The Outlook, February 2006, Volume 56, No. 2, pp. 16-20

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Postmodern Liberalism:
Repainting a Non-Christian Faith (II)
A Christian Critique of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis

Rev. Casey Freswick

 

Rob Bell, in keeping with the doctrinal declarations of Mars Hill church states, "I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more".1

Rob Bell's View of the Trinity

Rob Bell teaches about the doctrine--the flexible spring--called the Trinity with the following words.

This doctrine is central to historic, orthodox Christian faith. While there is only one God, God is somehow present everywhere. People began to call this presence, this power of God, his 'Spirit'. So there is God, the then there is God's Spirit. And then Jesus comes among us and has this oneness with God that has people saying things like God has visited us in the flesh (John 1:14). So God is one, but God has also revealed himself to us as Spirit and then as Jesus. One and yet three. This three-in-oneness understanding of God emerged in several hundred years after Jesus' resurrection. People began to call this concept the Trinity. The word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus didn't use the word, and the writers of the rest of the Bible didn't use the word.

But over time this belief, this understanding, this doctrine, has become central to how followers of Jesus have understood who God is. It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it (this fact, of course, doesn't make the doctrine any less true. It's been true all along; people just 'recently' discovered it.) It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it. It flexes, and it stretches.2 It has brought a littler, deeper, richer understanding to the mysterious being who is God. . . .Our words are not absolutes. Only God is absolute... The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up.3

It is clear that Rob Bell's philosophy of reality and truth stand behind his declarations about the truth of the Trinity. His account of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity is wrong. The omnipresent nature of God, according to Biblical truth, is not tied to the Spirit of God. The eternal Father is everywhere present, the eternal Son is everywhere present and the eternal Holy Spirit is everywhere present, but there are not three everywhere presents, there is but one everywhere present.

In addition, the reality of the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, was known long before the time of the New Testament. Abraham knew the eternal Son before Jesus was ever conceived. John 8:56-58 teaches "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.' Then the Jews said to Him, 'You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?' Jesus said to them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." David knew that his Lord and God would be born in the flesh. Acts 2:34-36 "For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: 'The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."

Church councils did not discover the truth of the Trinity; they formulated the truth that was revealed in Scripture from the beginning, a truth revealed clearly in Scripture, not discovered by Church councils. It is a word from God about God. Its denial is idolatry, the worship of a false god, an unholy image of God.

When the Athanasian Creed teaches, "...the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance," it is teaching the true nature of God. It is expressing, in language that is not found in Scripture, the truth about God found in Scripture. It is expressing a catholic faith, a faith that was a part of all God's people from the beginning of time to the end of time and for all eternity. When we declare, "the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet here are not three Gods, but one God" we are stating absolute truth about God. To deny this is to deny God. To deny God is to live in rebellion to God, worshipping, serving and loving a false god instead of the true God.

Truth is more than a flexible spring. Truth about God is essential to Christian life. In declaring that God has "No form, no shape"4 and equating this with a declaration that words about God are flexible springs giving us "insight and understanding into the experience of God we're having," makes meaningless Rob Bell's declaration that he affirms "the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity".5

He declares many things about the Trinity that reject faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The fact that Rob Bell never uses the historical, Biblical formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his book is but one way that he is stretching and denying the truth so clearly revealed in Scripture. He paints a picture of a false god. When Rob Bell affirms the historic Christian faith, he affirms a never-ending process of shedding the old doctrinal statements for new ones that embrace our experience of God, which will need to be re-expressed over and over. This affirmation of the Christian faith is not faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who reveals Himself and His work in His Word.

Rob Bell's View of the Trinity

Rob Bell writes, "What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry's tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being "born of a virgin" also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?"6

Rob Bell goes on to ask the following questions, "is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?...if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn't that strong in the first place, was it?"7

The virgin birth of Jesus, according to Rob Bell, is not an absolute truth and an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. He claims that denying the virgin birth is not outside the Christian Faith. What matters is how we can best relate to the culture of our day. But the Bible declares, "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18). The angel does declares, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20).

