Some extremely belated observations on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

With my unerring penchant for striking while the iron is stone cold, I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins over the weekend. I liked it–Bell has a knack for getting theological concepts across in friendly conversational prose without dumbing them down. He homes in on the heart of the Christian gospel–God’s abundant, overflowing love–and conveys it in a way that, I suspect, non-Christians might find quite appealing. It is, in short, “good news.”

But what struck me most was the orthodoxy of Bell’s views. Given all the hubbub surrounding the book, I was expecting something a little more envelope-pushing. But Bell, notably, does not deny the existence of hell, doesn’t say that everyone will be saved, and doesn’t deny the unique, salvific importance of Jesus.

I’d call Bell’s view “hopeful universalism.” He thinks that God leaves us free to reject God’s love but hopes that ultimately the persistence of that love will reconcile everyone. His understanding of heaven and hell and the cosmic scope of redemption is drawn from such radical theological sources as C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. His understanding of the work of Christ seems fully orthodox, even though he (rightly, in my view) sees different theories of Atonement as mutually complementary metaphors for that work.

As I suspected, in fact, the controversy over Bell’s book says a lot more about the self-appointed heresy-hunters and boundary-enforcers in contemporary evangelicalism than it does about him. There is a vocal minority that wants to define a simplistic version of Reformed evangelicalism as constitutive of the gospel–complete with insisting on “conscious eternal torment” for unbelievers and the monstrous doctrine of double predestination. And they have, unfortunately, had some success. But the Christian tradition is far wider than that. And while I don’t agree with everything he says, Bell’s book fits comfortably within the mainstream of that tradition.

Re-thinking Wright

James K.A. Smith puts his finger on something that’s worried me about N.T. Wright in his review of Wright’s latest book. Wright sometimes gives the impression that post-New Testament development of Christian theology was a decline and that it’s possible–or desirable–for us to re-inhabit the thought-world of the 1st century (with the help of some judiciously applied knowledge of second-temple Judaism, of course). While understanding the historical context of Jesus’ life and mission is obviously important, Christians have always “translated” the gospel into different cultural idioms. Arguably this process starts in the NT itself: the theological frameworks of the synoptic gospels, John’s gospel, Paul’s letters, the letter to the Hebrews, and Revelation all have their differences. In the post-NT period, this picks up steam with the translation of the Christian gospel into language and concepts borrowed from Hellenistic philosophy, culminating in the debates at Nicaea and Chalcedon.

It’s possible, I suppose, to see all this as a departure from a pristine, “original” gospel. But to do that, you have to explain how we, as 21st-century Christians, are supposed to embrace the worldview (assuming there’s just one worldview) of the NT without qualification. A more promising approach, in my view, is to acknowledge that the gospel is always undergoing a process of reinterpretation and translation, and that this can be done faithfully. The earliest expressions of the faith–while clearly normative in an important sense–aren’t necessarily adequate for all later generations of Christians. For a different, and more positive, take on this process of reinterpreting the gospel through the centuries, I’d recommend Keith Ward’s book Re-thinking Christianity.

Friday links

–On Christianity, the Holocaust, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

–Recent posts on what’s apparently now being referred to as the “new universalism” from James K.A. Smith, Halden Doerge, and David Congdon.

–Does having a monarchy lead to greater equality?

–Redeeming the “L word.”

–Appreciating both N.T. Wright’s and Marcus Borg’s views of the Resurrection.

–Why liberals should embrace classical (small-r) republicanism.

–Love and service are more fundamental than “rigorous theology.”

–Was the Civil War a “tragedy“? (More here and here.)

–Hiding the truth about factory farms.

–Kate Middleton for the win.

ADDED LATER: What’s going on with the Canadian election?

What’s going on with TEC?

The headlines say that the Episcopal Church has overturned its “moratorium” on gay bishops. N.T. Wright, predictably, scolds the Americans for fomenting “schism.” But more nuanced interpretations of what’s going on are available. See Christopher here and Father Jones at the Anglican Centrist here.

What kind of religious “center”?

