Thoughts on Love Wins (2): Is Consistency a Virtue?

Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, got a lot of attention before it ever hit the shelves. Now that it is available to the masses, the reviews are going up. This post is the second in a series of reflections on the book, which I hope will make some small contribution to an important conversation. In my last post, I commended Bell’s expansive vision of God’s ultimate plan for new creation. I hope this commendation established an ethos that I was not merely lobbing grenades as Bell but attempting to set my criticisms within a context that includes helpful points. Despite the positive focus on new creation, I was deeply concerned by his surprising lack of serious biblical exegesis, which was not the only problem.
One other issue is Bell’s apparent lack of consistency in what he thinks will ultimately happen with regard to human salvation. He wants to say that God ultimately gets what he wants, namely the salvation of everyone who ever lived or will live: “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, ‘God’s love, of course,'” (109). Okay, so it looks like God’s love will ultimately overcome all resistance and win everyone over. But then he goes and says: “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (113). So, God’s love is unrelenting and irresistible, except, of course, when people resist it. And love wins, except when it doesn’t. Come on, Rob. Which one is it? Sounds a bit like he wants to be a Calvinist when talking about universal salvation and an Arminian when talking about real love relationships. Can you have it both ways? Not if consistency is something you value.
I tend to think Bell really goes with the second option affirming that love does not ultimately compel and that those who are perpetually resistant to God’s grace go on to an experience of a perpetual Hell. But I think that is inconsistent with what he said about God’s love overcoming the hardness of every human heart. And if Bell does actually think that God’s love is resistible, then love doesn’t always win, does it? If I’m missing something, then help me out!
Thoughts on Love WinsPart 1
Thoughts on Love WinsPart 3

Thoughts on Love Wins

Let me say up front that this is not my typical book review. Reviews of Love Wins are available aplenty, and if I were to try to deal comprehensively with Rob Bell’s new book, it would require more time than I presently desire to devote. So, that said, here are a few reflections on the book, a few thoughts on what I like and what causes me concern. My goal is not simply to repeat all over again what has already been said,  though I will certainly echo other reviewers, but to offer a few points that I hope will contribute to the larger post-publication analysis of a volume that has drawn a lot of attention.
Let me begin with what I like about Love Wins. I really appreciate Bell’s call to embrace a much larger biblical vision of redemption than is often communicated in the truncated better-hope-you-escape-this-world-and-go-to-heaven-when-you-die message. I absolutely affirm that when a believer dies they are “with Christ which is far better” (Phil 1:23), and I’m happy to call that Heaven, but I am deeply concerned when that is portrayed as the goal of the Christian life and the aim of God’s purposes in creation. Scripture speaks of a day when all creation will be liberated from bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), when the Savior from Heaven returns to subject all things to himself (Phil 3:21-22), when the dead will be raised never to die again (1 Cor 15:20-26), and when God himself will make his home among his people in a newly recreated heaven on earth (Rev 21:3). Bell has a vision of this new creation, and I appreciate his rejection of the absolutely unbiblical idea that creation is a sinking ship just waiting to be abandoned. Salvation is cosmic. That’s what the Bible says, and Bell gets that right.
Despite this significant positive for the Bell book, there are also problems, and perhaps the most important is his exegetical method or, I should say, the absence of any serious exegetical method. Two examples will make the point.
First, in dealing with the phrase “aion of koladzo” (as Bell phrases it, 91), which is usually translated something like: “eternal punishment,” Bell concludes that it should be translated as: “a period of pruning”, “a time of trimming”, or “an intense experience of correction.” He authoritatively asserts these translations providing no detailed interaction with the biblical text, no consideration of the context, which ought to include an analysis of structural relationships within the text that help us get at the meaning of terms, and no citations of ancient sources that support his proposed translations. He doesn’t even cite a lexicon (which still isn’t exegesis but would have, at least, been something) to justify his preferred revisionist translation. For all the reader knows, he is just making it up as he goes along, and that’s kind of the way it looks. The point I want to make is that Bell attempts to overthrow a generally and widely accepted translation and provides absolutely no exegetical evidence as to why his view is to be preferred. Every first year seminary student knows that context is everything. Evidently Bell forgot that lesson when he sat down to write Love Wins.
Second, Bell takes the well-known quote from Jesus in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and goes on to conclude that “What he (Jesus) doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him” (154). Again, the problem is that there is no argument from the larger book-of-John-as-a-whole context that legitimately allows this conclusion. Bell doesn’t make an argument from John; he simply doesn’t provide a reading of John. If he were to read John, he might very well find evidence that contradicts his assertion. I was a grading assistant in grad school, and if one of my students had turned in something like this, I would have recommended a failing grade. This sort of stuff would be a laughingstock in the real world of serious biblical interpretation, a laughingstock.
The thing that bothers me the most about this glaring methodological deficiency is that Bell should know better. And if he does know better, then he should do better; if he doesn’t know better, he shouldn’t be publishing books. The reality is that most of the people who will read this book will not have had the technical training to know what is being done to them. They will simply know that this guy is pastor, and that he should, therefore, know what he’s doing when he discusses the Bible. When people who know the rules don’t play by the rules when they write for people who don’t know the rules, they are taking advantage of their influence, abusing their power, and, I would say, abusing their readers. Some will say that these are harsh words, but I believe they are adequate, accurate, and spoken out of love for those who are the object of this shenanigan posing as biblical interpretation. Indeed, what Bell has done is unfair, unjust, and deceitful, and, when you treat people like that, love certainly has not won.

