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In Bible,Justin Wishart,Rob Bell

Rob Bell and the Bible

by Justin Wishart

I was recently directed to Rob Bell’s blog. He has written a fairly substantial, multi-part outline of his views of Scripture.[1] I found his reflections both interesting and troubling. While this article will be mostly a negative review, I would like to make it clear that there was some great content to be found. Some of his ideas were compelling and insightful. However, there were many problems I found, so many that I had trouble with choosing which issues to cover. I will attempt to cover what I think are the main issues found within his work.

Bell’s Approach to Scripture         

If there is one thing Bell wants people to know, it’s that the Bible is a human book. “The Bible is first, before anything else, a library of books written by humans.” Bell emphatically repeats this mantra over and again.

When people charge in with great insistence that this is God’s word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power. All because of starting in the wrong place. You start with the human. You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote thesebooks.

This is a hard break from the Evangelical[2] position on Scripture, so I feel that it is fair to say that Bell is not an Evangelical. All the Evangelical creeds which I have read on Scripture start with God’s being the author first, and then the human agency is second. This has also been the historical church’s position, and I am unaware of any historical creed[3] which approaches Scripture as Bell proposes.

This puts Bell up against almost 2000 years of church history and belief. Do we put weight on Bell’s view (and others who hold his approach), or do we rely on the Church Fathers: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc., who hold that the Bible is primarily a book from God? While an appeal to authority doesn’t make Bell automatically wrong, it should cause one to stop and think. It seems that one must provide powerful reasons as to why we should break away from this tradition.

Bell does not even attempt to do this.

Bell’s Evolutionary View of Religion

One surprising feature of Bell’s views is how he thinks humanity became religious.

Early humans came to the realization that their survival as a species was dependent on things like food and water. And for food to grow it needs sun and water in proper proportion. Too much water and things wash away, not enough and plants die. Too much sun and plants wilt, not enough and they die as well. These basic observations brought people to the conclusion that they were dependent on unseen forces they could not control for their survival … The belief … arose that these forces are either on your side or they aren’t. And how do you keep these forces on your side? The next time you have a harvest, you take a portion of that harvest and you offer it on an altar as a sign of your gratitude.

So, the base root of our religion was our need to survive.[4] This goes against the Bible’s clear teaching that religion came to us through revelation, that true religion came directly from God right at the beginning in the Garden. Unfortunately, this seems to be a very important point for Bell, because he uses this progressive evolutionary template in his biblical hermeneutic.

“What you read in the Bible was mostly told and written by people at a tribal stage of consciousness.” Since the Bible is primarily human, then it will have the errors directly related to their primitive religious thinking. Bell rhetorically asks, “Does it surprise you when after winning they wiped out the women and children and then said their God told them to do it?” So, when the Bible says that God commanded the killing of everyone in a city, Bell says that isn’t so. The only reason why we find this in the Bible is because “[t]hat’s what people did at that time.”

What we see in this particular library is a story, a story that unfolds over time, a story about growing human awareness of the divine. It’s a vision of the world that evolves in its understanding of who we are, where we’re headed, and what it means to be human… And people were (and are)[5] at various stages of consciousness… What you read in the Bible was mostly told and written by people at a tribal stage of consciousness.

A puzzle that comes to my mind with this evolutionary view is that I think it would be pretty arrogant if Bell thought that what he was writing was the highest possible expression of religious thought. Presumably, our religious thought will continue to evolve, which means that many of Bell’s views here are likely to become outdated, just as he views Moses’ perspective. If his evolutionary view is true, then Bell (and I) are most likely wrong on things we say about religion. Why should anyone listen to him, or anyone else, since our understanding will evolve indefinitely? In this scheme, how can we ever know when we have the truth of the matter?

His hermeneutical principle undermines his own opinions.

Are the Miracles and Stories in the Bible Historical?

It is important to point out here that Bell does not deny the general historicity of the stories and miracles in the Bible.[6] It’s more that he doesn’t think them important. For example, Bell has a long discussion on Jonah and the Whale. So, when he asks himself if this event actually happened, he responds:

I don’t think it matters what you believe about a man being swallowed by a fish. If you don’t believe it literally happened, that’s fine. Lots of people of faith over the years have read this story as a parable about national forgiveness. .

For Bell, historicity has very little value but the underlying message of Jonah’s story is the important bit.

This is where Bell has some great insights, about what the underlying messages of various biblical stories are. However, Bell is missing out on something important. Every sacred text has these mythical truths[7], and he effectively reduces the Bible to being on par with these other religious texts. If the historicity of the Bible is ignored, how is it any different than any other book?

