“Brian McLaren and his ilk of the emerging church [i.e. Rob Bell] … all it is is 19th, 20th century liberalism in a postmodern dress. There isn’t anything new in it at all. And the only reason they can get away with it is because people are so a-historical and ignorant of theologies of the past.” – David Robertson, Emergent Calvinism (MP3). One of the biggest surprises with this Rob Bell universalism/inclusivism controversy isn’t that Bell is affirming universalism. The response of evangelicals, particularly younger generations, including mine, and their response has been the most surprising aspect.
However, I shouldn’t be that surprised. It’s what happened to J. Gresham Machen in the 1920’s and 30’s in which he received the most push back from the moderates of theological liberalism who were willing to tolerate individuals who wholesale rejected anything resembling Biblical Christianity. We are now back at one of those points.
As great as the concerns I pose are, at the same time, it is refining times like these that false teaching within our midst is used by God to purify and refine what we believe. It happens in every generation and we are no exception. So there is great hope in all of this, that God’s truth prevails against all odds. He is sovereign after all.
Regardless, we’re a lot further down the rabbit hole than I realized. This is exposing quite a lot that I didn’t realize was so close to home. Let’s say even if Rob Bell doesn’t affirm universalism (which even the NYTimes and ABC News are saying he is after getting an advance copy of the book), what this has shown is the complete exposure and unpreparedness of the evangelical church against the attacks of Satan to deceive masses of my generation and younger away from the Gospel.
“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 10:4-5. A number of observations jump out immediately, many that are of great concern:
- How easily social networking can take the fire that is the tongue (James), throw gasoline on it and drive a topic to a top 10 trend on Twitter … so much to the point that another Rob Bell got thrown into the mix, asking the “crazy Christians” to leave him alone. That’s unfortunate. But I’m referring to both sides and the use of Twitter, namely the lay people, not Taylor, DeYoung, per se and their response (which I wholly agreed with) or McKnight’s. There are a lot of mean-spirited people out there on whatever side of a debate who are louder and assume more influence than they have. Social networking makes them even louder. I was surprised to see Rob Bell’s name as a top 10 trend on Twitter.
- I’m bothered by how undiscerning many evangelicals have been, continue to be, and in this instance, with something so serious, are toward someone who holds a position that renders the Gospel as taught in Scripture completely null and void and must necessarily omit vast portions of it. This concern about discernment also came to light when a good number of people at my church endorsed The Shack with gloves on, ready to spar over what it “showed” them, despite quotes from the book such as Papa saying, “I don’t need to punish sin. Sin is a punishment in itself.” William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, turned out to deny penal substitution by the way, in case you haven’t heard. And this book is still making waves in many evangelical churches. J.I. Packer’s quote is all too familiar in these discussions, whether it’s Bell or Young or Osteen: “A half truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” Indeed.
- How greatly false teachings, either outright or half-truths masquerading as the whole truth, are being tolerated in the church with no one raising their voice in opposition except, for the most part, Reformed believers, which then in a positivist culture such as ours where negativity or negation of any form (except when cast against believers) casts us as the real heretics.
- How quickly many evangelicals, particularly younger one’s, have been ready to defend someone who holds a heretical position counter to the historic Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox and (Historic) Protestants together. This is one point we can all agree on against repackaged, postmodern liberals like Bell.
- How quickly many evangelicals have been ready to defend against supposed “critics” such as Taylor, DeYoung, et al, who (until now at least) were on the same side of core theological conviction. There is a shift occurring in evangelicalism. There is no mushy middle ground, as our PR-friendly, politically correct culture at large would have us assume. Lines are being drawn before our eyes, of necessity. First McLaren, now Bell. As so eloquently put by the senior editor of Christianity Today in the NYTimes article on all of this, highlighting how deep the inroads go into our own camps and our willingness to tolerate false teaching: “We won’t be able to discern where the Spirit is leading if we don’t listen and respond respectfully to one another. God once used a donkey to make his will known, so surely he is able to speak through both traditionalists and gadflies.” What? I’m amazed at that statement. Political correctness par excellence.
- It seems many evangelicals have lost the meaning of the word persecution in this increasingly secularized culture that the church seems to quickly be adapting to, in a negative way. When you hold orthodox beliefs, be prepared to be ridiculed, made fun of, ostracized, “confronted,” and so on, even and many times especially in the church. Historic orthodox evangelicals are fixing to become a minority amongst broader evangelicalism that is going the way of the mainline denominations. The truths of Christianity, once you get down to them and stop beating around the bush, no matter how you package them or how nice you are, are abhorrent to our culture. And much of evangelicalism is looking more like our culture than the church. Many if not most evangelicals are eschewing this responsibility to be courageous with truth at every turn it seems in favor of secularized Christian doctrine that throws out immutable, immovable truth established in Scripture, in favor of flexible, bendable, “new,” postmodern philosophies. I believe this is only going to accelerate, much like a rock rolling downhill cannot avoid the forces of physics.