Well, I had originally intended to go on and discuss some other aspects of Love Wins, including whether or not some of the conclusions are consistent and the understanding of God that is developed in its pages. But this post has already become far too long. So, keep an eye out later this week for some thoughts on those topics. At this point, the problems are more severe than the benefits are redeeming; we will see if things get better.
Thoughts on Love WinsPart 2
Thoughts on Love Wins Part 3

Should United Methodist Funds Be Limited to Official Schools?

Official United Methodist Schools of Theology that train more ministerial candidates will now receive more denominational funding than schools that train less. This is the result of a new formula, approved by the Directors of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), for dispersing money from the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). Rev. Sharon Rubey, an executive with the GBHEM’s Division of Ordained Ministry explains the rationale behind this change: “We want to reward the United Methodist seminaries that educate more United Methodist students for ministry in the church.”
My question is this: If the goal is to reward seminaries that train higher numbers of United Methodist students, then why limit the disbursement to official United Methodist Schools of Theology? I understand that the goal as stated is not actually to reward any seminary that trains more United Methodist students but to reward United Methodist seminaries.
My question intends to point to the inequity within the United Methodist educational system. The UMC has thirteen official seminaries; many other seminaries are approved for the training of UMC ministerial candidates, but since they are not official denominational schools, they get no denominational funding; this despite the fact that some of them train more United Methodist students than many of the official United Methodist schools.
Take my own alma mater, Asbury Theological Seminary, a school approved by the denomination for the education of ministers but not an official United Methodist School of Theology. It is my understanding that Asbury Seminary trains and graduates more United Methodist ministry candidates than any official United Methodist seminary, yet because they are only approved and not official, Asbury Seminary gets zero funding from the United Methodist Church despite the significant service rendered in providing clergy to the UMC. You heard that right. More clergy; zero cash; none; zilch, nada, nothing. In that light, it’s amazing how many United Methodist students still choose Asbury Seminary even though there is no denominational support for scholarships!

Another way to frame this issue would be to consider whether the money should go directly to the schools or follow the student. It has been pointed out to me that if UMC ministerial candidates got equal funding for the official or approved school of their choice, then that would certainly be more fair and equitable. Also, the schools that are in high demand would thrive while those institutions that are faltering in their task would become irrelevant. You would get to see which schools are really doing a good job and which ones are presently being propped up for other reasons. Shouldn’t there be equal funding opportunities for all UMC ministerial candidates?

So, if the UMC were really interested in rewarding schools that serve the denomination by training more clergy, would we not also reward those approved but not official seminaries that  train the most clergy? If the money followed the students, the whole system would seem much more equitable.

