How Dangerous is Rob Bell? A Response to John MacArthur

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.]

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25 thoughts on “How Dangerous is Rob Bell? A Response to John MacArthur

  1. Nijay,

    Unfortunately this is vintage MacArthur. What we will see is a blanket attack (as you pointed out above), and then possibly Phil Johnson will go on the defensive, defending MacArthur from those such as yourself who rightly points out his somewhat graceless charges.

    While I am no Bell(ite)-his nooma videos make me want to sit through a root canal-I find MacArthur out of touch with a lot of what is being discussed in books these days. I myself am a graduate of the Master’s College (which has the best undergrad degree in Greek and Hebrew, just saying). I have sit through a number of these kind of attacks from MacArthur on what he deems detrimental to the Church. Not that long ago he had the audacity to state from the pulpit that “all self respecting Calvinists are premillennial.” That pretty much made me sick, but that is another point all together.

    Well, be on the lookout for MacArthur’s “bulldog” to come at you. But as for me, I just say thanks for pointing out the obvious.

    Cliff

  2. I agree with everything you’ve said here (and shortly after reading his first post I wrote a piece entitled “Christians Beware: John MacArthur Is a (neo) Fundamentalist). I think your point about M. condemning Bell for deviating from M.’s orthodox is especially pertinent. Corollary to this, he denies that Bell is an evangelical, begging the question completely of who defines the category of evangelicalism. Unless, M. is the new evangelical pope, then I think that he should at least define for us what evangelicalism encompasses before dismissing Bell as quickly as he does. As Bebbington defines it, I see Bell well within the bounds of orthodox, evangelical belief, but I assume that is too wide for M. as a neo-Reformed, neo-fundamentalist type (neo-fundamentalist is Roger Olson’s term).

    Two more quick points: I think that M. is operating as many conservative evangelicals do with the notion of traditionalism and not tradition; he is not utilizing traditional Scriptural interpretation as a secondary aid in theological discourse, but is elevating this traditional interpretation to a place of prominence above Scripture. Of course, he’d claim that he adheres to sola scriptura (which doesn’t exclude proper use of tradition in a ministerial way), but functionally by his quick denial of Bell’s positions, he is not allowing for exegetical discussion to take place.

    Your last paragraph is especially important from my perspective, because I see M.’s “fruit” as being more damaging to those within and without evangelical circles. A close friend of mine attends Emory University (definitely not evangelical!) and his fellow students have made a mockery of how evangelicals are handling the criticism of Bell. If, M. wants to judge Bell for his “fruit,” I think he needs to be careful as you’ve noted. Scripture not only teaches us to watch our doctrine carefully, but our lives as well. Part of that includes following the commands of Jesus to love one another..and our enemies. So, even if Bell is an enemy of M.’s, he should still display love towards him. I pray that we as evangelicals learn how to criticize one another fairly, generously, and with love.

    Thanks for this post! I’m a fellow GCTS alum who will be going to Aberdeen this fall to work with Prof. Webster. I also know Ben Blackwell in a roundabout way…

  3. Your assessment is refreshingly gracious. His exegesis is much more informed than what I usually see from evangelical Christian books. Does he come to some conclusions that are somewhat doubtful to my eyes– sure. But this book isn’t for me, it’s not for you, and it’s not for the biblical studies community.

    His book is for people who are frustrated with the “believe this or you’ll go to hell” story told by much of evangelical Christianity. And the story that Bell tells is attractive. The only person outside the church that I know person who has read this book is now devouring all the Christian material she can get her hands on, pursuing a real encounter with God in Christ. That’s fruit. So I thank Rob Bell for ministering to such people.

  4. What I find interesting, is by definition of false teacher in the NT, MacArthur might actually fit better, because he is drawing the lines for salvation so tight. Paul always seems to go after those that want to add requirements to following Jesus beyond very simple entry points. I.e. your points about Galatians, Colossians and Corinthians. I find it ironic that these folks don’t see this in their criticisms of Bell? Is it just me? I’m with you, in that I don’t agree with Bell at every point, but I can’t side with his critics at all.

  5. So now we are once again going to hammer John MacArthur? Well perhaps he does always jump to his position of Biblical orthodoxy, but Rob Bell should get the same hammer also! Whether Bell is the Lord’s or not? Is not our decision, but does Bell teach a biblical and theological orthodoxy is rather simple, not hardly!

    • Dear “irishanglican”,
      Before his post on Bell, I never had a positive or negative attitude towards MacArthur. What I am attacking is his name-calling and his ungraciousness. If you read Bell’s book, he never names names.

      I seriously disagree with Bell on some points and I think there needs to be clarification on his part about how he using Scripture. But he never comes close to the kind of hateful and damning comments that MacArthur represents.

