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dogma

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“Love Wins” by Rob Bell- A Brief Review and Study Guide

love-winsI have spent a great deal of time evaluating Rob Bell’s controversial work, Love Wins. Here, I present a brief overview of my conclusions, as well as providing a study guide. I hope this will be useful to those interested in reading the book or who lead/participate in a group that are reading the book.

General Review

Over the past several weeks, I have gone through Love Wins chapter by chapter. There have been several positive themes found throughout the book. Of these, the ones most important are the notion that we often trivialize the message of the Bible into “getting in” to heaven and the argument that we cannot turn Jesus into a slogan or the cross into a symbol for whatever we like.

Bell has rightly brought the focus onto eschatology, something which is often ignored or avoided in modern settings.

Yet throughout my reviews of the book (see links at the end), I have noted numerous errors found therein. First, Bell makes errors regarding historical theology. He makes claims about the history of the church which are falsified upon closer examination. Second, his interpretive method is very problematic, as he will often take merely a single part of a verse (sometimes two words completely torn from their context!) in order to make an entire argument about how all of Scripture needs to be interpreted through his chosen phrase [see the review of Chapter 2 and search for “enter life” for a thorough analysis of this]. Third, his exegesis is problematic in still other ways. For example, he will often cite a single verse as an argument for a theological position, even though his argument is contradicted in the very next verse or in the same paragraph. Fourth, he fails to present his arguments. Instead, he chooses to simply ask leading questions. Although this is not problematic in itself, it is clear that this style is intended to lead people into the conclusions Bell wants without any critical analysis. If Bell merely stated his arguments, I suspect people would be more skeptical of his conclusions. Fifth, Bell’s method of argument, when he makes arguments, is often confused. For example, he will ask whether a phrase is found in the Bible in order to refute it. But of course, Bell’s entire thesis “love wins” is a phrase not found in the Bible.

Finally, Bell’s entire argument, once finally revealed, is found to be based around the notion that “God is love.” That’s it. He essentially creates a doctrine of God around just that notion, then defines it in human terms of a parent-child relationship, and then concludes that everyone will eventually be saved because God is love. This is a horribly deficient doctrine of God which does not take into account the whole of Biblical teaching about God. Unfortunately, because this is Bell’s central thesis, it seems the book falls apart upon closer examination.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend this book. Although it gives a few positive points, the major errors found throughout the text weigh against the usefulness of the book for study. I would recommend, however, that leaders in the church do read the book, as it has been so immensely popular that they are bound to run into it. I hope that my reviews and study guide [below] will be helpful for those who wish to engage with the book critically.

Study Guide Questions

General Questions

Let me be clear: I think these questions must be asked in any study of this book.

These questions are intended to be asked after each chapter or at the end of the book:

1) What arguments does Rob Bell present in this chapter? Are they valid? Were any arguments presented?

2) What questions does Bell ask that you feel are hardest to answer? Why? What answers did he provide?

3) Look up a passage Bell interprets. Read it in context. Do you think that Bell’s interpretation of this passage is correct? Why/why not?

Questions for Preface and Chapter 1

1) Do you feel comfortable talking about hell? Why/why not?

2) Can we know that a specific person is in hell?

3) What problems do you see in our culture’s understanding of hell?

4) If a word or phrase isn’t in the Bible, does that mean it is not biblical? Is “Love Wins” a phrase found in the Bible?

Resource: I review the preface and chapter 1.

Questions for Chapter 2

1) What do you think of when you envision heaven? Why do you imagine this? Can you support this imagery with the Biblical text?

2) Look up Matthew 19:16-30 and read it. What do you think of Bell’s focus on “enter life” as the thrust of this passage?

3) Consider popular cultural pictures of heaven or of heavenly imagery (Angels in the Outfield; All Dogs Go to Heaven; etc.). What do you think of these images? Are they grounded on Biblical truth?

4) Bell wrote: “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death” (59). What do you think of this quote? What does it say about what we do for salvation? Do we live in such a way as to usher in our survival of death?

Resource: I review Chapter 2.

Questions for Chapter 3

1) What do you think Bell means by “there are all kinds of hells” (79)? Do you see this in the Biblical text he cites (Luke 16:19-31)?

