Remember when Jesus said “Hate everyone that doesn’t agree with you theologically and call them heretics?” Me neither. Then again if you were to read most of the blogs and tweets that have popped up over the weekend concerning Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived you would think that the primary mission of the church is to trash everyone who’s theology doesn’t align with yours and sentence them to an eternity in hell.
This isn’t to say that I don’t think theology isn’t important. I’ve spent most of the past decade of my life studying theology on an academic level and I’m currently in the process of writing a theology book. Theology is tremendously important to the life of the church. It tells us who we are and shapes how we live our lives. The result of bad theology can become incredibly problematic. The concept of “heresy” does have a place in the life of the church. It’s tell us “this is how far we can go and no further”, or maybe more acurately “this is who we are and this who we are not.”
However, we have to be incredibly careful when we go around labeling people “heretics” and their theology “heresy.” Simply because someone doesn’t agree with what you think is fundamentally important to the faith doesn’t mean 1) they are a heretic or 2)what you hold so dear is actually fundamentally important to the faith.
For starters, and this has already been said many other places, you can’t start accusing something of heresy or anything else if you don’t actually know what they’ve said. It amazes (and disgusts) me that so many people have pounced on Rob Bell simply from a marketing campaign from his publisher. I’m looking at you John Piper, Joshua Harris, and Mark Driscoll. As pastors and leaders in the church they ought to be ashamed of how they are and have treated this man without ever having actually read his book. Anyone with a modicum of ability to put their own bias and pre-convinced ideas to the side could watch the video Rob has produced and notice that he never actually makes the claims others are making for him. It’s a marketing campaign. It’s meant to stir up interest and to that end it might just be the greatest Christian marketing campaign in recent memory.
I’m definitely not the only one to notice this (Matthew Paul Turner has spent the better part of his weekend in theological twitter debates over this), but it seems that much of the outcry over Rob’s book stems less from his perceived departure from orthodoxy and more from the fact that he’s not Calvinist or Reformed. The reality of the American church is that most of its loudest voices and most visible faces are people who adhere to the theology of John Calvin. John Piper: Calvinist. Joshua Harris: Calvinst. Mark Driscoll: Calvinist. This isn’t a knock against Calvinism. I for one am a proud Wesleyan-Armenian but I still love those in the Reformed tradition and consider them to be brothers and sisters in Christ. I think the problem is that these men, and well as many others, have been decived by their own prominence into thinking that Calvinist/Reformed theology is orthodoxy. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t agree with all the tenets of Calvin is a “heretic.” The same could be said of many other Christian traditions as well, however, they have not not been as vocal on this issue or least not given as much attention.
Might I suggest, via Jim Belcher in his great book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, that since we cannot all agree on the details of the faith we use the “great tradition”, or the ancient creeds of the faith (such as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds), as our common ground for orthodoxy and theological discussion. It is true that this definition still fails in that our brothers and sisters in the East aren’t completely of one accord on every detail of these creeds, but I think we all agree on enough that they can shape our conversations and debates in a much more helpful way than “this is what I think therefore it is orthodoxy.”
By this measure Rob Bell (along with many others) is not a heretic if in fact he does affirm an empty hell which I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH is at this point merely the accusation of a vocal few. Strictly speaking these ancient creeds of the church, while they do speak of Christ judging, never actually affirm eternal torment. If you really want somebody that tosses out the commonly held foundation of the church and could serve as your poster-child for “heresy” then might I suggest the recent CNN article on John Dominic Crossan or read some of the work of John Shelby Spong. (Notice I said read not assume you know what they’re saying. And yes, even if they’re “heretics” we’ve still gotta love them.)
I don’t agree with Rob on every point he has every made, but I have and continue to use many of the resources he has put together for the service of the church. I do not know him personally but the man I see in his NOOMA films and the one I find in the pages of his book is a man who deeply loves God, the church, and Scripture. He has challenged me and many others to rethink commonly held assumptions about the faith that upon second glance are not at all what we thought, the discovery of which can take us deeper in our faith than we had ever imagined.
If we are to be the people of God Jesus meant for us to be then we have to put these petty squabbles aside and remember that the purpose of the church is not to defend God or theology, but rather feed the hungry, love our enemies, defend the cause of the widow, the orphan and the oppressed, and preach the good news to the poor.
When theological debates are needed (and perhaps they are now) we have to remember not to assume either that we know our “opponent’s” position or that our particular tradition is the definition of orthodoxy. After all, we all know what happens when you ASSume….