Michael Horton Gets It Right (and Wrong)

Michael Horton Gets It Right (and Wrong) April 12, 2011

I was thrilled when Mike Horton agreed to come on Doug Pagitt Radio with me last Sunday to discuss Love(s) Wins. Mike is known to be among the more thoughtful, enjoyable members of the Neo-Reformed tribe, and he proved to be just that on the show. The first of three video segments is below the jump, and you can find the other two by clicking through to YouTube.

Two thoughts about my chat with Mike. First, what he gets right. Mike suggested that some emergent leaders need to grow a thicker skin, and I think he’s right. His point was that some emergent authors wade into deep theological waters with their writings, then beg off debate because they say they’re not theologians. “I’m not writing that kind of book,” they say, and thereby attempt to avoid confronting criticism. I think he’s got a point there.

But when I asked him why his tribe seems to be the first to jump on the criticism bandwagon, he demurred. In fact, he said that I was asking a leading question, and he said that the national media didn’t pick up the story of Rob’s book because the Reformed crowd spoke against it. But here, I think Mike is being disingenuous. The story popped precisely because John Piper tweeted against Rob. And what’s more, the contrary doesn’t happen: Rob Bell doesn’t write nine-part blog series going chapter-by-chapter through a Michael Horton or John Piper book, trying to show the world how bad it is.

The Reformed crowd does this, and they do it often. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying that they should be honest about it.

And we emergents should be honest that our skin is too thin sometimes.

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  • Tony, I have heard Michael Horton, Scott Clark, and many other of the men at Westminster criticize John Piper. They rebuked him for the invite of Doug Wilson to the desiring God conference, they have criticized him (along with all the new-calvinists) and reminded him that being “reformed” is more than agreeing with the five points of calvinism. Being reformed means you confess the reformed confessions. I don’t think its fair to say they don’t criticize quickly those of conservative beliefs.

  • If Love wins and Love is the answer and Love conquers all and God is Love and we’re all trying to be like God…then I wonder why our goal, in the christian community that is emulating Love, should be to get a thicker skin. Something is amiss.

  • Kenton


  • Keith Rowley

    I wonder if refusing to join in a debate with people who are criticizing us always means we are thin skinned? Couldn’t it mean we just dont find this kind of debate to be worth our time, especially when those who want to debate us more or less simply want to prove us wrong rather than together seeking what is true?

  • Scot Miller

    If you are offering an artistic, creative account of some deeply held feeling about the world, and I profoundly disagree with your feeling, it may not be appropriate for me to criticize that feeling as untruthful, but I could still criticize it for being wrong or misguided. Even so, I could understand if you just didn’t want to talk about it, or if your feelings were hurt because I disagreed with you, since all you’re doing is expressing your feelings.

    However, if you are offering an idea that purports to be the “truth” about things (however “truth”is to be construed), then it seems that your idea should be subject to rational scrutiny and harsh criticism. To the extent that it withstands rational critique, you have given me reason to accept it as true (or at least to acknowledge that it’s at least plausible and not positively irrational).

    It sure sounds like Rob Bell is trying to give an account of the truth about heaven, hell, and our future destiny. If that’s the case, then he (or his supporters) should be willing to engage in rational discourse about it. I’m not sure how seriously I can take your ideas if you’re not willing to vigorously defend them.

    This is not to say that rationality either “proves” or “refutes” any idea. Rationality is merely a sphere of discourse occupied by other people who purport to be rational and who share common expectations about what is reasonable (and what are the limits of rationality). It may be that your ideas are nonrational or paradoxical, which is fine. After all, my trust in rationality is basically nonrational (i.e., it’s hard to answer the question, “Why be rational?” in a non-circular way, so I just believe it’s better to be rational than not rational). You still need to defend your nonrational or paradoxical ideas using rational discourse if you expect other rational people to buy those ideas.

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  • I believe that’s a record for the use of the word “rational” and it’s variations ever in the history of blog comments.

    Impressive. 🙂

  • carla

    Scot, when–or does–that process end? Let’s say I write a book in which I offer rational scrutiny and harsh criticism of a theological perspective that you (for example) claim to be truth and you disagree with me and write a series of blog posts about it and I write a blog post of my own defending myself against your blog posts and you write a book about why people like me are wrong and misguided and offer rational scrutiny and harsh criticism of my theological perspective and I disagree with you and write a series of blog posts about it and you write a blog post of your own defending yourself against my blog posts and around and around we go. What does any of this accomplish? Do we keep going until one of us gives up or gives in? At what point do we stop vigorously defending ourselves or devoting ourselves to the criticism of other people’s ideas? Do we ever just shut up and listen? Do we ever just agree to disagree and move on to healing the world together?

  • Dan

    Appreciated Michael’s spirit and frankness. Two points.

    1. Rob Bell’s criticism doesn’t primarily come from the questions he is asking, but from his handling of the Biblical text in the way he answers the questions he raises. I’m an Arminian, but I fully understand that Reformed (and other) theologians who believe clarity and precision in theology is a necessary virtue will scrutinize any statement that seems to push against their doctrinal statements. The clash here is that Rob’s book is apparently both provocative and lacking in clarity.

    2. Alternate theories of atonement are not a problem, minimizing penal substitution is. Lots of conservative theologians do emphasize adoption, kinsman redeemer, freedom from slavery, etc., because they are biblical concepts. But substitutionary death is a primary image, very strongly put forth in Leviticus and the entire book of Hebrews. Christ is the “Lamb of God”, the sin offering. It may not play well with some seekers in our time and place, but to minimize it as a primary biblical emphasis is a problem.

    Hopefully that was clear and civil, no?

