Rob Bell has been a great influence on me — and I’m not ashamed to say it

rob-bellRecently, if I’ve mentioned Rob Bell, I’ve done it in a whisper. To be at all associated with Bell can be hazardous to your reputation, depending on who hears it and what assumptions they make.

To claim Bell as an influence already painted you in with a certain crowd before Love Wins (a book that questioned the traditional Christian doctrine of hell). After Love Wins, associating with Bell automatically puts you in some people’s probably-a-heretic category.

But Rob Bell has had a profound influence on my life, my theology, and my ministry, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Here’s why.

1 - The first time I heard Rob speak, the person introducing him said, “Our next speaker is going to tell you things you have never heard, and you’re going to wonder why you’ve never heard them.” And that’s exactly what Bell proceeded to do. He opened up the Scriptures to me in a brand new way.

When Rob Bell talked that day, I began to see the intricate ways so many of the stories of the Bible are woven together. I remember it as the first time I really understood that maybe there was more to the Bible than just picking it up and asking myself what it means. And he didn’t just present that new information to tickle my brain. He used it to proclaim a deeper, richer gospel than I was accustomed to hearing preached. I think that was the day I first wanted to be a student of the Bible, not just a reader of it.

I found Rob later and asked him where he learned these things. I was convinced he must have some secret source of knowledge that other preachers didn’t have, or surely they would be sharing these things, too. He pulled out a “recommended reading” list and told me to start at the top. I obviously wasn’t the first to ask.

But this leads to the next point…

2 — That experience had a great influence on me as a communicator.

In the years since I first met Rob Bell, I realized he wasn’t the only one who knew these things! They actually teach them — or the tools to get at them — in seminary. And I realized that other preachers were even communicating some of these things. So I began to ask myself why I had never picked up on them before.

There were two reasons, I determined.

First, many other preachers just weren’t communicating these ideas very well. What I heard Rob Bell present as a mind-blowing, life-altering truth in Scripture, I heard others present haphazardly, unenthusiastically, or sometimes almost as a footnote.

Second, the other preachers didn’t give much time and attention to “teaching points” like these. Perhaps they feared losing people because of too much information. Perhaps they would have lost people because they weren’t able to present that much information in an accessible manner. Perhaps they just preferred to focus on motivation or therapy and didn’t want to get “bogged down” in biblical details.

Rob Bell showed me that it’s okay to get excited about Scripture. If it makes you want to jump up and down at times, well, jump up and down. If it doesn’t make you want to jump up and down at times, there’s something wrong. Maybe you need to study some more. (By the way — another reason some preachers don’t give much time to “teaching points”: it’s hard work. You have to put in some hours of serious research.)

Rob Bell showed me that deep historical and theological and biblical information has a proper place in our preaching. A lot of people are craving something with more substance. I was one of those people and didn’t even know it.

3 — Over time, perhaps the greater influence on me was Bell’s focus on simplicity and generosity.

He repeatedly showed me God’s concern for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and made me consider why I wasn’t doing more to care for them. He made me question the luxuries I was indulging while others’ basic needs weren’t met. It was his preaching that would first prod me to see my and the church’s use of money as a deeply theological issue. Those were the first seeds that you see growing into posts like “The Church as Alternate Economy” and “Pastors’ Salaries and Church Buildings.”

And while Bell’s preaching was powerful in this regard, it was his life that really did it for me. In a Q&A session, another staff-person at Rob’s church convinced him to share a bit about how he was personally trying to live into his preaching. He shared about ways that he and his family had simplified their lives. Most of us would call this extreme-simplifying, especially for a famous mega-church pastor who had sold lots of books. Their family of four was down to one car and living in what many would call a “starter home” in a rather rough area of town.

When Rob shared this, people started to applaud. His response: “No! No, no! Please don’t clap about this. You see, we have more now than we’ve ever had! We have more now than we’ve ever had!” (That’s my paraphrase, as best I remember it.) And I believed him. I wanted the joy and freedom that came along with that sort of simplicity and generosity.

