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:

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.

[1509 words]

32 Replies to “Remaining Clear On What Is Clear: On Rob Bell Again”

  1. Well argued Bill. The “cult of the open mind” and vagary in faith matters may suit the post-modern followers but it will certainly inflict damage as the fundamental and key doctrines are not taught or embraced.
    This is a classic case of “We stand for nothing, hence we fall for anything.”
    Jeremy Wong

  2. Thanks Jeremy

    Yes quite right. It is exactly because the emerging church folk have supped so deeply from the ideas of postmodernism that we are having these problems. They need to forget about postmodern ideology and get back to the Bible.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Deliberately writing in obscure ways is a major red flag to me. Reminds me of the father of obscurity, Jacque Derrida and the other postmodern masters of gobbledygook.

    The more I study the more I value clarity in getting at precisely where I disagree with others and why. Sometimes just getting more clarity can be enough to refute a position.

    Damien Spillane

  4. I think there’s an important difference between being open minded enough to study and understand another view and being stupid enough to just accept contradictory views as all “true”. Oops – I let my bias slip out there…

    Normally, being open minded enough to study and understand another view should lead to a well reasoned and sensible refutation if you happen to disagree with it.

    Interesting the post modernism is mentioned. I thought more of Hinduism. It can just absorb anything, bend to fit anything in, accommodate all.

    John Symons

  5. And the masses will suck it up like a 3000 watt vacuum cleaner.
    Because it’s fluffy and there’s no confrontation.
    Daniel Kempton

  6. What I am about to write will be deemed controversial & wrong by Bill & many on this blog; but please hear me out. I am a Christian of 27 years and always believed that unbelievers go to an eternity in hell. I wont be vague or waffle like Rob Bell – but I am open minded about ‘Christian universalism’. The reason being is that a good friend said he had read ’27 minutes in hell’ by Bill Wiese. Gotta read it he said, powerfull, scary, motivating – so I look on line and get the first chapter. What Wiese book did to me was make me rethink my view on eternal hell. I do believe in hell; I beleive it is for the destruction of peoples self will & fleshly ways – not eternal (forever & ever) and I now believe that all men, women, children of every creed & ethnos will be heaven – eventually – after many (most) have done their ‘time’. That the ‘Saints’ who have endured here & now will be rewarded by ‘ruling & reigning in heaven’ and those who came after death ‘serve’ those rulers. Now, I’m sure your very upset with me – let me briefly tell you how I arrived at that conclusion. Wiese books details a eternal suffering & torment that is satanic ritual child abuse – never ending pain, torment, suffering, being quartered and being sexually abused by demons – I kid you not. The reason this hit me so much as wrong, was that at the time I was at Uni doing a partial law course and a backslidden christain Lecturer was showing how the ‘punishment needs to fit the crime’ – the degrees of punishment, but she showed, as all Law courses would in Commonwealth countries, that it stemmed from common law, straight from the Holy Bible. Now God could not treat the kindly old granny unbeliever & Hitler with such sick & demonic punishment and I frankly could not accept a God that would do this. I will finish up here, I could direct to websites and quote all the scriptures, but I’ll just leave you with a couple of brief thoughts. early church fathers believed it ; Augustine & Origen and the Apostles Creed mentions judgement, but no eternal hell (circa 390), but then by the 6th century we have the Athanasian creed, which the Catholic Church adopts and a hellish eternity is present – would it have anything to do with Papal power structures and keeping people in line? I think so! Lastly, Romans clearly says ‘all jews will be saved’ – thats those who died in th gas chambers and why not all human kind? I realise my views clash with the majority of people on this blog, I literally cant share with many people, because it is a black & white non-negotiable with Christians – but I have thought long & hard about – I dont hink it is a core issue – people will still go to hell……but like our biblically based crime & punshment, only for a stretch of time, some much longer, some shorter.
    Neil Innes, NT

  7. Thanks Neil

    Sorry but you are frightfully wrong on everything you have said here. While a full article at least would be needed to correct your many errors, let me just mention several things. You are woefully wrong about the early church Fathers. Almost all of them, including Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Theophilus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, Basil and so on, believed in the doctrine of eternal punishment.

