Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Is Rob Bell an Evangelical?

Kevin DeYoung has written a serious critique of Rob Bell's claim to be an evangelical based on an interview he recently did with the Boston Globe. Of course DeYoung didn't fire the first shot. See the post from just after sunrise and this one from the Gospel Coalition. Of the three posts DeYoung's is the most thoughtful and restrained.

I hesitate to enter the fray but I did want to offer a couple of thoughts. It is certainly true that the term evangelical has become a term almost devoid of any meaning. One problem is that so many "evangelicals" have abandoned certain historic Christian doctrines but still retained the label so that eventually one can claim to be an evangelical and believe whatever one desires. The term has lost all its historic distinctives. To be a member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) you have to subscribe to inerrancy and the Trinity. (By the way Kevin Vanhoozer does an excellent job of demonstrating not only the compatibility of these two truths but "their intrinsic necessity" (26) in a two-part essay entitled "Theological Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks" found in Trinitarian Theology for the Church pp. 25-78.) I'm not saying the ETS speaks for all evangelicals but they certainly have historic roots in the classic understanding of what it means to be evangelical. If acceptance of these two doctrines became the sine qua non of what defines an evangelical many today who fly under the name would gladly put on a parachute and jump off the plane.

Bell says he can embrace the term evangelical "if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook." The problem is this definition could equally apply to a Catholic, a Buddhist or even an atheist. Bell's definition would certainly describe Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. but I doubt anyone would call them evangelicals. How would it look if I said I could embrace the term Roman Catholic if . . . and I gave Bell's definition? Would Roman Catholics accept me as a Roman Catholic? Would I be allowed to receive communion? No. Why not? Because Roman Catholicism is defined not only by its actions but by a certain body of beliefs. I can't define Roman Catholicism as I would like to see it. Bell needs to recognize that evangelicalism comes with a certain body of beliefs. I'll grant that the defining elements of evangelicalism are hotly contested but I'm not ready to give up on it just yet.

Is Bell an evangelical? No, not in a historic sense. I would be more comfortable with him saying he is not an evangelical but is happy to work together with evangelicals for change in the world, caring for the environment and extending to the poor generosity and kindness. Many evangelicals certainly share Bell's passion for these causes. But if that is all that defines an evangelical then it will have lost its identity entirely and may as well be abandoned. And that I'm not prepared to do.

1 comment:

Paul D. Adams said...

Well said, Louis. I could not agree more. In An Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue by Paul J. Griffiths he notes that every world religion has a central core of defining beliefs without which it would not be what it is. For instance, a Buddhist adheres to the notion of "anatman," which is a rejection of the Hindu belief in the "soul" (atman). Moreover, the Buddhists rejects the authority of the Vedas (Hindu scripture), which is to reject the central teachings of Hinduism. Thus, a Buddhist is not a Hindu. Likewise, one cannot be a Christian and reject the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth! I'm reminded of the well-known postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty's definition of truth as "whatever your peers will let you get away with" and it sounds like Bell has gone the postmodern way and the media is eating it up. Shame on them!! We must get an epistemological grip on what constitutes meaning in language. Terms are not eternally elastic!!