Pastor Rob Bell is bringing his “The Gods Aren’t Angry Tour” to Dallas next week. In anticipation of the big event, Kate Goodloe from the Dallas Morning News called to get me to comment on Rob Bell’s controversial ministry. Like most most reporters who cover controversial issues, Goodloe includes in her story both supporters and critics. I was brought in as the critic.
Her account of our conversation is good, so far as it goes. But I thought I would fill in some of the gaps since some of my remarks need some more context. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Goodloe’s report:
Critics say he’s taken that idea too far and questioned “fundamental doctrines” of the church, including whether Christians need to believe in the trinity, said Denny Burk, a professor of New Testament at theologically conservative Criswell College in Dallas.
“He says we should be able to question it without Christianity falling,” Mr. Burk said. “That’s why he’s been so controversial.”
Despite his fundamental disagreements with Mr. Bell, whom he calls a “revisionist” of evangelical history, Mr. Burk said Mr. Bell is engaging to listen to â€“ and he knows his students are paying attention, because they often talk about reading his books. “I don’t agree with questioning fundamental doctrines,” Mr. Burk said.
Without more context, I think my comments look a little bit boneheaded. Let me explain.
The fundamental doctrines to which I am referring in the article are the doctrines of the Trinity and the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. In the opening chapter of his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Rob Bell suggests that these doctrines are not as fundamental to Christianity as some may think. Even though he claims to affirm both doctrines, he at least implies that Christians shouldn’t get their hackles up when someone questions them because Christianity doesn’t rise or fall on either of them.
My problem with Bell’s approach is not that I think it dangerous for Christians to be self-critical. As a matter of fact, I would say that we all need to be more self-critical and by God’s grace should be seeking to bring our lives and our thinking into greater conformity with the truth of the gospel. But that kind of “questioning” is not what Rob Bell commends. Nobody has a problem with questions like, “What hath God said?” But every thinking Christian will have big problems with questions like, “Hath God really said?” (Genesis 3:1). And I’m afraid Bell’s approach reads less like the former and more like the latter.
I’m glad that Rob Bell affirms both the Trinity and the virgin birth of Jesus. I’m outraged at any suggestion that either can be jettisoned without seriously damaging God’s people. If Christians give up the virgin birth of Jesus, they are giving up the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ birth. If we give up the Gospels as reliable witnesses to Jesus’ life, we don’t just lose a book. We lose Jesus.
Likewise, one cannot treat the Trinity as if it were an optional add-on to Christian faith. Biblical Christianity is irreducibly Trinitarian. To use a simple analogy, if you take the chocolate out of chocolate pie, it’s no longer chocolate pie. You may still have a pie, and you may still call it chocolate pie. But it’s not chocolate pie. Likewise, if you take the Trinity out of Christianity, you may still have a religion, and you may even call it Christian. But make no mistake; it’s not Christianity.
Unfortunately, Bell’s questions are more about deconstructing than they are about setting forth a positive account of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is taught in the scriptures. In my view, such deconstruction is more an accommodation to the spirit of the age rather than a faithful witness to it.
For other thoughtful critiques of Bell’s message, see the following:
P.S. One last minor point of clarification: The article also quotes me saying, “But it’s very fun to listen to. … He’s very real.” Why did I say that? Goodloe had asked me why people were so attracted to Bell. So I told her that he is very charismatic, very fun to listen to, he comes across as authentic, compassionate and real. But I think I also told her that his charisma is precisely what makes him so subversive to traditional Christianity.