Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

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Posted on March 30th, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, News, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
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The criticism of Rob Bell's Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely's wonderful post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment's response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:

Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.

Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.'s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the "Bell's Hell" controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don't like it. For example, Bill Walker has a compared Bell's ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller's ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller's other book Prodigal God in his "further reading" section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:

So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?

The short answer to Walker's questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell's writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other "orthodox" evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached and evangelicalism that emphasized God's grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical "experimental religion" came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry" like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as "evangelicalism" in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.

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8 Responses to “Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment”

  1. Honna Eichler says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. While I do think the entirety of criticism cannot be reduced to the question of authority, I appreciated your post and think you have some valid points. Questioning his authority, at the very least, is a significant aspect to what is occurring. Regardless of what these denominational super stars say, Rob Bell has a significant following and will probably gain whatever he lost.

    And as someone who is in a Protestant denomination, I especially appreciated thinking about the whole denomination vs. non-denomination authority question – thanks!

  2. Jennifer Sanborn says:

    Michael, thank you for making this a piece about authority. I think you have a powerful argument. Having heard both Tim Keller and Rob Bell previously, they do seem a strong parallel, and the responses couldn’t be much more different.

    Bell is scary to the establishment because he exists outside the lines in many ways–his dress, his manner of speaking, his delivery of his message, his use of technology and social media, his mall-centered “church,” and so on. What will be interesting will be watching as the tides turn and communities like Bell’s become increasingly “the mainstream” by their popularity and success. Is there a power on the margins that one cannot retain the greater one’s following? And does the privilege of acceptance become seductive in its own way?

    Fascinating….thanks for writing a great piece. I’ve read the book, and I’m still scratching my head over the controversy. You put your finger on it.

  3. I’m glad you both enjoyed the post. I think your comments are on the mark.

    I would add that the whole controversy is part of an ongoing trope in American Protestantism. I used the Old Light/New Light example but I could have also mentioned the debates between John Williamson Nevin and Charles Finney or even the early twentieth century split between Fundamentalists and Modernists. Throughout American Christian history theology and authority have been conflated as people innovated and new groups came on the scene.

    Thanks for your responses!

  4. I’m reading Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon and I came across this passage that seemed pertinent:

    “The history of Christianity has been a history of excitable dissent, encouraged at its productive margins by the meeting of small groups to discuss the new gospels, new teachings, and new readings of old proverbs. From the Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson to the Mormon fundamentalist Warren Jeffs, in the American context the question for church authorities has been how to police these borders, how to keep local scriptural discussions from impinging on ecclesiastical authority.” (171)

    In a postmodern world drenched in media, those boarders are even harder to police.

  5. Brad says:

    Micheal,
    You raise an very interesting point. I have not read the book Love Wins yet and I will reserve critique until I do (I ordered it yesterday). However, I have seen ad hominem attacks by the Neo-Reformed camp on many individuals over the years. They start with one thing and then develop a list of condemnation. I preach such “Lists” are of the Evil one, who seeks only, to steal, kill and destroy. Honestly, it seems not only do the Neo-Reformed camp think they are the ecclessiastical evangelical authorities – they also believe their exegesis is superior to all others, which leads to intellectual arrogance. Sad! Sounds like this has all happened before – Read the Gospels. Jesus dealt with the theological authorities of his day (Pharisees and Sadducees) very firmly.
    That being said, if… IF (big IF intended) Rob Bell has gone the way of universalism, then I can only hope Rob has the humility to repent of his error and we as a church can follow the restoration process Jesus outlines in Matthew 18. Isn’t that what the church is suppose to be all about?

  6. Brian says:

    Hi, I just happened upon this blog on my phone. Very interesting article. I just finished the book & am all too familiar will Bell, Keller, Piper, Driscoll, etc. I’ll have to say, as intriguing as your post is, I must wholeheartedly disagree. And before I begin, I want to make sure I’m not made out as a Bell hater & blind Piper defender, because it might sound that way due to the position I’m taking now that I’ve read the book. I’m actually an avid Bell reader & listen to his sermons weekly. I just cant help but finally part ways with him on this one. Now, for my response… ;-)

    First, to chalk this up as some sort of style vs. substance issue (i.e. Rob Bell’s “younger” audience & as one of your commenters suggested, trendier dress & progressive music preference) is to grossly misunderstand the theological landscape in America. Piper is one of the most sought after communicators in the country among 20somethings, hence his appearances at a variety of young conferences including the massive Passion Conference that fills pro basketball arenas where he is the primary draw for an audience that is 90%+ teens & college students. Or we can add that he’s a regular at hipster churches such as Mars Hill in Seattle et. al. This hardly resembles an old traditionalist afraid of new & up-and-coming styles.