2) Read Luke 16:19-31. What do you think of Bell’s analysis of the meaning of this parable? Why do you think this?

3) Bell argued that Jesus’ teachings weren’t about right belief but rather about love of neighbor (82). How does this tie into the theme of salvation by grace through faith?

4) Read Matthew 10:5-15. Does the text imply there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, as Bell argues (84-85)?

Resource: I review Chapter 3.

Questions for Chapter 4

1) Read Bell’s statements about the greatness of God on p. 97-98. Why do you think he chooses to focus the discussion on God’s greatness rather than on specific texts? What textual support does Bell use to support this passage?

2) Bell claims there have been a number of views about the salvation of people throughout church history. Does a plurality of views make any view valid? BonusDuring the Civil War era, Christians on either side argued the Bible supported or condemned slavery, respectively. Does this mean a valid interpretation of the Bible is that it justifies slavery?

3) Bonus points: Look up the church fathers Bell cites to support the notion that his view has been at “the center” of Christian orthodoxy. Do these church fathers really support that view? Consider the following from Augustine (The City of God Book XXI, Chapter 17):

Origen was even more indulgent; for he believed that even the devil himself and his angels, after suffering those more severe and prolonged pains which their sins deserved, should be delivered from their torments, and associated with the holy angels. But the Church, not without reason, condemned him for this and other errors…

Resource: I review Chapter 4.

Questions for Chapter 5

1) What do you think of when you picture the image of a cross? How have you used/worn/displayed crosses in your life? Do your answers to these questions reflect the glory and misery of the cross?

2) How have you pictured the “Gospel”? Is it just a way to “get to” heaven?

Resource: I review Chapter 5.

Questions for Chapter 6

1) How have you used the label “Christian” or the name “Jesus” in your life?

2) Read John 12:47-50 and compare to Bell’s notion that God is not about judgment. How do Bell’s assertions read in light of the context of the single verse he cites (i.e. “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.” [48])? Does Bell deal with this context?

3) Did Jesus come to overthrow religion? Read Matthew 5:17-18. How does this passage line up with Bell’s notion that Jesus was a- or even anti- religious?

ResourceI review Chapter 6

Questions for Chapter 7 and 8

1) Rob Bell focuses upon the notion that God is love. What else does the Bible tell us God is? Does Bell discuss these other attributes? What do these other attributes us tell us about God? (BonusCheck out 2 Thessalonians 1:6; Psalm 5; Isaiah 46:9-10; or use a concordance to look up various attributes of God.)

2) Bell’s focus in this chapter is on God as love. How does God respond to sin? Consider Psalm 5:4-6:

For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
with you, evil people are not welcome.
 The arrogant cannot stand
in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong;
you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful
you, Lord, detest. (Psalm 5:4-6)

3) Bell writes that sins are “irrelevant” (187). Did Jesus come to die for sins? Does this mean they are irrelevant?

4) Bell seems to argue that there are more chances after death. What does the Bible say about this? (Consider Hebrews 9:27.)

Resource: I review chapters 7 and 8.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

The book: Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1– I discuss the preface and chapter 1 of Love Wins.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2– I review chapter 2.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 3– I look at Chapter 3: Hell.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4– I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5– I analyze chapter 5.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 6– I review chapter 6.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapters 7 and 8– I review the final chapters of the book.

Be sure to check out other book reviews. (Scroll down for more)

Source

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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The Church Universal: Reformation Review

Perhaps the most crucial debate of the Reformation Era was over the nature of the universal church. During the Reformation, the church had split into numerous separate bodies. But were each of these bodies truly “the church”? Was salvation only found through membership in the Catholic Church? Finally, how did one determine what church bodies were part of “the church” if there were some new criterion for establishing what counted as “the church”? Having found their origins prior to the Reformation and a spectrum of answers during the Reformation, these questions continue to be debated into our own time.

The Church Universal

The key to understanding the emerging doctrine of the church within the Reformation is to note a distinction in meanings for “apostolic continuity.” On the one hand, one could note a literal apostolic continuity in which the authority of the Apostles themselves was passed from one person to another. On the other hand, some argued that the authority of the church was found in continuity with apostolic doctrine, not with a literal continuity of passed-on authority (McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction 141ff, cited fully below).

