Rob Bell, Common Names and Dominus Iesus – UPDATED

There’s something to be said for having an unusual moniker. A few years ago, our family traveled with another family and the husband/father of the other gang kept getting pulled aside for extra searching and occasional questioning; apparently this hard-working fellow shares the same name as a bad-guy and about a million other men. Being good-natured, he did not mind the extra attention, which made him feel like the TSA folk were “on the job.”

But when one is already embroiled in a doctrinal controversy of sorts, as the US Evangelical preacher, Rob Bell, appears to be, and it turns out there is another — UK-based — Rob Bell complicating things ever-so-slightly, one imagines that perhaps the American Rob Bell (who is emphatically not Robert Bellarmine) might be wishing his name was Roberto Bello, or Jamiroquai Bell, or something similarly distinctive.

Long story (very) short: Pastor Rob Bell has some Evangelicals wondering about where he stands on Acts 4:12 (“Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”) and the issue of just who gets to heaven when cultural notions of pluralism and universalism are evolving and being understood differently by traditionalists, Orthodox and Evangelicals.

Read the links for a better exposition, but that’s the nutshell.

Now, Bell has an [2/7/2011 5:03:07 PM] Elizabeth Scalia: interesting-sounding book coming out tomorrow, and before it is read, it is already being argued about, with some Evangelicals bidding the preacher adieu via twitter, based upon what may or may not actually be in the book.

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To complicate matters, well…here’s the skinny:

@robbell wasnt sure why he was being denounced by American Christians or why people kept sending him twitter messages saying “Farewell @robbell” because he wasnt going anywhere. And why on earth would a web designer in the north of England be branded a heretic?

Here is where the mischeif comes in:

. . . at the centre of this media storm was a web designer from Yorkshire, called Rob Bell. Having managed to secure the Twitter name @robbell, hundreds of people mistook him for the other Rob Bell. And he seems to have been rather enjoying the mix up, responding to some of the tweets directed to him in error, and now doing an interview with blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans.

My favourite @robbell tweet so far is

“nonchristian? Strictly speaking, I’m confirmed C of E, so a Christian, although my views are more universalist these days :)”

One hopes that over in the United States @realrobbell is equally amused.

I mean, passions aside, it’s sort of a cute mix-up. And there is a lesson there, for all of us: if you are inclined toward hot-headed kiss-off-tweets, at least have the courtesy to insure that you are pursing your lips in the right direction!

Meanwhile, on a more serious note,
these waters have been visited and re-visited by scholars, theologians, philosophers and other great thinkers within the Catholic Church, most recently in 2000, when Pope Benedict XVI, (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) headed up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and issued Dominus Iesus; On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.

The CDF and Pope John Paul II had to deal with their own passionate and curious responses, by some who found the declaration too broad, and others too narrow.

Most of the Henny Penny’s have moved on, but last August Peter Kreeft took another look at Dominus Iesus on the tenth anniversary of its issuance, and wrote:

Liberals say you are saved by subjective sincerity, love and openness to the new; conservatives by objective truth and fidelity to the old. Thus, Modernists are typically universalists and inclusivists regarding salvation (“We’re all going to heaven, except perhaps the Fundamentalists”), while Fundamentalists are typically exclusivists (“You’re going to hell because you’re not us”).

When Dominus Iesus was issued, both groups gagged. The Fundamentalists found it too liberal and universalistic, and the Liberals found it too conservative and exclusivist. It’s not surprising that it happened to Dominus Iesus because the same thing happened to Jesus himself: Sadducees and Pharisees, Herodians and Zealots, suddenly found one thing to agree about. They had found their common enemy.

Throughout Christian history the pattern has repeated itself. There have always been the “faith alone” fundamentalists (Tatian, Tertullian, Bernard, Luther) and the “reason trumps faith” liberals (Origen, Abelard, Spinoza, Bultmann), but also the “both-and” defenders of mainline orthodoxy (Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton).
The same threefold pattern manifests in Judaism. In Islam, of course, the “faith alone” people won the center of the battlefield. [...]

