Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Rob Bell, Hell, and the wisdom of Augustine

A couple of years ago I was chatting to a friend about the differences between online responses to theological debates and those found in print.  We were discussing the mud flung by N. T. Wright at the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions.  By the time printed journals and evangelical newspapers had offered their comments and observations on that particular disturbance in the Force, the unrest about it in the blogosphere had well and truly come to an end.

Now it is Rob Bell's turn to trigger the sound of the air raid warning in much the same way as Steve Chalke did over penal substitution a few years back.  The doctrine under scrutiny has altered, but the reaction to it is very much along the same lines.  Whenever an article of orthodox Christian belief is questioned, challenged, or denied, whenever a well established biblical truth is "exposed" by a well known evangelical author or speaker as if all along we have been hoodwinked about what Jesus really meant, there is a twin response made by those seeking to defend the truth.

To begin with, aberrations from orthodoxy call for careful analysis, exposition and refutation.  The merits of an opposing position need to understood, fairly presented, and weighed.  Parts of an author's proposal need to be considered in the whole context of that work, or in other words, read in context.  This is all part and parcel of evaluation and refutation.  In the case of Rob Bell's Love Wins we have little to go on until the book has been published, read and digested.

Until then, despite all the noise, we will not have much to engage with.  What is he saying?  How is he interpreting Scripture?  What is he rejecting?  What conclusions has he drawn?  How will this affect the lives of those who embrace his teaching?  Provocative trailers aside, what is the substance of his position?  We will know much more when we have read the book.  I have read a few chapters of Love Wins, but I would like to read them in the context of the whole book.

Doubtless too there needs to be a frank look at the quality of the arguments, and the exposition of Scripture and logic that underpins them, aside from the personality and media image that accompanies them.  Bad and insubstantial arguments can travel a long way on the strength of the personality advocating them and not because of their inherent worth.

The second response offered when someone is moving away from orthodoxy and taking others with them, is the presentation of a clear statement, exposition, and defense of the particular truth under attack.  In addition to blog posts, articles, lectures and sermons appearing on the doctrine of hell it would not surprise me to see some new books and multi-author volumes too.  Not that we lack helpful resources.

For some time evangelicalism has adopted a culture of plausibility concerning the eternality and justice of hell, and has never come to terms with that fact that useful men can wreak havoc when they depart from sound doctrines.  However, we have not lacked men who have kept their nerve and refuted the arguments of the deniers of eternal punishment.

Fresh attacks on old truths, provided that they are of sufficient weight, do present us with an opportunity to look at the roots of a doctrine and our own precision and nuance in stating it.  We can always do a better job of articulating the truth, especially when our contemporary popular expositions of it are connected with the confessional and theological heritage of the church.

Finally, here is the wise counsel of Augustine on the benefits of heresies:
This predestination of the saints is certain and manifest; which necessity afterwards compelled me to defend more diligently and laboriously when I was discussing the subject in opposition to a certain new sect.  For I have learned that every separate heresy introduces into the Church its peculiar questions, which call for a more diligent defence of the Holy Scripture, than if no necessity of defence well and the e had arisen. 
For what was it that compelled me to defend, in that work of mine, with greater copiousness and fuller explanation those passages of the Scriptures in which predestination is set before us?  What, but the starting up of the Pelagians, who say that the grace of God is given to us according as we render ourselves deserving of it?
From On the Blessing of Perseverance, quoted by Calvin in De Aeterna Predestinatione Dei (1552).  The English translation by Henry Cole is found in Reformed Cofessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation Volume 1: 1523-1552 (compiled by James T. Dennison, Jr.), p. 706-7

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