eternally torture most of his creatures is very psychologically damaging. I understand that there are other ways of viewing whatever "hell" may be that is not as extreme but maybe we should not be short selling our belief in Universalism in our Christian discourse.
Jake said…
I suspect that many on the opposite side of this issue from you will not agree with your rules of engagement. For them this IS an issue of orthodox vs. heresy, and it IS a matter of CENTRAL importance to the Christian faith. Must those debates take place first?
Alex Smith said…
I totally agree Robin. I hope it's not a blood bath or "burning at the stake", giving Atheists a reason to criticize Christianity. Unfortunately many see ECT as central to Christianity.
lukeisham said…
Is the gospel itself under threat? Is the Bible being rejected? Are the creeds in question?

It seems odd to decide that these aren't the very questions in dispute!

Incidentally back on my blog we are having a discussion about the Athanasian Creed, particularly the last couple of lines:

At His coming all men will rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
Terry Wright said…
The thing is, the interpretation of 'everlasting' as everlasting isn't that clear-cut, either.

But you have a point about the Athanasian Creed, all the same. The Church of England, at least, still holds to this, and if 'everlasting' is to be understood in the traditional sense, then... well, I needn't spell it out.

Robin, what you write is good, and it strikes me that your 'oxymoron' presentation might be a good thing to write up as a paper and submitted to one of the evangelical journals. Any chance of you doing that? (I realise this is the second time in the space of a month that I've encouraged you to write a paper - hope you don't mind!)
Robin Parry said…

I am not suggesting that either side should not make a robust case for their view—indeed, I argued that they should.

My only concern in this post is that the discussion is conducted in a way honouring to the Lord we claim to serve.
Robin Parry said…
Jake, Alex, and Luke,

It is true that many in this debate do think that the gospel is under threat. And this question certainly needs addressing.

Indeed, I think it often needs addressing before we even consider whether universalism (or its denial) is true or not.

But this is why it is so critical to listen ultra carefully to each other in order to clarify what we are REALLY saying. I think that if both sides understand each other better they will see that the gospel, etc., is not under threat.

One thing I noticed on the more moderate traditionalist blog sites was a generous willingness to not reach a judgement on Bell-as-a-heretic before they had read the book to see whether he really is a universalist or not. But, what struck me was that the assumption was that IF he truly is a universalist THEN we will know he is a heretic.

But I think more willingness to listen is required than this. We should not assume that we know universalism is a heresy until we have taken the time to understand its contours and nuances. There are, in fact, many different versions of universalism and we need to beware not to put them all in the same box.

The critical point is that we need to be open to the possibility that a theological view that we consider wrong may still be one that fals within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, almost all of us already accept this (consider different views on human freedom and divine sovereignty). So even if we think our conversation partners wrong about hell, might the disagreement be of this kind.

Let's not assume it cannot be until we have taken the time to listen carefully and generously.
Robin Parry said…

The Athanasian Creed (which I love) does indeed say that.

But the Athanasian Creed has no ecumenical authority as it was never accepted by the whole Christian church.

I would have few qualms questioning aspects of the Athanasian creed. (That said, I think most of it is sound as a pound).

The creed with the real clout is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. That is accepted by all branches of the church and that is the one that orthodox Christians must affirm.
Robin Parry said…

On your advice, I did offer a paper to SST on Torrance's critique of universalism and why it is actually more of a problem for non-universalists. It was not accepted. (Which is fine by me—life is short).

I may do as you suggest.

Terry Wright said…
Sorry to hear it wasn't accepted, Robin. I guess there's only so many that can be accepted, but it's a shame you can't put universal salvation on the theological agenda at this conference.

Are you a member of SST? If so, you might consider asking Tom Greggs if the topic can be the theme for the 2013 conference.
David said…
I came to hear about the evangelical universalist position after reading an article of Keith DeRose. I am now interested to explore this subject even further, and the fact that Rob Bell will publish this book on universal salvation has led me to want to engage in some public discussion in my community about universal salvation. Can you help me with some bibliography? Until now, all the books I could find were "The Inescapable Love of God" and "Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate" by Thomas Talbott, The Evangelical Universalist by you (I just bought the book on the Internet and I'm waiting for it to arrive) and Christian Universalism: God's Good News For All People by Eric Stetson.

