The recent Rob Bell controversy has been an interesting case study in conservative-liberal dialogue. I’ve read a few blogs on the more conservative side of the spectrum and a few blogs on the more liberal side, and it seems the two groups are speaking different languages entirely. The result is a cacophony, with little or no progress.
Why do the two sides of the spectrum have such difficulty hearing each other? I think the key issue may be one’s view of scripture.
Here’s my theory.
For those with a higher view of scripture, this controversy of doctrine is a matter of exegetical engagement and interpretation. For those with a lower view of scripture, this controversy is more of a social, relational issue.
For example, a recent post by David Sessions (a self-proclaimed non-evangelical commentator) regarding this situation has only one small allusion to the biblical treatment of universalism. Instead, he focuses more on the furor around the issue, what it says about John Piper and the culture of evangelicalism, than the issue itself.
It’s not that his article is unhelpful, but as it regards my theory, such an approach proves completely unsatisfying to a Bible-thumping evangelical. In contrast, Justin Taylor later posted a link to an exegetical treatment of the topic. See the difference? One side wants to talk Bible, and the other wants to talk religious, relational dynamics. Both have legitimate objections, but they’re not really talking about the same things.
Why the disconnect? Again, I believe it stems from one’s view of scripture. In fact, at one point, (in line with my theory) Sessions baldly asserts: “…if you believe in the ‘authority of Scripture’ the way these people do…how can you really be very humble toward people who believe differently?” Here, Sessions seems to diminish the authority of scripture and focus more on the relational issue of humility.
A post by Kevin DeYoung likewise confirms my suspicions. DeYoung introduces and summarizes the book The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900 by Gary Dorrien. DeYoung summarizes Dorrien’s basic themes of liberal theology as follows:
- True religion is not based on external authority
- Christianity is a movement of social reconstruction.
- Christianity must be credible and relevant.
- Truth can be know [sic] only through changing symbols and forms.
- Theological controversy is about language, not about truth.
- The historical accuracies of biblical facts and events are not crucial, so long as we meet Jesus in the pages of Scripture.
- The true religion is the way of Christ, not any particular doctrines about Christ.
For my purposes, note the common thread between the themes DeYoung lays out: a lower view of scripture. Scripture for the more liberal camps is not at the center of discussions. For the more conservative side, scripture is central and authoritative in all discussions.
So what happens when something like the Rob Bell controversy emerges? We get two ships passing in the night and an explosion of angry comments in the blogosphere.