Remaining Clear On What Is Clear: On Rob Bell Again

One frustrating thing – of many – about the emerging church folks is their deliberate use of ambiguous, unclear, and equivocal writing. They seem to delight in being obscure, vague and all over the place. Thus it is often quite hard to pin them down as to what they are actually saying – and what they actually believe.

And they do this deliberately, because they like to celebrate the mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity of the Christian faith. They claim ours is not a black and white faith, but a faith made up of 99 shades of grey. They in fact dislike believers who seek for certainty, clarity and definite answers.

Now this of course is one way to be able to brush aside any and all criticisms – simply tell your critics that ‘this is not what I meant’. But if you take pride in being unclear and ambiguous, then at the end of the day no one will know what you mean. In which case, why even open your mouth, or write a book?

But there are heaps of these books coming forth from emerging church authors, and they seem to get a chuckle out of being uneasy to decipher or understand. They even think they are somehow being more Christian by doing so. In a moment I will challenge this notion, but let me here present another clear (no pun intended) example of this deliberate lack of clarity.

Rob Bell is one of the big cheeses in the emerging church movement. He has a new book coming out very soon, called Love Wins, and it is already causing a huge stir. And no wonder, since it appears he is at it again: using deliberately vague and fuzzy concepts and writing styles.

Although I do not yet have the book (it has not yet been released) I feel I can still make some brief comments on it, since much already has been written about it through advanced copies of the book. The first thing I can say is I hate wasting money on books which I would rather not have.

I had to do this before with one of Bell’s earlier books, Velvet Elvis. People were asking my opinion about it, so I had to go out and buy the book, read it, and do a review of it. The results of this can be found here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/07/a-review-of-velvet-elvis-repainting-the-christian-faith-by-rob-bell/

I must say, I was not all that impressed with that book and I have not been very impressed with his newer stuff either. Indeed, I complained in my review just how hard it was to get a handle on what Bell was in fact trying to say. Again, this is true of most of these emerging church authors, who delight in being mysterious and opaque.

It seems his new book is equally lacking in clarity and transparency; thus a big war has erupted over what he seems to be saying. It seems that he is denying the biblical doctrine of hell, and arguing for a form of universalism, in which everyone at the end of the day will be saved.

The reason why there is such a controversy over this is because of what I have just said: by being deliberately unclear and vague, it is hard to know just what exactly he believes. So I guess I will have to dish out more hard-earned money when the book does become available, and also weigh into this debate.

But it sounds like we already know what the outcome will be. Defenders of Bell will simply claim he is not teaching these heretical views, while critics of him will say that he is. And none of us will know for sure who in fact is correct, because of this annoying and in fact unbiblical insistence on being opaque and ambiguous.

As I have said before about these emerging church leaders, yes, there is a place for wonder, mystery and questioning in the Christian faith. Many of the really big doctrinal issues which we affirm are to some extent shrouded in some mystery.

For example, while we have enough biblical data to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, it will forever – or at least in this life – remain a topic far beyond anything we can fully comprehend. That God can be one in essence or being, yet three in person, is everywhere taught in the New Testament. But that does not mean it is easy for us to get our heads around this truth.

The same can be said about the Incarnation. That God became flesh and dwelt among us is affirmed throughout the NT, but it is still a mind-bending concept. And Paul and others are happy to speak of such matters as being mysteries. So yes, there are mega-topics found in the Bible which we will not now fully fathom and understand.

But that is not at all to say that we are just left with doubt, uncertainty, a lack of clarity, and epistemological relativism. As Schaeffer always used to insist, while in our fallen and finite condition we can never have exhaustive truth, we can nonetheless have substantial, true truth.

What we are meant to know, and know clearly and resolutely, God has revealed to us. Sure, we always must remain on our knees in a position of humility, admitting that we know in part, and see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But that must not become an excuse for denying the very real clarity that runs throughout the Bible, and the very real assurance of truth which the Biblical writers claimed to have. They spoke with conviction because they knew the truth, and were unashamed to boldly proclaim it.

Certainty, confidence and clarity ring throughout their writings. Perhaps the best way to wrap this up is to resurrect a terrific quote from John Stott. Back in 1970 he wrote an important little volume called Christ the Controversialist. In it he spoke of those who are suspicious of dogma and theological certainty. He is worth quoting at length:

“The spirit of our age is very unfriendly towards dogmatic people. Folk whose opinions are clearly formulated and strongly held are not popular. A person of conviction, however intelligent, sincere and humble he may be, will be fortunate if he escapes the charge of being a bigot. Nowadays the really great mind is thought to be both broad and open – broad enough to absorb every fresh idea which is presented to it, and open enough to go on doing so ad infinitum.

“Historic Christianity is essentially dogmatic, because it purports to be a revealed faith. If the Christian religion were just a collection of the philosophical and ethical ideas of men (like Hinduism), dogmatism would be entirely out of place. But if God has spoken (as Christians claim), both in olden days through the prophets and in these last days through His Son (Heb. 1:1,2), why should it be thought ‘dogmatic’ to believe His Word ourselves and to urge other people to believe it too? If there is a Word from God which may be read and received today, would it not rather be the height of folly and sin to disregard it?

“Christian dogmatism has, or should have, a limited field. It is not a tantamount to a claim of omniscience. Yet in those things which are clearly revealed in Scripture, Christians should not be doubtful or apologetic. The corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning ‘We know’, ‘We are sure’, ‘We are confident’. If you question this, read the First Epistle of John in which verbs meaning ‘to know’ occur about forty times. They strike a note of joyful assurance which is sadly missing from many parts of the church today and which needs to be recaptured.

“We are in a position now to say that a broad and open mind, so loudly applauded in our day, is by no means an unmixed blessing. To be sure, we must keep an open mind about matters on which Scripture seems to speak equivocally, and a receptive mind so that our understanding of God’s revelation continues to deepen. We must also distinguish between a doctrine and our fallible interpretation or formulation of it. But when the biblical teaching is plain, the cult of an open mind is a sign not of maturity, but immaturity. Those who cannot make up their minds what to believe, and are ‘tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine’, Paul dubs ‘babies’. (Eph. 4:14)  And the prevalence of people ‘who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of truth’ is a characteristic of the ‘times of stress’ in which we are living. (2 Tim. 3:1,7)”

The “cult of the open mind” as Stott so aptly describes it seems to me to nicely depict what we find in the emerging church movement. And by the sound of it, that is what we will be getting in good supply in Bell’s new book as well.

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