Thursday, April 14, 2011

If "Love Wins" ... Theology Loses

I finally broke down and bought Rob Bell's controversial book, "Love Wins".  Although I expected to vehemently disagree with him based on reviews of the book (and indeed this is the case), I was also expecting at least some measure of theological depth.  In this, I was sorely disappointed.

There was no discussion of Weiss or Schweitzer, of Bultmann or Moltmann, or even of Barth - instead, his book is a simplistic polemic that dishonors the eternal importance of the topic.  His primary mode of argument is to put forth a series of seemingly contradictory Scripture verses, cited without context, and then saying "which is it?" - I can imagine him sticking his tongue out and saying, "nyah, nyah, nyah" as he does so.

It's actually difficult to critique the book in depth, because there doesn't appear to be anything remotely resembling a systematic theology or consistent hermeneutic undergirding it.  He uses the seeming contradictions in accounts of the afterlife to his advantage, yet he does not apply the same methodology to his advocacy for social action in the here and now.  If I were to argue using his methodology, I could take a verse such as Jesus saying "the poor you will always have with you" and use it to debunk calls to social justice (and this certainly has been done time and again - but does he really want to be using the same, lame rhetorical method?)  Bell is employing "situational hermeneutics" (analogous to situational ethics).

His analysis of the Greek language in the NT is hopelessly flawed because he ignores one basic consistency of the Gospel: that in the various places where salvation is set against damnation, the language used is symmetric.  So if he wants to argue whether "aion" is eternal or for a period of time, or whether "eternal" should be thought of in linear time or as standing outside of time, he discards the symmetry of the word choices and manages to take symmetric words and arrive at an asymmetric outcome.  If heaven is forever, so is hell.  If hell is for a limited time, so is heaven.  He falsely sets forth uses of the word "all" as if it always refers to "all" of humanity, when it is fairly clear that "all" can also mean "all" of the elect.  He plays weak language games

He also bears the conceit of presenting ancient concepts as if he has either invented them or rediscovered them, such as his emphasis on the notion of heaven as coming to earth.  The Westminster Confession of Faith holds that our souls will be reunited with our bodies on the day of resurrection.  He's not the first person to notice that in Revelation 21, the new Jerusalem is coming down.  But his conceit is palpable in his desire to force God to conform to his own standards of love and mercy.

In the end, he simply fails to discuss the following topics:

1.  In our sinfulness, do we deserve salvation or damnation?
2.  Is our obedience to God even possible without either prevenient or efficacious grace?
3.  What is the role of divine justice, not just love, in shaping the eternal future of humanity?

It's a good thing that this is his 4th (or is it 5th?) book and that he has a following.  Otherwise this book probably never gets published.  In our society, fame gets your ideas aired (see Sheen, Charlie).

But it's not easy for me to be as angry about this book as I was when I first heard about it, because it really just poses the same questions that I hear from the 8th graders in my confirmation class, and at the same level of discourse (maybe lower).  They don't make me angry by asking; their questions are well-meaning, just naive.  The only difference between my 8th graders and Rob Bell, I suppose, is that the 8th graders are teachable.