Christians confess in the Apostles Creed that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, was "conceived by the Holy Spirit" and "born of the virgin Mary."8 Rob Bell claims this is a flexible interpretation of the Bible. He teaches that people claiming that Jesus had an earthly father who understand the apostles' words about the birth of Jesus as a cultural myth (lie) to get the followers of Mithra to embrace the Christian faith is not a denial of the Christian faith. We may deny the virgin birth as long as we continue to live in the reality of God's love. Doctrine is not that important. "Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master."9

Rob Bell is absolutely wrong. The virgin birth, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is a doctrine of Christ essential to having God. These doctrines are not horrible masters but blessed truths. The truth of the virgin birth is stronger than Rob Bell's feeble attempt to distort the nature of Biblical truth. The virgin birth is true because God's Word reveals it as true. This is not an interpretation of Scripture; it is the clear teaching of the Bible. If this makes me arrogant according to Rob Bell, then it makes Paul and John and the Word of God arrogant as well.

Rob Bell's position is the repainting of historic liberal theology. The virgin birth is a doctrine of Christ that divided local congregations and denominations in the U. S. in the early twentieth century into liberal and evangelical. Not all liberals denied the virgin birth. They all denied its significance to "Christian faith" by redefining what the Christian faith was. As liberalism arose out of the ash heap of German idealism in the context of a compromising European Lutheran Church, it should come as no surprise that a new liberalism arises out of the ash heap of a post-modern philosophy of truth in the context of a compromising evangelical church. Where the loss of absolutes is embraced, postmodern liberals will come out of the evangelical tradition.

Bell and Bultmann

Rob Bell repaints the attacks on the Christian faith by German liberal theologians and their subsequent followers. He embraces a liberal world-view that denied the virgin birth because of a faulty view of the relationship between science and scripture. Rudolph Bultmann was the one of the most famous of these men. Bultmann claimed the job of modern (late 19th, early 20th century) theologians was to demythologize the gospels so the Christian faith could be relevant to our culture and learn how to live like Jesus. Living like Christ was important but doctrine was not.

Rob Bell repaints these false teachings of historic liberal theology. He consciously uses liberal theologians' own words.10  He declares historic liberal theology to be a part of the Christian tradition he embraces. He is certainly aware of this historic attack on the Christian faith. His response is to accept liberalism as a part of the historic Christian faith rather than expose and condemn its errors. Rob Bell is a part of the historic liberal tradition rather than the historic tradition of the Christian faith.

One key aspect of liberalism embraced by Rob Bell is the false view of the life of Jesus replacing faith in Jesus. For Bell "Christian" describes those devoted "to living the way of the Messiah, who they believed was Jesus. A person who follows Jesus. .. .A way of life centered around a person who lives." He writes, "I am far more interested in jumping than I am in arguing about whose trampoline is better."12 What we do is essential, not what we believe.

Bell continues with the thought that we follow the rabbi Jesus to be like Him. Jesus the rabbi chooses us because He has faith in us. "I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is Jesus believes in me. I have been told that I to have faith in God. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that God has faith in me. The rabbi (Jesus) thinks we can be like him."13 This is a postmodern liberal repainting of "modern liberalism".

In is book, Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1924, J. Gresham Machen describes the adherent of "modern liberalism" with these words, "Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. . . .According to modem liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in the maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted."14 Modern liberalism stands in contrast to the truth, "The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but the One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust."15 Rob Bell repaints "modem liberalism" as "postmodern liberalism". Both pictures distort and deny the truth of scripture.

Other Denials

Rob Bell denies many other Biblical truths. He "repaints" Biblical teaching on the fall, the nature of sin, sovereignty, providence, the significance of the life and death of Jesus Christ, faith, hell and heaven.  He redefines what it means to be a Christian. He finds people living in "ultimate reality" with God who are in rebellion to God. He finds people who trust in Jesus as their only Savior as living outside the "ultimate reality" that is God. These tragic facts are declared clearly in his book. The following are a few examples of these false teachings.

Rob Bell rejects as necessary to experiencing the love of God believing the unique claims of Jesus as the Christ. In 2 John 1:7-9 we read, "For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son." If you deny that Jesus Christ is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament you do not have God. When one abides in the doctrine of Christ that one has both the Father and Son. Rob Bell claims that you can deny the coming of Jesus in the flesh and have God. Second John is clear. If you deny the doctrine of Christ you do not have God. There is no such god as the god of Jew and Christian. There is no Judeo-Christian god. There is only one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Mr. Bell encourages people to live in the reality of God, but the reality does not have an essential connection to professing the truth of the doctrine "Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh" or "Jesus is the Lord" or "Jesus is the Savior who died for sin". These, like all doctrines, are each bricks used to build walls that limit God and keep people away from God.