  • nathan

    I think “thin skin” can be a problem.

    But…(you knew it was coming)…

    being pissed off about being mischaracterized (i.e. lied about) or having people’s character and integrity impugned as a matter of course should get somebody miffed.

    (I think back a few years ago when a certain southern california luminary did a full series at his seminary and charged that “the emergent view of Scripture” was driven by our desire to justify our lives of sinfulness. In other words, you don’t agree with us and it’s because you’re an immoral person who can’t face their guilt and just wants to continue sinning. YEAH…that pissed me off…jus say’n…)

    When you sin against us and then say that our being offended is “the real problem” or “the real sin”, then you’re not an honest broker and we aren’t obligated to “thicken up” so that you can keep flogging away.

    It’s a justice issue and it’s especially incumbent on those who criticize “the emergent types” precisely because their arguments are grounded too often in the argument that “they value the bible more”.

    They took the “high ground” to bolster their arguments, they have a higher standard to live up to in their comportment.

    They made a bed, they have to lay in it.

    I don’t think that’s being thin skinned, that’s just part and parcel of the honesty needed about the impulse toward contentiousness as a virtue in that community.

  • Phil

    If the topic is Bell himself, I’ve never thought he was particularly thin-skinned. He seems to let most criticism roll off of his back, but I’m sure it would affect anyone to hear a lot of negative things about you from people.

    I agree with Nathan – whining about legitimate criticism is one thing, but actually responding to people who are purposely misstating what you’re saying is another. When someone reviewing your book actually cuts off part of a paragraph to make it say something different than what you’re saying, that’s not an issue of “manning up” and taking it, than it becomes an issue of how do we as Christians handle someone lying about other Christians.

  • Keith Rowley

    If someone I actually know or even in certain cases someone I only know from facebook wants to have a real conversation about theology we happen to disagree on I will absolutely try to have a thick enough skin not to be offended at every little thing and I will engage them in real conversation.

    If on the other hand someone I dont actually know attacks me or my beliefs in a blog or on Facebook etc… I see no reason why I should engage in a fruitless argument with them.

    None of Robb’s critics on the blogs seem to want real conversation. They just seem from my reading to want to say they are right and Robb and anyone who agrees with him are wrong and more than that they often seem to want to imply if not outright state that those they disagree with are evil in some way.

    Say Rob and those who agree with him are wrong and that is fine call them heretics (implying given the history of the word that they should be burned at the stake) and we might quite justly take offense.

  • Scot Miller

    Carla– Of course there comes a time when you have to admit that reasonable people just disagree. But first there needs to be a time when both sides are willing to listen to each other and (possibly) revise their beliefs when confronted with better evidence and argument. (So I am assuming that reasonable people are engaged in this reasonable discourse.)

    Unfortunately, most people model rational discourse as a “war of words,” where there are winners and losers, and only one side can be right. That is not my model of rationality. For me, rationality is a conversation, and the truth is not completely in the possession of either side, but the truth emerges as I say something, someone challenges me, and I can clarify what I’ve said, etc. I think the hallmark of rationality is the ability to recognize one’s limits and to revise one’s beliefs based on the best evidence and argument that you can find. If someone is unwilling or unable to discuss something rationally (i.e., if they make unsupported dogmatic assertions or cannot fairly appreciate their opponent’s position or are unwilling or unable to revise their own beliefs), then I think rational discourse ends.

    Of course, Tony’s point is that members of his tribe sometimes make interesting and perhaps controversial theological statements, but they don’t want to defend what they’re saying because they’re not “theologians.” Since they’re the ones who are poking their fingers in the eye of orthodoxy, they really have the burden to defend their poke with the best arguments possible. And if a representative of orthodoxy or anyone else has a better argument or evidence, the person who did the poking should be willing to change the nature of their poke.

  • Scot Miller

    Keith– I think you’re right. There’s little point in carrying on a conversation with someone who only wants to monologue or demonize the person who disagrees with them. However, I can still clarify my position and try to articulate my position more clearly even after hearing a dogmatic monologue, and even after being demonized.

  • Phil

    And if a representative of orthodoxy or anyone else has a better argument or evidence, the person who did the poking should be willing to change the nature of their poke.

    Who gets to decide who is the “representative of orthodoxy”? It seems that in many theological discussions both sides would make this claim. In Jesus’ day wasn’t it the Pharisees who were the representative of orthodoxy? 🙂

    Seriously, though, that’s why going back to the defense of, “but this is the orthodox position!” holds little water, especially when we’re talking about the Protestant version of Christianity.

  • Scot Miller

    Phil — As I’ve said before, orthodoxy is overrated. Orthodoxy defended an earth-centered universe, orthodoxy defended the practice of slavery, orthodoxy continues to condemn homosexuality, etc., so it doesn’t have a stellar track record. Orthopraxis is more important than orthodoxy.

    I think most protestants who defend “orthodoxy” are self-appointed. They wish they could run an Inquisition or the Magisterium to address doctrinal renegades like Rob Bell and Tony Jones and Brian McLaren and silence them for good. Since they can’t, they pontificate from their blogs and their seminaries a la Al Mohler and John MacArthur and John Piper, and hope their minions will obey their voices. And yes, they would make dandy Pharisees, in my opinion.

    Wow, I’m not being very charitable to them, am I…

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  • Jay Beerley

    Fascinating “conversation” albeit in a slightly aggravating way. Couple of thoughts…

    1. Tim Keller was on MSNBC on “Morning Joe” about his new book. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that Rob Bell would have been on the news, too?
    2. Isn’t it obvious that the marketing team for Love wins deliberately tried to stir up a response? Isn’t that what marketing is? Is it ok to poke and poke someone next to you and then get mad when they respond?
    3. I remember the wisdom of Poison when they said, “Give Me Something to Believe In.” If there is no orthodoxy (name one credible Bible scholar who thought the Bible taught the earth was flat and promoted slavery) then why believe anything? Who can prove anything? In fact, if there’s no orthodoxy, your statement about there being no orthodoxy isn’t orthodoxy so I can ignore it, right?