    Secondly, this is not about denominations. Driscoll, an INTERdenominational pastor is side-by-side with the pastoral community distressed by the book, which means there’s something more than authoritarian tug-of-war going on. And note that Keller & Bell are nowhere close to being in the same theological hemisphere, just differing based on denominational affiliation (as suggested by Walker), & its not just Calvinists that are upset. And reminder, before you peg Piper as being in the “establishment,” note that his church is not a member of any of the mainline denominations.

    Third, before we assume that Piper never read the book (i.e. implied by Staely), let’s ask him. As i looked at the Tweet a moment ago, I noticed that it was not based on a video (dont know where you heard that). It has a link to a 30-page review. Now, even if he only based his opinion on a 30-page review, its still far more than you’re assuming, & we still don’t know if he never read it. My guess is that, being a total book-nerd, Piper likely had read it & was posting the link as a resource for his Twitter followers.

    So again, this cannot be honestly called a power issue. Bell’s universalist theological assertion is more than a mere difference of opinion. He is denying one of the linchpins of Christian theology based on thousands of years of discourse & agreed upon as a central key to consistent & honest faith discussion.

    Now, you’re looking for reasons why his views are “erroneous.” As I’m reading the book for a second time, I’ll give you one. I guess I’m most bothered by Bell’s self-described orthodoxy. He uses the existence of past theologians in agreement with him as proof that his opinions have been widely accepted before, but the existence of a select few theological minds over the course of thousands of years does not make Bell’s theological position “orthodox” (which is a dusty old way of saying the view is widely accepted as biblical truth in the Christian community), no matter how hard he tries to make it so. I find this attempt a misrepresentation at best, dishonest at worst.

    The only other major issue is contextual issues where he quotes verses to support his argument but leaves out the before-and-after that gives these verses entirety different meanings from the way he expresses them, but I guess that can be a later post. ;-)

  7. Brian, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. Perhaps it didn’t come through in the original post but I’m not here to take a side on who is theologically correct. Rather, as a historian, I wanted to point out that the Bell controversy is just the latest in a long history of quarrels between American evangelicals that have centered around authority. The Unitarian controversy, the so called First and Second Great Awakenings and the 20th century Fundamentalist/Modernist split are all examples of Protestant contests over authority and cultural power. Now they aren’t just that, but that power is a key part. I wanted to put the Bell controversy into the context of this larger history of Protestant and evangelical disputes in America.

  8. Michael Hallas says:

    Thank you for this post but I think that this perspective does not take into account Orthodox Christianity. It is a great theory but it has missed the mark. I am an avid reader of Tim Keller and also have heard him speak at the Gospel Coalition conferences. He has spoken on heaven and hell which he insists that here is a hell and that some people are going there. He has described hell has a place like a prison, solitary confinement, and God is the warden. He even stated that the people in hell, even thou the are in constant agony, still would not want to be on the New earth. As far as power goes Bethlehem Baptist Church, the church John Piper preaches at, is part of the Baptist General Conference which Greg Boyd (Woodland Hills, St, Paul, MN) who is an open theist and Doug Pagitt (Soloman’s Porch, MN) (graduated from Bethel Sem. a BGC flagship sem. who is an active participant in the emergent church movement) all are apart of. John Piper has reach out to many fellow pastors like Mark Driscoll from the other Mars Hill, Seattle, when he was not preaching Orthodoxy. This is not about power, it is about theology. If it were about power John Piper would have entered into a debate with him by writing a book countering Rob Bell’s like he has done with N.T. Wright on his views of justification. Rob Bell has no authority or power to back his statements, not even church history or tradition like N.T. Wright. Rob certainly doesn’t have the Bible to back his book up, just a brief survey of the Bible like Daniel 12, all four Gospels, Paul’s 13 letters, 1 Peter, and Revelation all talk about an eternal Hell. A call must go out to the church in America to use only the scriptures, what does the Bible say? Than apply it to our lives. This is purely a theological debt.

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Ph.D. student of American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. Specialization in American religious history and Asian religions in America. Twitter: @MichaelJAltman.


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