What do you think? Should there be a way of rewarding non-official but approved schools who serve the UMC by training more of its ministers? Is the distinction between official and approved seminaries even helpful? If a school is good enough to be approved, why shouldn’t they get funding? I’d like to hear what you think!

United Methodist Student Pastor Wasn’t Fired; Left Willingly

Earlier this week, I offered some reflections on the reports that United Methodist pastor and student at Duke Divinity School, Chad Holtz, had been dismissed from his pulpit for his controversial views on, among other things, hell. It has now come to my attention that Holtz was not removed from his pulpit; he left willingly and on his own.
The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church released a statement explaining that Holtz was asked to leave his role as pastor after breaking an agreement with Marrow’s Chapel that he would not post on controversial topics. Holtz’s District Superintendent commented on the Holtz’s decision to leave saying: “Both Chad and the committee agreed that he would not post controversial topics online. He broke the agreement and the committee members felt betrayed. The committee asked Holtz to leave the church and he agreed.”
This adds a number of interesting elements to the discussion, not least the integrity (or lack thereof?) of the journalists who made the initial report either without all the information or purposefully leaving it out. I’ll be curious to see whether those news agencies will correct their erroneous reporting.
Beyond that, how does this affect the role and responsibility of the pastor to speak biblically and prophetically on issues on which others may disagree? Elders in the United Methodist Church are charged with the ministry of the Word, and oftentimes that ministry challenges those who hear, indeed it challenges those who preach, to grow and rethink some things we’ve held onto for a long time. I know I’ve had to change my mind on some tough issues after seeing the biblical evidence in a fresh way. I’m in no way suggesting that Holtz was right to break his agreement; he shouldn’t have. But we need to ask: how will the denomination ensure that the prophetic office of the pastor is protected and preserved? Would this situation have been handled differently if the pastor has been an ordained elder rather than a licensed student pastor?
Image Source: Associated Press

Don’t Leave Clergy Vulnerable

The good folks at the United Methodist Reporter were kind enough to publish my article on the issue of the “guaranteed appointment.” Here’s the opening paragraph:
The so-called guaranteed appointment for ordained United Methodist clergy will become a matter of increased debate as General Conference 2012 draws near. In some corners it seems to be the church’s whipping boy and the source of every ill in our denomination. But is the matter that simple? Does the guaranteed appointment play no positive role in United Methodist polity? And what is the potential for damaging consequences were the provision removed? These are important questions which must be carefully considered as we discern the future course of our denomination.
Read the whole thing at the UM Portal.

UM Pastor Loses Pulpit for Views on Hell

The Associated Press is reporting that United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School student Chad Holtz was removed from his appointment to Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson, NC, for statements which include support for Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins. Holtz went on record saying: “I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don’t think that means an eternity of torment. But I can understand why people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind. It’s something I’m still grappling with myself.”
The article says that Gray Southern, Holtz’s District Superintendent, declined to comment in detail on the matter but suggested there was more at issue that Holtz’s views on Hell. Holtz indicated that his support of Bell’s book was probably the last straw in a series of controversial statements.
Honestly, I’m a bit surprised that a UM pastor was actually removed from appointment for apparently not believing in an eternal Hell. Methodists are not known for leveling heavy consequences on doctrinal issues.
What I do want to raise is the serious issue of protecting the prophetic voice and role of the pastor. Pastors have a challenging role to teach and preach what they believe to be faithful to scripture even when others disagree. How do we ensure that pastors are protected to speak faithfully and in accord with their conscience?
As a student pastor, it is unclear to me whether Holtz had the same protections that an ordained elder would have, which include the requirement of official charges, due process, and ultimately a church trial. Perhaps someone could help me out on that. How does the Book of Discipline address complaints and disciplinary procedures for local pastors? Are the procedures different from that of elders?
The United Methodist Confession of Faith does affirm belief in “the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation” (2008 Book of Discipline, par. 103, Article XII). Is it clear that Holtz’s position is inconsistent with that? Is it fair for him to be removed without some sort of extended investigation by the District Committee on Ministry? Maybe there was. The article doesn’t say.
I’m raising questions at this point, and I’m curious to get some feedback from my fellow UM clergy. How does this strike you? Is it being handled properly? Do we need to hold off on too much comment because we don’t have all the information? Are you unsettled by this story? Or did you have some other reaction? I’m interested in hearing some different perspectives.
I feel saddened for Holtz. This guy was a student pastor. This is a role that should provide some experience and opportunity for learning. I would hate for his ministry to be ruined because the issue might have been mishandled. Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know with certainty. What do you think?
Image Source: Associated Press

