All this week, I’ll be posting about Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins. And this Sunday, April 10, I’ll be guest hosting Doug Pagitt Radio from 12-2pm CDT, talking with Keith DeRose, Michael Horton, and a special surprise guest! The entire two hours will be devoted to a discussion of the book, in advance of Rob’s appearance the following night at Wayzata Community Church.
In response to yesterday’s post, Patrick Marshall commented,
I’m getting a little tired of constantly hearing, “Rob Bell is not a theologian.” I have loved Rob and his work for years, but I was really disappointed to hear him say this in the interview with Lisa Miller (and several other interviews). I think it’s a cop out. I also think it’s deeply damaging to Christians who are NOT pastors, because it only serves to reinforce this idea that theology is done by “someone else.”
Patrick’s point is that, of course Rob Bell is a theologian. I agree, Patrick, and I said as much in The New Christians:
Most human activity is inherently theological, in that it reflects what we believe to be the case about God—who God is, what God wants from us, how involved God is in the world, and so forth. The house I buy—where it is, how big it is, how much it costs—is a theological decision. It reflects what I believe about the following questions and more: Does God care where I live? Does God care how I spend my money? Does God favor the city or the suburbs? Does God care about energy use? Does God favor public transportation? Maybe I believe that God cares about none of these things, in which case my decision to purchase the biggest house I can afford in the nicest part of town reflects my theological belief that God is not concerned with such things. Similarly, decisions that are much more mundane also reflect our beliefs about who God is and how God interacts with us. Some people pray for a good parking spot when they’re driving to the mall. Others ask, “If God is allowing genocide in Darfur, why would he intervene in the traffic patterns at my shopping mall?!?”
What Rob means to do, I suspect, when he tells journalists that he’s not a theologian is that he’s not attempting theology proper — that is, second-order discourse on first-order phenomena. But even this isn’t quite right. As Rob has also said (and Scot doubts), all talk of what happens after we shake off this mortal coil is mere speculation. If that’s true, then any book that deals with such a speculative topic is clearly theology proper.
So, having agreed that Rob is doing theology (you do agree, right?), what can we say that Rob believes about God?
First of all, I am impressed with the fortitude with which Rob avoids referring to God with a male pronoun. I usually do verbal backflips to avoid this in my writings, but Rob seems to do it with ease. I noticed at least once where he substituted “[God]” in a Bible verse for a “he,” although he lets the male pronoun stand in other biblical quotes.
It’s no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening to Rob for years, that he has a robustly Old Testament doctrine of God. The deference with which he writes of God made me think of the Old Testament, and he refers at one point to his friends who write “G-d” in order to mimic the Jewish avoidance of saying or writing Yahweh. I actually take Rob’s avoidance of the male pronoun for God to be a continuation of this same tendency, and it’s one that I deeply appreciate.
Secondly, Rob is clearly trinitarian. However, as with many modern, American Christians, there is virtually no developed doctrine of the Holy Spirit evident in Love Wins. I find this surprising, because I think that a robust pneumatology could get Rob out of some of the problems that he gets into with the book. There’s a reason that at many seminaries (like Fuller, where both Rob and I received our MDivs), Systematic Theology 3 covers the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and of eschatology. This isn’t simply a convenience, but a connection between the two most mysterious (and speculative) of the major doctrines. That the Holy Spirit will ultimately “guide us into all truth” is not a cop-out, it’s an article of faith.
However, Rob does refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” which could not be more awesome.
Finally, Rob believes that “God gets what God wants.” He says this a few times in the book, and he has repeated it in subsequent interviews. From what I’ve heard, this theme was even stronger in earlier drafts of the book, but it’s still there. I agree, and this is a very orthodox belief, both theologically and philosophically. It accords with Aquinas. The way that I usually say it is that God is the one non-contingent being in the cosmos. Another way to say it is, God does whatever the hell God wants.
However, Rob does qualify this belief, basically by writing that, God gets what God wants, but this happens in God’s timing. In other words, God will eventually get what God wants.
But this leads to a conundrum: Is God outside of time, or is God somehow bound to time as we experience time? In a short excursus into string theory (pp. 58ff.), Rob writes that we’re bound up in at least eleven dimensions, only four of which we can currently quantify: height, width, depth, and time. Rob takes biblical words dealing with eternity (like aion) to mean the transcendence of time.
This would seem to imply that God transcends time. But if God transcends time, what does it mean to say that God eventually gets what God wants? Is God bound by time or not? And, if not, what does “eventually” mean?
Tomorrow: Who Are We (Human Beings) in Love Wins?