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(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

Rob Bell: What we don’t talk about when we talk about God

I have been listening to Rob Bell talk about his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God with Justin Brierley and Andrew Wilson on Premier Radio’s Unbelievable podcast. I download one of these discussions from time to time if I have a long car journey to make. I find them a bit rambling, and most of them have an apologetic focus, which is not really my thing. But Justin has had some good contributors, and it is refreshing—if not downright remarkable—to hear such high level debate on Christian radio. I recommend them. I wrote recently about the stimulating debate between Tom Wright and James White over the meaning of justification. Coincidentally, I am attending a conference tomorrow at which Wright will be speaking about Paul and the cross of Christ. But to the matter in hand….

In response to a question about how he would articulate a gospel of “personal salvation” Bell puts it this way:

Jesus invites you to trust him. He invites you to trust him with your past, your present, your future, your sins, your deepest secrets, your longings, your addictions, your city, your family, your questions about your parenting…. And when you do this, extraordinary things happen.

He then explains what happens when a person trusts Jesus. It changes everything. Ultimately, it changes the world.

For other people I believe this Jesus can be trusted and that on the cross and the resurrection he has done something that changes everything, and it changes it for you, and for the universe, for the future…. There’s a whole new world bursting forth right here in the midst of this one, and it’s about us being reconciled to the God who made us, it’s about cities and towns, and it’s about a reconciliation, a renewal, it’s about a restoration, it’s about this world, God making it right and everything being how we all long for it to be but right now it’s groaning, and it’s in trouble, and Jesus is the answer, Jesus is the hope, and Jesus is the rescue….

The story that Rob Bell tells puts the cross and resurrection at the beginning of a process of cosmic, or at least earthly, transformation. The argument begins with individual people trusting Jesus, being saved, being reconciled to God, but from here we jump more or less directly to a process of social transformation. Many people think of the kingdom of God in these terms—God at work, more or less independently of believers, to rescue his creation, to establish justice, to make everything right.

There are two basic problems with this narrative, as I see it. First, there is no concrete evidence that this is actually happening—or that it is likely to happen. We may occasionally see localized instances of situations being changed by the presence of people who trust Jesus, but it seems frankly fantastical to claim that God is at work in our societies making them progressively better. Secondly, I don’t think it’s a plausible continuation of the biblical narrative.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about God

God’s response to the sin of Adam and Eve was not to set about saving humanity from sin. I disagree with Wright on this point. God’s response to the violence and hubris of the first societies was not to embark on a global mission to rescue the world from itself. God’s response was to bring into being a people who would be set apart from the rest of the fallen world as a new creation—a people for his own possession in the midst of the nations, who would embody and mediate the rightness of YHWH to the world.

That people eventually needed to be saved from its own bondage to sin if it was ever going to fulfil its purpose, and in the process the conditions for membership were dramatically changed. But the basic arrangement stayed in place. The instrument or agent or means by which the creator God engages with our world is not the saved individual, it is not the Spirit, it is not scripture, it is not the kingdom. It is not even Jesus. It is the historic family of Abraham. By virtue of the presence of this dedicated people the nations would be blessed—that is, something of the original blessing of creation would be mediated to them.

So any account of “salvation”, no matter how “lite” or seeker-friendly, that excludes the historic existence of the people of God, whether as Israel or as the church, is deeply flawed. The point is not that you have to be in the church in order to be saved—extra ecclesiam nulla salus. That is just another way of managing the individualist paradigm. It is that the people of God has had to be saved in order to fulfil its ancient calling.

I haven’t listened to the whole podcast (they go on to talk about homosexuality) and I haven’t read the book, so perhaps I’m doing Bell an injustice. He might also say in his defence that the book is written for ordinary secular people who have a hard enough time believing that there is a God, let alone that we need Jesus in order to gain access to him. We can get on to the church later, if we really have to.

But I would argue that even from a basic evangelistic or apologetic point of view this gets things back to front. Modernity is all about the engagement of the individual in universal sets of values. Postmodernity has created some space for the emergence of “tribal” identities, but only on a very ephemeral basis. Under these conditions it is very difficult for us to reckon with the historic existence of the particular community of the church as an extension of the biblical narrative of Israel—a problem only exacerbated by the dreadful reputation that the church as historic institution has at the moment.

Unfortunately, the church is the story

But scripture compels us to put the concrete existence of the church firmly in the foreground. The church is the story. It’s regrettable in many ways, but anything else is a failure of responsibility and a capitulation to modernity. Rob Bell’s narrative is compelling—perhaps more compelling for an American audience than for a European audience given the lingering mindset of a Christian culture, as Brierley points out in the podcast. But if the church is going to find a future for itself in line with the narrative of scripture, it has to find a way to put itself confidently and honestly as church, as historical community, at the heart of God’s strategy.

The good news in the New Testament is not that anyone can be saved by believing in Jesus. It is not that God is busy transforming the world and you can join in if you want to. It is that the God of Israel was doing something through the life and death of Jesus to change the condition and status of his people among the nations and in the process to bring glory to himself.