  • Scot Miller

    Jay — Concerning your point 3:

    I’m not sure to whom you are addressing this remark, since I don’t see anyone saying “there is no orthodoxy,” but I’ll respond since it appears you don’t agree with my assertions about the orthodox defense of an earth-centered universe (not “flat earth”) and slavery.

    It is a historical fact that until the 16h century, “orthodox” Christians accepted the belief that the earth was the center of the universe. Not only did this belief agree with our senses, but the scientific community (following Aristotle) believed it, and it was a belief apparently consistent with what the Bible teaches (see Josh. 10:12-13, Ps. 19:4c-6, Ps. 93:1, Ps. 104:5, Eccl. 1:5). The Catholic Church used these scriptures to condemn Galileo’s thesis that the earth orbits the sun.

    Moreover, it is a historical fact that some “orthodox” Christians used the Bible to defend the practice of slavery in the American South. They read scriptures supporting slavery like Gen. 9:18-27 and Lev. 19:19, as well as New Testament scriptures which did not condemn slavery, but actually outlined duties of slaves and masters (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:20-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25). These “orthodox” Christians helped found the Southern Baptist Convention in 1865.

    In both of these cases, “orthodoxy” changed. The Catholic Church has now embraced Galileo, and the Southern Baptists have apologized for their support of slavery.

    So it’s clear that “orthodoxy” is not as much a reflection of eternal, unchanging truth as it is the provisional consensus of believers in a particular place at a particular time. So there is “orthodoxy,” but what counts as orthodoxy may change because orthodoxy is historically conditioned. (Protestantism itself is evidence that new and different orthodoxies are possible.)

    Now back to Tony’s point, even if we acknowledge that orthodoxy is historically conditioned, it does not follow that someone like Rob Bell doesn’t have to defend his belief in the sphere of rational discourse. The arguments may not be conclusive, but they are not pointless, either. There may be better and worse arguments that people have for their beliefs, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have to defend one’s assertions against harsh criticisms. (In fact, I might learn something from my critic, and I might be able to modify or clarify what I think.)

  • Scot McKnight-on some of the exegesis of Bell in Love Wins:

  • Jay Beerley

    I see what you mean. But I’m not sure, at least on the slavery front, who said those people were orthodox?
    But, my main worry was your dismissal of orthodoxy (right thinking) as not being that important or “overrated.” Now, I’m going to assume that if we’re both Christians we are using the Bible as our authority for knowing the reality of the way God made the world. I’m not saying it’s a science book, I’m saying that it primarily reveals God to use, then teaches us about ourselves, how we relate to God, why it’s broken and God’s grand design to reconcile that.
    Anyway, the Bible speaks clearly that our actions are produced from our hearts, which are shaped and molded by the renewing of our minds. You CANNOT have orthopraxy without orthodoxy. Because the heart and attitude is part of orthopraxy. If I cured AIDS, would it be orthopraxy? Not if done for selfish gain. Even though people would benefit from it (common grace from God), it would actually be corrupting to my heart.

    But I do appreciate your sentiments on someone’s ability to dialogue in a public sphere if you are willingly participating in that sphere.

  • Scot Miller

    Jay– The relationship between right belief and right action is certainly something worth thinking about. Certainly, some people have right beliefs that don’t lead to right action, and some people display right actions but don’t have orthodox beliefs. So I know that orthodoxy is not sufficient for orthopraxy, but I also doubt that orthodoxy is even necessary for orthopraxy.

    I suppose I’m against thinking of Christian commitment in some Modern/post-Enlightenment model where faith is a mostly a matter of accepting certain beliefs “true” even though they are beyond the limits of reason to know: Jesus was born of a virgin, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus died for my sins, etc. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” Setting aside the question of the existence of demons as ontological entities (they aren’t), this verse indicates that right belief is not sufficient. I think we would both agree that faith involves a total commitment of one’s total being, including one’s beliefs and one’s actions.

    But when I hear Jesus say, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21), it sounds like right belief (saying “Lord, Lord”) is not what really matters at all, but right action is what matters (doing the will of my Father). In this verse, Jesus doesn’t say that you must first believe something or even know the will of the Father…. just do the will of the Father, and you will enter the kingdom of heaven.

    So while it might be nice if we had the right beliefs about God (Jesus, the Resurrection, etc.), anyone who does what the Father wills has entered the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, maybe we acquire the right beliefs (orthodoxy) because we do the will of the Father (orthopraxy).

  • wp thomas

    scot miller – i would argue that your assertion that orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy is exegetically unjustifiable from scripture. the idea that practice precedes teaching is a conclusion that is extremely difficult to prove (even from a non-christian perspective). it seems one must believe certain things before one can act on them. this is not some great truth revealed in scripture but a necessary principle one can deduce from common sense (or God’s general revelation).

    the primary reason i left the emergent movement is because of its selective, pragmatic approach to scripture. i also think you assume too much in your use of matt 7:21 in supposing that the “will of the Father” is works and not belief. i would argue that from a comprehensive view of scripture, that proper belief is the “will of the Father”. furthermore in the following verses (22-23), Jesus seems to indicate that people doing works in His name, but without the proper perspective of Him, are executing their works in vain.

    furthermore, your argument that orthodoxy has a bad track record is awkward at best. people may have used the term “orthodoxy” for their own personal gain in the past (racial slavery, flat earth), but it does not necessarily mean that their ideas of orthodoxy are essentially orthodox.