    And respectfully, the scariest thing about your comment is the fact that you have decided that one guy pushing an unbiblical agenda (Wiese) is to be your source of authority, as opposed to the Word of God and the near unanimous testimony of the church Fathers. That is a recipe for disaster Neil. Please forget what this one guy has said, and go back to your Bible and actually read it. And while you are at it, actually read the church Fathers for yourself instead of relying on this one guy to get your beliefs from. There are many collections of the ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene Fathers if you are really interested.

    BTW, your comment has come just as I was in the middle of writing an article on this very topic, so stay tuned – that will be posted shortly.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Why is it that every person with a non-Biblical idea wants to quote the church fathers and claim they support their opinion? I come across so many people proudly and confidently claiming the support of the church fathers who have never read what they actually say. Including some with post graduate qualifications (apparently). Is this the latest popular conspiracy theory, or do people do that because they are confident no-one will actually read what the fathers say to check them out?
    John Symons

  9. Thanks for your reply Bill – do you think, personally, not your interpretation of scripture, that ‘unbelievers’ should suffer eternal torment? As a parent I do not, if my kids rebel, I’m still their Father and would always accept them. The only other option Christians have is annhilationism, but this plays into the hands of atheists. This topic opens up questions we never seem to discuss as Christian’s – do aborted babies go to hell? Does the 4 year old girl thrown off the Melbourne bridge go to hell? The forced child soldier who is 13, knows killing is wrong, gets killed…….Oh, off to eternal torment you go? It does not make any sense, it does not ring true and is not of LOVE. I have discussed this with Ministers and they have an opt out clause; if the Muslim, Buddhist, atheist is living a ‘good & righteous’ life in the wilds of the world, then all will be well…..God will look favourably. That does not wash either, as we are all unrighteous. Also it does not seem fair that Jesus would descend into hell preach to all the ‘spirits’ (human ones too), what do you suppose He told them…..’I love, be warm for eternity’…..No, he led the spirits captive, took them to Heaven. Now if it is OK for the BC, what about the AD’s? Also Bill, one book by a greedy Christian did not do it, but living life, working as a former Policeman, seeing the worst of humanity and I now work with the Indigenous – again seeing the worst of humanity in all ethnic groups and sadly seeing the destruction of a culture – hell is on earth as well; heaven is where God dwells and He is willing that none perish. Sadly many, too many will have to do time first.
    Neil Innes

  10. Thanks again Neil

    But to be honest, what you or I think about this issue doesn’t mean a hill of beans. The only thing that matters is what God thinks. Indeed, your question simply tells us that at least on this issue – and maybe on others – you are not all that interested in what God’s opinion is, or that of the inspired writers of Scripture. It is your standards of right and wrong, truth and falsity that have become the arbiter. That is a very risky place to be in. Respectfully, it is a worry that some believers think they are somehow more compassionate and righteous about such matters than Jesus himself, and we need to stand in judgment over what he said, correcting him, and reminding him that his views are not very Christlike. Sorry, but that is all that your comment is telling me.

    Having said that, hell is no light topic, and whenever we teach this biblical doctrine, it should be with a heavy heart and with tears. But the idea that somehow God is wrong and we mere mortals must come along and correct him I find to be appalling to be quite honest. It is exactly the heart and soul of atheism: ‘No thanks, God, but I will call the shots, and I will determine what is right and wrong’. Sadly there seem to be plenty of Christian atheists out there, who think they can tell God how to do his job.

    And just as bad as letting one mere human book decide who is right and wrong on this, is letting our own fallen, finite personal experience become the sole determination of what is true and false. Sorry, but since when does our own personal experience trump the inerrant Word of God and become the highest court of appeal?

    But as I say, I am in the middle of writing about this very topic, so you may wish to wait till that post is up.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Bill, I await with eagerness to read your musings on this topic. John – I have read a lot of what the early Church fathers have said and it is not black & white as you think, there is enough evidence to suggest that some were universalists. And lastly Bill, I have not even really mentioned scripture, but that has had the most persuasive argument there is to suggest ‘Christian Universalism’. Notice I say CU, as I am not suggesting putting my feet up and not seeing the Kingdom of God come into the earth – rejecters of His word, unbelievers and those that have never heard of the gospel will still do time in hell, but it is restorative, not destructive. Lastly Bill, the creature is free to say to the creator he does not like what He does, or he/she is not truly free – I dont hink God is shocked that many hold this view and I believe that there is enough evidence in Scripture to point to this truth. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover them.
    It is the glory of God to hide things but the glory of kings to investigate them. Proverbs 25:2.
    Neil Innes

  12. Rarely do we hear Genesis or Revelation preached these days. Is it because both books lay down eternal truths about man’s existence and God’s moral order, that lie way outside cultural or contextual considerations?