Penal Substitution: Theological Innovation or Ancient Doctrine?

Is the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement a novel idea held mainly by the Reformers and their theological offspring? This is indeed the charge that is sometimes leveled against the argument that penal substitution is an essential element of a biblical view of the atonement. But can the historical evidence bear the weight of the charge? In this post, I want to draw your attention to a few major historical figures whose writings reveal that substitutionary atonement has been an important part of the Church’s understanding of the work of Christ since its earliest years. I intend to offer little in the way of commentary. My aim is primarily to draw attention to a few representative sources to counter the suggestion that substitution is not a truly ancient Christian understanding of the atonement.

The citations below are drawn from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway, 2007) by Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Chapter 5 provides a thorough survey of historical figures which demonstrates that substitutionary atonement has characterized all periods of church history. This is a highly important work with which any serious critic of penal substitution must reckon, and I commend it as a thorough and persuasive defense of a biblical understanding of the atonement. And now, ad fontes.
A key figure from the early second century is Justin Martyr, who was one of the most important Christian writers from that period. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes:
For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all…If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves (Ante-Nicene Fathers I.247, emphasis added).
For Justin, then, the whole of humanity is under the penalty of the curse of God that is the consequence of their sin. The work of Christ is to bear that curse on their behalf.
Eusebius of Caesarea lived and wrote in the late third to early fourth century. While he is best known for his Ecclesiastical History, his penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement appears in his Proof of the Gospel:
And the Lamb of God…was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us (10.1, emphasis added).
Note the precise use of penal substitutionary language: Christ suffered a penalty on our behalf. That penalty was itself death, and Christ’s bearing of that penalty is the cause of our forgiveness. Here we have evidence from none other than perhaps the most well-known church historian writing in the early fourth century using the precise language of penal substitutionary atonement.
Not to be overlooked is the influential Athanasius, who also wrote in the fourth century. In his all-important work On the Incarnation, Athanasius developed the consequences of sin in terms of corruption leading to non-existence. In light of this problem, Christ “surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father” (sec. 7, emphasis added). He then says further:
He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all…when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required (sec. 9).
As the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions point out, the notion of substitution is present in the use of “in place of all” and “exchange”, while the Son’s offering of himself “in death” establishes the penal element (172).
The fourth century preacher John Chrysostom likewise demonstrated his affirmation of penal substitution in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21:
If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen then a thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, set 1, I.12).
Chrysostom’s story of a king who transfers the guilt of a criminal to his own son is a perfect illustration of the doctrine of penal substitution, which, he asserts, should shape our understanding of how God relates to us.
One final quote will firm up the case. The following is from Augustine’s Against Faustus:
But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment (14.6, emphasis added).
Augustine could not be more clear; Christ died to bear the curse for our transgressions.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions also draw on the work of Hilary of Poitiers, Gegory Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, and Gregory the Great, who all wrote between the second and seventh centuries, to make their case that penal substitution is not only ancient but an ongoing way of understanding the biblical doctrine of the atonement. While penal substitution is certainly not the only way of speaking of atonement, it is certainly one of the most ancient ways the Church has thought about the atoning work of Christ. The idea is neither new nor novel. Rather, some of the greatest minds in the history of early Christian thought have seen in the scriptures the truth that God allowed the penalty of death for human sin to fall upon Christ who stood condemned as a substitute in our place. And those who maintain this truth today do so in accord with the Church through the ages.