  • Scot Miller

    wp thomas — I’m sure that the Southern Baptists (and other Christians who defended the practice of slavery) would be surprised that they weren’t “orthodox”. Indeed, I think the biblical writers (including Paul) would be surprised to know that slavery wasn’t a practice that God found acceptable. After all, the defenders of slavery (and those who continue to condemn homosexuality) appealed to the Bible to justify their ethical beliefs. They believed that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the cross for our sins, rose on the third day, and will return in glory; they only wanted to missionaries to the lost and hold slaves at the same time.

    Is “orthodoxy” some timeless, fixed, immutable ideal, or is “orthodoxy” a historical description of what particular groups of people agree is “orthodox”? The fact is that human beings are historically conditioned, and their beliefs are historically conditioned, so orthodoxy is historically conditioned. (Or, to borrow Paul’s phrase from 1 Cor. 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part…”) That means that there is no timeless perspective, but only temporal and finite perspectives on what counts as orthodoxy. So orthodoxy is not fixed, but evolving.

    Your insight in your last sentence, that “people may have used the term ‘orthodoxy’ for their own personal gain…” is spot on. Everything that counts as “orthodoxy” is an attempt by some group or individuals to assert their power over others (or at least hold onto the power they have). So whenever someone claims “Right beliefs are always prior to right action,” they are really attempting to assert their power over those who disagree with them. All defenders of orthodoxy are really only defending their interpretation of orthodoxy, and they are more than willing to burn the heretic at the stake or cast them away into outer darkness.

    I believe there is a huge difference between God and what we think about God. Our beliefs can only be more or less adequate to point to the reality of God. The problem comes when you think your beliefs are identical to God’s beliefs, or your finite/temporal understanding is entirely adequate to the infinite/eternal God. So with Meister Eckhart, I pray God rid me of God.

    Orthodoxy can be a stumbling block to the lived experience of God. Orthodoxy is overrated when people substitute their orthodoxy for the lived experience of God. If orthopraxis is grounded in the lived experience of God, then my beliefs and my actions will both be transformed, which means that I can adjust my beliefs so they are more adequate to the God encountered in lived experience.

    And I would suggest that my assertion that orthopraxis is more important than orthodoxy is entirely consistent with biblical exegesis. Let me remind you of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13: , “Love never ends. … as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Until we recognize that orthodoxy is like seeing “in a mirror, dimly,” we may have problems with expressing love, which abides.

    Does this mean we abandon reason? If you read all my comments in this thread, I’m a pretty strong defender of reason. If someone makes controversial claims, they need to be willing to engage in rational discourse with harsh critics. It’s through this kind of rational discourse that we can clarify our beliefs, discard the bad ones, and adapt them so they are better.

  • Jay Beerley

    Where to begin. Let’s first define orthodoxy: right thinking. Orthopraxis: right practice or doing. If you’re saying there is no right thinking, then how on earth are you making all the claims? To what authority are you going to? Are you going to use the Bible to make these claims? Well, the Bible is made of words, so by using the Bible as an authority it is beginning with thinking. If you’re using experience as your authority, then there is no absolute authority. And if for one minute you think that that is the testimony of Scripture, that there is no authoritative gospel that applies to everyone, then I think you’re definitely reading a different Bible.

    So, what is your authority that does not come from right thinking?

  • Scot Miller

    Jay — First of all, I don’t make the claim that there is no right thinking. I am merely agreeing with Paul, who said, “now we know in part…” Since we are human beings and not God, we can only understand God in human ways. And a fundamental feature of being human is that we are finite, temporal, incomplete, and changing, so our understanding is finite, temporal, incomplete, and changing. We get some of it right, we get some of it wrong, so it’s up to us to examine our beliefs to be sure that they more closely approximate the reality we’re talking about.

    You’re right, I do not claim that the Bible is an “objective” authority; however, it can become the authority in the lives of believers insofar as they experience God speaking to them through the Bible. I can only say that my religious experience was mediated to me through the Bible in the context of a community of believers who also experienced God in the text. So the authority is not located in the words, but in the community of believers to whom the Word speaks.

    Appeals to the Bible are never purely appeals to the Bible; they are always appeals to how somebody reads the Bible. I am willing to admit that; other people who think they somehow possess orthodoxy or understand it in an absolute way are merely self-deceived. Those who can “possess” orthodoxy have merely artificially closed off their reading, making an absolute out of something that is intrinsically temporal.

    So I’m not worried about the lack of an absolute authority. The authority of reason is not absolute, but rests on faith. (I believe that it’s better to be rational than not rational, but I can’t really argue for that conclusion without offering a circular reason: it’s rational to be rational.) Reason is a sphere of public discourse where evidence and arguments can be raised to justify beliefs and actions. And reasonable people can disagree; reason does not conquer all. Theology (and orthodoxy) would be well served if it acknowledged is intrinsic limitations, and began to work out orthodoxy with fear and trembling.