- How well the NY Times seemed to understand all sides of the debate in their article. That was surprising. 🙂 [Edit, also Newsweek, MSNBC, ABC, many others. Maybe these are some signs the postmodern shell is cracking a bit?]
- How deep postmodernism and relativism have made inroads into conservative evangelicalism in particular. This politically correct attack on the Reformed (and non-Reformed people greatly concerned with what they are seeing) can be summed up in the words I heard from many evangelicals in conversations: “No one’s even read the book yet so how could you know?” as if this is some defense against the fact the publisher released an official description of the book and Bell released a video affirming his slide toward full out universalism (or at the least some form of semi-universal inclusivism). On top of that, the NYTimes and ABC News are reporting that yes, he’s affirming universalism. So here it is before our eyes. This is the debate as some rightly predicted would be the major debate amongst us a number of years ago. This is a serious issue we’re discussing, not to be taken lightly, and it is being taken lightly by many evangelicals as if this changes nothing in their opinion of Bell. That’s outright disturbing.
- How little most evangelicals have the stomach for open, honest and hearty debate now, especially involving something as serious as tolerating universalism/inclusivism in the church. Do we even have the stomach and the courage to stand up for truth in the face of an increasingly secularizing culture and an increasingly secularizing church even, something happening in our own midst? The debates these days always seem to resort to emotive logic instead of cool, fact-based, empirical logic, letting ideas build on each other, and then coming to a conclusion. Instead it’s the emotive shotgun blast approach.
- How little evangelicals understand what love is in the context of working through ideas, theology and doctrine. It’s not loving to ignore or be indifferent to massive error and heresy when it’s being publicly proclaimed from the rooftops, internalized by millions of unknowledgeable lay evangelical children in youth groups (Nooma, Velvet Elvis), and brought into conservative evangelical churches with no formal, theological vetting simply because it came from Family Christian Store or wherever. We let our guards down and Satan will pick us apart. And the picking apart is beginning. Discernment needs to make a comeback (on top of Reformed theology of course 🙂 ).
- How quickly some evangelicals have been to call the Reformed divisive, or negative, or whatever, when Scripture is clear false teachers are the true dividers, the true negators of God, the true negators of all that is right and holy and entrusted to us to guard (read Paul, author of Hebrews, John, Jude, all warning against false doctrine). All we’re doing is pointing out something a majority in evangelicalism are failing to do. If you don’t swim against the tide, you’ll get caught up in the current and head down stream at an accelerating rate.
- How deep the inroads go of positivism in the evangelical church. This very much ties into the lack of evangelicals to stomach honest debate without immediately shutting down and resorting to your standard emotive responses. Happened with The Shack, Joel Osteen conversations, and now this. In this thinking, adopted from the secular world, any kind of negative talk that criticizes or contradicts another person’s personal beliefs is the equivelant of mild (or depending on the person, severe) hate-speech and denounced as something Jesus wouldn’t do, using cherry-picked, out of context verses to support this. And actually the reality is He would have contradicted false teaching. And He did. Frequently. Read the Gospels. Paul frequently countered false teaching. The whole of Galatians was written precisely to attack false doctrine. The point of the book of Jude is only about being watchful of false teachers. 1, 2, 3 John are riddled with calls to be on the lookout for false teachers. 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, on and on. Those texts are conveniently ignored and thus silenced. Bring them up and you’ll be ridiculed for being divisive. That is the persecution we face. And like persecutions in the past where the church was established, it starts from within rather than from without. “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within” (William Durant). Satan is well aware of this, especially within the church.
- Like the 19th and 20th centuries, and indirectly highlighted in this biography of J. Gresham Machen (MP3), it’s the discerning believers who are first and foremost being attacked by moderates instead of going after those actually subverting the truth (the real problem makers, if you will). They’re defended for whatever reason. Satan would rather us shut up too and silence any exposure of darkness. He is a master of deception after all. What a better way than to get moderate Christians on this subject flaming mad at those pointing out the deception. I ask them, who are the true dividers?
I really don’t like cliches but they fit in this instance: “History repeats itself,” and “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We’re repeating the errors of the mainline churches 100 years ago.
To gain a grasp on recent church history specifically as it relates to liberalism, to give some perspective on this whole discussion, to become informed about how grave a situation we’re moving toward in evangelicalism (in order to properly address it with the Gospel, refined), and to see how much our situation reflects that of J. Gresham Machen’s time in 1923, you must read his classic treatment on theological liberalism entitled Christianity and Liberalism. It’s not that long and well worth your time.
In addition, a follow up book which innovates upon the title and makes some outstanding points, read Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism by Lee Gatiss. Very instructive history lessons for our time. We’re at a turning point.
Finally, Albert Mohler does an excellent job in this video at the Together for the Gospel conference last year and gives one of the best talks on exactly this problem we’re facing and frames the situation quite strikingly and helpfully: