Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books)

Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books) July 9, 2011

Well, I don’t defend EVERY controversial book!  But I have gone out on a limb to defend Love Wins and open theism.  (Not that the two are the same; the only comparison I make right now is they are both controversial evangelical theological prop0sals that have been attacked almost exclusively by Reformed evangelicals.)

After reading Mark Galli’s book God Wins and reviewing it here, I went back and re-read Bell’s Love Wins–looking for the weaknesses and dangers Mark points out.  What I find is this.  IF I were a Calvinist, I would find Love Wins troubling.  But as an Arminian, I find it challenging but not particularly troubling.

Now, to some critics, that will simply prove that Arminianism and theological liberalism are closely related.  I don’t think so.  Here’s what I think.  I think SOME evangelical Calvinists are so allergic to both Arminianism and liberalism that they tend to lump them together and not see their differences.  There’s something in American evangelical Calvinisms’ DNA that makes it see a trajectory from Arminianism (or anything like it) to liberalism.  I deny that trajectory and, in fact, tend to think it is the other way around (if anything): Calvinism leads to liberalism.  (I’ve argued that here before.)

Here’s what I’m getting at (in several distinct but related points):

1) I tend to defend both Bell’s theology in Love Wins and open theism BECAUSE the main arguments I read and hear against both are versions of old Calvinist arguments against Arminianism.  The brouhaha over Bell’s book is reminiscent of the uproar over an earlier book titled Love Unbounded by Robert Brow (a Canadian theologian) and Clark Pinnock.  That was a thoroughly Arminian book that sounded a lot like some of John Wesley’s theology.  But it was accused by (almost exclusively) Reformed critics for leading to universalism and neglecting God’s justice and wrath.  It was accused of being human-centered rather than God-centered, etc., etc.  Christianity Today published a lengthy review of Love Unbounded that led to a firestorm of controversy that, I take it, changed CT’s direction from then until now.  As a result of the controversy it became much more Reformed in orientation (although I don’t think that’s official editorial policy).  Almost all the arguments I read against open theism are from evangelical Calvinists and are just as valid against Arminianism as against open theism IF THEY ARE VALID AT ALL.   I’m not saying that Bell’s Love Wins, Brow’s and Pinnock’s Love Unbounded, or the books of the open theists are simply Arminianism.  They’re not.  But the arguments I read AGAINST THEM are the same arguments used against Arminianism.  Namely that they are human-centered, belittling the glory of God, neglecting God’s justice and wrath in favor of too much emphasis on God’s love, etc., etc.

2. That doesn’t mean I defend Bell’s theology or open theism at every point.  I don’t.  I haven’t “signed on” to either one, but I don’t think they’re as dangerous as evangelical Calvinists make them out to be.  I don’t see either one on a slippery slope to theological liberalism.  But to joint the chorus of critics of either or both would be to at least appear to join them against Arminianism as well.  (Let me illustrate.  I once knew a black theologian who was far from James Cone in his theology but refused to criticize Cone because that would be to side with people who he knew would hate his theology almost as much as they hated Cone’s.  Cone was extreme, yes, but nearly all black theologians recognized that Cone’s white critics’ arguments against Cone would, if accepted, damage the whole cause of black liberation.)

3. To Bell’s Love Wins specifically now.  It seems to me the crux of the debate has to do with two different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:4: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Bell, together with all Arminians, interprets that literally (or should I say naturally?).  With all Arminians he does NOT think any valid interpretation can read that as saying God wants only some (the elect) to be saved such that “all people” simply refers to “people from every tribe and nation” as most Calvinists say.  So, Bell is simply drawing out the good and necessary consequence of that, together with rejection of universalism (which is clear in the book as we’ve already discussed here), when he says that God does not get all that he wants but love wins anyway because love includes giving the loved ones freedom to return love or not.  This is simply Arminian logic put very bluntly and blatantly.  Yes, God wins IN THE SENSE THAT he gets what he wants–a creation in which free creatures can either accept his love and be saved or reject it and be lost.  But God DOES NOT GET WHAT HE WANTS IN THE SENSE THAT he really wants every single person to be saved but it doesn’t happen.  This is why Arminians distinguish between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will.  God’s consequent will is perfectly fulfilled, but God’s antecedent will (expressed in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9) is NOT perfectly fulfilled

BECAUSE of God’s love that allows ultimate and final resistance to itself.