The point of Dominus Iesus is that it is precisely the “conservative” or “traditional” “high Christology” of the Church and the Bible, so uncompromising on Christ’s full divinity, “unicity” or uniqueness and universality that allows us to have a very “liberal” hope for the salvation of non-Christians.

Because all truth and goodness comes from him, the truth and goodness in the hearts, lives and religions of non-Christians are his action in their cultures and their hearts.

What most people, especially people who invest a great deal of meaning into their ideological identities, cannot stand about the Catholic Church is that she stubbornly insists on teaching the faith throughout the age, and refuses to allow the age to redefine truth according to our trends. She is both “conservative” and “liberal” — never thoughtlessly, but in the same way that Jesus was “conservative” enough and “liberal” enough for both sides to attempt to claim him, though the fit is never “perfect.” Christ never made anyone comfortable or endorsed complacency, and neither can his church – the call to “cast out into the deep” echos, still, into our own age.

You should read Dominus Iesus, and also the Kreef piece. And this, and this, too.

Call it a Lenten enhancement.

Also: Leaving the Christian Life Untried is Not an Option

Tim Dalrymple: Love Fails; Rob Bell, Hellgate and the Ethics of Christian Conversation
Joe Carter: Yes, Evangelicals; There Really is a Hell

Speaking mostly extemporaneously, Pope Benedict discusses the church’s troubles and joys

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Steve Colby

    “Christ never made anyone comfortable or endorsed complacency,..”

    Yeah, it’s that “Go, and sin no more” part that always catches me.

  • Anonymous

    Possibly you’ve had an easier time following that admonition than I have. In fact, I’m sure of it! :-)

  • MWT

    It seems like Evangelicals have a difficult task. They must convince us that God is love, mercy and redemption AND he sends lots of people who have never heard the Gospel to a place of eternal, conscious torment without a fair shake at accepting His truth. Evangelicals may call it a “paradox” or “mystery,” but to my feeble brain it’s just frighteningly cruel.

  • jcd

    Where is Mr.Nuttington when we need him?

  • Peterplaysbass

    God doesn’t send people to Hell. The Bible says he wants that none should perish, not even one. But He loves us enough to not force us – He gives us the choice.

    People send themselves to Hell when they spend their lives with their fingers in the ears saying “la la la” and drowing out the self evident truths whispered to us through nature, love… everything good in this world.

    But don’t listen to those that call themselves Christians to learn who God is. Read His Word and lay under an open sky. You’ll find Him.

    Behold, He stands at the door and knocks – it’s up to you to let Him in. He won’t break down the door, no matter how slick Mr. Bell’s videos may be.

  • jcd

    This is Mr.Nutting:”Why religion Matters”.I loved his Christmas special.I hope he does an Easter one.

  • craig


    There are limits to what orthodox Christians can assert regarding salvation; neither universalism nor wanton condemnation of the ignorant are consonant with the Gospel. Dominus Jesus has the most rational and most compassionate exposition of the timeless, catholic Christian doctrine on salvation, one that avoids the pitfalls of the two above extremes and acknowledges the essential mystery of grace.

    I have to believe that God provides a way for all people regardless of circumstance to come to Him. I am content to say it’s a mystery as to how, but I cannot abide saying that He does not. If He does not, then either He is not omniscient, not omnipotent, or not loving: He cannot simultaneously be all three and also condemn people to eternal torment without their having had a genuine chance at salvation. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse in a court of law, but then the legal system doesn’t claim to be Love in person (after all, it is not Jesus but Satan whose name means “accuser”).

    All this does not make me a universalist; some people will indeed go to hell of their own volition. There are many people who willingly distance themselves from truth and love, and thus from God, whether or not they know Him or claim to be His disciples. But we must hope and pray that God’s mercy will acknowledge the mustard seed of faith in the man who rails against a God he knows only in caricature or shuns a Church he knows only by prejudice.

  • MWT

    Thanks, Craig. Nicely put.