All the other stuff

I should say a word about some of the other, more controversial topics. From even the early days of his popularity, the knock was that Rob didn’t believe in absolute truth. Honestly, I’ve not seen the sort of denial of absolute truth with Bell that I’ve seen with many others. What I’ve seen is a lot of questions.

Those questions were really helpful to me. It was helpful to question some lifelong assumptions I’d had — assumptions that it seemed all Christians had. It was good to ask where they came from. Rob Bell was the first to teach me the importance of deconstruction — even if he wasn’t always the most helpful for reconstructing, and even if some of the things he deconstructed maybe shouldn’t have been.

Which leads to the last point. It was Love Wins that sent Bell into a whole new stratosphere of controversial. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it was a very good book. I generally agreed with Tim Tennent’s “Why Rob Bell needs to return to seminary…,” though I think Tennent under-estimated how many people out there are saying the things that Rob was understandably trying to question. America has a lot of fundamentalists — and several of them are scary and mean.

I also don’t think the book merited the strong negative reaction it received. In the end, Bell doesn’t deny the existence of hell as a place of eternal separation from God. He asks a lot of questions and says there may be another side to the story. Even if that wasn’t done wonderfully, I don’t think it makes him a heretic. As far as I know, he can still recite the Apostles’ Creed without winking, so he meets my requirements. As far as I know, he believes that Creed is true for all people, whether they know it or not. That’s enough absolute truth for me. And as far as I know, he is truly seeking holiness in his heart and his life. That doesn’t mean I’ll let him influence everything I think and do, but I’ll take it for something. For a lot, actually.

29 thoughts on “Rob Bell has been a great influence on me — and I’m not ashamed to say it

  1. thanks, teddy. this was brave. and i’m glad you did it.

    i was skeptical of bell when i first heard about him 10 years ago. but the more i read him, the more i liked him. and, honestly, i liked ‘love wins’, too. yes, there were things i disagreed with (aren’t there always when you’re reading a book?), but i didn’t see an outright denial of hell, just more questions (as you say) and then some attempts to string the grand story of scripture into a relatively cohesive answer.

    another aspect of bell that i really like is that he sees theology as art, not just science. that’s part of of the problem with a lot of near-fundamentalist or conservative readings of scripture and theology — they want to make it all about the ‘science’ of reading the bible or the ‘science’ of theological musing. but bell, while obviously bright, sees himself as an artist. and as an artist, that leave more room for lines that are hazier. in other words, the knock on bell that he’s too ambiguous is probably something he does on purpose. all art leaves room for more art. art is never the final word on a subject. and that’s what our ‘scientific’ brothers and sisters don’t understand.

    hope that made sense.

    • Thanks Tom. What a great point about art! “All art leaves room for more art. Art is never the final word on a subject.” I love that way of looking at our theology. I think there are some important lines to paint within (again, I’ll take the Apostles’ Creed as backbone for that), but our world is always creating new canvas to fill.

      • I was an inch away from commenting on your facebook page — saying something to another commenter about how Bell has never, to my knowledge, contradicted the Apostles Creed and therefore he shouldn’t be viewed as a heretic. At the end of the day, I think what people don’t like about Bell is that 1) he’s an artist and no one ever truly understands an artist, and 2) he challenges long held, ‘traditional’ beliefs (and by ‘traditional’ i mean modern. 🙂 )

    • Hi Ed,

      Here’s what I last had. A few disclaimers first:
      — This is several years old. I don’t know if Rob would still endorse it or not.
      — You’ll see that most everything at the top is about Jewish roots. That was big for him in the beginning. His focus shifted later, as you’ll begin to see toward the bottom.
      — Ray VanderLaan is listed #1. Not sure I could endorse that anymore, as I’ve heard some people question his accuracy — and he doesn’t give his sources. Take some of the same caution with Edersheim, and perhaps with some others…

      ——–

      A RESOURCE LIST TO GET STARTED

      1. Teaching materials and videos from Ray VanderLaan
      http://www.followtherabbi.com

      2. Teaching cassettes by Dwight Pryor from The Center for Judaic Christian Studies
      http://www.centerforJCStudies.com

      3. Your local synagogue library (probably open during the day)

      All of the following books are available through http://www.amazon.com Prices listed are for new/used books from the website.

