I have now read Rob Bell’s Love Wins. And I have read John MacArthur’s literally damning review. I won’t take the time now to give you my full review of Love Wins -I will post something substantial in a few weeks. However, in light of MacArthur’s review, I felt the need to make a response to his response.
MacArthur essentially condemns Bell for deviating from orthodox Christian doctrine as MacArthur himself sees and defines it. He also places him in the category of false teacher, like the ones in the New Testament. MacArthur condemns Bell for, among other things, claiming to be Evangelical and then not taking serious the authority of Scripture, the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, and the instrumentality of justification by faith. First off, reading Love Wins, I did not see any of these things put in danger. Are MacArthur and I reading the same book?
Secondly, MacArthur raises the question – what does it take to be a Christian? If Bell didn’t believe in an eternal hell of torment for the unbelievers, is that enough to condemn him? If so, I might ask MacArthur, where is Augustine, because we all know that, though he is beloved by evangelicals, he believed in some weird things (like you must be baptized to be a saved Christian, see Sermons to Catechumens, On the Creed, 7:15).
Thirdly, MacArthur repeatedly argues that we should look at Bell’s “fruit” to see if he is genuine. I think for MacArthur to make the specific kinds of accusations he is making, he needs a better overall “audit” of Bell’s spirituality and commitment. Before condemning Bell publicly, I think MacArthur should have flown to Bell’s church. Talk to folks there. Talk with surrounding churches and pastors. Talk to Bell’s family. See the ministry he has with the poor and the sick. “Fruit” does not just mean “what he preaches” – it is also about the actions of Bell and his overall ministry.
Fourth, MacArthur raises the question for me: how should we assess a book by a so-called Christian that seems to be challenging what many “evangelical” Christians already believe? For MacArthur, you quickly dismiss it, throw some texts of Scripture at it, make a claim to tradition, and move on. I am not sure this is the wisest approach. We need to have enough humility and respect for another human being to ask: (1) Does he claim to be a Christian?, (2) Does he seem to be trying to exegete the Biblical texts carefully, (3) Is he writing with a generous spirit and motivation? If the answer to these is “yes,” I think we can disagree with the conclusions of the book, without coming right out and damning the person.
Finally, I will say that the comparison between Bell and the NT false teachers is overdrawn. Paul himself felt the need to condemn false teachers because what they were saying and doing was leading to immorality or disunity (or both). Think about Galatians – the false teachers were turning Christians into slaves of Torah. Think about Colossians – the social body was being neglected and fractured in view of personal spirituality. Think of 2 Corinthians, false teachers were boasting in outward appearance, and rhetoric, condemning the suffering apostles. Bell’s book doesn’t look like any of this, nor does it lead to any of this. If you find a heresy (and I don’t think Bell’s book is in this category) that is too gracious, I say: why bother to condemn it (especially when, in my opinion, Bell has done his exegetical homework, although I do disagree with his interpretation of particular texts on some points)? Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think any NT text condemns false teachers for being too gracious. Am I right?
[UPDATE: One blogger, Nick, has taken up the challenge of pointing out what seems to be a false teaching condemned for being too gracious - Jude 4. I didn't think of this, so kudos on the quick thinking. However, I already mentioned that I thought many NT writers took issue with false teachings that led to immorality. That is not what I meant by false teachers being "too gracious." By using Rob Bell as an analogy, he is not "too gracious" in terms of moral laxity. Rather, he is "gracious" in terms of salvation. Are there any false teachers that fit that category? That is what I meant. My bad - I should have clarified what I meant. Again, that is not to say I totally agree with Bell. I have serious concerns with his book. Rather, it is to say that I call him "brother" and not "wolf," and I see no need to publicly condemn him.]
In my opinion, MacArthur’s incendiary review will ultimately cause more damage to the Christian cause than Bell’s best-selling book ever will. (That is not to say I agree with Bell, just that I think MacArthur’s words are just that harmful). It is one thing to politely disagree, it is another to engage in “friendly fire.” My personal opinion is that this post by MacArthur only ironically comes from his website entitled “Grace to you” (Physician, heal thyself!)
[Update #2: Some people are accusing Bell of being a universalist. While his position isn't crystal clear in his book, he has said over and over again in interviews he is NOT a universalist, and I take him at his work. If he can be accused of anything on this issue, it is being unclear.]