When Paul and Silas tell the Philippian jailor that in order to be saved he and his household must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are not saying that Jesus is his personal Lord and Saviour. They are saying that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him judge and ruler of the nations. They are making a public, political statement about Israel’s anointed king, not a private, personal statement about the jailor’s deepest secrets, his addictions, or his parenting skills. In the podcast both Bell and Wilson collude in this misrepresentation of the gospel.

Andrew Wilson states in the podcast that the gospel presents itself as the solution to the problem of sin and death. Well, yes and no. The gospel presents itself as the solution to the problem of sin and death for the family of Abraham at a moment of eschatological crisis. We cannot talk about salvation apart from the corporate story. In fact, I think in principle that we have to talk about the corporate story first.

Comments

It’s been awhile since I read it, but Bell’s book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians” was based on a sermon series he preached called “The New Exodus.” From my recollection, he does a good job incorporating the nation of Israel’s narrative to that of the church.

Yes, I’ve read Jesus Wants to Save Christians: Learning to Read a Dangerous Book . But why does the narrative of God’s people so easily drop out of the picture when we get to talking about salvation or trying to persuade people that it makes sense to believe in Jesus? If salvation in the New Testament is the salvation of a people before it is the salvation of individuals, how would that argument carry over into the witness of the church today?

What We Talk About is really a very high level attempt to get people encased in hyper-rationalism and what passes for science these days to think bigger and broader and not see God as something that needs to be abandoned if you believe in “logic” and “science.” As such it really doesn’t touch on church or theology in any systematic way. It is aimed at encouraging people to aknowledge that the world is a weirder and bigger place than we imagine and that God is not something from the past that no longer serves a purpose but a very real and neccesary part of our lives.

Or such is my take.

BTW, I have been reading your blog for a while now and really enjoy your perspective. I read the Heaven and Hell ebook and plan to read The Coming of the Son of Man and The Future of the People of God next.

Kevin, I take your point—though I still wonder whether in challenging modernity’s trust in rationalism in this way Bell is not reinforcing a basic premise of modernity, which is that everything is to be assessed from the standpoint of the autonomous individual.

But the post takes its starting point not from the book but from the definition of salvation that Bell gave in the discussion. The question going through my mind—particularly having spent the day listening to Tom Wright—is: What would it mean for preaching and evangelism and apologetics to bring into the foreground the public argument, the religious-political narrative, that we actually find in the New Testament rather than the private argument, the personal narrative, that is the legacy of the Reformation and modernity? Or: What would it mean to make the narrative of God’s people the answer to “hyper-rationalism and what passes for science these days”?

No, you are right, I don’t think Bell is trying to get beyond modernity or autonomous individualism as the focus. He is trying to get beyond tight doctrinal focused ways to relating to God and reaching people who want something more but don’t feel comfortable with current cocneptions of Christianity.

What would it mean for preaching and evangelism and apologetics to bring into the foreground the public argument, the religious-political narrative, that we actually find in the New Testament rather than the private argument, the personal narrative, that is the legacy of the Reformation and modernity? Or: What would it mean to make the narrative of God’s people the answer to “hyper-rationalism and what passes for science these days”?

This is exactly the question that has been bouncing around in my head lately. Your narrative-historical approach strikes me as getting back to the heart of scripture and the story it seeks to tell. But what does that actually mean for my life, my church, my approach to mission, etc. I keep coming back to the question: “What does it mean to be the people of God today?”

I am not sure I have any good answers. Maybe you could shed some light! How does a narrative-historical perspective deal with a church fully immersed into individualism, pietism, theraputic deism, etc.? How does it begin to leave behind the intellectual furniture that has trapped into a ineffective and inaccurate understanding of scripture?

The other problem is that this debate so often gets shoved back into the mold of the liberal-fundamentalist debate of the last century and the right vs left structure of today. In America it is reall hard to get outside of this as Bell all too quickly found out.

Andrew,

I have appreciated reading your posts about they historical narrative perspective over the last few months. However, Im not sure how we can say that Jesus is not the agent by which God engages with the world. It seems to me that he is the chief agent by which God engages then world. The NT describes Christ as the agent by which God created the world, and the one by whom the new creation has its source of life. Christ as agent of Creation would seem to put Jesus at the beginning of history. Jesus himself said before Abraham, I AM. The family of Abraham finds its true identity in the faithful Israelite, Jesus. So much so that no longer is the people of God define as the people of Abraham, but as the people of the Messiah. There is neither Jew nor Greek, but Christ all in all. This is the mystery that was hidden from Jews in prior ages, but was revealed to those first century saints.

Well, yes, I may have overstated things a little. But I would still maintain that pretty much everything that is said about Jesus, with the possible exception of the wisdom-creation theme, presupposes his role within the narrative of God’s people. Consider Romans 15:8-9a, which Tom Wright highlighted at the THINK Conference yesterday:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

Or the climax to the narrative about Jesus in Ephesians 1:22-23:

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

I would argue that what God does through his Son is precisely for the sake of the integrity and effectiveness of the people of God, and that it is through the life and servanthood of this people that he engages with the world. We massively deflate the biblical narrative if we reduce it to the relation in the existential present between the individual sinner, Jesus, and God.