Bill McKibben reviews two books on Christianity: one by Harvard preacher Peter Gomes, and the other a book from the Barna Institute, the Gallup of evangelical Protestantism, reporting on young people’s perceptions of Christianity.

Gomes is an interesting guy: a black, old-school New England conservative, Anglophile Baptist minister who happens to be gay. He’s widely regarded as one of America’s best preachers and has published popular collections of sermons as well as a book on the Bible. (I once heard him preach at a Christmas “Carols and Lessons” service in Harvard Memorial Church.)

In McKibben’s telling, Gomes’ new book focuses on the Gospel texts and seeks to recover the scandalous and countercultural message of Jesus from religious accretions. Jesus, Gomes writes, “came preaching not himself but something to which he himself pointed, and in our zeal to crown him as the content of our preaching, most of us have failed to give due deference to the content of his preaching.”

McKibben elaborates:

That preaching, in Gomes’s telling, has several important dimensions. First, it is a doctrine of reversal — of the poor lifted up and the rich laid low. It’s not just that the meek will inherit the earth, a sweet enough sentiment, but that the powerful will lose it. In Jesus’ words, “How terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life; How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry!” Jesus takes sides, and usually he is found on the side of the oppressed and unlucky: “The good news was for those who had no good news,” writes Gomes, sounding much like the Catholic liberation theologians of late-twentieth-century South America, now largely suppressed by Rome, who spoke often of Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” For the rest of us, we are instructed to love our enemies, to practice the Golden Rule, “love those beyond our comfort zone, and be merciful to others as we hope God will be merciful to us.”

Turning to unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, we see a portrait of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 who have turned against a Christianity that they perceive as “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” “insensitive to others” and having a single-minded emphasis on conversion that’s irrelevant to their lives. “This is a brand of religion that, for all its market share, seems at the beginnings of a crisis.”

McKibben sees signs of hope, however, in a cross-pollination of moderate evangelicalism and a revivified social gospel movement. He points to the National Association of Evangelicals’ statements on global warming, the work of Jim Wallis-type evangelicals, and the fact that even Rick Warren, the veritable poster boy for suburban mega-churches, has changed the focus of his ministry to addressing dire social needs like third world poverty. Further, McKibben thinks that someone like Peter Gomes, with an emphasis on the message of Jesus, can challenge the nascent moderate and center-left varieties of evangelicalism further in this direction, and in particular on its attitudes toward homosexuality.

In general, I think the idea of a revitalized religious “center” is a good thing. Not in the sense of a restoration of the oldline quasi-establishment, but in the sense of a living alternative to ultra-conservative or socially comfortable brands of Christianity that have, until recently, been its chief public face in the U.S. The oddness of this situation is only highlighted by the fact that, for instance, in the UK evangelicals seem to be spread over a much broader portion of the political spectrum; the close identification between evangelical Christianity and the Right seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon in significant respects. (Compare, for instance, the views of “conservative” British evangelicals like N. T. Wright and John Stott on issues like debt relief, war, and globalization with their American counterparts.)

However, I am wary of too pat a distinction between the “preaching about Jesus” and the “preaching of Jesus,” with the latter being preferred to the former. While recovering the challenging and countercultural message of Jesus is surely something American Christians need to do, there’s an opposite danger of ending up in the empty cul-de-sac of 19th and 20th century religious liberalism that reduced Jesus to a preacher of ethics and social reform while downplaying any supernatural claims about his status. This particular stream always ends up running into the sand for a very specific reason: if Jesus is merely a teacher of morals or social reform, once you’ve learned the lesson you don’t need the teacher any more. And, for that matter, once it becomes clear that these teachings are discernible by all people of good will, what does Christianity offer that’s distinctive?

I think more recent biblical scholarship also reinforces the close identification, rather than separation, of the preaching of Jesus and the preaching about Jesus. Once scholars have dropped certain progressivist assumptions from the 19th century they were able to see that in the preaching of Jesus one’s response to him was decisive for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This doesn’t return us to an individualist pietism, since the kingdom is a social reality, but it’s a reality with Jesus at the center. (An overview of recent scholarship that I found helpful is Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth.)