I am interested to read the most relevant books on this subject (evangelical universalism) so I would be very interested to know if you can tell me what those books are. Thank you very much.
Hywel said…
There is a disjunction between the (at least) two parties. Whilst the focus is always drawn to eternal punishment and hell, the core issue of a differing understanding of Salvation never gets a look in. It may be that this needs addressing as much as the red rag issue of hell.
Remove Hell from one theological framework and the whole Atonement is threatened, so it can't be glossed over as a 'lets talk about this nicely' topic. To grossly over-simplify, there is definitely a saving-from that informs the whole believer's new creation walk, worship and eternal destiny.
Remove Hell and they are at a severe loss, indeed robbed of their language of worship, and bedrock of their experience of God. God's Love is the very thing that saves them FROM. Take the From away, and the nature of his Love is questioned.
It is something that cannot be contemplated even.
Whilst the other 'side' are so abhorred by the idea of a punishing God that Salvation must be a Saving to and not 'from' (or some variation that might include annihilation). How could a Loving God punish his own creation made in his image?
How could I love such a God, how could I serve him? The Good News is not a saving from God's wrath, but the Love that Wins.
Both views are such radically different interpretations of the Gospel that the 'Truth of the Gospel' cannot be assumed as common ground.
And as both claim scripture as their authority, accepting the other view as a valid interpretation would not merely be a compromise but an undermining of all that is held dear. The charge of heresy then is not long in following.
A mediated process would look for not common ground but common interest to resolve such an impasse. From the common interest, ground would then have to be conceded to each other to find a mutual understanding.
For this to happen, the focus needs to be drawn away from the differences to common cause (if at all possible), with a drawing back from inflammatory and accusatory language. When some of the heat is taken out then maybe some listening could occur.
But whilst both sides are out to prove that they are right... the flames will only burn higher
See how these Christians love one another...
Now where did I put that log that fell out of my eye earlier...
Robin Parry said…
Hey David,

There are not loades and you have most of them. There is also "All Shall Be Well" (recently published and edited by Gregory MacDonald—cheapest if bought direct from the W&S website).

The Bibliographies in the books that you have will list most things.

I have not read it but there is a book by a Mennonite called Sharon Baker. The book is "Razing Hell."

On the other side, the best defence of hell-as-annihilation is Edward Fudge's "The Fire that Consumes" (third edition and final out soon).

There are lots of books defending the trad view.
Robin Parry said…

Thanks, that is a helpful comment.

I had not thought of it quite like that.

However, I think that universalists could also work with the "saved from divine wrath/hell" idea. At least, their universalism does not require them to move away from that. All it requires is that everyone is saved from wrath/hell.

Indeed, I think that a universalist could even construe hell as eternal conscious torment (though few do). I posted on that possibility not too long ago.

Maybe we all need to sit down and get a clearer idea of what we all think before we start throwing missiles.

But there are, as you point out, significant theologiucal problems.
Hywel said…
"However, I think that universalists could also work with the "saved from divine wrath/hell" idea... All it requires is that everyone is saved from wrath/hell."

Nice try! But to the 'non-universalist' this looks like a conjuring trick. If all are saved from hell, then effectively no-one is saved from hell.

Anyway - it just goes to prove the difficulty of the debate. I appreciate your trying to take the heat out of it

To me the debate highlights the wider threat of Relativism and its religious sparring partner Certainty. I find that the human search for Balance always leads to my choosing where to put the weight of truth. I'm learning/struggling to choose not to take this path and striving to enter his rest of being held in the tension of uncomfortable truths
Robin Parry said…

You say that, "But to the 'non-universalist' this looks like a conjuring trick. If all are saved from hell, then effectively no-one is saved from hell."

If that is what they think then I would suggest that they are mistaken.

Imagine that a nuclear bomb is about to go off in a village. Imagine that a brave chappy defuses it just in time. Would we say, "Well, if everyone in the village was saved from the bomb then effectively no one was saved from the bomb"? If we did we'd be a bit odd, to say the least.

For me this is not an issue to do with relativism. Sure, some wander in universalist directions because of relativist inclinations but others, such as myself, go there for non-relativist reasons. Relativism is a whole different issue that has no necessary connection with the claim that God will save all people.
lukeisham said…
Hi Robin,

Good to hear you love the Athanasian Creed, it helps lay the foundations for the doctrine of the Trinity. Which makes me wonder on what basis you decide some parts are authoritative and others aren't?
Kurt said…
These are some great 'ground rules' for guiding future dialogue on this issue. I am frustrated with the leap that was made from "he denies eternal torment... therefore he must be a universalist." That is a big leap. I argue that the Reformed Calvinists are looking at the video/book promo with too narrow a grid. Feel free to check out my post with some "predictions" about where Rob will go...
Robin Parry said…

Good Q.

