Since some commenters, and other people I respect, have expressed admiration for Rob Bell, and since he’s a big deal right now, I’m looking through some of his stuff. And to be honest, it’s scary. Maybe I’m being a stodgy (semi-) Presbyterian, but I think some of this is just plain bad. If anyone wants to chime in and explain how it isn’t, seriously, I’m all ears.
He has this analogy that the Christian faith isn’t a brick wall, where you take one thing out and the whole thing crumbles, but is more like a trampoline we can bounce around on. Doctrines are like the springs; they give form to our jumping and help us talk about things.
This is all well and good until he starts talking about the springs. For example, the Trinity:
This three-in-oneness understanding of God emerged in the several hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection. People began to call this concept the Trinity. The word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus didn’t use the word, and the writers of the rest of the Bible didn’t use the word. But over time this belief, this understanding, this doctrine, has become central to how followers of Jesus have understood who God is. It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it. It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it. It flexes, and it stretches. (Velvet Elvis, 22)
He’s right, of course, that the word trinity isn’t in the Bible. But the concept is all over the place. People didn’t make the Trinity up in the centuries after Jesus’ resurrection; it’s there in the Gospels, in Paul, in the rest of the NT, and in the earliest of the church fathers. It was there this early because God has always existed in three persons, although that was not fully revealed until the NT. Bell implies it’s a human invention (if not I don’t know what “it was added later” means).
We can certainly ask questions about the Trinity and its implications. But this section really sounds to me like Bell is saying it’s not really necessary to believe. But it is. Lose the Trinity, and you lose the humanity and divinity of Christ. Then you’ve lost the doctrine of salvation. You’ve also lost the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which is how God is present with his people. Really, you’ve lost the very basics of what it means to be a Christian.
I want to be fair and clear. Bell does affirm the Trinity (he explicitly says so 5 pages later). I’m not accusing him of not believing in it, but I find the way he talks about it devastating to its centrality. Instead of the central belief of Christianity, Bell talks about the doctrine of the Trinity as if it were an optional add-on.