    When Christ was being tempted by Satan in the Wilderness, he did not appeal to tradition but went straight back the word which was in the beginning. I do not believe that we worship a God of confusion for as it says in John 4:23-24, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

    1 Corinthians 14:33 also says “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”

    I remember back in the early eighties, listening to some panel on a TV show discussing Bob Dylan’s Christian conversion (I don’t where he stands now), and how they found the old Dylan, with all his uncertainties, interesting, but now, since becoming a Christian, they found him boring. So much for the chattering classes, with their itching ears.

    David Skinner, UK

  13. Neil Innes, I heard an interesting quote the other day which says that this Earth will be the closest Christians get to Hell and the closest unbelievers get to Heaven.

    It may well be that as in Heaven there will be different magnitudes of blessing but equally there may well be different orders of torment, but if Belsen and Auschwitz are possible Earth, where at least the sufferers could see a friendly face or see the blue sky, what would such a place be like without any presence of God’s grace?

    David Skinner, UK

  14. Thanks again Neil

    But respectfully, no one should be waiting with eagerness to read my mere “musings” on this topic, or anyone’s random opinions, for that matter. If that is all I am offering then I don’t expect anyone to waste their time reading what I have to say. In fact, if all I have here – at least in my theological essays – are puerile musings, then you really should avoid this site like the plague. Better to go back to the Bible.

    But if I can prayerfully and carefully seek to express some of the sense of the biblical data on this and related topics, then I can humbly offer it to others. As I said before, mere opinions are not what we should be interested in, but what God himself thinks and has said about this topic. To that end, what I write, if it more or less faithfully represents what the Bible teaches on this subject, is about the best I can hope for.

    And of course if you are now claiming that hell, “is restorative, not destructive” then you not only have no biblical support for such an assertion, but you are now telling us you are a Roman Catholic, and embrace such teachings as purgatory. Which is fine I suppose if you are in fact a Catholic.

    Finally, Proverbs 25:2 of course has nothing to do with the promotion of heresy, or denying the clear teachings of Scripture.

    But for what it is worth, here is my new article:

    Undoubtedly other articles on this topic will follow.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Neil,
    May I make a small suggestion,
    Here Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit,
    John 16:13
    “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

    You say you have been a Christian for 27 years, then be as a Berean, study the scriptures, and then ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into all truth regarding this doctrine.

    I do this every time I read something that is not scripture, and I will say that the Holy Spirit has at times pointed things out that weren’t worth reading. Jesus’ promise of leading us in to all truth.

    God Bless,
    Jeffrey Carl

  16. Concerning “substantial, true truth” we can put it another way: “finite but reliable truth”.

    I think this OT verse refers…”The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” -Deuteronomy 29:29 (New International Version, ©2011)

    John Angelico

  17. I like your phrase ‘epistemological relativism’ which is of course exactly what Bell’s style appears to be all about. Relativism is truly a doctrine of the times whether it is epistemological or whether we see it in vaguely written laws which are then enforced by subjective judges and magistrates in our courts. With relativism, there is no ground beneath our feet because nothing can be trusted. It’s all shifting shadows. How can there be sin in a world where everything is relative? And if there is no sin, why did Christ die? I was just thinking today that rationalization seems to be the demonic tool that can argue away all truth from the minds of those who are not grounded in the word of God. I was discussing abortion (quite hotly) with a local Anglican rector yesterday who had allowed the current relativist thinking of this present age to drive truth from his mind. God is a God of absolutes. Where truth exists there can be no shifting shadows or twisted rhetoric.
    Dee Graf

  18. Dear Neil,

    You argued that ‘punishment needs to fit the crime’. I agree, and so did Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who explained than when sin is committed against an infinite being (God), the punishment must be infinite. Hence, hell will be eternal.