      To begin:

      1. Feiler, Bruce, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five books of Moses, pb, $10.47/4.69
      2. Kushner, Lawrenece, Jewish Spirituality, A Brief Introduction for Christians, pb, $11.17/3.25.
      3. Stern, David, The Jewish New Testament Commentary: A Companion Volume to the Jewish New Testament, JNTP, $24.49/21.98.

      Next in priority:

      1. Crossan and Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts,
      Harper Collins, $13.97/10.95.
      2. JPS Torah Commentary, JPS, hb, $300.00.
      3. Kushner, Lawrence, The Book of Letters: A Mystical Alef-Bait, $17.47/12.60; Eyes Remade for Wonder: A Lawrence Kushner Reader, pb $11.87/3.26; God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning, pb, $11.87/10.95; Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the ordinary, pb, $11.17/3.25.
      4. Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Morrow, hb, $20.97/19.10

      Further reading:

      1. Bivin and Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective, $12.99/9.04
      2. Cahill, Thomas, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Hinges of History, Vol. 3), Anchor Books, pb, $11.20/6.00; The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History, Vol.2), $11.20/6.95.
      3. The Chumash: The Stone Edition, Mesorah Publications, LTD, $34.99/24.49.
      4. Cohen, Abraham, Everyman’s Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages, Dutton, pb, $12.60/12.55.
      5. Edersheim, Alfred, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Hendrickson, $10.47/10.25, and his numerous other works of limited availability.
      6. Fleusser, David, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, pb, $10.47/10.25, and his numerous other works of limited availability.
      7. Fox, Everett, The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (The Schocken Bible, Volume 1), pb, $19.25/18.82.
      8. Goldstein, Rabbi Elyse ed., The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, Jewish Lights, hb, $24.47/24.40.
      9. Heschel, Abraham Joshua, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, FSG, pb, $11.20/7.25; The Sabbath, $9.60/5.00.
      10. The Complete Works of Josephus, Kregel, hb, $17.49
      11. Kugel, James L., The Bible As It Was, Harvard University Press, $26.25/10.59.
      12. Michner, James, The Source, pb, $7.99/1.99.
      13. Schroeder, Gerald L. The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom, Broadway, pb, $11.20/7.50.
      14. Webb, William J., Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Culture Analysis, InterVarsity Press, pb, $17.50
      15. Willard, Dallas, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, Harper Collings, $16.10/14.50.
      16. Wilson, Marvin, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, pb, $14.00/11.98.
      17. Wright, N.T., Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship. Eerdmans, pb, $9.60/6.99. For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, pb, $9.60/8.34.
      18. Wylen, Stephen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction, Paulist Press, pb, $10.47/7.50.
      19. Young, Brad, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Hendrickson, pb, $13.97/11.00; The Parables, hb, $17.47/14.97.
      20. Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak
      21. Susan Howatch books, starting with Glittering Images
      22. Archibald Hart on rest and running on adrenaline
      23. NT Wright
      24. Plantinga, Cornelius, Engaging God’s World
      25. Marshall, Paul, Heaven is Not My Home
      26. Wittmer, Michael, Heaven Is a Place on Earth
      27. Bouma-Prediger, Steven, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation
      28. Gospel according to Moses, by Athol Dickson

  2. Thanks, Teddy. I’m glad someone has decided to acknowledge and appreciate Rob Bell’s positive influence. He seems to have received a lot of unwarranted flak recently, and I’m not completely sure why. I haven’t read his latest book concerning hell, but the snippets I have read/heard don’t seem condemnable as heresy. He doesn’t appear to be saying anything that many very conservative orthodox theologians haven’t already said: John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Gregory of Nyssa, or Origen to name a few. I skimmed over Tennents criticisms and couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief. If Bell creates a straw man out of evangelicalism then Tennent surely paints a caricature out of Bell as well … Rahnerian “inclusivists” … really?