Bell wants us to tear down these restrictive walls. "What happens then is that the wall becomes the sum total of the beliefs, and God becomes as big as the wall. But God is bigger than any wall. God is bigger than any religion. God is bigger than any worldview. God is bigger than the Christian faith."16 He encourages people to dive deep into the awesome nature of God and his reality.

According the Bell, a key place to discover God is in a book, I Asked for Wonder. This anthology of the writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel is supposed to spark our wonder about God. The problem is that Abraham Heschel, a Jewish rabbi who died in the early seventies, personally denied that Jesus was the Christ, his Lord and Savior. He claimed that any Jew who believes Jesus is the Christ, commits spiritual suicide.17 Heschel rejected the God of the Bible when he rejected Jesus.18 There is not one item in the writings of Mr. Bell to indicate that he believes that a rejection of the doctrine, Jesus is the Christ, is a rejection of the true God for a false god. Rob Bell is incapable of discerning the difference between a Christian and non-Christian. He does not know the difference between evangelizing the unbeliever and disciplining the believer. He comforts the unbeliever where there is no comfort. He gives him a false assurance that all is well with his soul when the judgment of God of rests upon him.

Rob Bell has made the historic Christian faith broader than what has been revealed in Scripture. In embracing rabbis and philosophers into his postmodern liberal faith he denies the historic doctrines of Christ revealed in Scripture but repaints the heresies of the past. Rob Bell is a false teacher that must be recognized for what he is. What remains a great tragedy is that a community that has long been identified as an evangelical center should have so many people so easily swayed by a pretty picture of historic lies.

APPENDIX

The following are some more postmodern liberal definitions or denials of historic doctrines taught by Rob Bell.

Inspiration and interpretation of the Bible:
"The Bible is a collection of stories that teach us about what it looks like when God is at work through actual people. The Bible has the authority it does only because it contains stories about people interacting with the God who has all authority".19

Sola Scriptura:
"...it wasn't until the 300s that what we know as the sixty-six books of the Bible were actually agreed upon as the 'Bible'. This is part of the problem with continually insisting that one of the absolutes of the Christian faith must be a belief that "Scripture alone" is our guide. It sounds nice, but it is not true. In reaction to abuses by the church, a group of believers during a time called the Reformation claimed that we only need the authority of the Bible. But the problem is that we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is. So when I affirm the Bible as God's word, in the same breath I have to affirm that when those people voted, God was somehow present, guiding them to do what they did. When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true. In affirming the Bible as inspired, I also have to affirm the Spirit who I believe was inspiring those people to choose those books.20

Heaven and Hell:
"When people use the word hell, what do they mean? They mean a place, an event, a situation absent of how God desires things to be. Famine, debt, oppression, loneliness, despair, death, slaughter--they are all hell on earth".21

"Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust. Ours or God's."22

The Fall:
"Once again, the greatest truth of the story of Adam and Eve isn't that it happened, but that it happens. We all make choices to live outside of how God created us to live. We have all come up short."23

Ultimate Reality:
"When Jesus said, 'No one comes to the Father except through me', he was saying that his way, his words, his life is our connection to how things truly are at the deepest levels of existence. For Jesus then, the point of religion is to help us connect with ultimate reality, God."24

ENDNOTES

1. Mars Hill Constitution and Statement of Faith, p. 14.
2. Rob Bell. Velvet Elvis, p. 22
3. Ibid., p. 25
4. Ibid., p.23
5. Mars Hill Constitution and Statement of Faith, p. 3
6. Rob Bell. Velvet Elvis, p. 26
7. Ibid., p. 27
8. Apostles' Creed
9. Rob Bell. Velvet Elvis, p. 25
10. Ibid., p.26
11. Ibid., p.84
12. Ibid., p.27
13. Ibid., p. 134
14. Christianity and Liberalism. J. Gresham Machen, p. 85
15. Ibid., p. 85
16. Ibid., p.27
17. I Asked for Wonder. A. J. Heschel, edited by Dresner, p. 110
18. Ibid., p. 110
19. Rob Bell. Velvet Elvis, p. 65
20. Ibid., p.68
21. Ibid., p. 148
22. Ibid., p. 146
23. Ibid.,p. 139
24. Ibid., p. 83

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Rev. Casey Freswick is the pastor of Bethany United Reformed Church  in Wyoming, Michigan.

  Both articles in this series are available in a single booklet here

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