4. I think that is what offends critics of Love Wins–the suggestion that God doesn’t get what he really, perfectly wants.  That seems to them to demean God, to lessen his glory.  But that requires them, Calvinist critics, to interpret those verses in a very non-natural way–as referring to God’s “wish” as opposed to his want OR as referring to only some people (the elect).  In either case God’s love is lessened or distorted so much that it is not recognizable as love.  As I say in Against Calvinism (coming out in October), Calvinism makes God’s love of an inferior quality to the love he expects of us (1 Cor. 13).

5. The deep, inner logic of the attacks on Love Wins seems to me of this variety.  The ones I have read and heard ALL arise out of Reformed assumptions about God rather than out of Arminian assumptions about God.  And there’s the main difference.  Not all Arminians will agree with everything Bell says, but the general thrust of his theology in Love Wins is classically Arminian–that God permits free creatures to resist his love out of love and therefore love wins even as God seems to lose something.  Because of the risk his love forces him to take, and human resistance to it, God ends up not getting all that God wants.  ON THE OTHER HAND, of course, God DOES GET WHAT GOD WANTS–this world in which his love can be resisted.  It’s dialectical but not contradictory.

6. I do wish Bell had been more cautious and clear in Love Wins about the freedom God grants creatures.  He could have been clearer about prevenient grace as the ground of freedom.  But I don’t expect one book to say everything.  I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume (knowing he went to Fuller Seminary) that he does believe God’s grace is the source of whatever good we do.

7. Simply to respond that God Wins is to raise some questions from the Arminian side.  In what sense does God win?  Does God get everything he wanted?  Does God want hell–antecedently as well as consequently?  If you say no, then why does hell exist?  It has to be because of free will and that has to be because of God’s loving self-limitation.  If you say yes, then that raises a host of questions about God’s goodness.  There don’t seem to be alternatives.  Either God wanted hell antecedently, in which case God is a monster, or God only wants hell consequently (to the fall) and that means God doesn’t exactly “win” in every sense, right?  But love can still win IN THE SENSE that love wants free response and not coerced or programmed response.

8. I don’t know for a fact that Mark Galli is a Calvinist.  He might be or might not be.  But as an Arminian I worry that his critique of Bell’s book comes across as a critique of Arminianism.  Sure, there are specific criticisms in God Wins that an Arminian might make–such as Bell’s idea that persons in hell have freedom to choose to leave hell for heaven.  C. S. Lewis thought that was a good and necessary consequence of belief in God’s love, but not all Arminians embrace that idea.  Most probably do not.  But that’s not the main point.  IF I understood Mark’s main line of criticism of Bell’s Love Wins it is that it sentimentalizes God’s love and neglects God’s justice.  But it doesn’t.  As I re-read Bell’s book I saw numerous instances in which he affirms that God will allow people to reject him to their destruction in hell.   To say anything else about God’s justice is to divorce it from God’s love.  ALL Arminians regard God’s justice as tied closely to his love.  The only alternative to Bell’s general approach would seem to be “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” in which God gets glory and pleasure from damning and destroying sinners.  How is that love?  As Wesley said, that is such a love as makes the blood run cold!

9.  I don’t think all of Bell’s critics are aware of the side of the debate I’m trying to point out–viz., the Calvinism versus Arminianism aspect.  Bell might not even want to be an Arminian!  And for all I know Mark might not consider himself a Calvinist.  That’s beside the point.  I’m not talking about parties here; I’m talking about perspectives.  Bell’s is generally consistent with Arminianism; Mark’s criticism (at its deepest level) is generally consistent with Calvinism.  I would like to suggest to both sides that what is really going on in this whole controversy over Bell’s Love Wins is another round of the old Calvinist versus Arminian debate.

What to you think?

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