Apparently, Justin Taylor and The Gospel Coalition team’s criticism of Rob Bell did not go so well. The thread in which I participated had about as many who questioned the rationale for criticizing a publisher’s book cover rather than engaging the author’s book. Taylor deferred explanations to questions for Kevin DeYoung to sort out—two questions in particular>>>
The bottom line for DeYoung? Here it is:
“Rob Bell is right about one thing: what you believe about heaven and hell says a lot about what you believe about God. That’s why theological error of this magnitude cannot go unchecked” (//link emphasis mine)
Really? Error of this magnitude? O.K. Let’s take DeYoung’s position at face value and see how it stacks up with DeYoung, Taylor, and the entire entourage of critics who’s judged Rob Bell a heretic and their treatment of "heresy" with others.
Before we do, let me make it clear once again. I wouldn’t give two shakes of a gnat’s behind for Bell’s theology or methodology. Neither strike me as what I understand biblical revelation to fundamentally express. Furthermore, I remain good friends with the Baptist Faith and Message. My theology can be nicely summed up there as any other place. Hence, from my standpoint, there is a real sense in which I have no horse in this stall. I neither desire nor covet the label, evangelical. Call me a Baptist believer and we’ll get along just fine.
On the other hand, the quasi-evangelical fellowship of mostly neo-Reformed believers (all of Bell’s critics I mentioned fit this category it seems to me) is another story entirely. When they yell, “Heretic!" the natural question begs to be raised: heretic according to whom? It cannot be that Rob Bell is a heretic according to what has been historically accepted as evangelicalism, for evangelicalism does not necessarily reject those who do not embrace either a literal hell or eternal punishment.
For example, the Advent Christian General Conference (Seventh Day Adventists) is a current member of the National Association of Evangelicals. Adventists firmly believe in what they term, “extinction of being” for the multitudes of unsaved who die outside Christ. The official doctrinal statement--The Advent Christian Declaration of Principles –reads,
“We believe that death is a condition of unconsciousness to all persons, righteous and wicked; a condition which will remain unchanged until the resurrection at Christ's Second Coming, at which time the righteous will receive everlasting life while the wicked will be "punished with everlasting destruction;" suffering complete extinction of being” (emphasis original).
In essence, this is the same belief for which Denny Burk whipped Rob Bell’s back . He wrote, “Perhaps he is leaving the door open for some kind of annihilationist perspective. In any case, he has jettisoned the doctrine of hell and almost any notion of the wrath of God against sinners” (//link). Based on this very issue Josh Harris accuses Bell of preaching a false gospel. Likewise, the others. Recall Kevin DeYoung suggested Bell’s alleged annihilationist or universalist teaching was of such an erroneous “magnitude,” it just “cannot go unchecked.”
As we suggested earlier, let’s take DeYoung’s word at face value, along with all the other Gospel Coalition crew critics. Not only do they have no real theological reason to criticize Bell from a strictly evangelical perspective (see above), neither do they hold all those who allegedly embrace annihilation to the same standard.
The most obvious illustration of this is Anglican theologian and New Testament scholar, John R.W. Stott*. I have innumerable volumes of Stott in my library. His writings have been an encouragement to me through the years. And, he has been and remains an encouragement to Taylor, DeYoung, and the others.
Of John Stott, DeYoung writes,
”… I have the utmost respect for his ministry and general handling of the Scriptures…[and] As a general rule, when Stott speaks, evangelicals should listen.—Kevin De Young (//link embolden added here and below)
And, “I love John Stott. He’s done more for the Lord than I could ever dream” (//link)
And, “One caution: I find that I cannot go to Stott or Piper too quickly. They always seem to get the outline “right.” If I look at their material at the outset, it is tempting to lean too heavily on them” (//link)
Also, The Gospel Coalition offers this assessment of one of Stott’s books:
“Read The Radical Disciple as a theological treatise, and you’ll likely be disappointed. Read it as a sage saint passing the torch of lifestyle Christianity to you, and you’ll likely be transformed. Read it as an elder statesman leaving a legacy of loving Christianity and you’ll likely be prompted not only to apply his words, but also to ask yourself, “What are my marks of radical discipleship and how well am I pursuing them?” (//link)
And, The Gospel Coalition stores resources from John Stott (e.g. link)
Justin Taylor commends John Stott at several key junctures--on theology, the gospel, biblical exposition, and godly ambition. Also, Trevin Wax enthusiastically quotes the prayers of John Stott, while Boyce Dean, Denny Burk positively quotes John Stott on the power of the gospel, leaning on D.A. Carson's exposition whom Burk confesses had already leaned on John Stott for exposition! (//link).
The strange thing is, John R.W. Stott has publicly advocated the very doctrine Seventh Day Adventists embrace, the doctrine Burk says Rob Bell holds, and the theological error Kevin DeYoung cites as a theological “error” of such “magnitude,” it simply “cannot go unchecked”—the error for which all of the above labels Rob Bell a heretic. It is the heresy of disbelief in endless punishment, a disbelief in unbelievers bearing the wrath of God. John Stott apparently holds something like this.**
Yet...not one word…not one critical syllable…not one shred of concern expressed for Stott’s “heresy” emanates from The Gospel Coalition. In fact, Stott is celebrated by every single critic of Rob Bell I mentioned. DeYoung explicitly says, “when Stott speaks, evangelicals should listen.” Really, Dr. DeYoung? Do you listen to his views of non-endless punishment and extinction of consciousness, an error you judged of Bell as too much of a “magnitude” that it “cannot go unchecked”?
My point is very simple: The Gospel Coalition apparently tolerates error--error of such magnitude it cannot go unchecked--from some and not others. They are quick to label as heretic a misfit like Rob Bell but praise and celebrate the contributions of the Anglican, John Stott, though both men allegedly have views closer to each other—at least on hell—than either do to The Gospel Coalition critics.
Hence, it seems one must deduce another reason for their premature crusade against Rob Bell for heresy over hell while they allow the Anglican, John Stott, a free pass to acceptance. What that reason happens to be is anyone's guess.
Even so, making an issue of a promo video and book cover blurb rather than dealing straightforwardly with Bell's reasoning is, for my money, knee-jerk nonsense. They could have at least waited until the book was published. And no amount of sophistry will salvage their unchecked excitement to dub Rob Bell the heretic they all knew him to be all along.
What are we coming to?
With that, I am…
*Other lessor lights among Gospel Coalition heros like Michael Green and P.E.Hughes also embrace some form of annihilationist “heresy” but one will not see their name(s) in lights or trampled as a heretic
**there seems to be no evidence Stott has changed his views. But even if he *has* fully recanted, the point I'm making remains: no one seemed to treat Stott less than fully evangelical and certainly not as a heretic!