Bell also places a needless dichotomy between the historical Bible and the meanings undergirding it.[8]He seems to think that if you have any focus on the Bible as being a historical document, you will miss the point. Bell says that thinking about Scripture in terms of its historicity is “dangerous, because in arguing one way or the other [about the Bible’s Historicity] you may miss the point of the story.”[9] He is right to place the emphasis on the meaning of the story, but there is no need to then undermine the historicity of the story. God, as the master story-teller, intervenes in actual history so that He can teach us these lessons. It’s not an either/or situation, but they are both infallibly true.

In fact, the historicity of the Bible is the very means by which we can know that the underlying message God wanted to share with us corresponds to reality. Otherwise, we have no way of affirming biblical teachings while denying contradictory teachings found within other texts.

Bell’s Most Basic Flaw

Gordon Clark issued a challenge, which I call The Clarkian Challenge, to the liberal theologians of his day, and it bears repeating here:

If now anyone insists that a chance statement by Jeremiah or the doctrine of sanctification in Paul may accidentally be true and can be accepted even after rejecting infallibility, we would like to know on what bases and by what method these other doctrines are retained. It is not enough to claim that this verse or that doctrine can be salvaged from an erroneous Bible. The claim must be substantiated.[10]

The most basic question I had after reading Bell’s work was his method of figuring out what is true and what is false in the Bible. Unfortunately, he does not take much time to explain this fundamentally critical issue. He does offer some clues, however:

When I read this book, something happens in me. I’m inspired, I’m convicted, I’m confronted, I’m comforted-I read these stories and they speak to me about the story God is telling. They’re books, but they’re more than books. That’s been my experience. They ring true to me. 

Certain Bible portions are true, it seems, because they “ring true” to Bell. What about people for whom the Bible “rings false”? And, isn’t this whole idea of ringing true not subjected to his particular “state of consciousness”? Would Bell still think this book rings true if he were born 300 years in the future where the state of consciousness will undoubtedly be different?

Bell here seems to place himself as the arbiter of truth based on nothing more than his personal feelings. This view destroys any epistemic warrant for his, or anyone else’s, views on Scripture and as such, Clark’s challenge is left unanswered.

Conclusion

This series by Bell is not yet completed, so some of my questions and considerations may be addressed, and I hope they are. His views on the Bible place him within the Liberal theology camp, and as such break away from historical Christianity.[11] I would have liked more space to go through his work more thoroughly, but I have expressed what I think are the main issues with Bell’s views. Rob Bell exerts major influence on believers around the world, and we need to be wise in knowing what his influence actually is.


[1] The first instalment can be found here, all quotes will be from this series: http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/66107373947/what-is-the-bible(viewed 2014-03-26).
[2]For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/(viewed 2014-03-26).
[3]Read John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, John Knox Press.
[4] One could just imagine Darwin and Freud nodding their heads in agreement here.
[5] Notice the “and are” here.
[6] He does not fall into the absurdity of Tom Harpur in his book The Pagan Christ, who contends that there are no historical narratives in the Bible.
[7] By “mythical truths” I mean a story in which the details are not historical but the underlying message, or the moral of the story, is true.
[8]This dichotomy can be seen in this section: http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/67088740020/what-is-the-bible-part-9(viewed 2014-03-29).
[9]While he wisely softens his stance by the word “may,” he spends a large majority of his work setting up this false dichotomy.
[10] Gordon H. Clark, God’s Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics, The Trinity Foundation, Fourth Edition 2011, Pg. 85.
[11]He is downright hostile towards the historical Evangelical understanding of Scripture. He says of people who hold to the historicity of Scripture, “You either bought the party line, which meant you had to check your intellect at the door or you checked out?” When referring to people who hold to inerrancy, he remarks, “It’s important to grow up, to evolve, and to mature. And central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like. Inerrancy is a failure to grow up in thinking about the Bible.” So, according to Bell, Evangelicals are childish in their thinking and we don’t use our minds.
  • Anonymous

    Heresy from start to finish.

  • Good points to bring up. Bell has established himself as a liberal in the Christian sector, and this book offers substantial proof to back that up. While I used to study and follow Bell’s teaching, when I compare who Christ says He is with who Bell says Christ is, the more I believe Christ and the less I believe Rob Bell.

  • Anonymous

    It seems man today wants to start with man, and let ‘reason’ (intellect) reign. However, the Apostle Paul deals decisively with man’s wisdom in Romans 1:22ff. As Anonymous says, Heresy from the get go. I’m reminded of Jude 1:3 “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

  • Lori Kimball

    Very well written and thought out Justin. I’m not as articulate as you are, but it is very sobering to see people of such influence in the Christian community essentially trying to bring God down to the level of humanity.