Christianity,  Theology/Bible

On Doctrinal Controversy

I just read another blog post by someone who is grieved by the response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. The complaint is that people aren’t giving Bell a fair hearing and that we all need to be a little bit more humble about our theological commitments. The post is one among many sounding a similar theme. There just seems to be the idea abroad that all doctrinal controversy is unchristlike and unhelpful to the kingdom. With respect to the Bell controversy in particular, folks are saying that the tone has been too shrill and divisive before a watching world.

While it is true that controversy can be unchristlike and thus unhelpful to the kingdom, it is not true that all doctrinal controversy must be that way. Likewise, while there may be some responses to Bell that have been unchristlike and unhelpful, it is not true that all of them have been that way. From the tweet heard round the world (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) to Justin Taylor’s initial post to Kevin DeYoung’s definitive review, we have seen sober biblical critiques and pastoral warnings about matters of eternal consequence. To dismiss those out of hand without seriously engaging the substance of the matter seems to me to be an evasion.

We all need to let the wisdom of the Proverbs guide how we engage in controversy (Proverbs 15:1-2; 16:21; 25:11), and we all need to be humble enough to repent when we transgress with a shrill tone (Psalm 19:14). As Spurgeon said it, “If you are drawn into controversy, use very hard arguments and very soft words. Frequently you cannot convince a man by tugging at his reason, but you can persuade him by winning his affections” (Lectures to My Students, p. 280).

That being said, there will be no rising above the fray on the doctrinal substance of this debate. At the end of the day, we have to have this conversation, and the constant appeal to the “tone of the debate” and “humility about our beliefs” seems less and less like the high road of Christlikeness and more and more like the low road of evasion.

Why is it a low road? Because it fails to see the eternal consequence of these matters in the lives of real people. I can’t say it any better than Kevin DeYoung did yesterday:

“No doubt, some Christians get worked up over the smallest controversies, making a forest fire out of a Yankee Candle. But there is an opposite danger–and that is to be so calm, so middle-of-the-road, so above-the-fray that you no longer feel the danger of false doctrine. You always sound analytical, never alarmed. Always crying for much-neglected conversation, never crying over a much-maligned cross. There is something worse than hurting feelings, and that is trampling upon human hearts.”

The New Testament does command us to “avoid foolish controversies” (Titus 3:9). But it also commands us to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). For pastors and teachers, guarding the flock requires open controversy with those who speak “perverse things” that ensnare Jesus’ disciples (Acts 20:28-30). The New Testament in fact requires church leaders both “to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

The question facing us is this. Is the current debate a “foolish controversy” to be avoided (a la Titus 3:9), or does it involve fundamental doctrines of the “faith” to be contended for (a la Jude 3)? How you answer that question says a lot about where your sympathies lie on the substance of this debate (whether you’ve spoken publicly about your views or not).

Let’s not love controversy for controversy’s sake. Rather, let us love Christ and His gospel enough to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), to correct those in opposition, and to pray that God might grant repentance to those who need to be won back to the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). Let’s be suspicious of ourselves and of our own sinful hearts (Galatians 6:1), but let’s not shrink back when God would have us to contend.


  • yankeegospelgirl

    I very much appreciate this post, pastor. It truly needed to be said!

    I read the blog post to which you linked, and I agree that something is definitely missing there. I especially take issue with the progression, “The truth can defend itself…therefore we need to watch it and not be quick to speak out about these things, because maybe we’re just being self-righteous.” I think somebody should tell that to the apostles. It certainly doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t be concerned or swift to act when false teachers come along, because many people are being led astray.

    I can illustrate the problem with this thinking by an analogy: Suppose you’re a parent, and your child comes home one day and announces that she is seriously considering becoming a witch. What is your response? Do you say, “Well, the truth will defend itself, so I guess I’ll just encourage her to make her own decision and pray for the best”? Obviously that would not be the right response, as any loving parent would hopefully agree.

    It seems to me that the same thing applies here. You and many other pastors are reasonably alarmed at what is happening here, and you’re taking steps to fight for what is set down in God’s word in order to shine a light and offer guidance to people who may be confused. It’s not because your egos are ruffled, as some people would like to imply.

    Thank you so much. Blessings to you and your colleagues: We stand with you!

