Friday, March 18, 2011 

Why Eugene Peterson is Wrong on Rob Bell and Love Wins (Among Other Things)

While reading up on the recent controversy over Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, I came across several in the larger "evangelical" community who are actively defending Rob Bell against his critics (and even against himself). One of the largest names in that group is Eugene Peterson, author of the most popular paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. Peterson is currently Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. He is also an accomplished author, with some of his books winning awards and becoming best sellers.

Peterson's defense of Rob Bell started even before there was a controversy. Peterson supplied Bell's publisher, HarperOne, with the following endorsement blurb for Love Wins:
It isn’t easy to develop a biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ . . . Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination--without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction.

Recently Peterson spoke to Timothy Dalrymple of patheos about his endorsement and the controversy that has erupted over the book. When asked why Peterson endorsed the book, he said:
Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister. We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God. And I don’t think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight. I think that’s bad family manners.

I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says. But I think they’re worth saying. I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people. I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.

I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement. I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him. He may not be right. But he’s doing something worth doing. There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal. We’ve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way.

There is much in Peterson's statement with which we could disagree. In fact, I would disagree with almost all of it. But I think it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how we as believers are taught to confront error in the Bible. Before I get there, Peterson was asked the follow-up question, "Do evangelicals need to reexamine our doctrines of hell and damnation?" and he replied:
Yes, I guess I do think they ought to reexamine. They ought to be a good bit more biblical, not taking things out of context.

But the people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything. They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not. But that’s not what it means to live in community.

Luther said that we should read the entire Bible in terms of what drives toward Christ. Everything has to be interpreted through Christ. Well, if you do that, you’re going to end up with this religion of grace and forgiveness. The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees. But everybody else gets pretty generous treatment. There’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.

Again, Peterson sounds like a man who both doesn't understand the significance of the Doctrine of Hell and hasn't read the parts of the Bible where false doctrine is confronted and condemned. And interestingly he includes in his defense against arguments in the Church a quote by Martin Luther, a man who saw no small amount of criticism levied against him for his overly sharp tongue.

Let's take a minute here, though, and examine what Peterson actually says about Bell and about the criticism directed towards him. First, he starts out by saying, "Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister." Now, I am going to give Peterson the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he is referring to the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" (i.e., regeneration through the gift of the Holy Spirit). I shudder to think that Peterson would believe that the act of baptism either saves or confirms that one is truly a born-again believer of Jesus Christ.

But then he builds on that statement and claims that he doesn't "think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight", that doing so is to practice "bad family manners." I hate to tell Peterson this, but Jesus argued with His disciples. Paul argued with Peter. The Apostles argued with one another at the Council of Jerusalem. Members of the Kingdom argue. And often times it is quite beneficial. In Church History, debate has not always been kind, but very often it has been healthy. To claim that we shouldn't argue over doctrine because it's "bad family manners" is Biblically and historically ignorant.

Peterson adds further down, "I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another." I agree wholeheartedly with Peterson here, but is this really what is happening? Are people using the issues over the Doctrine of Hell as weapons against Bell? Of course not! In the ironic words of Billy Joel, "we didn't start the fire". The Doctrine of Hell has invoked heated arguments in the Church for centuries. And Bell threw himself into the line of fire by writing a book which advocates for a position against the one universally agreed upon by the Church for 2000 years. "Hell and the wrath of God" isn't a weapon being wielded against Bell, but rather are the objects of the firestorm that Bell ignited by writing a book on these subjects.

Now, from there I believe Peterson's words better represent a man who hasn't read the Bible, not one who wrote a bestselling paraphrase of the Bible and who taught classes on the Word of God and spirituality for decades. Two statements Peterson makes lead me to this criticism. First, he says, "...the people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything. They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not. But that’s not what it means to live in community." Then he says, "The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees. But everybody else gets pretty generous treatment. There’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell."

Has Peterson read Galatians lately? How about 1 John? Maybe he needs to reread the Gospels, particularly John 8. And heaven forbid he stumbles upon 1 Corinthians 5 or Matthew 18, where confrontation is not only spoken of, but encouraged by both Paul and Jesus, respectively.

Both Paul and John advocate for litmus tests for Christians. Jesus, Himself, does the same thing. Living in community means precisely that we confront one another for not only sin, but false doctrine as well. Paul tells the Corinthians to cast people out of the community for sin and in Galatians he pronounces curses on those who advocate for a different Gospel. And I'm guessing that all of those he was speaking of were probably thought to have been baptized by the Holy Spirit. The fruit of their actions and beliefs, however, communicated otherwise.

Finally, Peterson saves his most damning words for the end. He claims that that the "only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees" and based on that he concludes that "there's very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell." Not only is Peterson making a huge assumption about the spiritual lives of those "who are fighting Rob Bell" (notice how Peterson personalizes it, instead of relegating it to theological debate), but he is also completely wrong about Jesus.