  • Jay Beerley

    What’s interesting about this pattern of thought is that it is so new. Just a few decades ago, an encyclopedia was written by authoritative experts that passed on knowledge. Now, we have the social encyclopedia (wikipedia) where everyone gets a say about what is reality.
    So, are you saying that for millenia people were misinformed about thinking that there were absolute authorities beyond just the social consciousness? I think the sufficiency and authority of the Scriptures is a pretty vital part of correcting our fallen hearts and minds. Why trust the collective group of sinners to define reality? The Bible isn’t THAT difficult to understand. I think the idea of slavery is not biblical, even though the Bible engaged people in a culture of “indentured servitude,” especially considering the African slave trade. But whatever. It’s teachings on homosexuality are clear. Just because the collective group of sinners says something else should now be orthodox doesn’t mean that it’s so. And just because in a poetic form the sun seems to “move across the sky” doesn’t mean that the Bible teaches an earth-centered reality.
    Now, I definitely agree that this is all to be with fear and trembling, but there can certainly be truths that we can know. The Bible is revelation, God revealing himself to man. As for “agreeing with Paul,” are you also willing to say that if someone else preaches a gospel other than salvation by grace through faith that you are willing to be accursed? I’m guessing your agreements with Paul might be a little selective. And that’s my main point. Why bother using parts of Scripture to make an argument if you don’t consider it to be ultimately authoritative?

  • Jay Beerley

    Addendum: I’m not saying the collective coming together to agree on something is necessarily bad or wrong. I know that’s how major doctrines of the early church were hashed out: by church leaders coming together to search the answers from the Scriptures. But I hardly think that’s what’s occurring today. I don’t think there is a new set of confessionals, if you will. That would of course mean arriving to some sort of conclusion.

  • Scot Miller

    Jay– I think it’s fair to say that you and I agree that the Bible is authoritative, but we disagree about why the Bible is authoritative. For you, the authority of the Bible is independent of what we think, and it is something that we can discover and work out in our theology. For me, the authority of the Bible is something recognized in the community of believers; as believers encounter the living God mediated through the words of the Bible, the Bible becomes the authority for them (but it is not objectively the authority).

    What is fascinating to me is that you try to mitigate the “wrong” interpretations of scripture which orthodox believers made about slavery and the earth-centered universe. Take the earth-centered universe. Prior to Galileo, Aristotelian science actually confirmed the truth of the Bible’s description of the movement of the sun relative to the earth. No where in the Bible does it say, “and the earth goes around the sun.” But now we recognize that they are “poetic” passages because the scientific observations and theories of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton gave a more accurate account of how the world really works. Christians altered their beliefs about the Bible because science told them their previous interpretations were wrong. This was no trivial, simple adjustment to make for Christians. The feelings they had in the 16th century would be similar to the feelings some Christians have today when the theory of evolution is discussed. And even though evolution is a scientific fact, may Christians are still unwilling to adjust their interpretations to account for this fact.

    Apparently my use of scripture makes you uncomfortable (or you think I’m misusing or distorting scripture), since my use is “selective” and I’m apparently not embracing Paul’s warning about people who teach a different gospel. First, I don’t think my interpretation of 1 Cor 13 is really off target; either you agree with Paul or you don’t that “now we know in part.” Secondly, ALL of us should be worried that we’re really preaching the gospel of Jesus, especially those who are defenders of “orthodoxy.” Are they really preaching the gospel, or are they substituting their own version of the gospel for the gospel. I know I could be mistaken, but I also know that the defenders of orthodoxy could be mistaken too. My point is that all of us Christians should be more humble in their pronouncements and more faithful to living in Christ-like ways.

  • Jay Beerley

    I find it fascinating that evolution gets the pass as scientific fact (I seem to recall from way back in elementary school that for something to be a scientific fact it had to be reproduced in an observable environment. Scientific method is what I believed it was called) and that’s from what authority?
    No need in continuing this discussion on this blog. Probably not a correct environment. I would recommend reading a systematic theology book concerning the parts on the Bible. I believe the Bible has authority because it claims it does as the word of God. If you don’t believe it is the Word, to me, why bother?

  • Scot Miller

    Jay – Final thoughts:
    First, nobody has ever observed the fact that the earth revolves around the sun; it’s a theory that accounts for the phenomena better than a sun-centered universe. Some theories (e.g., heliocentric universe, evolution) count as fact in the scientific community because so many other facts make sense because of that theory. Suggest you read some good philosophy of science to get a handle on scientific theory and scientific fact.

    Second, your argument about biblical authority is circular (hence fallacious): “The Bible has authority because the Bible has authority.” You need to come up with a better argument if you expect anyone to believe it who doesn’t already accept your starting point.

  • wp thomas

    scot miller – firstly, in response to your stating paul is wrong on slavery matters, i think it best to determine what slavery actually was in those times. slavery in the OT was more akin to a legal sentence in order to work off a debt you owed to someone. in paul’s first epistle to corinth, he’s referring to the roman institution of being a bondservant. typically a slave in those times was able to earn pay and buy their freedom. they’re virtually nothing like the degrading/dehumanizing 17-19th century slavery in north america.

    i agree to an extent that humans are historically conditioned. i think a more accurate idea is that men are culturally conditioned. i understand in what you’re saying regarding the differences of opinion of theological matters amongst christian denominations/sects. however this does not necessarily mean that there are no objective ideas that can be derived from scripture. i believe that proper orthodoxy can be arrived at if the texts are interpreted in light of their historical and cultural background, as well as having the knowledge that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and prophets. it also doesn’t hurt to pray for illumination as well 🙂

    but as for orthodox thought (proper belief), i feel we must keep in mind that we do not discover God, but rather God reveals Himself through the writers of scripture and His Son (Heb.1:1-2). of course, that is my presupposition. i believe that God is more than capable of communicating and revealing Himself in a capacity that is sufficient for man to understand.

    the question of orthodoxy as a means for gaining power? yes, this has been used in history without question. however, i would argue that the motives for those that use this method are unbiblical and they tend to be wrong in their “orthodoxy” anyways. furthermore, what i said earlier sheds light on this as well. if God is capable of communicating with His creation, then that means He is able to bypass all forms of man-centered vanity and corruption in His message.