  • yankeegospelgirl

    Oh, sorry, I should have said “professor,” not pastor. My apologies. 🙂

    You know, that relates to yet another aspect of this whole thing, which is the area of good scholarship. There’s even more than good doctrine that’s at stake here.

  • Christiane

    The beauty of Christianity is that the Words of Our Lord cannot be trampled on. His Words ARE ‘the Word of God’. Some of His Words while He lived among us are recorded in the testament of sacred Scripture.

    What has been ‘trampled on’ more likely, is the convictions of a group of Christian people who reacted to ‘questions’ that made them feel threatened.

    That is my understanding of what happened.

    Quite frankly, since Pentecost, Christians have had no reason to fear ‘questions’ from anyone, ever. Questions should be welcomed, listened to with respect, and responded to in a way that is in keeping with the dignity of all concerned.

    Our Lord’s example with Thomas shows us His calm patience and care in helping Thomas to understand that which he had doubted. Christ did not call Thomas ‘a heretic’, or feel threatened by his doubts, or respond without compassion. People that claim ‘Christ-ian’ as their way, can examine the gentleness and compassion Our Lord used with Thomas, and ‘ponder these things in their hearts’;
    and then the NEXT TIME (and until Our Lord returns, there will always be a NEXT TIME), the world can watch a ‘response’ that is worthy of the name ‘Christ-ian’, a ‘reflection’ of Him Whom they follow.

    That is what I hope for. It’s the only way I can see that works.

  • Sam

    “The complaint is that people aren’t giving Bell a fair hearing and that we all need to be a little bit more humble about our theological commitments. This is one post among many sounding a similar theme.

    There just seems to be the idea abroad that all doctrinal controversy is unchristlike and unhelpful to the kingdom.”

    That’s a huge non-sequitur. It’s two very different arguments to say that a particular idea/man hasn’t been given a fair hearing, and to say that all doctrinal controversy is bad. To automatically conflate those two claims is misleading at best. Which is the original blog post trying to say?

  • Mike Tatem

    The very framework to which you refer was developed in order to contend for the faith and avoid heresy or at least provide a systematic under which new ideas could be discussed. Calvin invested himself in his understanding of the gospel because election does not cover just the ends, but God ordains the means to salvation as well. Denny is right in that we must engage this conversation, not necessarily for its impact on the gospel, but in its impact on the preaching and urgency of the gospel. Beyond that, I am still trying to figure out how a reference to Calvinism fits within the overall framework of Denny’s post (not that this discussion should be hijacked by yet another discussion of Calvinism.)

  • RD


    Interesting perspectives. Just one reason–of several–that I don’t think a purely determinist view of God is accurate.

  • Randy Boswell

    Rob Bell’s book is not worth all the ink being spilled over it at the moment; as a piece of scholarship it is sorely lacking. Then again, I don’t know that he would call it scholarship, but art.

    For me, the larger issue is over universalism in general and noting that their are many forms of universalism, including some that continue to hold Christ and the cross of Christ as central. The real issue, then, is over the nature of the afterlife, the length of punishment there, and whether or not there is any opportunity to transition from Hell to Heaven in said afterlife. That really isn’t being talked about much, instead people are inaccurately saying that the cross is being trampled on and maligned in universalistic frameworks.

    I don’t even know that Bell maligns the cross of Christ; does he take the standard Reformed interpretation of the atonement, placing the weight squarely on the metaphor of penal substitution? No, he does not, but he does find a place for it in his chapter covering the multiple atonement metaphors that are found in Scripture. Taking a multiple metaphor view of the atonement is not a liberal move, it simply isn’t one that some conservative, Reformed (American) Christians may be comfortable taking.

    If read carefully, Bell is not denying penal substitution, but is rather denying caricatures of it that paint it as cosmic child abuse. There is a huge differentiation between denying PST and denying a caricature of it that is commonly disseminated amongst evangelicals.

  • Jason

    “Questions should be welcomed, listened to with respect, and responded to in a way that is in keeping with the dignity of all concerned.”

    Questions ARE welcomed and listened to with respect.

    But here is what you miss…Rob Bell did not ask any questions. He phrased assertions as questions.

    Your point, Christiane, is irrelevant to this discussion and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue people are addressing. This is NOT about asking questions. This is about teaching error. He isn’t writing a book to ask questions, he is writing a book to communicate answers to those questions (in fact, he says as much in the book).

