David Fitch offers an interesting analysis of why the winds of popular theology in North America have changed direction so dramatically in the last two or three years. In his view—though this is not his metaphor—the weather system is driven by the Christian publishing business. Over the last decade “publishing superstars” such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, blowing from the warm south (this is a northern hemisphere metaphor), have dared to “ask questions that have been avoided or shut down within evangelical church culture the past fifty years”. But having asked the questions, having raised the issues, they have failed to deliver on their promise. So the wind has veered round to the north, sweeping in from the chill wastes of the neo-Reformed movement. Or as Fitch puts it, the “wandering herd heads for the monster wave of the Neo Reformed”—and the paragraph sinks finally into metaphorical chaos.
Two major developments, very broadly speaking, have impacted modern Western evangelicalism over the last decade. With regard to praxis the emerging church movement has challenged traditional patterns of church life and mission and has set out—in more or less experimental fashion—new, fresh, innovative, down-to-earth, enterprising, risk-taking, controversial, incarnational, and, of course, missional ways of being church. With regard to theory the New Perspective has challenged the traditional rationalized presentation of evangelical beliefs, arguing that New Testament theology is a fast flowing river cutting through the landscape of a particular history, not a vast undifferentiated, universal flood covering the whole plain of human existence. The New Testament is not an allegory of personal salvation. It is the complex account of the crisis of first-century Judaism and the painful struggle to bring about the renewal of the people of God. Theology needs to be recontextualized.
Among the many responses to Kurt Willems’ defence of Rob Bell was a link to an undated article by Tim Keller on “The Importance of Hell” (thank you, Jake). Tim Keller is an outstanding pastor, but his argument about hell seems to be wrong in so many ways—exegetically, logically, theologically, psychologically, possibly even morally… but mainly exegetically. Much of the argument has been covered in recent posts, so I have kept matters reasonably concise and provided links to the relevant material. This is, admittedly, an overworked topic, and I apologize for repeating myself. But it is a good test case for the debate between Reformed and New Perspective theologies, raising important questions about the use of language and the relevance of historical context.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is often cited as evidence that Jesus believed in hell as a place of conscious torment. Ben has drawn attention to it in a comment on my “Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, and the argument about hell” post, noting that Jesus appears to affirm “conscious/physical punishment after death”. The basic issue here is probably a literary one. Is this story of such a character that it requires to be read as a more or less literal account of post-mortem realities? Or is it rather a parable or symbolic narrative that speaks of a state of affairs other than that which it purports to describe? It seems to me that the weight of evidence is very much in favour of the latter opinion.
I said that I would come back to what Kevin DeYoung has to say about Rob Bell and hell. To his credit, DeYoung refrains from commenting on Rob Bell’s unpublished book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and promises not to pick a fight over it when it eventually comes out. But he takes the opportunity, in the meantime, to remind us why we need a doctrine of divine wrath and eternal punishment. The eight-part argument he puts forward is excerpted from the book that he wrote with Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent. I think he’s wrong, one way or another, on every point. I’ve listed the headings below with brief commentary.
Jim Hoag has highlighted an intemperate reaction by Justin Taylor on the Gospel Coalition blog to a yet unpublished book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and a response by Kurt Willems arguing that Taylor’s critique is premature, speculative, irresponsible, and possibly mendacious. Taylor’s accusation appears to be that since Bell argues either that there is no “hell” or that hell is empty, he must be a universalist. That is, of course, a very poor argument—even if on publication it turns out to be true. Kevin DeYoung also has something to say on the matter, which I may come back to later.
Alan Hirsch argues in Right Here, Right Now (written with Lance Ford) that the future of Christianity in the West depends on the church becoming a people movement again: “Somehow and in some way, we need to loosen up and learn how to reactivate the massive potentials that lie rather dormant within Jesus’ people if we are going to make a difference to our world” (31). He then suggests that two “basic elements” are needed if this is to happen, if we are to reach “exponential impact”.
What is the parable of the prodigal son about? It was cited in a recent comment here as evidence that the gospel is all about sinners repenting and being reconciled to the Father—and that is certainly how it would typically be understood by evangelicals. There may be some disagreement over where the emphasis lies exactly—on the repentant son, on the gracious and forgiving father, or on the sour, self-righteous older brother, who somehow excludes himself from the process of salvation. But the consensus would be that Jesus tells the story in order to say something about the journey of repentance that every sinner must make in order to be restored to the arms of an extravagantly loving heavenly Father.
At Holy Trinity Brompton this morning we prayed for—among other things and somewhat in passing—the “re-evangelization of the nations”. That’s a weighty and portentous phrase. What are we supposed to mean by it?
Holy Trinity Brompton is a church with an expansive vision, but I imagine that most people would have taken this as a prayer for the conversion of large numbers of people from the nations of the world through the preaching of a gospel of personal salvation. That’s all well and good as far as it goes. Missing from it, however, is any real sense of the narrative trajectory that is established in the New Testament and which determines the contextual shape of the gospel argument.
I really like Scot McKnight’s book A New Vision for Israel. There are a couple of areas of “structural” disagreement, if you like. I touched on the question of the finality of Jesus’ understanding of the coming kingdom of God in a previous post, to which Scot helpfully responded.
I also have reservations about the rather sharp, though admittedly qualified, distinction between Jesus and Paul that surfaces in a couple of places. For example, Scot maintains that in the Gospels ‘ “faith” primarily means trust in Jesus to perform physical healing or deliverance”, which “clearly differs from Paul’s teaching on justification by faith—at least in emphasis” (168). I find this an unhelpful distinction. Whatever the exact use of the pistis word-group in the Gospels, Jesus called his followers to a lifestyle of radical faithfulness in light of the coming judgment and vindication. Paul’s language of justification by faith is a little different, his perspective has shifted, but he still has in view, I think, a concrete moment of vindication at the end of a long and painful journey of Christlike faithfulness.