      I will not relent on this point: Christians can and should be in dialogue and sometimes agree to disagree. We CANNOT hurl at each other the kinds of accusations and caricatures I see in MacArthur’s post.

      I am not a MacArthur “hater” – I am not taking sides. I am neutral on the theological debate in this post. I am commenting on the “spirit” of the debate.

      You also make the doctrinal issues sound cut and dry – isn’t it clear? Read John Wenham, John Stott, and Philip Johnston – no the doctrinal issues are not crystal clear. Can we claim to have it all figured out when these outstanding men did not?

      • Nijay,

        I am an Anglican, but obviously Reformed on the doctrine of God. I am myself somewhat inclined toward the FV or Federal Vision. So I too, feel this is the “Catholic” doctrine, at least on the doctrine and nature of God. Note the Ecumenical Creeds, at least the first five.

        I have met John MacArthur once personally, and I did not find him negative or narrow-minded, but yes quite simply a Reformed Baptist; though of a “Dispensational” nature on the eschatological issue. But then I am too, somewhat a “Biblical” Zionist, though Historic (covenant) Pre-Mill, Post-trib.

        Like MacArthur, I too feel we are in age of “apostasy”! Right before our eyes we are seeing such great Biblical departure, and all around, and now even within the so-called Evangelical Community. So, it is not time to just be “nice”, but get to the Gospel and the Word of God once again! My thoughts and thinking anyway. :)

  6. Nijay,
    Without condoning everything MacArthur says and how he says, I wonder if universal salvation is more analogous to the Galatian heresy than you seem to assume. After all, if justification is by faith alone, and Paul is willing to condemn those who add works (of the law) to faith, then it might not be entirely inappropriate to condemn those who eliminate the faith component altogether. And if those who teach a genuine gospel yet inappropriately adorn it with rhetoric will be saved but as through fire (1 Cor 3:15), then those who teach that the absence of faith will somehow result in salvation will surely have it worse. Who knows what Bell’s actual status is. But you ask, “how dangerous is Rob Bell?” I’d say that those who give false hope to a lost world are rather dangerous. Looking forward to seeing you in Seattle.

    John

    • I wouldn’t see it quite like that. Paul was saying the false teachers were enslaving Christians. Universalists would hardly ever be accused of that. That doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong, I just don’t see the analogy work out.

      More to the point, I don’t think Bell is a universalist. Several notable scholars have pointed out that Bell does not fit this kind of theological perspective. I would call him a “Christo-centric universalist” – this does not sidetrack a complete reliance on Christ, it just makes it universal. I would argue a serious deficiency in THIS position is that it leads to a hyper-predestination kind of view – ultimately LOVE WINS over the hearts of all people. I disagree with this position, but I wouldn’t compare it to the Galatian false teachers.

      Thanks for weighing in. Did you read the book? Did you find him to be in the camp of traditional universalists? Just curious, because I had a hard time pinning this down in the book.

  7. Right, but slavery is just the metaphor Paul uses to portray how the judaizers are severed from Christ and have fallen from grace (Gal 5:4). All unbelievers are slaves to torah and/or sin; judaizers have simply gone back to their former state of slavery (5:1). My original point was simply that somebody whose teaching results in believers falling from grace seems in some sense comparable to somebody whose teaching results in unbelievers feeling as if they don’t even need to respond to grace in the first place. The analogy isn’t perfect, but the result is the same: grace is rejected and slavery ensues as a result of the false teaching. In my view, that’s what Paul was generally opposing in Galatians. The heresy could have taken a number of forms; it just so happened to have been judaizing.

    I haven’t yet read Bell’s book; I’ve just been going off of what others have been saying so far. So, it could be as you say that Bell doesn’t even fit the traditional universalist bill. I hope that’s true.

    John

      • Nijay,
        I can see you disagree with McArthur. And having not read Rob Bell or McArthur, I find your post interesting.

        It seems to me that in the least, you find McArthur irritating for taking it upon himself to counter what he sees as bordering on heresy. But, isn’t that what you would expect of a pastor? I sort of think that Biblical scholars like yourself who have gone public, should learn to appreciate what the pastoral sense of responsibility involves. Theirs is not to enjoy the necessities of intellectual pros and cons, as you probably see your calling.
        Annang

  8. Nijay,
    I can see you disagree with McArthur. And having not read Rob Bell or McArthur, I find your post interesting.

    It seems to me that in the least, you find McArthur irritating for taking it upon himself to counter what he sees as bordering on heresy. But, isn’t that what you would expect of a pastor? I sort of think that Biblical scholars like yourself who have gone public, should learn to appreciate what the pastoral sense of responsibility involves. Theirs is not to enjoy the nicesities of intellectual pros and cons, as you probably see your calling.
    Annang

    • You raise a good question as to the responsibility of pastors to speak out against what they consider to be very problematic ideas in popular books. I think there is nothing wrong with going “public” expressing concern. That is not what MacArthur was doing. He was, in my opinion, making more of a political statement – we call it “mudslinging,” and my own impression is that that sort of thing is just not what pastors do. Disagree? Sure. Strongly disagree? Perhaps. Maybe the blog is the wrong forum to call someone a false teacher. It comes across as hasty and disrespectful.