    Regardless, I also wanted to concur that Bell has been influential for me as well. He is an absolutely phenomenal reader of Scripture, and more than that, he instills within his listeners a desire to actually read Scripture. He certainly did this for me. I mean, c’mon, when’s the last time you left a worship service or heard a sermon and wanted to go home and read the Bible? Most clergy try to extract all the mystery out of a passage … give you the ‘right’ interpretation … tell you what it ‘means’. After most sermons, there really isn’t a reason to read the actual passage itself, the minister has effectively told you everything you need to know about it (haha). Where’s the creativity and mystery in that? I’m a high-church Anglican, so Bell and I will never see eye-to-eye on many things. That being said: I really appreciate him, even if I don’t really read him or listen to him much anymore.

  3. If I remember correctly John Wesley was considered a heretic. Also,
    he was given the advice to “fake it till you make it”?

    • Hi Lauren,

      I must say I disagree with a lot of that article. My list of complaints with evangelicalism is long and growing. And my appreciation for the more deeply-rooted Church traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and RC) is growing. But in this instance, I think the author makes a lot of generalizations to build himself a nice straw dog and then kick it over — all without acknowledging there could be any problem with his own tradition.

      This article makes it sound as if the only means evangelicals have to understand the Christian faith is their own interpretation of Scripture — their “opinions,” as the author calls it. The other option would be to submit to the Roman Catholic Church’s authority. Many evangelicals do have only their interpretation of Scripture, and that’s deeply problematic. But that doesn’t mean it’s your only option if you’re not RC.

      Plenty of us (individuals and whole denominations) haven’t rejected the Church’s tradition — at least in official doctrine, if not in practice (a whole other matter for Protestants and Catholics alike). I would point most generally to the Vincentian canon, a threefold test of orthodoxy, based on things believed everywhere, always, and by all. And I see that take its best explicit form in the standard used by the Church of England: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period – the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”

      The options aren’t simply to be Roman Catholic and submit to the Magisterium, or be evangelical and rely on your own opinions. And it seems to me that the Vincentian Canon and the Church of England’s test of orthodoxy are better than the RC test. The author of the linked essay speaks as if only Protestants have a Tradition problem, but I would argue that a 19th century Pope defining the Immaculate Conception as essential Christian doctrine constitutes a tradition problem.

      • I disagree again on the issue of authority. To the author’s credit, he focuses on the issue of authority because it is the crux of the discussion. You say a 19th century Pope defining the Immaculate Conception as essential Christian doctrine constitutes a tradition problem. I’m not going to get into the ‘good pope, bad pope’ conversation because thankfully, God can write straight with crooked lines. Though topics such as papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception are teachings that may have only been explicitly taught/clarified later in the Church’s history, that does not mean (and in fact, rejects) that the theological truths of such teachings were not believed always, everywhere, and by everyone.

        On a very related note, I am assuming you have heard of Pope Benedict’s current work with the Anglican Church?

        ~from Catholic Answers article by Fr. Dwight Longenecker:

        …what does Pope Benedict hope to accomplish by setting up a new Anglican structure in communion with the Holy See? First of all, he understands the intricate complexity of Anglicanism. The Holy Father is not attempting to take over the whole Anglican church and annex the Anglican Communion. Such a venture would be completely impossible. The liberals and Evangelicals would never accept Catholic dogmas or the authority of the pope.