    i liked your statement “i believe there is a huge difference between God and what we think about God”. john calvin once wrote: “what is God? men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations”. both the eastern churches and reformed reflect each other in history in the incomprehensibility of God (in essence). so i agree that our finite capacity is incapable of gaining a complete comprehensive view of God. the Trinity is a mystery that baffles us because of our limited intellect and reasoning capabilities. i certainly believe more will be revealed of Him (at least in His glory) when we pass from this world. but i feel for the time being, He has revealed enough in His word that He wishes for us to understand.

    now, your statement regarding the “lived experience of God”: when you say this, i essentially understand this to mean that one’s own personal experience of what God is, is the criteria through which we must determine truth. however, my problem with this, is that anyone can take whatever they want from scripture and their lives, apply the deconstructionist approach, and “presto!”, we have buffet-style christianity. it seems that the logical conclusion of this is that every run-of-the-mill theological idea is given equal weight. but i agree with 1 thess 5:21 and jude 1:3 when they tell us to test all things and hold fast which is good and to contend earnestly for the faith. yes we do have personal experiences, but God’s law and the act of His sacrificing His only Son in history so that we might be counted righteous before Him seem to stand apart from our subjective feelings or experiences of God.

    also, is not the idea that “orthopraxis precedes orthodoxy” a belief/teaching by nature? you seem to say you arrived at this conclusion from scripture [although i think your hermeneutic of 1 cor 13 is problematic. (and not to mention, if i were to use your method for interpreting scripture, i could interpret 1 cor 13 however i wish, since it’s my subjective “lived experience of God” and His word)]. to me, this is just further proof that orthodoxy, proper belief/doctrine, teaching, or whatever one wishes to call it, is inescapable.

    i don’t want it to seem that i think belief is all that truly matters. scripture indicates that faith (belief in what God tells or teaches us in His word) apart from works is dead and vice versa. however, i still maintain that the foundation of the two is proper belief, based on what i gather from His general and special revelation.

    in closing, i agree that we don’t abandon reason. i am not a modernist, nor a postmodernist in my philosophy. rather, my philosophical presuppositions stem from what i gather from scripture. i believe reason and logic are God given tools for us to use. if we truly are the “imago dei”, then i would argue that God employs reason/logic because they are part of His divine nature and we are an echo of His traits. i respect the postmodernist when he notes that rationalists and empiricists are both circular in their methods (just as every philosophical system is at its most basic foundations). however, i feel it is inconceivable to marry christianity to postmodernist philosophy because the very essence of postmodernism seems to be that “we’re all right in our beliefs”. i don’t want to be too harsh, but the postmodern deconstructionist approach to biblical hermeneutics is chaotic at best.

  • Scot Miller

    @wp thomas (#30) – sorry I missed your comment. I appreciate your constructive criticisms of what I (apparently) said so poorly. This kind of discussion is exactly what I had in mind in my initial comments about the need for rational discussion and rigorous defense of one’s assertions. If people like Rob Bell can’t rationally defend their positions, or if their positions can’t be rationally defended, I’m not so sure anybody else has any good reason to believe them.

    Apparently one of the things I don’t seem to say very clearly is that I believe that God is an “objective,” transcendent reality. I am not saying that God is identical to what someone or some group happens to think about God. So I am not denying that there is a common source for our thinking, and that people who are Christians have come to experience the reality of God as it has been mediated to them through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. So the Bible (for me) is the revelation of God, because human beings like me have become aware of God through the scripture. Now, for me it does not follow that the words of scripture are the revelation, but the Word to whom the words of scripture testify.

    For me this means that there is no one “orthodoxy,” only various orthodoxies that emerge in different situations at different times in different communities as people try to make sense of their encounter with the divine. I don’t think being a pluralist about orthodoxy is a bad thing; I think it necessarily reflects our human condition. (I actually think asserting that there is some eternal, unchanging core of particular orthodoxy beliefs is a bad thing, since that amounts to an idolatrous substitution of one’s particular take on the “objective” reality of God for the reality itself, which can’t be grasped in human language).

    Your biggest criticism is that my pluralist position is nothing but relativism where anybody’s take on things is equally good. It sounds like you’re saying either we have to believe in a foundational core of absolutely certain beliefs or we’re left to a relativistic, chaotic, cafeteria-style mess where anybody can believe whatever they want to believe. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting your position too badly.)

    As it turns out, I think it’s a false dilemma to assert that we either have to accept absolutes or we have to be chaotic relativists. I think there are better and worse interpretations, more and less close approximations of the lived experience of the transcendent reality of God. (By the way, when I use the term “lived experience,” I’m really borrowing a term from Husserlian phenomenology, which does not even offer a subjectivist theory of truth, since phenomenology puts into brackets the theoretical assumptions we have about “objective” truth, and rather seeks to describe the intelligible structures of meaning that we encounter in experience.)

    I’m trying to give a kind of justification for the historical-critical comments you made about the practice of slavery. Why is your interpretation of slavery in the Bible better than the Baptist interpretation in 1865? Your interpretation acknowledges a historical horizon of meaning in the text which is different from our historical horizon. The Baptists’ interpretation of scripture is bad or inadequate because they didn’t acknowledge their historical distance, and they thought what they were doing with slavery was identical to what the scripture meant. We understand that our arguments are better because we are in a community of rational people who have to justify their beliefs with all the evidence we have in hand. And it is a hallmark of rationality that we can revise our beliefs because of better argument and evidence. This isn’t absolutist in any way, but it’s not relativistic chaos, either.