A few thoughts.

1. I don't that that creed lays any foundations for understanding the Trinity. All those foundations were already laid long before it was penned. What it does (wonderfully) is to set out the grammar of talk about the Trinity. The rules of the "game".

2. Authority comes in degrees—some people, institutions, etc. have more than others. And it also operates in different spheres (some people/institutions have authority in some matters but not in others).

Now this creed does have authority but not universal authority in the Christian world because significant chunks of it (most notably the Eastern Orthodox churches) never subscribed to it. It reflects the Western trinitarian tradition. But within parts of the Western church (inc. Anglican churches) it does carry authority.

The creed the carries most authority and has the widest reach is the Nicene creed. That is the creed by which orthodoxy is measured.

3. So when I come to a creed like the Athanasian creed I will always defer to it unless I have a good reason not to. It has authority but not supreme authority. I give it the benefit of the doubt and presume it is wise Christian instruction unless I judge it mistaken.

In this case when I read it I find that there is only one point at which I CANNOT go with it—in its teaching on eternal punishment.
My reasons for rejecting eternal punishment are set out in "The Evangelical Universalist."
Hywel said…
Appreciate your comment Robin, and from our conversations in the past, I can't see you as a relativist somehow.
I'm not seeking either to defend or attack either position in what I'm saying, rather drawing attention to the disjunction. Neither side seem to be able to comprehend where the other is coming from because their starting point seems abhorrent. This means that there is apriori judgement and therefore no real openness to hear what is said.
So for instance, your response to my comment about conjuring a trick is understandable, but misses the point. I'm not saying it is a conjuring trick, but rather for those of the opposite persuasion it jolly well looks like one. So in order to engage in debate you need to be able to understand that type of perception.
There will be similar issues both ways obviously. However the difference is that those on the side of 'all are saved' have generally come to it through a journey; those of a more 'traditional' conviction (and I use the word carefully) will be less open to explore other viewpoints as valid. Indeed other viewpoints can seem a threat. Feeling threatened leads to defensiveness and general shoutiness.
As the whole theme touches on death, which if we face it is pretty scary prospect, then the stakes are going to be high.
Hope you don't mind my butting in here
Robin Parry said…

You are quite right. There are significant psychological barriers that will get in the way of proper conversation.

(I have to actively struggle against them in myself. Often I just want to lash out when I read some of the comments I see online.)

But if enough people will take the time to listen I think that we may be able to see past some of the misunderstandings that shape some of the nastiness.

For instance, many of the issues closest the the heart of Reformed objections to universalisms are, contrary to many preconceptions, fully compatible with universalism. A lot less is at risk (with certain forms of universalism) that many fear.

My hope is that if people are willing to listen more carefully some (even if not all) concerns may be removed and the heat taken out of the discussion.

But whether people will come to the point of listening is a moot point.
Greg said…
This may seem a bit off the subject but the press, time, and discussions that will be generated from Rob Bell's opinions over the coming months will probably prove my point. The reactions will come and go both condemning and approving of Rob Bell's views before and after his latest book comes out. It's interresting to me how much sway national figures continue to have in the Body of Christ. Needless to say, more will be debated over what he says than any local pastor's last twenty sermons. Yet neither Rob Bell nor any of the other celebrities will go to my child's sickbed, deliver meals to my family when they are hungry, or visit our home if my wife leaves me. His writing, suprisingly, can get many to look sideways (with contempt or lack of appreciation) at the man who does care for their family, especially if his views are not up to the cerebral prowace of the national voices like Bell. Afterall, our pastors don't do cool videos. These national writers have ascended to a kind of popery. They rule from Zondervan and other high places speaking forth the next edict that will change everything in Christendom . We seem to worship the mind, and the one who can convince more than the truth. I believe every Christian should be educated and know what he believes about matters of docthrine and I'm not saying that these writers have no place in the discussion. Shouldn't we though, honor the local Pastor, by respecting him over such mouthpieces? Doesn't he deserve the authority that comes from his sacrifice? The scriptures would indicate that these megaphone carrying self appointed spokesman have earned at most a back seat to the people God calls into our communities to lead us.

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