In John 7:45, prior to the passage on the adulterous woman, we see that Jesus is speaking to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees. After v.11 of Chapter 8, Jesus picks up his conversation with the Jews (many have rightly concluded that 7:52-8:11 is out of place here in John and is not original to this Gospel, but rather represents good oral tradition which eventually found a home here). But in v.21, it appears that Jesus' conversation with the Pharisees is overheard by other Jews and they begin to talk among themselves in v.22. Jesus answers these Jews in v.23. Then further down in v.31, John identifies another group to whom Jesus is speaking as "the Jews who had believed in Him." Peterson identifies these in his Message as, "the Jews who had claimed to believe in Him."

Jesus then begins to speak to these Jews and they don't seem to like what He's saying. By the time the conversation is over, Jesus has told them that they are not children of Abraham or children of God, but rather they are children of their father, the devil. In v.47, Jesus says, "Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God." Now, I don't know about you, but it seems clear her that Peterson's claim that "the only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees" is not only terribly incorrect, but a false basis for his further claim that "there’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell."

I've always respected Eugene Peterson, but in this case he's wrong. He's wrong on Rob Bell, he's wrong on the significance of the Doctrine of Hell, he's wrong on how to live in community, and more importantly, he's wrong on Jesus and on what the Bible teaches about confronting those teaching false doctrine. I get why Peterson doesn't like controversy in the Church and why he believes it is "bad family manners". None of us find it comfortable to confront sin or enjoyable to correct false teaching. But unfortunately, Peterson's attitude doesn't line up with the Bible and consequently it is him and not Bell's critics in whom one can find "very little Jesus."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 

The Holy Spirit and the Exclusivity of the Gospel

Unless you have been away from the Christian blogosphere for the last month, you are probably aware of the rampant controversy surrounding Rob Bell's most recent book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which was released today. In response to the book, which seems to advocate for inclusivism or even universalism in regards to the salvation of those who do not actively place their faith in Jesus Christ, it seems appropriate to consider the historic, orthodox position of the Church - exclusivism.

According to Theopedia, exclusivism "refers to the fact that orthodox Christian doctrine maintains only faith in the Jesus Christ of the Bible leads to salvation or heaven. Christianity is exclusive in that its teachings indicate that the faith of other sects or religions will not lead to eternal life; or in other words, that Jesus Christ is the only true way to God."

Exclusivism is a doctrine that has no shortage of credible defenses. It is not my goal to rehash the numerous arguments that have been made which seem to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bible teaches an exclusive position on salvation. Instead, I want to point out one specific argument that is rarely considered, but is significant because of its Trinitarian focus.

Very often the contemporary Evangelical Church speaks of salvation only in terms of the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is said to have propitiated the wrath of God through His substitutionary work on the Cross. Every once in a while, you might actually hear talk of Christ's active obedience in securing the perfect righteousness which is imputed to us (credited to our account). But much less often do we speak of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

So what exactly is the Spirit's role in redemption? Well, first we must recognize that the Spirit has placed Himself in subjection to both the Father and the Son. John tells us that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and by the Son in the name of the Son and that He does whatever He is told to do and says whatever He is told to say. In this way, the Holy Spirit acts as a sort of ambassador for the King and His Son. He is co-equal with these Regents, but His role is to work in the world. And as an ambassador, it is His job to point back to Those from whom He is sent, namely the Father and Son. Regarding the Spirit's work, Jesus says:
And when [the Holy Spirit] comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:8-15, ESV).

Here Jesus says several things about the work of the Spirit in salvation. First, He convicts of sin. This is the first action wrought in the believer. Salvation does not come without conviction of sin. Those who are poor in spirit understand that conviction. And notice that the sin directly relates to their unbelief in Christ. So not only does the believer get convicted of sin, but of unbelief in Christ. Then the Holy Spirit guides the believer into truth and glorifies Christ. Finally, He discloses the Father's will and Christ's words and deeds to the believer so that He might be sanctified, another act of the Holy Spirit.

Now, those who believe in a salvation for people who do not confess Christ as Lord, they have no outs here. There is nothing in this text or any other that suggest that the Holy Spirit works apart from Christ and glorifies God without glorifying Christ. Both Father and Son are uplifted by the Spirit. Further, the Spirit brings life. He is the one who applies the work of salvation to the believer. Thus He only applies it by means of the formula given by Peter in Acts 2:38, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (ESV). The Holy Spirit can only apply the work of salvation to those who by faith acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. Otherwise, He would be working outside of His jurisdiction and thus be making Christ a liar and usurping His subordinate role. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit would be denying Christ His due glory -- the glory due His name, the name at which all men will bow.

So, what we have here is a thoroughly Biblical argument which once again ends in the exclusivity of the Gospel call. No one can be saved apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. No one can inherit eternal life without the righteousness of Christ. And the Holy Spirit cannot give anyone that righteousness anonymously. He must do it as every good ambassador does, by means of His King, the One who sent Him. In this case, it is Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

As Rob Bell's book appears, let's pray that the Holy Spirit continues to glorify Christ by reminding us of the truth that He has communicated for 2000 years - the truth that He inspired Peter to communicate in Acts 4:12:

...there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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