      Annang, I am simply appalled that Christians can read MacArthur’s post and say: “Yes, this is good, this is how we should treat other so-called Christians.” I have been reading C.S. Lewis’ PROBLEM OF PAIN recently and, given the philosophical openness to a variety of possibilities regarding the status and nature of Hell, I wonder what MacArthur might say in a blog post if Lewis lived in our time. Well, if I know Lewis well enough, he wouldn’t waste his time reading blog posts…

      • Point taken Nijay.
        Perhaps McArthur also needs some corrections. Keep up the good work
        Annang

  9. Macarthur is not alone in his condemnation of Rob Bell. Add to the list John Piper and Mark Driscoll and I am sure many others that hold to Orthodox and historical Christianity.

    All of these men are very careful about who they criticize in public and according to Scripture, its not defined as mudslinging.

  10. I was brought up in a “reformed evangelical Christian” family and, by God’s grace, became a Christian at the age of 16. Now, as an adult, I can see many, many discrepencies between that and what I now understand as grace / God’s unconditional love/ His willingness to forgive and forget our sin – back then I was “scared” into becoming a Christian – I rememebr at the age of 6 being “co-erced” into “asking jesus into my heart” by being told that if i died in the night i would wake up in Hell. This may be the tactic of “orthodox, bible-believeing” Christians but does it reflect the story of Jesus? My purpose in relating this is to say that I have read Rob Bell’s book 3 times now (in an attempt to get to grips with it’s message). I can not say that i can fully embrace it’s teaching but have found much of Bell’s teaching inspiring in the sense that it “makes sense” of much that we have failed to grasp in the jewish context of Jesus’ day. Like others, I would reflect that we don’t need to have all the answers about doctrine!!! I am sure that every Christian has got it wrong about something. Thank God that when we arrive at Heaven’s gates that we won’t have to pass a theology test – all those differences will cease to matter – we will only be “tested” on how we have responded to Jesus’ call on our lives – nothing we have ever done will gain us entry or deny us entry either! How refreshing!! The Christian church would be better to concentrate on making sure that the world says of us “Look how those Christians LOVE ONE ANOTHER” – let us “be Christ” to a dark, lost world and show them what it means to live for Him instead of arguing about doctrines and who is “in” and who is “out”!!

    • I will raise one question that I believe Rob Bell brings about that deserves an inquiry. He states (I am not a scholar as you gentlemen are so I cannot quote direct references unless I leave my desk at work and drive home to get the book!) that there is a passage in the text that God essentially “wants all to be saved”. This strikes me because Bell makes the point that … (in paraphrase) “does God ultimately sit upon His throne at the end of all time , being omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipresent, saying ‘aw shucks I guess I wanted everyone to be saved … But at the end of the day you can’t have everything you want !’ ” … I know that is a coarse representation of what Bell tries to communicate in his book. But I think it is a worthwhile question to ask. I am 22, I attended the masters college in Santa clarita California for two years and sat under Johnny macs teaching twice a week every week during that time span and I have my own opinions of him as a pastor/teacher/president but that is beside the point. I am coming to terms with my faith being raised as by a baptist/calvinist(not five point) father who has bound himself to predestination and I am legitimately asking this question in a search for wisdom from my peers in the church . In the end, does God not get what he wants ? Any response is appreciated. God bless –
      Samuel.

  11. What is interesting is that John Macarthur preaches against the Emergent Church but his book SLAVE: THE HIDDEN TRUTH ABOUT YOUR IDENTITY IN CHRIST is based almost entirely on liberal scholarship. Nearly all of the sources he quotes lead to heretical works of modernist and postmodern scholars who deny the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Some of these “scholars” are in fact rabidly anti-Christian, and their works, which Macarthur recommends as authoritative, are filled with slander and blasphemy of the Lord Jesus Christ. One homosexual scholar cited by Macarthur wrote a blasphemous book which attempts to prove that Jesus was a homosexual. (Sex and the Single Savior) Other liberal scholars quoted by Macarthur claim that Christians in the early Church, including the Apostles, not only condoned the institution of slavery but were abusive and immoral slave owners and slave traders just like Roman slave owners/traders. For documentation on these and other sources referenced in SLAVE, please read this critical review:

    “PAGANIZING” THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH: PART 2 – JOHN MACARTHUR’S “SLAVE” BOOK

    http://watch-unto-prayer.org/macarthur-2-slave-book.html

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