Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” in the larger context

For those of you who haven’t heard, Hip Pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins was released this past Tuesday to significant debate within the Christian community. Before the book had been released, and even read, there was already a firestorm of controversy from names as large as John Piper suggesting that, in so many words, Bell was a universalist, heretic, false teacher, and, though not mentioned, perhaps the Anti-Christ. Ok, not the Anti-Christ, but needless to say these were not positive thoughts. Aside from the fact that the entirety of the pre-release negative criticism was perpetrated by people who hadn’t (and, if I were a betting person, probably still haven’t) read the book, Love Wins occupies a place in a much wider debate and context than most reviews acknowledge. Understanding the wider context can, I think, make a little more sense of how Love Wins is intended to function, and, ultimately, what it is trying to say.

Roll back to the early days of the Reformation. John Calvin, expanding on St. Augustine, puts the Doctrine of Election at the center of his systematic theology. Specifically, Calvin’s view of Election centers around the idea that, before the foundation of time, God has predestined some to be saved, and some to be condemned (also know as “double-predestination”). As Calvin’s theology was worked out, particularly at the Synod of Dort, this became one of the central tenets of Calvinist belief, and has influenced the Reformed tradition, and by extension a large majority of Evangelical Christianity to this day. God, the story goes, chooses of his own free will some (the Elect) who he will save. Those not chosen by God are condemned. God remains just in doing this because all have sinned – all stand guilty before God. God is not obligated to save anyone – he is well within his rights to condemn everyone. The fact that God saves anyone, then, is Good News.

Even from the beginning, however (and even going back to St. Augustine), a wide variety of Christians have been skeptical of this position, primarily because Election, when seen from this perspective, really doesn’t sound like Good News. If you aren’t part of the Elect, in particular, it sounds like very bad news. Thus, for the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived, the “Good News” of Jesus is, in effect, a sentence to never ending torture and torment throughout eternity. For all but a very small few, it is, to be sure, a Gospel of Bad News.

The most major challenge to this view of Election came from the twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. For those of you who’ve never heard of Barth, no less than Pope Pius XII declared him to be the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Consider the fact Barth hails from the Reformed tradition, and that is particularly high praise indeed. Barth’s theology is far too complicated to boil down to a few paragraphs, let alone a few sentences, but I will try to summarize the most relevant bit to this particular discussion. Barth re-forms the Doctrine of Election, and applies it first and foremost to Jesus Christ – this is, after all, Christian theology. Barth’s thesis in his Doctrine of Election is that, in choosing (electing) Jesus Christ, God has, in a sense chosen who He will be – and importantly he has chosen that he will be for humanity, rather than against it. Christ is predestined for God’s “no” in his death on the cross, but also predestined for God’s “yes” in the event of the resurrection. In Christ’s cross, God says “no” to humanity, as God’s humiliation overturns (and says “no” to) our pride, but in the resurrection, God says “yes”, exalting Jesus, and in some sense all humanity also joins with that. As a result, Barth has commonly been criticized as promoting a sort of “soft” universalism. To think about it in a different way, consider John Owen’s argument for the Doctrine of Limited Atonement (i.e. Christ didn’t die for everyone, he only died for the Elect): “If Christ died for everyone, he failed – because he clearly didn’t save everyone.” Barth essentially calls a bluff on this position and says, “Are you so sure Christ didn’t save everyone? What if he did? Why not? Would that be such a bad thing?” Barth’s position is that, in Electing Jesus Christ, God is making Good News for the whole human race. All humanity is, in some sense, “saved” in Him.

Barth’s work is extremely influential in academic circles, but clearly hasn’t caught on much in the broader evangelical context. Interestingly, Love Wins can be read as a repainting of Barth for the masses. We’ll get back to this in another post.

The sort of “cold war” between Barth and Calvin stayed relatively dormant in wider circles until the rise of what has been called the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), spearheaded most prominently by the Pauline scholar N.T. Wright, who is the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, and current Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews. As with Barth, it would be impossible to summarize the views of all NPP scholars in a couple of sentences, but again I will try to hit the highlights that matter for the discussion of Love Wins. The two most important consequences to our discussion rising out of NPP scholarship are 1) a re-examination of Justification Theories in general, and 2) a proposal to shift from a “Jesus came so you could to go to heaven after you die” eschatology.

The specifics of how NPP scholars make these arguments is lengthy and perhaps the subject of future posts, but for now assume that Wright and company more or less suggest that Luther and Calvin made certain assumptions about Paul which then colored everything that followed, and notably produced some significant tensions within the text. If you change those assumptions, different systems follow. An example to give a flavor of the type of thing a NPP scholar might say: if Justification Theory readings of Paul are correct, there seems to be an inherent tension in the epistemology of condemnation and salvation. The claim in Justification Theory, at least, is that everyone is condemned, because everyone stands in willful opposition to God and his ways (an assumption that itself has internal problems). The epistemology of condemnation, in other words, is universal: everybody is damned, and more importantly they know it. It is self-evident simply from observation of the universe (Paul: “all men are without excuse…”). The epistemology of salvation, on the other hand, is not universal, but particular. It arrives only in knowledge of the historical person of Jesus Christ. Concretely, all people are condemned by the fact they are alive, but you are saved only if a missionary manages to make it to your village. The problem rests in that while you are condemned by examination of the universe, you can’t save yourself by that same process – there are, in short, two epistemologies at work, which from the standpoint of a theory, is very problematic.

Needless to say, there are plenty of people who aren’t thrilled about the deconstruction of traditional doctrines, and who aren’t going to take it sitting down. After the publication of Wright’s Paul: in Fresh Perspective in 2005, Neo-Calvinist Pastor and author John Piper fired back, going so far as to name names with his 2007 book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. In 2009, Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, devoting significantly more time to presenting a rigorous view of his Pauline theology. In 2008, Wright also published Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Does the subtitle sound familiar? Each of these books deserves a full review in its own right, and there are many reviews all over the internet if you’re interested. The main point is that there is a significant debate about these points right now with good, honest, bible-reading, smart people on each side.

Here’s the bottom line: read in a vacuum, Rob Bell’s Love Wins seems like a “cool” mega-pastor inventing a completely new idea about Jesus, then spinning it off so he can sell a few million more books. Read as a part of the larger discussion on Election, Justification Theory, and Christian eschatology over the past 100 years, Love Wins is the latest salvo in what is increasingly becoming a “hot war”. Bell, like Wright and Barth, is questioning beliefs which have marked the social boundaries of Christian communities for hundreds of years. Just like wars between countries take place along geographical boundaries, conflicts over social boundaries almost always flare up to be ugly battles. Therefore, while Bell’s book may not be anywhere as new, revolutionary, or crazy as his detractors would like to present, it shouldn’t be at all surprising, given its place in the discussion, that it’s generated the kind of response it has.

As for what the book actually says…

that will have to wait for the next post.

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