The Protestants began to view church authority as a consequence of right doctrine. This view allowed them to divorce themselves from the Roman Catholic church (and thus potentially lose the literal passing down of authority from one to another from the apostles) while still maintaining that their own churches remained part of the church universal.

Yet this was not the only question facing those trying to distinguish which churches were “true” as opposed to “false” churches. Surely there ought to be some signs of a “true church” to distinguish it from those that had fallen away. Martin Bucer and Martin Luther offered ways forward on this: the marks of the church. Luther insisted that what made a true church was “right administration of the sacraments and true preaching of the Gospel” while Bucer held that there was a third mark: discipline (Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation, 181, cited below).

The Background to the Reformation Debate

Alister McGrath notes how important it is to note the origins of the reformation debate regarding the church here. Specifically, the debate can be traced back to the Donatist controversy in the earlier church (third century). Essentially, this controversy centered around the very nature of the true church. The Christian church had been persecuted, and many had renounced their faith in order to avoid persecution. The question was asked: should these persons be allowed back into the true church? Could they still administer the sacraments and interact with the true body of Christ?

The Donatists said that those who had lapsed had become apostate and could not be allowed back into the church. However this belief was eventually considered to be incorrect and detrimental to the unity of the Church. Augustine argued against the Donatists and pointed out how the church is a “mixed body” of sinners and saints (McGrath, 144ff).

The concept of a sinner-saint was utilized by Martin Luther and other Reformers to note that the church was a body in which the Holy Spirit was actively working sanctification. That is, God was working to make the Church holy, but that did not mean that each individual in the church was absolutely devoid of sin.

How did all of this fit into the Reformation discussions on the true church? Simply put, the Donatists were radically schismatic. They sought to divorce themselves from “sinners” within the church. The Donatists were condemned for their schismatism, and so the Reformers had  to deal with the fact that they themselves had either been forcibly removed from or split from the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the importance of apostolic authority through theological unity became central in understanding the continuity of the Church.

The Modern Debates

The notion that right doctrine delineates the true church as opposed to literal apostolic continuity has a number of interesting outcomes which are very relevant for today’s church bodies.

First, it introduces a great difficulty for many church bodies in determining with whom one can fellowship. If the authority of the church universal is based upon true teachings rather than a passing down of authority from one person to another, then where is the line for how much teaching must be correct in order to remain as the true church?

Different church bodies offer different answers. Some church bodies err on the side of openness and humility and allow many into their fold who hold radically differing views. People in these organizations may hold to different views on things like the ordination of women, the age of the earth, and the like. Other church bodies err on the side of unity in doctrine and restrict membership to those that affirm sound doctrine as taught by their own body. For these church groups, a certain creed or body of work is referenced as the authoritative teaching of the church. If one differs from these teachings, then one is not part of their church body. (For more on the notion of using creeds or bodies of teachings as authoritative interpretations, see my post on “Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era.”)

To be frank, some Christians fail to recognize the diversity of these answers and simply assume that anyone who has a differing organizational structure is “liberal” or “conservative”–using the words in a derogatory manner. Such an attitude does not contribute to discussions on church organization. By failing to recognize the commendable attitude of humility in the churches that emphasize the unity of faith as opposed to the unity of individual doctrines, some unfairly label other church bodies as unbiblical or apostate. Similarly, by failing to recognize the commendable need for unity of belief in church bodies that emphasize right belief, some unfairly label these church bodies as schismatic or unchristian.

It also seems to me that both of these groups should learn from each other. Too many church groups vary too far one way or the other on these issues. Church bodies that emphasize humility in doctrine can often undermine their own church’s teachings. Similarly, church bodies that emphasize unity in doctrine can undermine their capacity for outreach and cooperation with other church bodies.

The Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican II, officially viewed non-Catholic churches as separated brethren–other bodies of true believers who were practicing independently. Such an affirmation ultimately undermines part of the debate that has raged since the Reformation: are Protestants saved, according to Roman Catholic teaching? This debate was hot during the Reformation and beyond, as the Roman Catholic church continued to deny salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Now, however, it is acknowledged that salvation can be found within Protestant circles as well.