So much so that no longer is the people of God define as the people of Abraham, but as the people of the Messiah. There is neither Jew nor Greek, but Christ all in all.

But Paul’s argument is not that we have moved on from the family of Abraham narrative because we there is neither Jew nor Greek. It is that the family of Abraham finds continuation and fulfilment precisely in the fact that both Jew and Greek believe that God raised his Son from the dead.

Modernity is all about the engagement of the individual in universal sets of values. Postmodernity has created some space for the emergence of “tribal” identities, but only on a very ephemeral basis.

I realize that your project is hermeneutical and exegetical, Andrew, but I imagine that you could do an informed and enlightening compare-and-contrast analysis of the collective new creation you’ve been elaborating vis-a-vis a postmodern “new Jerusalem” like Dubai: a cosmopolitan exodus from a broken world into a new collective creation ruled as constitutional monarchy and characterized by freedom, order, and wealth.

Brilliant, John, though it’s a foolish man who builds his house upon the sand. And sadly, we’re not in Dubai any more. We’re back in England’s green and pleasant land, amidst the ruins of whatever Jerusalem was once builded here.

“Why you church the people of God is fascinating. You say the story is about Israel, here you say the story is the Church.”

That statement should read: Why you choose the people of God is fascinating. Not being able to edit post the post is frustrating. :-)

You continue to place the people of God in the center of the narrative of Scripture. Yet, there is always another character that you could place there because He is always present in the text. Why you church the people of God is fascinating. You say the story is about Israel, here you say the story is the Church. It would seem that your decision is at best, arbitrary. In addition, your decision is driven by your own theological and philosophical bias. In other words, your decision is based on a method that you think is inadequate. It reflects a betrayal of the method your espouse. In other words, narrative-historical hermeneutics is a product of theological reflection and interpretation while at the same time it criticizes that process.

Everywhere the people of God appear in the text, God is present also. Scripture is the story about God’s unfolding plan of redemption. He reveals Himself through many different devices in human language contained in the text, narrative being one of them. The story that involves the people of God is a story about God, about who He is, what He is like. God reveals Himself by setting on the world stage, His interworkings with His people in the biblical narrative.

Come on, Ed. You are clearly just looking to pick a fight. There is nothing arbitrary about the view that the story of the people of God, the family of Abraham, is the story both of Israel and of the church. The story of the church in the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the story of Israel in the Old Testament. It’s one and the same story. I characterize it as the story of Israel because I think that what we see in the New Testament is the historical fulfilment—or the anticipation of the historical fulfilment—of Old Testament hopes regarding YHWH and the nations.

Also it’s entirely petty to suggest that by pushing the historical existence of the people of God into the foreground I am excluding God from the narrative.

Rule # 2 includes these two statements. The first makes it clear that we are dealing with a single narrative about Israel and the church. The second tells the story in terms of God.

The main narrative structure, from Genesis 12 to Revelation 20 is the story of Israel as a people struggling to make sense of and maintain its relationship with God under circumstances of conflict with other more powerful nations and empires.

The long conflict between the one true creator God and the pagan nations, culminating in the victory of Christlike communities over Rome, has fundamentally transformed the nature and status of his “new creation” people in the world.

If there’s anything arbitrary round here, it’s your critique of the narrative-historical approach. Your suggestion, for example, that I have left out Genesis 1-11 and Revelation 21-22 because they do not fit my programme is complete nonsense. They are integral to my programme. The people of God is YHWH’s response to the corruption of human society, and God will ultimately vindicate himself as Creator by destroying all that is contrary to the goodness of his creation and making all things new. But the main controlling structure of scripture, of everything between these bookends, is the story of Israel and the nations.

I don’t think I accused you of “excluding” God from the narrative. If that is how it came across, I apologize. What I mean is that your focus is misdirected and this is the product of theological/philosophical presuppositions behind the scenes. I am arguing that you cannot land on your ground without some prior commitments. In addition, I think those prior commitments must be isolated and examined in the light of the rest of Scripture. For example, your effort to remove a theological reading from the text is itself based on a theological reading of the text. Such goals, while they may sound pious and enlightened, are actually closer to rebellious and baseless, and profoundly lacking in the very humility they claim to exalt.

Another example of your approach is that you affirm a perspective that previous revelation informs later revelation when the truth is that a better perspective is that the process is more spiracle in nature. No theologian worth his salt would argue that narrative-historical methods are useless. They have their place. But that place is not at the foundation of the process. Social Science theories are a great example of what happens when a scholar adopts what should be a servant to the G-H method and makes it the master. We end up with all sorts of naturalistic explanations for the state of affairs that has obtained regarding the Christian religion in history and the world. History enriches our understanding of the text, but the new light that shines brighter through the NT revelation helps us understand the Old even better.

It is your method Andrew that is causing this problem. I just think others should be able to see how a truly evangelical perspective interacts and challenges your ideas. New ideas must never go unchallenged. I am not a proponent of the modern practice of theological and intellectual free-for-alls. Our minds must submit to the authority of God’s word just as much in this area as in any other area. Autonomy is a myth.