Saturday, April 30, 2011

"We shape our God and then our God shapes us" (Rob Bell)

Adrian Warnock cites Rob Bell's Love Wins:
"Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer. This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us."
Adrian replies saying:
"I am sorry Rob, God either exists or he doesn’t. We cannot shape him. He is God! He is what he is. We cannot mold him in our own image but must find him in the Bible and worship him."
I imagine Adrian will feel a bit betrayed by me here but: I think Adrian missed the point. I agree with Adrian's saying we can't shape our own version of God, but I don't think that's what Bell is saying here.

Far from saying we're allowed to "shape" God, I think Bell is saying that evangelicals have done precisely this, and ended up with an unbiblical view of God. Bell still speaks of such evangelicals as we.
The underlying principle is that our view of God shapes how we live.Which is true.
And Bell is out to accuse Evangelicals of being mean-spirited, not interested in social justice and quick to judge.... because, reasons Bell, the god of evangelicals is the god who we need to be rescued from.
Bell says in the Premier Radio interview, that he longs for a better story than the one he has heard from many evangelicals. And if what's he's heard is not a straw man but a reality, then he should long for more, shouldn't he?

Now:
1. I agree our view of God shapes how we live. As many have argued, we become what we worship. (See GK Beale's book with that title, or lots of John Piper's work).
2. The observation that evangelicals can be mean, narrow and judgemental is not without basis - in my life and I probably in the lives of others. I had a particularly convicting personal light-bulb moment about that sitting in an evangelistic talk by Mike Reeves about 18 months ago... it's been character-reshaping as its sent me into a fresher knowledge of the Triune God, as I realised that I lacked love. Eugene Peterson writes that "being loved creates a person who loves" and so if I'm loveless I ask whether I'm full of the love of the Father, Son and Spirit - as Paul prayed in Ephesians 3 that we would be.
3. Given that we're ALL prone to such harshness, I would love Bell to have been a bit more generous, forgiving and kind with those he has in his sights. Love might win some.

There are two questions to ask.
1. Is the Bell critique right?
2. Is the Bell alternative answer right?

Bell writes, describing the dilemma that some evangelicals have:
"they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn’t safe, loving, or good. It doesn’t make sense, it can’t be reconciled, and so they say no. They don’t want anything to do with Jesus, because they don’t want anything to do with that God."
Bell is concerned that this is what people think God is like. And he's right to be. If we think the Father is unsafe, unloving and not good we have a problem. The question is is the Father loving? And if we only believed in hell and judgement because we believed in a judging Father, what then if the Father loves what happens to the doctrines we held before...

As I've said before I'm much more concerned by the indifference and lack of passion in Bell's view of the love of God than I am in the lack of wrath. I think the lack of wrath comes from the lack of love, rather than from an excess of love as some have observed. Bell is writing to disaffected fundamentalists and evangelicals, exactly the kind of people he expects to react very strongly against him, but in hope that some of them might be warmed to his vision and his questions. I don't think he gets the right answers consistently, but I don't think anyone will be helped if the wrong issues are challenged in this important discussion.

I think Bell gets the critique right, I think he doesn't articulate the answer clearly, or particularly rightly and so I find Love Wins to present a view of God that is less attractive than I think the Bible portrays.

The question Bell is asking is whether we need Jesus to rescue us from his Father? He says no. I say, it's a question of Trinity (as you'd expect me to say!). A question of who Jesus is, and who his Father is. And evangelicals need to be able to articulate the cross is Trinitarian terms a whole lot more clearly.

It's Trinitarian confusion that leads to observations of "cosmic child abuse" and "the God lurking behind Jesus", caricatures of the gospel that must be rejected - but if you're going to reject them you need an alternative. And saying, "that we need to balance our talk of God's love with his Holiness and Wrath" wont wash. We need a deeper sense of the love of God, that casts our sin in deeper terms than rule-breaking and more in terms of spiritual adultery, of our scorning of the beloved Son and his loving Father and of the people loved in the Son... and of who is then wronged and why, to know the heart of God. And we'll need a richer view of salvation accomplished by the Triune God in perfect unity, and of salvation's goal as bringing us into relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit in their renewed world.