Finally, the options Luther and Bucer offered to describe the “marks of the church” continue to be extremely important. Bucer’s emphasis on independent church discipline has–insofar as I can tell–largely fallen by the wayside, though it remains a point of interest in Anabaptist and other traditions. Although I would be hesitant to make a structured church discipline one of the marks of the true church, it would appear to be greatly important to have a system for disciplining those within the church who do not adhere to basic moral and/or doctrinal norms. However, this must be consistent with the notion that all believers are sinners being formed into saints through the process of sanctification. The modern church in the West perhaps does not have enough emphasis on the importance of church discipline, but caution should be taken so that a reform in this area does not lead the church back to a Donatist-like position.

Conclusion

So what makes a church a true church? The Reformers do still speak to us on this issue. Continuity with apostolic teaching is that which designates a true church. It is not easy to know where to draw the line between unity and humility, but over-emphasizing either leads to great difficulties for a church body. Of utmost importance, however, is the acknowledgement that though not all church bodies agree on every topic (there’s an understatement!), these church bodies are part of the saving body of Christ and therefore part of the salvific work of the Holy Spirit. Remembering this simple fact might help to spur on a bit of humility and unity among the Church Universal.

Links

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

Sources

Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Image: credit to Beatrice- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Pietro_e_Ponte_SAngelo_(notte).jpg

Thanks

Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Rising Above the Dogma: A Call to Christian Fellowship

Dogmatics. Too often this word is seen as a “dirty” word. We don’t want to deal with stuffy theology books or learning about doctrine. It is my sincere belief that Christianity has unfortunately traveled two paths when dealing with Christian doctrines:

1) Christians simply don’t care about doctrine. They abandon systematic theology, and in turn abandon the soul of Christianity.

2) Christians emphasize soundness of doctrine with such zeal that they alienate and make enemies of fellow Christians. In doing so, they abandon Christ’s teaching.

I just finished reading the book Christ Among the Dragons by James Emery White, and I must say it should be required reading of all Christians. Among the wonderful points made by White throughout this work, I found the most important to be his discussion of our interactions with fellow Christians. Too often, I found myself literally in tears, either because I stood convicted by the words he wrote or because fellow Christians had wronged me in the ways he outlined. He writes concerning debates over doctrinal issues:

“Truth be told, we should have enough theological humility to admit that we may all be wrong. The greater issue is refusing to make our theological viewpoint the test of orthodoxy, the agenda for which we exist and the basis of our community… And our rhetoric isn’t helping. ” (126).

White later quotes two other theologians, John Stott and the Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin. Stott wrote:

“Perhaps our criterion for deciding which is which [that is, which doctrines are essential and which are matters of liberty]… should be as follows. Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty” (127-128).

Meiderlin said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

These powerful calls to Christian unity too often fall on deaf ears from those who adhere to either of the views I described above. Those who believe doctrines are unimportant criticize those who attempt to stress the essentials. Those who emphasize doctrinal purity too often attack fellow Christians for matters which should be of liberty.

I hope and pray for a day in which we can move past such disturbances in the body of Christ. No longer will Christians feel “second class” because they are of a different denomination. No longer will Christians abandon the Creeds of the Catholic Church (meaning the whole Church at large, not just the Roman Catholics). No longer will Christians accuse their fellows of rejecting Scripture for having different views on matters of “liberty.” No longer will Christians abandon the message of Christ in favor of ethical teaching.

We Christians are a Body. We must stick together. Divided we fall, united we stand.

I’d like to add that when we deal with our fellow man, and particularly our fellow Christian, the most important thing we should remember is that our message is Christ, and our witness is our deed. I close with another quote from White in Christ Among the Dragons:

“When we condescendingly say that our position is simply the ‘gospel,’ as if it’s not really a debate worth having, then we are being arrogant. When we make our view the litmus test of orthodoxy, or even community, we are being neither gracious nor loving. When we say that our view alone upholds God’s sovereignty or that our perspective is the only one that cares about lost people, we are not being truthful. When we exhibit a haughty smirkiness, or we so state our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups or denominations, then we are sinning.” (126-127)

Source:

White, James Emery. Christ Among the Dragons. InterVarsity Press. 2010.

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