I am hesitant to post this just because I do not want it to come off as someone who has an agenda against Rob bell. I do not. I subscribe to his podcasts, and am often challenged and convicted by his deep simplicity when it comes to the scriptures and their application. I love his NOOMA video’s and have used them a few times for teaching purposes. But just like most of the people that teach me and inspire me (outside of Tim Keller) I think it is always important to be open and honest about some of the flaws of these same people. Because when it is all said and done we follow Christ and no one else (except maybe Tim Keller).
I say all of this to point out that Rob Bell is a much smarter and cunning guy than people give him credit for when it comes to theology and doctrine. He is no dummy. Sometimes one of the most appealing aspects of Rob Bell is the way he can come off as so centered on Jesus and displays a kind of “aww schucks” approach about theological finer points. I have even heard him utter such lines that are quite trendy such as “I just want to follow Jesus” or “I think we just need to be followers of the way” both of which I can agree with, but are complex theological statements that at surface level appear not to be. But as I have been listening for the last year, and listening closely I have found that that Rob does have strong opinions on controversial issues, they are often just expressed in more subtle ways.
Take for example the issue of homosexuality, Rob Bell has pulled a “McLaren/Campolo” on this issue basically saying that no one can comment or speak on the subject unless they personally know homosexuals, and then also cautions that we should be careful about saying homosexuality is a sin because Jesus never said anything about it. I am summarizing here, but I believe my summary is accurate. If you want to read it yourself here is the link to Ben Witherington’s blog who writes about it, Ben is one of the most renowned New Testament Scholars in the world. Dr. Witherington concludes, and rightfully so, that this is a frightful conclusion and very un-biblical (Rom. 1:26-28). As someone who has a gay family member, I understand the temptation to rationalize away their sin and avoid the conflict that might ensue by faithfully proclaiming the word’s of the Bible. Yet I have to believe that Jesus, and the gospel are powerful enough to not just make moral people churchgoers but to even radically alter a person’s sexuality as they come to love Jesus.
The second concern I have is that as the Atonement has become the hottest most debated and contested theological issue out there today, Rob Bell seems to be lining up pretty close with Christus Victor and Christus Exemplar as the pillars of the Atonement at the determent of the centrality of Penal Substitution theory. Now I do not want to go into all the different aspects of the atonement right now, I realize that Jesus accomplished many things on the Cross, but central to all that he achieved is that he took our place (substitute) for the punishment that we deserved (penal) so that we would get God. Driscoll has all sorts of great stuff on this and preached a 12 part series on it a year ago, it is worth your time to listen to all of it. Rob Bell on the other hand has lined up more with Greg Boyd and a view that trumps the example of Jesus above the penal component. If you are looking for further reading on this topic the book “The Nature of The Atonement” a counterpoint book, is worth your read. In it Greg Boyd writes a chapter and is down right hostile at times to the view of Penal substitution.
I bring up Greg Boyd and his views to highlight that on 4/28/2007 Rob Bell had Mr. Boyd speak at his church on the topic selected by Rob Bell himself “Christos Victor.” Bell gave Boyd a glowing endorsement as he introduces him and mentions that he loves Greg’s teachings and preaching (I just want to comment here that Greg Boyd is one of the most well known spokesmen and scholars for Open-Theism). I was pretty shocked when I downloaded that podcast because Boyd is a pretty controversial figure among Evangelicals and is considered by some to be even un-biblical. I do not want to get into here if Open theism is good or bad. We can save that discussion for some other time. My point here is that Rob Bell knows what sensitive topics Open Theism and the Atonement are, so to bring in Greg Boyd and let him address it was a way to put the ideas out there and condone them to his church but not have to do it himself. As much as I love Bell and his authenticity I have to be upfront that his affinity for Christus Exemplar seems to overshadow that the reason we are to live and breathe and die as Jesus did is because our good works are the vindication and authentication that we have become new creations in Christ by his blood, that has atoned for our sin. We are saved by grace for good works (Jas. 2:14-26). This grace is not cheap, Paul tells us in Romans that the wrath of God is upon us, and that it is Jesus who propitiates that wrath onto himself on our behalf, something we could never do. This is something we do not deserve and is true biblical grace that makes us stand in awe of the cross, and that is has taken away our sin, so that we might love the marginalized and oppressed just like Jesus did (Matt. 24-25).
With all that said, I want to be clear. I like Rob Bell. I think he is a great teacher and communicator. Yet I am cautious because in many ways the Mainline liberal denominations that are now ordaining gay pastors, and changing the trinity to mother, womb, and spirit, started off by pushing doctrine aside in favor of the social concerns of the gospel and over emphasizing Christus Exemplar and the incarnation while forgetting about Jesus’ current state of exaltation (Rev. 15). I am not saying that Rob Bell is leading his church into theological liberalism, but as one becomes more skirmish on the penal aspect of the atonement and pushes away from biblical teachings on homosexuality and begins to put all emphasis on Jesus’ concern for social justice, I push back by saying lets not be embarrassed by tough teaching of the Bible and pivotal parts of the atonement. I look forward to reading and disscussing more Matt’s and Vicky’s thoughts on “Velvet Elvis” I hope the Lord will use Rob Bell to teach and instruct them the way he has used Rob Bell to edify and grow me.
ps. Jake is my hero (or maybe Tim Keller is)