- He is a heretic
- He denies the inerrancy of scripture
- He denies the immutability of scripture
- He denies the immaculate conception of Christ
- He denies Christ's substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world
- He secretly devours the souls of small children
I knew Bell's ideas have been labeled as revolutionary, so I was ready for some new concepts in his writing. Prepared though I was, what I found in this book shocked me. More on that later; first, let me summarize the book so you can be ready to make a semi-informed snap decision about how heretical it is.
Bell's project is an ambitious one. His main premise is that modern Christianity (and, in particular, Evangelical Christian ecclesiology, exegesis, and theology proper) is fair game for review, rethinking, and revision. He writes,
As part of [the Protestant] tradition, I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming. By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes ... I mean theology: the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future. We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived, and explained."1Right now, if you're anything like me, you're thinking, "Them is some mighty big britches for one man to fill."
But big britches or no, Bell does an admirable job of creating an accessible, interesting, and even compelling case for his postmodern Christian credo. He uses powerful metaphors to build his approach, and, rhetorically, his use of scripture to support his assertions is masterful (especially since his arguments are fairly certain to face vocal opposition from the "sola scriptura" crowd).
Despite Bell's implication that he will be shaking the very underpinnings of the Christian faith, his project is not one of overturning orthodoxy. Rather, he wants to shift the focus of what he sees as a dry, dull Christianity back to the things that made the teachings of Jesus so compelling:
- His offer of access to an otherwise unknowable God
- His promise to be our Way -- our only Way
- His love for marginalized people
- His genuine humanity (as seen in His anguished cry, "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?")
- The transcendent love and joy He offers to those who follow Him2
After the first chapter (or "movement"), Bell does a series of close readings that interpret various teachings of Christ through a sociohistorical lens. In short, he brings historical knowledge to bear in his readings of Christ as one who consciously chose to teach within his own people's tradition: that of the Jewish rabbis.
For example, Bell reads the "yoke" of Christ in Matthew 11:30 as a technical rabbinical term referring to a rabbi's body of teaching. The "binding and loosing" of Matt. 16:19, again, is a technical rabbinical term referring to the strictness of a given rabbi's interpretation of the Torah. Again, these interpretations rely on extrabiblical knowledge, but Bell sees them as having a great deal to do with how Christians should read and apply Biblical truth. They also lead him to conclude that scriptural interpretation -- the binding and loosing and wrestling that are involved in exegesis -- are, or should be, a community-oriented endeavor. (The individualistic founders of the Reformation may now begin barrel-rolling in their respective Papally desecrated graves.)3
Bell goes on to argue that:
- The world is full of God's truth -- even outside of Scripture and the lives of believers -- wherever there is Good or Right or Beauty (Movement Three)
- The Bible teaches invaluable lessons for modern life, such as the practice of the Sabbath and the need for leaders to draw strength from the source they point everyone else toward (Movement Four)
- God has a much higher opinion of people than we do of ourselves or of others (Movement Five)
- God's work in our lives is to take the old us -- the real, old us, that was made in His image and then fell away -- and remake us. In essence, to repair us (Movement Six)
- The Church's role is to be an agent of change and a conduit of God's Goodness to the world (Movement Seven)
Is Rob Bell a heretic? Does he deny inerrancy, immutability, immaculate conception, and substitutionary atonement? In short, is this book teaching a new gospel?
The answer: no, not that I could see. In some areas, he dances toward the boundaries of orthodoxy, perhaps, but after prayer and close reading, I must say I did not find any false teaching in this book.
So what shocking thing did I find in this book? It was really, really encouraging to me. It made me love God more deeply and think about His word in new ways. In short, it is probably the most invigorating set of new ideas that my spirit has experienced in the past three years. I especially loved the way that Bell tries to reclaim the good things in the world -- the things which, after all, come from the unchanging Father of lights.
I don't agree with everything Bell writes, by any means. I'm not sure I buy his sociohistorical readings of the "yoke" and "binding and loosing" concepts. I'm also a little uncomfortable with the fact that he mentions atonement, sin, judgment, and redemption only in passing. Nonetheless, Bell has a refreshing perspective and a lot of important ideas. If you are a spiritually mature believer in Christ Jesus, read this book. At the very least, it'll give you something to think about.
(P.S.: No, he doesn't eat the souls of small children.)
1 Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005, p. 12.
2 Ibid., pp. 20-36
3 Ibid., pp. 66-69