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