Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Critique of Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis" in the light of scripture

Rant #1: Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis seems somewhat plastic.

I am in the middle of reading Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis. It is an interesting read. As I began reading I realized that there was no way I was going to able to read this book without responding to it in some way. Having heard of Rob Bell's ideas and having even listened to other people critique the book, I thought I understood where he was coming from. However, nothing prepared me for what I am reading.

First of all I want to say that if Rob Bell is responding to rigid and legalistic Christianity that has a veneer of orthodoxy, but lacks authentic faith, and hope and love in Christ, then I completely understand and I protest this kind of Christianity as well. Unfortunately as I read what Rob has to say I find that He is advocating something that goes outside of Christian orthodoxy (the teachings that have been affirmed by true believers from the early church on). He sees Christianity as a Velvet Elvis that must be repainted by every new Christian generation. In other words the faith is moldable and shapeable and can be reformed to fit our cultural context. When it comes to extra biblical things (things that that Bible does not speak to by direct command or principle) there is certainly room for flexibility, but when it comes to scriptural truth there is no room for flexibility. It seems to me that Bell wants to make the Bible plastic and moldable to our cultural context. But notice the words of Jude on this issue: Jude 3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.NASB95 The Bible often speaks of "the faith" or "the Gospel" or "the word" or "the scripture" or "the truth." There is clearly a body of teaching that comes down from God to his people to be passed down to all future generations. This body of truth is to be contended for earnestly! This body of truth is the Bible; it is the word of God. 2 Tim 3:16 & 2 Pet. 1:18-21 make it very clear that "all scripture is God-breathed" and that the human writers of the Bible were "moved by the Holy Spirit." God has spoken and he did not stutter. God has spoken and he does not appreciate being corrected or misrepresented. Just ask the prophet Hananiah from Jeremiah's day.

Jeremiah 28:12-17The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah after Hananiah the prophet had broken the yoke from off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “Go and speak to Hananiah, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “You have broken the yokes of wood, but you have made instead of them yokes of iron.” ‘For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “I have put a yoke of iron on the neck of all these nations, that they may serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and they will serve him. And I have also given him the beasts of the field.” ’ ” Then Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen now, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. “Therefore thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This year you are going to die, because you have counseled rebellion against the Lord.’ ” So Hananiah the prophet died in the same year in the seventh month.NASB95

Rant#2:Rob Bell is either confused about Bible interpretation or he is intentionally confusing people about Bible interpretation.

As I continue to read Velvet Elvis things are going from bad to worse. Initially Rob wanted us to think about Christianity as a trampoline with springs rather than a wall with solid bricks. He suggested that his faith could weather the crumbling of a brick such as the doctrine of the virgin birth. This is enough to show me that Rob Bell does not understand the Christian faith. The fact is that the Christian faith cannot stand without the virgin birth. It is crucial to the atonement and the redemption of mankind of which the whole scripture is about. Now, after reading "movement two", I understand why Rob Bell is so far off about Christianity. It is either because he does not know how to interpret scripture or because he refuses to interpret scripture correctly. He brings up a number of texts that he implies are impossible to understand. The reality is that all of the texts he brings up can be understood if they are interpreted properly in their context. It is true that there are difficult texts in the bible that good men disagree about. However, the meaning of the scripture is generally plain (Psalm 19:7-9), and if one will do the hard work of interpreting text in its context using the tools of exegesis available he may understand the big picture of every text of scripture and can offer plausible suggestions for even the most difficult verse or phrase. If however, you want to make room for whatever opinions you or others have that go against the scripture you can use difficult texts as an excuse to say the scripture is not clear and can be interpreted a number of ways. There are many fallacies in this "movement", but I can only take time to point out a few. First, Bell brings up the destruction of people such as the Amalakites where God commanded that they be wiped out. He evidently attributes these acts to men instead of God. He is trying to absolve the God of the Bible from any such acts. However, a basic truth of the Bible is that God has compassion on whom he will and punishes those who continue in rebellion against Him (Exodus 34:6-7). The Bible teaches that all the world is guilty before God. (Romans 3:10ff). We all deserve His punishment because the race of man has rebelled against His creator. The flood showed that God has the right to judge the whole world even the "innocent" because all are worthy of His judgment. The amazing thing is that God chooses to save some of us. God did use Israel His instrument of judgment on the wicked surrounding nations. The lesson is that God hates sin and will pour out His anger on it. What about the children who were killed though? God spared them from being raised up to shake their fist at Him. They were spared through their death in their innocence. Perhaps God granted them salvation (2 Sam 12:23). Second, Bell brings up the fact that scripture writers had agendas and used events and teachings of their day to make their points. They certainly did. The bible is both a human book and a divine book. But Bell wants to say that these people had experiences with God and were just writing stories that are not necessarily meant to be taken as fact, but as the product of an experience. This is just Neo-orthodoxy repackaged. This is dishonest with the way that the scripture writers themselves presented what they wrote and what they said about the scripture itself. (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:18-20; "thus saith the LORD" throughout the OT). Also, the believing Jews and the church have always been able to recognize scripture as being from God. The dates of the official recognition of the Canon of scripture and the church embracing the scripture are not the same dates. The Holy Spirit has always worked in the hearts of believers to help them recognize scripture as they read it. The councils merely ratified what was already believed. A careful look at church history makes this clear. Third, Bell wants to go back to "context" to get the scripture right, but what he appeals to is the understanding of the ancient Jewish Rabbis and a few illustrations from background and history. These things can be helpful, but they can also be misleading if taken too far. The Rabbis, for instance, are often not a good source for biblical interpretation because they were prone to allegory and bending scripture to their bent. Culture and background can be helpful but they are subject to the near context of scripture. The most important context is the context of scripture itself. This is the context that Bell seems to largely ignore. I will give some examples of this in my next Rant.

Christianity is not plastic or velvet it is not meant to be reshaped. Christianity is about the Rock of Christ and is rock solid teachings (the Bible). See Matthew 7:24-27.

Rant #3: Rob Bell overplays natural revelation (The World of experience) and far underplays special revelation (The Word of God).

Before I talk about chapter, uh er--I mean, movement three (chapter is far too absolute) of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, I want to circle back to movement two and give another illustration of a text that Rob sees as impossible to defend and explain that is actually easily explained by interpreting it in the context of scripture. Bell sees the Bible as being "the most amazing, beautiful, deep, inspired collection of writings ever", but he does not see the Bible as the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God. One text that he cites to proof his point that scripture does not claim to be from God, but claims to be the word of men is 2 Cor. 11:23. Here is what it says in the NASB: 2 Corinthians 11:23Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.NASB95 Bell translates the phrase "I speak as if insane" as "am I out of my mind?". A literal translation from the Greek would read: "I am speaking as if out of my mind." The questions Bell asks are these: "Is God out of His mind", "Is Paul out of His mind", "Is Paul out of God's mind?". I would find this line of questioning amusing if it were not so contrived. Even a cursory reading of 2 Corinthians 11 would explain what Paul is doing here. His opposition in Corinth was making him out to be a money grubbing false teacher. He was put in the awkward place of defending Himself. He would rather not speak of his credentials as an apostle, but he is forced to. His mindset is like the mindset of Christ found in Philippians 2:5-11: he would rather be humble and serve than to exalt himself. But he has to engage in a "foolish" line of reasoning so they can see how foolish these false allegations are about him. Under normal circumstances it would be insane for him to tout his qualifications, but he has to now. He brings up this idea of foolishness and insanity often in this chapter. This is why Paul also says in verse 17: 2 Corinthians 11:17What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.NASB95 If he was speaking in the usual way that the Lord speaks through Him he would not do this. There is no problem with taking this as the inspired word of God is it is understood properly. However, Rob Bell acts as if this destroys they idea of inspired scripture. An honest look at the Christian or biblical view of the inspiration of scripture does not say that God spoke through people as if they were robots. The amazing thing is that God spoke through people's personality and style to say what He wanted to say to the original readers and by principle to us without error! Bell rips these texts out of context not to prove God's point but to prove his point. He says he doesn't like it when people use scripture to back up their point, but that is exactly what he is doing. We should get our point from scripture and then show where we got it from. Bell should pay attention to what the apostle Peter said about Paul's writings.

2 Peter 3:15-16and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.NASB95

On to movement three. I can agree with some of what Bell says in this "movement", but I disagree with his main point. He tells a lot of stories to show that their is a sense of the divine built in to all of and that God's presence is evident all over the earth. This is true. However, he wants to make the job of a Christian to be a tour guide to point to natural revelation (truth revealed in nature, history, and the human experience). He basically intimates that the writers of scripture were spiritual guides who just observed the divine all around them and journaled it. The problem is that this is not what the writers of scripture claimed to be doing. They claim to have been directly spoken to by God and they claim to be delivering His message to men! There is a big difference between a human being who is noticing the divine around them and a human being that is spoken to directly by God Himself. We can definitely use natural revelation as a bridge to introduce people to the truths of God's word, but we should not act as if natural revelation is the primary source of our truth base. However, Romans 1 makes it very clear that men will suppress natural revelation and worship the creature rather than the creator unless God does something to open their eyes through the gospel. The only way we can understand the good news of Jesus Christ as the son of God the Savior and Lord, the one who can rescue us from sin, is to take God's word as absolute truth and to allow His word to work faith in us (Romans 10:17). If Bell wants to introduce people to the wonder of God all around them than he should stop attacking scripture and start defending it because only scripture has the power to pierce the human heart and open our eyes to the truth around us!

Hebrews 4:12For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.NASB95

Romans 10:17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.NASB95

1 comment:

Megan said...

Hey Dub, thanks for the post. I have been too busy to read blogs lately but I think it is a good place for profitable discussion. Concerning Rant#1, I agree that Bell has a skewed view of the historical fact of the gospel. Changing culture does not affect the fact that 2000 years ago God became man and died for our sins, and to trust him means that God accepts a person forever. There is no hair doo or computer program or urban scene that changes this. The gospel is timeless. I would not lump him in with Hananiah just yet, we probably won't be alowed in the "discussion" with that touchy of a trigger finger. The issue with Bell is a gospel that includes allot more than what we would see as the essentials. (like helping the poor and bringing God's kingdom to light in this age) This stuff IS cultural and changing, but it is not the gospel.

Rant #2, I am not surprised that Bell and followers are not good at interpreting the bible. Furthermore I am surprised that more people are not confused by what they read given the prevailing method of interpretation. The movement we grew up in was not protected by sound biblical interpretation, but rather it was protected by the good fortune of being in a tradition where the gospel had been preserved. Although many strange things got attached to that movement, the gospel I think remained. It is not hard to read the bible and understand it, I just think people are not being taught how. We read verses, not letters ect. I agree, the writers of scripture got their message directly from God. (Heb. 1:1-3) We "gag" them and consequently God if we make their writings about their own story and experience.

Rant #3, I think Bell is reacting to a misunderstanding about how God communicated with the writers of Scripture and how they then wrote what they wrote. If a person thinks God is whispering in Paul's ear and he is writing down what he hears, he will be very confused as he reads the bible. Paul (especially in the Corinthian letters) used all kinds of retorical devices like sarcasm, hyperbole, metaphors. The key is in the context. Again, it is not hard to see what Paul or the other writers of scripture are doing if a person is reading in context. Paul is a "sent one of Jesus Christ". He is one of his messengers and as such had been given authority to speak on his behalf so much so that the words of Paul are equal to the words of Christ. (We should make that distinction more, ie. OT prophets got their message from yahweh, NT writers got theirs from Christ. Heb 1:1-3) This sort of distinction is not even on Rob Bell's radar because of his view of what the bible is. Really, if a person starts reading any of Paul's letters, he cannot get to verse 3 without seeing that Paul is an authoritative messenger from God, what he says goes and not one of his words can be dismissed.