My worry then is that, in its quest to be socially relevant, “neo”-evangelicalism may be in danger of repeating some of the mistakes of Protestant liberalism. In my view, a revitalized religious center has to hold together dogma and ethics, personal transformation and social reform, mysticism and ministry. If Christians have anything to offer the world it can only be because they think Jesus offers something that transcends (but also affects) politics or social reform. Interestingly, there seems to me to be a real thirst among younger mainliners for a recovery of the traditional spiritual practices of the church along with a recognition that the mainline has too often forsaken mystery, worship and holiness for political activism. And, no doubt, mainliners can learn a lot from the warm-hearted piety of evangelicals. A whole church will, to borrow a phrase from John Paul II, breathe with both lungs – those of the active and contemplative life.

Once more into the breach…

At the risk of boring readers to tears, Robert Jenson’s article on the atonement prompted me to write something about the oft-made criticism that Anselm imports the conceptual apparatus of feudal law into his theory of atonement and that this distorts the idea of God by replacing it with a deity who is an easily offended feudal lord writ large demanding his pound of flesh.

But, as John McIntyre demonstrates in his excellent book St. Anselm and His Critics, those who’ve made this criticism often fail to read Anselm closely and don’t seem to realize that he’s pouring his own meaning into terms that seem to be drawn from feudal social arrangements such as “honor” and “satisfaction.”

Anselm’s account of the atonement is rooted from first to last in his understanding of the divine nature, and he reworks the notions of honor and satisfaction accordingly. McIntyre argues that a, if not the, key to understanding CDH is the concept of God’s aseity. This is theological jargon referring to the idea that God exists in and through himself, utterly independent of anything else. There is nothing “external” to God which constrains him to act in certain ways.

Thus, there isn’t an order of justice that has to be satisfied by God before he can be merciful to us, as though God were caught in some web of rules. And God’s “honor” for Anselm doesn’t refer to his wounded pride. God’s justice and purpose in creating the world are entirely internal to his nature, and his justice isn’t separate from his love. I think Anselm would agree with N.T. Wright’s point that “wrath,” understood as God’s hatred of sin, is inseparable from his love. How can God not hate that which destroys and corrupts his good creation?

That’s why, for Anselm, the atonement is entirely a provision of God’s love, and not something “imposed” on God from without. Such an idea is absurd in the strongest possible sense. In the Incarnation of the Son God provides for the satisfaction of justice by restoring the harmony and beauty of his creation which has been defaced by sin. But this is rooted in God’s love – love for his creation and inexorable desire that it be brought to fulfillment. Where Anselm differs from Wright and other proponents of a “penal” substitution is that Anselm sees satisfaction as the alternative to punishment. Christ isn’t punished in our place; the self-offering of the God-man provides for a gift so beautiful and good that it effaces or “outweighs” the disorder created by sin. Therefore anyone who “pleads the sacrifice of Christ” is brought into reconciliation with God.

Indeed, the concepts of honor and satisfaction are stretched beyond anything that would really make sense in a human social or legal relationship. God’s honor can’t be damaged, as Anselm points out, because God is unlimited bliss. The best we can say is that his “honor” refers to his unchangeable will to bring creation to its intended consummation. And “satisfaction” is no longer a kind of tit-for-tat proportionate recompense for discrete offenses. The gift of the God-man posesses infinite worth, completely outstripping the evil of human sin. Interesting, McIntyre argues that Anselm in fact subverts the medieval penitential system which prescribed specific penances for particular sins and lays the groundwork for justification by faith: the sacrifice of Christ truly is a once and for all response to human sin.

So, Anselm’s theory isn’t best understood as an attempt to project a feudal social order onto the Christian story even if he employed the language of feudalism. It’s based first and foremost on Anselm’s understanding of God. Admittedly, this is an understanding that is both deeply Christian and deeply influenced by Platonism, making it suspect to a lot of contemporary theology, but that’s a different issue.

Wright on Lewis and some quibbles

Readers might be interested in this critical appreciation of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity by none other than N.T. Wright (who’s own Simply Christian has been called a Mere Christianity for the twenty-first century).