  • Jay Beerley

    I believe your low view of the Bible (not inspired, authoritative, whatever) leads to the relativistic chaos and nothing more. The Bible makes these claims about itself. If it is the very Word of God who is being revealed to mankind by Himself (for there’s no other way for us to know Him), then it carries the full weight of authority that God himself would have. The Bible is not to be worshiped, but we will certainly NEVER properly worship God without it, in Spirit and in truth.
    One other quick comment on something you said. There is not the “Hebrew Bible” and the New Testament. It is all one piece. One story. It’s always been about Christ, not God’s plan B or do-over. The whole thing is authoritative for us, in that it is revealing the character of God.
    To speak of your specific examples, the Bible NEVER condones slavery. It never says, “This is God’s desire for people: to own slaves.” It has commands to those who are found in slavery that speak to how to glorify God in their bondage. Paul commands Philemon to release his slave, Onesimus. So, the Baptist understanding was frankly erroneous if not near blasphemous. So that cultural/contextual thing doesn’t change over time.
    The Bible’s teaching against homosexuality is blatant and specifically commanded: don’t do it. Orientation is irrelevant. There’s not a cultural/contextual issue there, either.
    Truth is half of how Christ told the woman at the well that someone properly worships God. We get that truth from Scripture. Without it, someone, by Jesus’ definition, is not worshiping God. For the Bible helps us properly understand the One who is Truth.

    What was this blog post about?

  • Scot Miller


    I think it’s a mistake for anyone to identify their particular reading of the Bible with the truth. That smacks of idolatry. In fact, I would argue that thinking your interpretation is somehow God’s interpretation trivializes the authority of the Bible. My view of scripture maintains the fact that nobody can “control” the reality to Whom the Bible speaks.

    I also think you need to reconsider the historical nature of the Bible’s pronouncements about homosexuality. For example, what was the sin of Sodom? According to Ezek. 16: 48-49, it’s inhospitality: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. ” Moreover, the other texts that condemn homosexuality may not be referring at all to the what we think homosexual practice is today.

    But it has become clear that you and I have vastly different assumptions about scripture and truth, which is OK. Neither of us can assert that “I am entirely right and you are entirely wrong,” but both of us can have parts of it right. I prefer a more expansive and pluralistic notion of orthodoxy than you. I think your understanding of orthodoxy is narrow and diminished, and you probably think mine is chaotic and misguided. So be it. Reasonable people can disagree and live with that disagreement.

  • Scot Miller

    Jay — I hate to break it to you, but Christians actually DID justify slavery from the Bible. This is an historical fact, whether you like it or not. Read Gen. 9:18-27. There the descendents of Ham (who uncovered Noah’s nakedness) are condemned to be the slaves of the descendents of Shem and Japheth. And who were the descendents of Ham? The people from Africa. Of course this is B.S. (bologna sandwich), but it was how the Bible was used to justify the practice of slavery.

  • Reading the comments here has reinforced the opinion that as educated as people might be on a subject such as this, nobody really knows anything.

  • Keith Rowley

    I love the way your view emphasizes he continuing work of God in creation (at least to me) in that it is in real people’s experience of God that both right beliefe and right practice are formed.

    Could you recommend some resources for background reading on this type of veiw of scripture, tradition, and community?
    Thank you for your responses here and for any response you might offer.

  • Scot Miller

    Steve — I guess I’m a biblical literalist when it comes to 1 Cor. 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part….” Since that’s true, I’m suspicious of anyone who has everything nailed down. We all have to be willing to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny and get rid of those which are not adequate or become idolatrous objects. With Eckhart I “pray God rid me of God.”

    Keith — you make me wonder why I think what I think. I can tell you that I’ve been influenced by process philosophy and theology (Whitehead, Hartshorne, Lewis Ford, Schubert Ogden, John Cobb), but I think Pannenberg and Moltmann illuminate the relationship of faith/theology to history. But lately I’ve read Peter Rollins (How (Not) to Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal). Rollins says things I’ve been thinking and saying for the past 20 years, but he says it much better than I.

  • Jay Beerley

    I’m still not sure exactly what you’re saying. How about a clear statement about your doctrine of the Bible. What is its purpose?

    Concerning 1 Corinthians 13:12- Since you espouse a belief in culturally contexting, why do you not biblically context as well? Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians speak to the gifts given to believers for the edification of the body and that those gifts cannot be used out of the context of love. They are meant to build up each other towards the end of the great commission: to make disciples. I do not believe it is Paul’s intention at all to imply that we cannot know God or how God wants us to respond to him. That doesn’t fit with his writings at all. It seems that there is coming a day when we see Jesus face to face that the use of these gifts will cease and the partial knowledge of God and his will will be known. Of course there are aspects of God that we cannot know as finite creatures. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have characteristics he’s revealed to his creatures to believe and trust in. What you’re implying is that the Greeks should be commended for their tomb to “The Unknown God,” which Paul definitely discredited at Mars Hill. Paul claims that you can know that God! How? Through the preaching of the Word. We are the creatures. He is the Creator. The dynamic of that relationship (Romans 9) should be noted. We don’t get to ascribe to God any characteristic we want because that’s what was experienced.
    If you have a child, there’s no way they can fully understand your adult ways. So, do you simply not care if your child knows you at all? Do you let your child think whatever they want to about you as long as you have a “relationship?” What kind of a relationship do you really have if it’s based on false assumptions?

  • Scot Miller

    Jay– As I said, it’s pretty clear that your assumption about the Bible and mine aren’t the same… which is fine with me. You seem to believe (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting your position) that (a) the Bible objectively contains the words of God’s revelation (i.e., the words of scripture are God-breathed and undistorted by the writers through whom God chose to speak), and (b) you (or I) can know with absolute certainty particular truths about what has been revealed (although not everything has been revealed). If that works for you, yeah! I find both of these beliefs implausible, if not idolatrous.

