Why Rob Bell is Right, Adult Baptism is Wrong and ‘Biblical Theology’ is Really Just Mythology

Jason Micheli —  October 21, 2014 — 10 Comments

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

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1. Here’s a money quote that all but begs the reader to ponder whether the exclusive practice of adult baptism, premised as it is on human initiative, is absurd:

 

‘The Spirit is present in every action of redemption- completing it, perfecting it- so that to deny the divinity of the Spirit would be to deny the efficacy of one’s own baptism; as only God can join us to God (which is what salvation is), the Spirit who unites us to the Son (who bears us up to the Father) must be God.’

 

2. Often people object to the ancient, patristic doctrine of immutability, that is, the belief that God does not change, by lamenting that any God who does not change as we do is not a God to whom we can relate. More roughly put: ‘I don’t to want love God if God’s not like me.’

Here, DBH channels Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important Church Father, to point out that, far from being an argument against, our mutability is but another sign of God’s immutability:

 

‘In the end, creaturely mutability itself proves to be at once the way of difference from God and the way of union with God. To begin with, change is a means of release from sin; that same changeableness that grants us liberty to turn toward evil allows us also to recover the measure of divine harmony and to become an ever shifting shape of the good, a peaceful cadence of change.

For creatures, who cannot statically comprehend the infinite, progress in the good is the most beautiful work of change, and an inability to change would be a penalty. We are pure movement; the changeable puts on changeless beauty, always thirsting for more of God’s beauty which is changeless because it encompasses all beauty.’

 

3. It’s Reformation Sunday coming up so there’s no better time to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the well-intentioned mis-adventure which held that all of Christian vision should conform to and initiate from scripture solely.

The problem of course is that existence itself begets particular questions of existence (‘metaphysics’) towards which the bible shows little interest but logic (another manifestation of God’s truth) demonstrates to be necessary.

For example, scripture- because its the narrative of a People- speaks often of God’s wrath and violence. However, the logic of creation betrays the unnecessariness and hence gratuity of life itself so God, at bottom, in God’s essence is Goodness/Love itself.

Anyways, here’s DBH weighing in on my side:

‘The God of scripture is infinite precisely as the God who loves and acts, and who can be loved in turn; infinite precisely because he will be what and where he will be. What though does this mean?

What has been said regarding being- and with what measure of coherence- when one has said that God is ‘infinitely determinate’ source of all being, the eternal ‘I Am’?’

This is not a question to be evaded by fideistic, biblicist recoil to some destructive (and largely modern) division between ‘biblical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology; theology that refuses to address questions of ontology can never be more than a mythology, and so must remain deplorably defenseless against serious philosophical criticism.’

 

4. Rob Bell got into a hot water for the wrong thing a few years ago. The heat came when he implied in his book, Love Wins, that the God of Easter Love has neither capacity nor inclination for the eternal torment of Hell. That God comes in the flesh for all is clear; equally clear is that God not ultimately getting all would be defeat not victory.

Rob Bell, though, should’ve caught Hell not for the above assertion but for the fact he shamelessly ripped it off from the ancient Church Fathers.

They believed that all humanity comprises the image of the God who is Trinity therefore salvation must include all of the human community.

Citing them, DBH writes:

‘Redemption is God assuming human nature in order to join it to the divine nature…salvation is that creation has been rescued from sin and death by the divinity that Christ has introduced into the entirety of the common human nature…all humanity is now transfigured in Christ, and is saved through its endless transformation into what God brings near; the human soul, assumed into Christ, is striving ever after, seeking the uncontainable plenitude of God…the salvation of all souls is inevitable because each soul is a changing image of the infinite God; the dynamism of the soul has only God’s absolute, changeless fullness as its source and end, and God’s eternity as its element.’

Jason Micheli

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10 responses to Why Rob Bell is Right, Adult Baptism is Wrong and ‘Biblical Theology’ is Really Just Mythology

  1. I wince at the quote “Biblical theology is really just mythology.” This statement is a broad stroke indicating a lack in understanding of Biblical myth.

    • Agreed, Chip, but the great thing about DBH is that he’s immune to the polite reticence that plagues most philosophy and theology today. He’s not afraid of throwing elbows or rhetorical largesse to make a point. The quote comes as part of a larger summary of Heidegger et al whose influence over the definition of being has led modern theology to abandon the metaphysical principles of the patristics. DBH’s point is that leaves theology without the ability to logically posit certain convictions about existence, leaving it to appear as nothing more than mythology to theology’s philosophical critics. It leaves the church unable to answer the questions a skeptical world asks, in other words.

  2. … and I would add myth in general. Myth may very well express truth greater than fact in a given time.

  3. Much to take issue with here, but your assertion that the Church Fathers were universalists is utter nonsense. You know the history of Christian thought better than that! Come on!

    • Certainly not all the Church Fathers but Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Clement and Athanasius (not to mention Origen) come immediately to mind as Fathers who either explicitly or logically lead to universalism.

      • “Logically but not explicitly.” That’s a clever trick. “Pay no attention to what I say, only what I imply.” If only they understood what their words really meant, then they would have known they were universalists! That’s funny.

        • I don’t think it’s a clever trick. Gregory of Nyssa is well-known (and criticized accordingly) for unfolding his theology of creation in such a way that leads to universalism without ever concluding definitively. Same criticism Yoder et al made of Barth’s atonement theology.

          • So Gregory of Nyssa, maybe… Next? I know for certain that Athanasius was an annihilationist. I don’t consider annihiliationists “universalists,” do you? Whether “hell” is extinction or everlasting torment is an important distinction, but neither option is heaven or resurrection by quite a long shot. Do I need to cite a list of Church Fathers who believe in hell or annihilation?

            You imply above that “the Church Fathers” were universalists, just like Rob Bell. Not all of them, sure. There’s always prickly Augustine, but he was from the West, so who cares about him? But there is an impressive list of Fathers who we know for sure believed in either everlasting punishment or annihilation.

            I think you’re overstating your case… again.

  4. One thing…as a Reformation Day present. As Lutherans (of the ELCA, can’t speak for LCMS), we are taught that sola scriptura means scripture alone, not scripture only. It may sound like the same thing, but sola = primary/fundamental — not only. Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV presents hermeneutics of Scripture:
    Importance as Law & Gospel
    Key is nature of gospel, justification by grace through faith above all
    Scripture is used but not used alone, in a vacuum.

    Scripture is the inspired (not literal, not inerrant) Word of God. The Confessions are silent on how it is inspired — Lutherans are not bound to any theory of inspiration. Scripture is foundational, fundamental for the understanding of the gospel. Scripture in isolation is not to be taken as interpretation of Gospel. The times that American Lutheranism has shown itself dissatisfied with this confessional stance and has sought to move beyond confessional stance, it has done so to its peril.

    So I think the original concept of sola scriptura fits within this construct.

  5. Thanks very much for this, Jason. The final part brings to mind one of Charles Wesley’s finest hymns (in my view)- “Let Earth and Heaven Combine” – especially the verse “He deigns in flesh to appear, widest extremes to join- to bring our vileness near, and make us all divine; and we the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below.”

    Also a reminder of the importance of preaching the mystery and beauty of the incarnation (rather than simply claiming that Jesus was born at Christmas in order to die!)

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