'How much more.......?'

'How much more.......?

'In the midst of all the conversation hitting twitterland about the Rob Bell book and the conservative evangelical backlash it is illuminating to see how much of what is being said reveals what Christians believe about God.

This is, of course, what Rob Bell calls 'the question behind the question'. Or perhaps it has become the statement behind the statement. Many, though not all, of the leaders who criticise Bell believe that God has chosen a select few to be 'saved' and that in this predestination His love is fulfilled.

This is of course at odds with the wider hope expressed by Rob Bell and has lead to him, wrongly in my view, being labelled a universalist. It strikes me that, given Jesus' revelation that we can approach God as Father, the idea of any partiality or favouritism is out of keeping with a complete expression of love.

I fail to imagine that any book on parenting would give the advice 'now have a few children and pick one of them as a favourite'.

Good parenting and a lack of partiality go hand in hand for any decent earthly parent.'How much more.......?'

Defining God by Love

A recent response to Rob Bell's book at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary seems to have captured the imagination of those who are already suspicious that Bell has jumped the evangelical ship and deserves the nebulous term unorthodox. The quote in question goes something like this: 'Rob Bell is defining God by love instead of defining love by God' At first glance it might seem like an excellent assessment of how the subject has been dealt with given that Bell openly admits to have written with disconnected people in mind. When you dig a little further into the idea that we might be able to somehow define love by God you realise that it is possible more sophistry than sense. That is the problem with sophistry it always sounds like it makes sense. It has to be said that it is impossible to develop any theology that is not communicated in an anthropomorphic setting. Scripture itself is given in fully human terms that call upon the hearer to engage with the Divine in the words (inspired as they are) of a particular people at a particular time. It seems to be the way God has chosen to communicate with us: the divine in fully human terms. To accuse Bell of defining God by love and not the reverse is to not only ask the impossible, but to ask him to do what God hasn't done. My challenge in return to those who think this latest critique is correct is: go ahead, describe love by God without using human reference points. I guess we will find that it probably looks a little like describing God by love. But that's ok, incarnational thinking is not a new idea.

Who has the right to say what is orthodox?

Following the recent controversy regarding Rob Bell's soon to be published book about the meaning and nature of hell, one commentator suggested that Bell should no longer be considered as an evangelical.

Quite what difference this would make to the sale of this new book can only be surmised.

This statement did send my thoughts back to some study I had undertaken several years ago about the nature of orthodoxy.

All organisations and cultures develop their own plausible reality structure; one in which certain assumptions and beliefs are taken to be orthodox.

The evangelical community is no exception in this respect and has gathered around a general set of values and beliefs that have become sacrosanct over many years.

This is not to suggest that there is homogeneity of belief within the camp but that the centrally held tenants are seen as the prerequisite for entering into the fold; indeed for continued inclusion.

This said it would not be impossible to produce a list of many points of disagreement between various subsets from within the movement. Everything from eschatology to ecclesiology has the potential to bring division given the right set of circumstances.

From time to time particular subsets develop the loudest voice and therefore, by implication the greatest influence.

Calvinists, Baptists, Pentecostals, charismatics, church growth movements have all been significant voices in shaping the evangelical topography. Usually such voices are initially seen with suspicion but have been able to ride the calls for exclusion on the grounds of orthodoxy due to their popularity.

Their stories are not unlike that of today's fresh thinkers: some of whom have welcomed the label emergent to describe the subset they find themselves within.

Others, like Bell, have earnestly tried to avoid such labels: perhaps in the hope of engendering a wider and deeper conversation.

It seems unavoidable that groups will attempt to define orthodoxy at some level and, by implication, will feel the urge to exclude those who differ significantly at those points that are seen as key.

The sadness is that the call for exclusion often comes at the beginning of the dialogue when questions are being raised.

If individual and groups are to be labelled as heretics for asking key questions about generally accepted views it is likely to create a culture that is all too ready to act as accuser than enquirer.

This stance will only ever lead to a clamping down on the essential element of theological discovery that has taken us from the worst aspects of Christendom to a faith that is able to cope with the nuances of modern life.

Leslie Newbigin once describe the missionary calling as being willing to leave the safety and vantage point of the hill of the cross in order to travel to where another human being exists. In doing so we must risk the notion that they may be right and we may be mistaken whilst trusting that the Holy Spirit will meet us in the dialogue to confirm the work of the cross.

Perhaps church leaders need to adopt a similar stance when looking to build the unity that is so implicitly a part of Christ's passion.

Leaving the safety of our long held doctrines to meet our Christian kinfolk. Taking the risk that they may well be correct we trust that the Holy Spirit will meet us in the dialogue and guide us to truth.

If I am honest I don't sense this willingness in the words of those who call for fellow Christians to be placed outside of their own version of orthodoxy.

We must do better.

Five thoughts on the Rob Bell controversy

1. To those who think they know what the word Evangelical means and feel that all of their congregation believes the same as they do.

Ecclesiological labels don't work anymore.

2. To those who present a firm theological response on every subject.

There is a difference between having a good memory for bible verses and understanding the big story.

3. To those who want to reject people who have genuine 'life' question.

Ignoring important questions does not make your views more correct.

4. To those who spend time trying to defend a religion.

Deciding that someone is OUT of the orthodoxy does not mean they are.

5. To those who want to destroy a man in order to destroy an idea.

You can be wrong even if you were right.

- Posted from my iPhone