Or, to put a finer point on it, are we jerks more often than other guys are jerks?
The below started as a personal email to my friend James-Michael Smith, a college buddy whom I respect a great deal and with whom I often disagree on theological matters. JMS and I believe in a true “generous orthodoxy”: one in which we can both say “I think you’re wrong on this, and it matters,” and still be friends at the end of the day. At any rate, JMS asked if he could publish my email, then respond on his blog. I hope this can be helpful, if only as a demonstration of constructive theological discussion on the internet.
My words below are addressed to JMS, and can also be found at his blog. I’ll post his response here as well. Also, since I never get to write papers anymore I had some fun with this.
Much of the criticism of Rob Bell’s new book came from people in the Reformed camp. Most notably:
- Justin Taylor quoted the publisher’s blurb and Bell’s video, calling the denial of hell “false doctrine.”
- John Piper linked to Taylor’s post on Twitter, commenting “Farewell Rob Bell.”
- Kevin DeYoung posted a long, detailed review of the book.
But the big story was more about the blogosphere’s reaction to the book than the book itself. Many criticized Taylor and others for commenting before the book was released. Once reviews came out, they were criticized for their alleged closed-mindedness. There was a common refrain: the young Calvinists are self-appointed doctrine police, quick to jump on anything they disagree with and pronounce it heresy. This post, which started as an email from me to James-Michael, is occasioned not by Bell’s book per se, but by this reaction to the Reformed crowd as a whole.
It has become conventional wisdom that “The Young/Restless/Reformed are jerks.” Like many stereotypes, this one is sometimes true. However, I suggest that many people outside the Reformed scene assume it when they read Reformed writers, although the evidence does not always support that conclusion, and in fact sometimes goes the other way.
Argument 1: Taylor et al were not being jerks toward Rob Bell.
Your chief angle on the Bell controversy has been the alleged eagerness of the YRR to pounce on anybody offering a different perspective. You’ve referred to JT’s post consistently as an example. Having read it several times, I just don’t see the meanness. I definitely see seriousness. If you wanted him to say “Bell says x, and that’s cool, whatevs,” he certainly wasn’t going to do that. But he doesn’t take potshots, he doesn’t use the word “heresy” (and neither did DeYoung, although you keep using it in your comments), and he doesn’t say “see, the Emergent guys are all pansies” or anything like that. He says 1) false doctrine is bad, 2) it’s better for guys to be honest about it, and 3) it sure looks like Rob Bell is embracing universalism. I know the “he hadn’t even read the book” angle, but he specifically says “if the publisher’s description is right,” then goes to the video of Bell talking, which Bell and his publisher definitely wanted people to watch and talk about.
On to Kevin DeYoung. His review is long, thorough, and very critical. He specifically describes the book as “heterodox.” Now, nobody uses that word by accident. It means you probably initially wanted to say “heresy,” but decided to be really careful. He uses the word “heresy” exactly once in the whole review, referring to universalism and “every other heresy.” He doesn’t make fun of Bell for being cool or edgy or Emergent; he deals with the merits of the book.
The bigger question is whether we should be worked up over this at all. Now, when Piper invited Rick Warren to speak at a conference, I don’t think that was worth getting worked up over. I think this is absolutely worth getting worked up over. The fact that others have embraced universalism, or inclusivism, does not make Bell’s view a legitimate strand of Christian orthodoxy. (That’s just the Bauer hypothesis; that the existence of non-orthodox thought means there’s no such thing as orthodoxy.) Universalism and inclusivism are bad doctrine, and they need to be called out for what they are. The fact that you’re willing to strongly critique dispensationalism (on which I agree with you), but chafe at these guys critiquing universalism, is strange to me.
Argument 2: Many non- or anti-Reformed writers can be jerks toward us.
You often link to Ben Witherington and Greg Boyd, two scholars you admire. I’ve read and used some of Witherington’s stuff, and he is indeed a good scholar. He’s also a jerk sometimes, particularly toward the Reformed. You may recall his spreading rumors about Grudem and the ESV a few years ago (for which he apologized, to his credit). He referred to Schreiner’s NT theology as a blot on God’s moral character. He spoke at RTS my first year, and I was excited that we’d brought in a respected voice from outside our tradition. Then he made biting, petty critiques of something he didn’t like, and my respect fell sharply.
Just last week, Witherington referred to Piper and Driscoll as representatives of “the hyper-Calvinist wing of the evangelical world“. Now this is a word with a definition. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that it’s improper to exhort nonbelievers to faith in Christ. It essentially says no evangelism, no missions. It’s roundly rejected by Calvinists, and specifically by John Piper. Witherington’s referring to Piper, Driscoll, and me as hyper-Calvinists either means 1) he doesn’t know what the word means or 2) he’s deliberately using it as a pejorative. Either one would be embarrassing, but the man’s a capable scholar and I just doubt that it’s #1.
The same could be said for Boyd, who, in an article you linked, equated Calvinism with determinism. Does he not know enough theology or philosophy to know the difference, even if he rejects them both? Of course he does. But he knows there’s rhetorical punch in equating the two. If John Piper wrote an article equating open theism and Arminianism, you would rightly be up in arms.
There are more examples. Roger Olson, who’s so disappointed that American evangelicals fuss over theology, wrote that he can’t tell the God of Calvinism apart from the devil. N. T. Wright can’t fathom how anybody might understand his work and just disagree, so whenever someone critiques him he just says they haven’t understood him. (D. A. Carson couldn’t understand you?) He has no problem with straw-man critiques either. I’m not the first person to point this out.
My point isn’t that these guys are bad or always wrong—they’re not—but that Reformed writers by no means have a monopoly on uncharitable language.
Reformed guys have the reputation of “attacking” those who differ from us. We certainly deserve it at times. But not only is the problem not limited to us, I’m not even sure it’s more true of us than it is any other crowd. Roger Olson says our God looks like the devil. Steve Chalke, quoted by Brian McLaren and many others, calls my view of the gospel “divine child abuse.” Rob Bell says my God isn’t good and can’t be trusted. These aren’t C- and D-level bloggers or commenters like me; these are respected guys publishing books.
So I suggest that you and others tend to jump on YRR guys for being mean, or uncharitable, or overly critical, while ignoring or downplaying the same tendency among guys that you like. Submitted for your consideration.