Wright has much praise for Lewis of course, as well as some criticism. Some of the criticism hits the target, some of it not so much. I think Wright is, uh, right to point out that Lewis didn’t really engage with Jesus’ Jewishness and his proclamation of the Kingdom. I think that, to the extent that Lewis wrote about Jesus’ teaching and ministry, he generally portrayed Jesus as enunciating something like universal truths (Lewis, to be fair, was hardly alone in this).

However, I’m less impressed by Wright’s criticism of Lewis’s views on heaven. Lewis no doubt had a strong Platonic streak (which I don’t necessarily consider a bad thing), but I think Wright underplays the way in which, for Lewis, the heavenly realm is more like the material world brought to fruition than a kind of “spiritual” or purely intellectual escape from the physical that some people have imagined. Granted that Wright is just writing about Mere Christianity here, but I think to get a fuller picture of Lewis’s views on the afterlife one would need to attend at least to The Great Divorce, “The Weight of Glory,” and maybe even The Last Battle.

Part of the problem, too, is that Wright treats the “biblical” view of the world to come as clearer and more univocal than I, at any rate, find it to be. There have been a multiplicity of ways that Christians have tried to describe or make sense of “heaven,” “the new heavens and new earth,” and other expressions for the ultimate consummation of all things. And this is no doubt partly becuase the “biblical” view on such matters is not obvious, not to mention that we’re dealing with realities that are so far removed from ordinary experience that we quickly run up against the limitations of our language and concepts.

As Lewis himself was well aware, the Bible doesn’t give us a literal picture of the resurrection life, but gives us images that point to essential features of it:

The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised, firstly, that we shall be with Christ; secondly, that we shall be like Him; thirdly, with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; fourthly, that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and, finally that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’stemple. (The Weight of Glory, p. 34)

Lewis goes on to explore what these images might indicate, but he’s not dogmatic about describing in any great detail what this will look like. And for good reason – the images we’re given in Scripture – the banquet, the New Jerusalem, the wedding feast, etc. – are hardly conducive to detailed maps of the afterlife. The point being that dismissing Lewis as simply baptizing Plato doesn’t really do justice to his reflection on the matter.

Any Christian view of the afterlife, it seems to me, has to deal with the tension between change and continuity. We look for the resurrection of the body, but it’s also the resurrection of the body. That is, the New Testament posits both continuity with the present life and radical change (“what we will be has not yet been revealed,” “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body”). Lewis may not successfully navigate this tension, but I think he was aware of it and tried to do justice to both poles.

The other point at which I think Wright is a bit unfair to Lewis is in discussing the Atonement:

Lewis is right to stress that Christians are not committed to one single way of understanding the meaning of the Cross, and that as long as one somehow looks at the death of Jesus and understands it in terms of God’s love and forgiveness, that is sufficient to start with.

But his idea—that (a) God requires humans to be penitent, that (b) we can’t because of our pride, but that (c) Jesus does it in and for us—though ingenious, places in my view too high a value on repentance (vital though it of course is), implies again that soteriology is about God doing something in us rather than extra nos (though I think Lewis believed that as well, but he doesn’t expound it here), and minimizes all the other rich biblical language about the Cross, not least the Christus Victor theme.

Wright is correct that Lewis puts this account of the Atonement forward strictly as a way of thinking about the mystery that he has personally found helpful, and he even encourages the readers to “drop it” if they don’t. Lewis was very careful for the most part not to get into the finer points of dogmatic theology. We see this in his discussion of the Eucharist too. The important bit is the thing itself, not our theories about it. As Lewis says in his discussion of the Eucharist, the command is “take, eat,” not “take, understand.”

That being said, I don’t think, even at the level of theological reflection, Lewis can fairly be accused of neglecting the notion that on the Cross God does something extra nos. It’s often been observed, for instance, that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe works with a notion of Atonement that seems to combine elements of the traditional “ransom” theory as well as the satisfaction theory. Whatever one thinks of those theories, they are strongly “objective” in emphasizing a work that Jesus (Aslan) accomplished for us without our cooperation. Again, Wright is only directly discussing Mere Christianity, but it seems fair to point out that Lewis seems to have had a more multifaceted understanding of the Atonement than Wright implies.