Yesterday, Joe took a crack at the hot topic of the day, Rob Bell’s new book. Among other things, he quotes Al Mohler, praising Mohler’s willingness to “defend orthodox evangelical doctrines against the gooey New Age-ish mush that is creeping into our tradition.”
Then he ends with this:
Mohler points out that liberal Protestantism and Catholicism have come up with their own ways of resolving the scandal of this doctrine. That’s fine. I have no beef with those traditions. My concern is with those who claim to be evangelicals while advocating or teaching a doctrine that is inconsistent with evangelical theology.
As Mohler notes, “there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical.” He’s right. You don’t have to be an evangelical to believe in hell, but if you stop believing in hell then you’re probably no longer an evangelical.
That doesn’t quite work. It sounds like Joe’s problem isn’t that Bell is selling the public “gooey New Age-ish mush,” but that he does so while claiming that his wares are “evangelical.” I mean, if Bell announces tomorrow that he’s going to stop calling himself an evangelical, would his teaching suddenly no longer be gooey New Age-ish mush? What Joe is really doing here isn’t vindicating truth but policing the boundaries. Sell all the mush you want, but please, let’s have truth in labeling.
Moreover, if you accept Mohler’s characterization of liberal Protestantism and Catholicism, how can you not “have a beef” with them for accepting an attitude that, when it appears within evangelicalism, you call “gooey New Age-ish mush”? Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations!
Of course, one need not accept Mohler’s characterization.
In fact, I think it puts us on the wrong track to raise these boundary issues at all. Mohler raises them precisely because he wants the fight over this doctrine to be a fight between evangelicals and those outside. His thinking seems to be that evangelicals have the truth, except insofar as they are corrupted by outside influences. As he says:
Have postmodern westerners just decided that hell is no more? Can we really just think the doctrine away? Os Guinness notes that western societies “have reached the state of pluralization where choice is not just a state of affairs, it is a state of mind. Choice has become a value in itself, even a priority. To be modern is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life.” Personal choice becomes the urgency; what sociologist Peter Berger called the “heretical imperative.” In such a context, theology undergoes rapid and repeated transformation driven by cultural currents. For millions of persons in the postmodern age, truth is a matter of personal choice –- not divine revelation. Clearly, we moderns do not choose for hell to exist.
This process of change is often invisible to those experiencing it and denied by those promoting it. As David F. Wells comments, “The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now dammed by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself.” He continued: “To be sure, this orthodoxy never was infallible, nor was it without its blemishes and foibles, but I am far from persuaded that the emancipation from its theological core that much of evangelicalism is effecting has resulted in greater biblical fidelity. In fact, the result is just the opposite. We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks.”
This is why he thinks it’s so important to draw a bright, shining line around the evangelical church:
Liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have modified their theological systems to remove this offense. No one is in danger of hearing a threatening “fire and brimstone” sermon in those churches. The burden of defending and debating hell now falls to the evangelicals–the last people who think it matters.
There are two problems here. The first is that the “I choose what’s true” mentality created by modern pluralism is not something that invaded the evangelical church from outside. It’s a tendency that’s intrinsic to life in modern civilization. I’m a huge fan of modernity – I think it’s tons better than what came before – but the great unresolved problem of modernity is that we never figured out how to reconcile a shared, public moral order with freedom of religion. And human beings are formed by the civilizations in which they’re raised, so all of us are in part a product of that failure. We’re all carrying its effects around inside us. We are its effects. So you can’t fight this thing by isolating yourself.
The second problem is that the bright, shining line blocks influence in both directions. Of course, for some people that’s a feature, not a bug, but I don’t think Mohler is one of them.
Obviously I don’t claim to be able to resolve the unresolved contradiction at the heart of modernity – still less to be able to do so in a blog post - but I think the starting point is this. Mohler is right that truth is the real underlying question here. So why not forget all about the boundary questions and stick to the only question that counts: is Bell teaching truth or falsehood? If it’s falsehood, why not just point that out?
I notice that in fact neither Joe’s post nor Mohler’s article actually presents a defence of the doctrine. A person who didn’t believe it before reading these pieces would find no reason to change his or her mind. Would it be too much to suggest that our obsession with policing the boundaries is taking us off topic here?
If boundary questions must arise at some point, let that point come much further down the road, and let it be treated with the subordinate importance it deserves.