  • RD


    I can’t speak for Denny, but it might just be a glitch that your previous posts were deleted. A post from Brent Hobbs was also deleted. I’m sure Denny will either comment here to clarify or will drop you a personal email to confer. I have posted on this site for months-often expressing ideas that are not well received among Denny’s regular readers-but have never had anything I’ve posted deleted or edited in any way. I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to engage in spirited discussions here and have never felt disrespected (well, there was the guy who told me he had no use for me as a human being, but other than receiving that little blessing it’s generally been pretty respectful).

  • Denny Burk

    Dear All,

    I deleted comments from several of you because I wanted to steer the conversation away from a debate about Calvinism. I just thought that theme was a little off topic.

    In any case, I hope to see you jump back in to the discussion. Thanks for taking time to comment!


  • yankeegospelgirl

    Randy said, “Rob Bell’s book is not worth all the ink being spilled over it at the moment.”

    To which I add a hearty “Amen.” It’s not scholarship, and quite frankly, if people think this is art, they don’t know what real art looks like!

  • Christiane

    Hi JASON,

    The asking of questions should never be seen as ‘irrelevant’ to those who are asked in the Bible to stand ready to speak for their beliefs in response.

    But if a Christian community of believers can’t get past someone’s questions openly and directly, I am beginning to wonder why that is.

    Point is, what IS RELEVANT, is that a watching world has noticed the ‘defensive’ avoidance of directly addressing those questions with deliberate responses to the questions that speak to and clarify reasons for what is believed.

    Instead: the watching world sees ‘something else’, and it looks more like an uproar than a dignified controlled response.
    Some think: ‘they can’t handle the questions’. Well, that might explain it, but IS IT TRUE?

    If the questions Rob Bell has asked can be handled, and handled responsibly and well, with dignity and a display of faith,
    then it needs to happen, as a witness to the world.

    Otherwise . . . what is the message being sent?

  • K Gray

    Think hard about doctrinal humility. Is it something that God wants?

    He wants humble hearts, yes.

    He wants us to live humbly, walk humbly, yes.

    He wants us to proclaim His truth…how? In the Bible, what adjectives describe how His gospel should be proclaimed?

  • Ryan K.

    Good stuff here Denny.

    The truth of the matter is that there have been zero personal attacks against Bell and his book by well-known and respected critics.

    It is a red-herring in many ways meant to avoid actually talking about the content of what Bell has written. This really is a sad maneuver by many because it diverts attention away from substance onto subjective style preference.

    Overall, I have found the tone by those offering feedback to Bell to be very Christ-like and on point, and that those who have continued to bring up this complaint to be short on specifics.

    My prayer is that we would actually have the courage to talk honestly about the content of Bell’s book instead of hiding behind elementary school type arguments such as “well your a meanie.” I think we can do better and the loving truth of the Gospel deserves better.

  • Fletcher Law

    Went to seminary at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.
    Was a Methodist. In small groups I made severe enemies when I raised the idea that universalism was the cancer of Christianity. It seems this generation feels you must affirm all you and you can not declare or exclude any one or any body for any thought except the exclusivity of Christ. You know the famous bumper sticker of liberrals “mean people – – – – ” Many young guys like you are promoting the true gospel to a generation that accepts many definitions of the gospel-much like in the 1960’s til now. In fact that is the undermining of mainline Christianity. It can not produce a solid definition of the gospel. Self intelect is worshiped and the only “infalible” thing in liberal theology. As an old country preacher once said “it will help your ministry if you get saved first.”

  • Jason


    I ask you to go back and read what I wrote. I did NOT say that asking questions is irrelevant. In fact, in my first paragraph I said the exact opposite.

    I would love to interact more on this issue, but you need to represent my words accurately and respond to what I actually wrote.

    I think you have misunderstood this entire issue. I will say it again…ROB BELL IS NOT ASKING QUESTIONS. He is using a rhetorical tool. That is clear. It has been discussed. Not a hard thing to grasp…especially when his book is an attempt to ANSWER questions, not simply ask them.

    The fact that you fail to grasp that reality makes me less than hopeful for future conversation. That is why I said your comment was irrelevant. No one is saying questions are bad. Honest questions need to be answered, and deserve to be answered. But Bell is not asking honest questions. He is not a middle schooler wondering what the Bible teaches…he is a teacher who has a conclusion and a theology…and his “questions” are really assertions to teach his theology.