    I don’t think my position is as obscure or confusing as you suggest. I just think you disagree with me. First, I do not believe that the Bible is objectively the word of God, but it testifies to the Word of God (which can’t entirely be contained or expressed in human words). The Bible can become the word of God in the lives of believers as they recognize God speaking to them through the Bible. Second, (and here is where you really misunderstand what I’m saying), while there may be an objective truth, we do not possess or control or grasp the truth in its entirety. We have the truth, but we don’t have it all… we see through a glass darkly… we know in part… So while I have some of it right, too much of what I believe is inadequate to the reality of God in Christ. It would be better for all of us to admit that our beliefs are more or less close approximations of the truth, and we must be willing to examine and “test all things; hold fast to what is good….” (1 Thess. 5:21).

    This brings me back to Tony’s original post, where he said that Michael Horton gets it right when he challenges people like Rob Bell to be willing to take the heat and defend their positions in rational discourse. Of course, Horton is wrong (or disingenuous) for not admitting that he and other reformed critics are quick to attack, quick to condemn, quick to judge anyone who disagrees with the party line.

    As for your final questions, I’m not sure my telling my son I’m a great and loving father communicates as much as how he actually experiences my presence in his life. If I am an abusive and cruel parent, my child will know I am abusive and cruel even when I say things like “I’m doing this for your own good,” or “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” or “I’m really loving you.” If I am truly acting as a loving parent, my child should eventually be able to see that my actions were loving upon reflection. So, no, it’s not the idea, but the lived experience that is primary. As the child matures and reflects on his life and my relationship with him, he will have to develop the theories about me that are consistent with his experience.

  • wp thomas

    Scot Miller – apologies for the late response. my studies tend to get in the way of my spare time messing around on the blogosphere. anyways, i agree fully. it’s important for us as christians to be able to debate things in a humble manner. hopefully i wasn’t too harsh in my criticism. however, the subject of theology is of great importance in my opinion. and i think it ought to be for every christian. i get the impression that you have at least somewhat of an interest in the importance of theology. otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    you affirmed in your response that God is an objective transcendent reality. then you go on to say that, in light of that, you don’t believe that this means that a group or people necessarily believe correctly about God’s transcendent reality. i am in full agreement on these 2 points you make. but then you go on to say that christians have experienced the reality of God “as it has been mediated to them” through scripture. this begs the question, what if God’s word is being mediated incorrectly and starting with the incorrect presuppositions? your statements regarding scripture are a tad ambiguous. i really have no idea what your view of it is. you said that you don’t necessarily believe that the words in scripture are divine revelation, “but the Word to whom the words of scripture testify”. i really have no idea what you mean by that. sounds very much like eastern orthodoxy, in my opinion. if by “Word” you mean Jesus, then i agree that the whole of scripture testifies to Him and His act of redemption. however, i find all of scripture to be God-given and preserved by Him.

    now, i know that there are a fair amount of schisms within christianity. and all have their own different opinions on ecclesiastical or theological matters, determining each ones own orthodoxy. however, if God is an objective, transcendent being, then He has objective qualities and character. and orthodoxy stems from what is perceived to be these objective qualities that God appears to have in scripture. so i would argue that your reasoning doesn’t support your conclusion that there is no one orthodoxy (true or correct belief). certain denominations/sects/etc. of christians may be wrong on multiple issues or on everything all together (unlikely in my opinion), but the Truth of God stands regardless apart from our opinions. and call me crazy, but i think God is capable of communicating His Truth to us through His revelation, both general and special.

    a core set of beliefs about God, derived from scripture, is idolatrous? well now at least i know for a fact that our views on the authority of scripture are radically different. i would argue that a focus on the subjective “lived experience of God” is just as idolatrous, if not more so. nevertheless, you argue that those that do hold to a core set of beliefs are merely substituting their own subjective idea of the objectivity of God for the actual objective reality of God, which can’t be arrived at, due to the limits of human language. i find that a curious statement, as i don’t see how one can come to that sort of conclusion about God, other than by a hard agnostic position or by adhering to positivism. if all good things come from God, is not language one of these things? did He not give us a sufficient method for communication? and if we’ve come to the knowledge that language has so many limitations when it comes to God, why bother speaking of Him?

    you say that my presentation of theological objectivity vs. relativism is a false dilemma. however, you did not really explain how it is a logical fallacy. you seem to indicate that God is able to transcend reality. i have no problem with this. but you also seem to indicate that His transcendence originates in the experience of the subjective individual. quite honestly, this sounds like nothing more than the glorification of the autonomy of the inner-self. many emerging folk i’ve listened to that hold to this idea you speak of disagree on what passages or books of scripture they consider to be true or false, or are to be interpreted literally or figuratively. does it not say in 1 corinthians 14 that God is not the author of confusion? if men are capable of experiencing God in a correct way from the inner-self outward, why does there appear to be so much confusion? and if God is ultimate reality, why can’t He seem to communicate His reality correctly through the inner lived experience of God? i would argue that the difference of opinion amongst theological matters are largely the errors of men throughout the centuries and not being faithful to what is set out so clearly in the bible. i’m not denying that there aren’t difficult passages to interpret, but the important things seem pretty clear cut.

    As for the slavery issue again, i suppose the main difference is that in biblical times the notion of slavery didn’t assume the natural racial inferiority of the individual like the slavery that was prominent in america.

  • joe campbell

    Bell doesn’t address Piper books because he can’t. His theology is about as strong as a wet newspaper and would be laughed at and ripped to shreds. In saying that, I don’t hate Mr. Bell. We must pray for him