        Neither is the Holy Father attempting to poach Anglo-Catholics. Instead he is responding to the pleas from thousands of lay people, clergy, and bishops within the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church. These individuals are mostly within the continuing Anglican churches. The Traditional Anglican Communion is a confederation of perhaps 500,000 Anglicans worldwide who belong to various breakaway denominations of an Anglo-Catholic complexion. Some of them may respond positively to the pope’s offer. In addition, some Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England and Episcopal church may find a way to come into full communion with the Catholic Church.”
        Anglo-Catholics consider themselves to be Catholics within the Anglican Church. Furthermore, many traditionalist Anglo Catholics see the liturgical abuses, liberalism, and spiritual decay within the Catholic Church and believe themselves to be more faithful to Catholicism than most Catholics.

        The typical Anglo-Catholic will look, pray, and worship in a way that looks like a traditional Catholic’s style of worship. He will use Roman liturgies, keep the Roman calendar, pray the rosary, and be Catholic in everything but full communion with the Holy See. The task for the Catholic apologist is to help him see that this one thing he lacks is the most important thing.

        The traditionalist Anglo-Catholic is very similar to a traditionalist Catholic group in his mentality. He believes himself to be part of a remnant of true believers whose job it is to keep the faith and stand firm, while all the others in his church drift into moral decay, heresy, schism, and apostasy. Rather than seeing full communion with Rome as the answer, he sees it as going out of the frying pan into the fire. He is not convinced that Rome is any purer than the Anglican church.

        The bottom line in discussion with Anglicans is the question of authority. Should the Catholic apologist point to the disarray within Anglicanism the Anglican may well reply, “You Catholics have just as much variety and dissent and division in your ranks.”

        To which we must say, “That may be, but we do not claim it as a virtue. We have one authority on earth. We have one clear teaching. We may not all obey it. We may not all unite around it, but it is there. It is one. It is holy. It is Catholic. It is apostolic. It is a rock on which to build, and the rock is Peter and his successor.”

        With all respect and love,
        Lauren Wilson
        “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Heb. 12:14

      • Hey Lauren,

        I might have to side with Teddy here.

        In the article you linked to, I find the author’s portrayal of Bell as individually reconstituting and reinterpreting rather ambiguous and allusive Scriptural references in direct contradiction to the explicit dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church disingenuous (and slightly arrogant). The Synod of Constantinople (543) did condemn a pagan variant of Apocatastasis, but this in no way anathematizes all who hold to some form of Apocatastasis (since Peter does use the word in Acts 3:21). Your author, in wishing to condemn Rob Bell, similarly (and unknowingly) condemns Saint Gregory of Nyssa as a heretic, for he also held to a notion of Apocatastasis… a notion which is argued lies outside the bounds of the Catholic Faith and is anathema. Further, this notion has run all throughout church history to the present. Even the great catholic theologian of the 20th Century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, argues something similar in Dare We Hope that All Men be Saved?. In no way was von Balthasar censured or condemned by the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict even praises him. Church authority does come in to play here (as you observe) but only because the author of the article you linked to has given his individual interpretation of what the Magisterium teaches on this issue. I simply can’t agree with his individual interpretation here. I would ask: How is Rob Bell’s hope that all humanity be saved (or will be saved) that different than Saint Gregory’s or von Balthasar’s?

  4. Thanks for your response Caleb! Just to be clear, I personally am not arguing that Apocatastasis lies outside the bounds of the Catholic Faith. I see where the author of the first article implied that (and also agree that through that lens, he came off a bit arrogant). I am so encouraged by Pope John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict’s heart toward the topic.

    Eternal damnation remains a possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.” (General Audience of July 28, 1999)

    1058 The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4)

    …and one of my favorite parts of Mass:
    “Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence. Have mercy on us all.” (Eucharistic Prayer II)

    My intent in sharing the article was to highlight the issue of authority, which possibly the article by Father Dwight does better?? Would be interested to hear your and Teddy’s thoughts. It may seem a bit removed from Teddy’s original intent with the Rob Bell post, but so much time can be spent getting into debate over the authority of this or that ‘person’ and their ‘view’ on a subject, when it seems that Christ has given us a Church with a Body and Spirit, and we continue to spend much time separating the two. Scott Hahn says in his book ‘Rome Sweet Home’ “Making much of the Church, then, is not to belittle our Lord. The Church is His handiwork. To acknowledge the greatness of the Church–her divine authority and infallible witness– is nothing less than magnifying the redemptive work of Christ. Conversely, to reject the authority and to spurn the witness of the Church–even when done with a misguided zeal for Christ’s exclusive honor–is to defy him and the fullness of his grace and truth.”

