Monday, April 1, 2013

Wax On Bell

Trevin Wax reviews Rob Bell's latest book. After saying some nice things about the book he gets into an interesting topic of dogma and certainty. 

Unfortunately, the strengths of the book are outweighed by the vagueness of Bell’s talk of talking about God. Nowhere is this more evident than his treatment of traditional Christian teaching. For example, Bell chides religious people for their certainty. He believes certainty about God has limits. We have to leave the door open for mystery. Knowing always takes place in the middle of unknowing. People who talk with too much certainty about God are attractive because people want to be right, but we should resist the allure of the religious know-it-all.
Wax is protestant. So he does not believe in infallibility. At least not an explicit doctrine of infallibility. But conservative protestants really don't believe that things basically all Christians have taught strongly for a long time are open to change. Deep down inside they believe those doctrines are irreformable. They hate it when somebody like Rob Bell comes along and pretends disagreeing with such teaching is no big deal. They know it is a big deal but can't say why.
It’s true that the Christian should have the humility to recognize that no one has exhaustive knowledge of God or truth. To point out our finiteness is not only humble; it’s really the way things are! There is no way to know everything we could know when we talk about God. But Bell seems to make the jump from humility due to our inability to have exhaustive knowledge to the newly defined “humility” that says we can’t have certainty about anything.
How do you get certainty in the Sola Scriptura world? You assert that your biblical interpretation is right. That it has to be right. That anyone who says it is wrong is seriously defective. They are either dishonest or uneducated or under the spell of some false tradition or something. That is not a humble stance.

You cannot point to the consistent teaching of the church like Catholics would because you don't accept that as reliable. But it is not only reliable it is also humble. You are not saying you are right. You are saying the church is right. 
Certainty is suspect. Except, of course, when it comes to the certainty of the harm traditional theology can cause. On this, Bell leaves no room for ambiguity. Our view of God may be foggy, but our view of fundamentalists is clear.
This is an important point. Rejecting the idea of infallibility is self-refuting unless you admit you could be wrong. So you never want to be certain of anything including your principle of uncertainty. But how can you implement a principle that effects so much of your thinking without being sure about it? It makes the faith unlivable.

Bell writes:
You can believe something with so much conviction that you’d die for that belief, and yet in the same moment you can also say, “I could be wrong…”
This is because conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.” (93)
Then Wax responds:
First, it’s hard to imagine martyrs giving their lives when they think they might be wrong. Nothing would cause me to rethink and renege on my certainty than facing a lion in a coliseum.
Not just this. When we face hard moral choices in a relativist culture we will often be told that morals will change. Christians say abortion is wrong now but that might change in a few years. If someone is looking at a very scary future if they do the right thing how are they going to react if you can't even teach that principle with any certainty? The same logic applies to gay marriage and a host of other moral issues. When the stakes are high we want to be certain before we do something the culture says is stupid.
Secondly, notice how Bell says we should have conviction and humility, as if these two things are opposites, like faith and doubt. He appears to see “humility” not as the gracious stance of someone who has tasted and seen the Lord is good, but as the willingness to hold doctrines loosely, as if certainty and humility can’t coincide.
Like I said before, Sola Scriptora creates tension between the two. It requires you to assert truth rather than bow before truth.  The focus is not on the office but on how convincing the person is.
Ironically, his description of fundamentalism centers on the elimination of paradox:
When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension and dodges the paradox and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are and gives black-and-white answers to questions, leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine, it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident. (93)
There is a bit of a pot kettle issue here. It reminds me of politicians calling the other candidate arrogant. Really every teacher is trying to get you to make them your personal pope. That is they want you to treat their interpretation of scripture as the authoritative one. Rob bell does that. Trevin Wax does that. Really every protestant pastor does. They want you to listen to them and not the guy in the church down the street. Is there arrogance in that? Big time.

Do Catholics have the same issue? Not really. There is always some temptation towards pride but Catholic leaders do have the option of pointing to the church rather than themselves as the source of their teaching. Even the pope can do this. Then the teacher can become just another person begging for the grace to be able to live this teaching.
What’s interesting is that, in reading the rest of the book, Bell eliminates more paradoxes than traditional Christian teaching does.
Of course, nobody is going to sell books by being wishy-washy.  Anyway, I shall leave the rest because it is getting long and I mostly agree with everything he says from here out. There is the frequent use of the phrase "traditional Christianity" which is a cheat to try and refer to an authoritative teaching without actually accepting an authority. But what he says about Bell is right on.
It’s traditional Christianity that portrays God as holy and wrathful against sin while being gracious and loving towards the sinner. For all Bell’s talk about embracing “both/and,” it’s his vision of Christianity that emphasizes God being for us, to the exclusion of any idea that God would stand over us in judgment.

Traditional Christianity doesn’t just include “both” but “triple” truths – God against us in our sin, God instead of us as sinners, and God for us as the Justifier. Far from diluting the beauty of God in His transcendence, traditional Christian dogma leaves us with unresolvable tensions and paradoxes galore: free will and sovereignty, God in us and yet distinct from us, the Trinity, the inclusive call to salvation from an exclusive Savior. The list goes on.

The paradoxes of traditional Christianity multiply in ways that stimulate the imagination. Bell’s teaching lacks that kind of substance. Bell’s book goes down easy, kind of like whipped cream without the cake. God is ahead of us, beckoning society forward, and (how convenient!) it just so happens to be in the direction that society is already headed. Who would have thought?

Oddly enough, after reading this book, I came to the conclusion Rob Bell is a fundamentalist of a different sort. In fact, I could apply his warning to himself, adding to his own words:
When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension (between wrath and love, or immanence and transcendence) and dodges the paradox (between judgment and grace) and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are (traditional Christians) and gives black-and-white answers to questions (such as, you can’t be humble and certain) leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine (or the revelation of this mystery, as explained by the apostle Paul), it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident (or really, really cool).
I believe this book will resonate with many because the idea of “spiritual experience” is popular today. The question is, does Bell’s vision of spirituality have the doctrinal bone structure to sustain faith for two thousand years? I’m afraid not. His artistic abilities aside, the book’s vision is boring because the drama is missing.
Dorothy Sayers was right:
It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.


  1. Glad to see you are back!

    If I am not mistaken, Trevin Wax took a lot of heat a while back for supporting NT Wright's virtual rejection of Imputation and embracing a form of 'Cathololic' Justification. And if Wax has endorsed Wright's new 'novel' view on Justification, then what basis is he calling Rob Bell out on things?

  2. Thanks Nick. The basis is simply disagreement. He does try and go further in this case. This contrast he draws between Bell and "traditional Christianity" is kind of an attempt to declare Rob Bell excommunicated. Of course, he has not authority to do that. But nobody in the protestant world has that authority so guys like Wax will step into the vacuum.

  3. The funny/scary thing is that approach almost seems like the Hegelian Dialectic in which history progresses/evolves in terms of clashes that turn into compromises, which in turn become the new normal.

    So really Bell is nothing more than the current 'antithesis' to the "traditional Protestant" 'thesis', which after the scandal clears will render Protestant Christianity watered down yet again. The same clash-compromise-normalize dialectic is seen especially in terms of Christian morals.

  4. The new normal is way more complex. Protestantism has many different subcultures. They all experience the clash-compromise-normalize thing but over different issues. Rob Bell will shake up some of them and be ignored by others. The same is true of NT Wright and many other protestant thinkers.