    Jereth Kok

  19. Thanks Jereth

    Yes quite right. Those who balk at the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment often have a deficient view of sin, and a deficient view of who God is.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. As a new Christian I was involved in a ‘church’ whose leader delivered theologically sound messages for many years and warned against false teachers who preached light and wishy-washy sermons. One problem though….he was just a man and came to his downfall because he came to believe in one terribly incorrect teaching. Sadly, most of the congregation followed. If people had studied their bibles instead of honouring this one man’s authority and viewpoint as the truth, they would not have fallen into great error.
    Annette Nestor

  21. I’m familiiar with that Jonathon Edwards quote and i read his book “knowing christ” years ago when i was obsessed with fire and brimstone stuff….That quote of Edwards can easily be turned around ”Because God is infinite in love the punishment will not endure forever”
    Afterall the passage ”His mercy endures forever” is very known – so which is it ?
    Will mercy and wrath battle each other for trillions upon trillions of years etc….??
    You seem to rejoice in ‘wrath enduring forever’ more than mercy…Is God only infinite in wrath and not love?
    jeremy woods

  22. Thanks Jeremy, but as I said on the other post, to the extent that you are a true believer in this heterodoxy, it is time to call it quits here. You can seek to pull people away from the Bible teaching all you like, but I will certainly not allow it here.

    The Bible is entirely clear that the love of God and the wrath of God fully cohere and harmonise, and the clearest expression of this is Calvary. But all this I have argued for at length both here and in other articles, so I am not going to repeat myself, especially since it is clear that your mind is already made up on this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  23. What is clear is that ‘mercy triumphs over judgement’- one is greater than the other; not first among equals – if it were not so, none of us would make Heaven.
    Neil Innes

  24. Thanks again Neil

    But we are going over old ground now. To grab one biblical text and set it over against many hundreds of others is of course the specialty of cults and heretics alike. Yes we all rightly celebrate God’s mercy – indeed, the only reason any of us will be in heaven is because God maintained his justice and wrath against sin, dealing with our rebellion at the cross. Mercy and judgment met and embraced at Calvary. It was not because of the absence of his justice, but because of it.

    God never for one second suspends his justice or waters down his judgement. As I keep repeating, the cross is the supreme example of both the mercy and wrath of God on full display. Those who seek to be biblical will affirm exactly what God affirms, nothing more and nothing less. His holiness, righteousness and justice will always be who he is, just as his love, mercy and grace. To try to play the attributes of God against each other is both unbiblical and a theological dead end. And it is also a sure way to veer off into heterodoxy and theological error. One can proof text all they like, but we should instead let the Word of God speak in its entirety.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  25. Back to Bill’s original point: there is clear “true truth” in Scripture. This is a valuable and essential presupposition for believers and an antidote to the vagueness Bill complains of in some current authors. I’d put it this way, and this (I think) is the purpose of the ancient creeds: the essential truths of the Bible are like a boundary line – they are saying, in effect, speculate, argue and have different opinions as believers but only within these bounds. Outside these boundaries is heresy.
    There have been two foolish responses: one is to try to fudge the boundaries so as to “water down” clear teachings of Scripture; the other is to draw the boundaries tighter by refusing to allow that there are shades of grey and areas of ambiguity in the Bible.
    For example, the NT clearly teaches that Jesus will come again to this earth, and the ancient creeds also affirm this, so to explain this away is heresy. But to make a specific view on when and how he comes a test of orthodoxy is to go beyond the clear teaching and suppress genuine discussion within the boundaries.
    Jon Newton

  26. We live in an age of “waffle” where absolutes are unpopular and people speak of “my truth” and similar gobbledegook.
    For myself, I have confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the church and the certainty of the four last things – death, judgement, heaven and hell. To exist eternally in the anguish of being separated from God in an horrific thought!! All the more should we work and pray for the conversion of everyone seeking to love as God loves.
    Anna Cook

  27. Paul is famous for writing over and over “I do not want you to be ignorant brethren” – this is not the cry of the emergent church, therefore I do not listen to them.

    1Cor 14:6f
    “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.”

    Josh Ferrara

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