    One last note, I am ‘newly’ passionate about these things and very poorly suited to be in conversations of this complexity. Still have trouble knowing when to speak and when to remain silent (Ecclesiastes 3)! Apologies for this. Probably need to remain silent more often!

    • Thanks Lauren. Even if I disagreed with several of the assumptions and points made in the original article, I do agree that authority is an important issue. Those who grant all authority only to their interpretation of the Bible stand in an unhelpful (and misguided) place for these larger conversations. Christ has given us a Church with Body and Spirit — I agree. And we don’t make too much of the Church. And we must not reject the authority and spurn the witness of the Church. I think we’re in full agreement on all of that.

      I think the disagreement may only come in whether we consider only the RC Church to be “The Church.” At the very least, the EO and Anglican communions have reason to take issue with that. As you noted, this was initially a post about Rob Bell’s influence, not the RC Church’s strengths and flaws, so I’ll leave my commentary at that.

      • Thanks Teddy! Of course both Thom and I would love to hear more commentary on the EO, Anglican, and RC from you if you ever feel so moved:) Appreciate the conversation and learned a few things too!

  5. Hello Lauren,

    I’m having a bit of a hard time following the conversation. Are your comments about the ‘crux’ of authority directed at Teddy’s original post about Rob Bell’s influence, Rob Bell’s theology of Apocatastasis (which was the topic of the article you linked to), or simply the generic difference between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism? … or it may be in response to something else entirely. From your last couple of comments, it seems I may have misunderstood the main thrust of your initial comments.

    • Hi Caleb, I will try my best to clarify. After reading Teddy’s original post about Rob Bell, the seeming tenuousness required of an evangelical to claim influence by Bell (or any other interpreter of scripture for that matter) simply stood out as notable to me. As a Roman Catholic, I couldn’t help but contemplate the role of authority in calming the waves caused by differing interpretations of Scripture or truth. Rob Bell certainly is not the first person to come along presenting controversial ideas about salvation, and he won’t be the last. So, at what point does controversy over a certain deciphered truth become wasted energy? Or does it? And at what point do we believe there could be a living authority set in place by Christ to carry the Church through these scuffles safely, preserving truth, from generation to generation? Or do we? Definitely drifting from Rob Bell, but that is the intent.

  6. Thanks, Lauren.

    I’ll try and respond to the initial problematic concerning Rob Bell, but I also wish to push back briefly on the issue of authority in general, though I certainly don’t wish to get bogged down in it.

    I’m not sure why you find it notable that Teddy can claim Rob Bell as influential. Even if Rob Bell was a flaming heretic and pagan, would it still be so wrong to claim that Bell had been influential on one’s thought or even has some kind of authority? Saint Augustine lauded Pelagius in various aspects of his theology and life, and Saint Thomas Aquinas used the pagan Aristotle as an authority to substantiate many arguments concerning God. Teddy did not endorse Bell’s corpus in its totality, and those aspects of his thought which he did endorse, I simply can’t see how they seem so controversial or prohibited by Roman authority. Similarly, Bell may present controversial ideas about salvation, but I’m really not sure how they stand outside permitted interpretations of Scripture or theology by the Roman Catholic Church. From all of the posts above, the only problem given with Bell’s notion of salvation I find is the article you linked to. The author seemingly damns Bell’s notion of Apocatastasis as something which is condemned by Roman hierarchy, but it seemed we all agreed that this simply wasn’t the case. It seemed we all had doubts as to the validity of the author’s interpretation of Roman Catholic teaching in this regard. So, if Rob Bell stands within the Christian/Catholic tradition/authority on everything mentioned above, how is authority the ‘crux’ of the problem? More important, why, exactly, is there a problem?