    Like I said, that is pretty obvious. Honestly, I didn’t think that was even disputed anymore.

  • Daniel Stevens

    Just a quick comment from the Catholic sidelines…

    One set of voices that seem absent from this debate is what Chesterton so aptly called the “democracy of the dead.” It is as if Bell has seduced many commentators into thinking about the issue of heaven and hell apart from what 2,000 years of Christians have had to say about the topic.

    A more productive approach, and one that would avoid pitting any one of us against Bell, is simply to put Bell’s ideas in dialogue with, say, those of St. Thomas Aquinas Let them do the arm wrestling. What about Augustine, Bonaventure, or even Benedict XVI, who has recently written on the topic of God is Love?

    The problem here seems to be that the debate reduces thought in on itself–and to what we might have to say about the topic (as if the whole question was new), rather than opening the mind outward to what other brilliant souls have to say. My suggestion: let’s not accept Bell’s invitation to reinvent the wheel.

    Regarding Hell, I would recommend a series of talks by Scott Hahn titled “Why the Hell?” (Gotta love those titles, no? Both humorous and serious at the same time!)

  • Dan

    I think the very nature of this debate requires a particular sort of humility – since we are essentially trying to predict how God will judge us. Most evangelicals would say that other evangelicals – if they are sincere – are okay for the next life. Beyond that, everyone has gray areas. Depending on who you talk to, what about Roman Catholics? Eastern Orthodox? Babies? The mentally impaired? People who have never heard of Jesus? People living prior to Christ’s death and resurrection?

    I have heard different arguments about all these categories, back and forth. Bell is engaging in a very old discussion.

  • F.A.

    Sorry, but I don’t think “Farewell, Rob Bell” is a “sober biblical critique” or a “pastoral warning about matters of eternal consequence.”

    Sounds more like flippant, dismissive judgement to me.

  • Christiane

    “Farewell Rob Bell” said to me, this:

    if those who hear my voice don’t reject Rob Bell, then ‘farewell to you, too’

    Private club, exclusive, and excluding . . . a world where conformity trumps diversity and questions that challenge are forbidden . . . a world where those who belong must keep within the delineated parameters of the ‘gate keepers’.

    Problem is this:
    were people ENCOURAGED to examine Rob Bell’s book;
    or DISCOURAGED from reading it for themselves?

    If the case IS the latter of the two, then something has replaced the work of the Holy Spirit’s discernment among the one’s affected by that discouragement, and that may not be a GOOD sign in a Christian community of believers.

  • Christiane


    Perhaps you have also read the writings of Pope John Paul II concerning his own thoughts on hell?

    We Catholics have the words of the Doctors of the Church, the Patristic Fathers, and our own leaders as resources in a long, long discussion about ‘hell’,
    and in the end,
    we MUST depart from our Christian brethren who are fundamentalist-evangelicals in this:
    that we let God be God as only He knows the heart of any person, only He will be their final Judge, and we are taught never, ever to despair of the Mercy of God to any person.
    There is a CERTAIN trust in God’s justice and mercy that holds us back from the precipice of joining the biblical Pharisee in the temple, and points us back towards our needs for repentence, following the way of the publican who prayed
    ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
    We seek the Mercy of God for ourselves, and for all the world’s people.
    That is our faith.
    That is what we know.

  • Daniel Stevens

    Hi Christiane,

    Yes – I should have included JPII on the list, as I’m also familiar with his writings on the subject.

    I think it is critical that we emphasize to our non-Catholic brothers and sisters that the Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on the Doctors of the Church or the ECFs, or even our own leaders. These three things are gifts of God’s grace for every person to take advantage of, and I humbly invite those people engaging in the latest new debates that crop up to open the questions to our common shared spiritual/intellectual ancestry and eventually (God willing) to the teaching authority of the Church Jesus established to settle the debates.

    Until then, I join myself in solidarity with my brethren as they make their own honest (we pray) search for truth.

  • Jared O


    Piper wasn’t teaching people what to think about Rob Bell, he was just writing a poetic warning to Bell. You really shouldn’t presume to know John Piper’s intentions. Since when has poetic discourse been shunned by Christians? When did we give up the arts?

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