    In regard to authority in general, I simply cannot see how an appeal to Roman Catholic hierarchy is that radically different than an evangelical fundamentalist appeal to Sola Scriptura, and I’m certainly not sure how it solves any epistemological or hermeneutical problem. If the Canon of Scripture stands in need of interpretation, so do the canons issued forth by the Roman Catholic Church. A blanket appeal to Church Authority to solve the problem of Scripture is simply an appeal to postpone the problem. One cannot simply sidestep the issue of interpretation, and this is because one cannot move outside one’s own contextuality and historicity.

    This coincides with my second point: Because of our own embodiedness in history, Church teaching and dogma itself has changed over time. You argued earlier that later dogmas (and you used the explicit example of the Immaculate Conception) were simply clarifications to what was believed “always, everywhere, and by everyone”. This is simply not true. The Angelic Doctor himself, Saint Thomas Aquinas, not only denied the Immaculate Conception, but argued against it. I don’t want to get into an argument about specific examples, but I use this to highlight the fact that an appeal to church authority on certain issues is, above all, an interpretation of history … a certain narration of past events. One can claim that the Immaculate Conception was believed always, everywhere, and by everyone only if one emphasizes certain stories in Christian history while simultaneously downplaying others. Which stories are authoritative? Which ones are not? You yourself seem to be aware of the thorny problem of history when you made comments about “good Pope / bad Pope”, claiming that “God can write straight with crooked lines,” but even this distinction between what constitutes a “good Pope” verses a “bad Pope” already presupposes a certain interpretation/narration of historical events, one which legitimates the authority of one Pope while delegitimating the authority of another. An appeal to Church Authority, then, is just like an appeal to Scriptural Authority, it requires narration and argumentation. One simply cannot get around our own contextuality and embodiedness. As Saint Paul says, at least until the eschaton, we only see through a glass dimly, and this includes the Pope.

  7. Thanks, Caleb. There is no issue with any one person claiming ‘influence’ by another, and for what it’s worth, none with any of Teddy’s gleanings from Rob Bell’s work. But that is exactly what it is…influence. A compelling force, not an authoritative one. Is it not possible that having a living authority as a Church actually facilitates our freedom to claim influence by great God-seekers past and present while allowing for perpetual unity of Spirit? Of course it is is not THE Pope carrying truth through history by his own narration and argument. It is precisely BECAUSE we are contextual and embodied that I believe Christ did not leave us a Church without His Spirit in an embodied form to ensure access to continued authoritative revelation.
    By definition, authority is:
    1. the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.
    2. a power or right delegated or given;
    …authority without which there is assured and again perpetual discord and division. At some point we must lay down our right to claim that authority exists anywhere but in the living, contextual, embodied Spirit of Christ. A Spirit and authority which in this form (I ask, possibly?) we were not left without.

    • The Holy Spirit we were not left without. But a one-to-one correspondence between the embodied Spirit of Christ and the RC Church I can’t accept.

      First, because that places the RC Church above and against all other communions. What do you do when the RC and the EO disagree? I think it’s hard to claim that the RC’s authority clearly wins out.

      Second, because I find greater authority in those other things I mentioned above (1 canon, 2 testaments, 3 creeds, 4 councils, and first 5 centuries). I believe the RC Church stands under the authority of those things; I don’t believe it stands over them as authority. When the RC Church declares essential doctrines that go beyond these, and that stand in contradiction to the traditions of other communions with equal claims to authority (the EO, most specifically), that makes it much harder for me to even consider that the RC Church somehow has the authority of the Spirit of Christ.

      It would be nice, and easier, for us to claim a living up-or-down, yes-or-no authority, such as a single Church body, but I don’t think that squares with our reality.

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