The epistemology of Team Hell

The epistemology of Team Hell March 2, 2011

What I particularly like about that Rob Bell video that caused all the ruckus this weekend is the way Bell grounds his discussion in the character of God.“What is God like?” Bell asks.

Not, mind you, “What does God like?” or, worse, “Who does God like?” but “What is God like?” What do we know of the character of God and how do we know it?

The Christian answer to both of those questions is, as that word Christian suggests, based on Christ — on Jesus of Nazareth, on the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and teachings, his parables and parabolic acts, and especially on his death and resurrection. I suspect that much of what has people so angry with Bell is that this is how he seems to be approaching these questions. “What do we know of the character of God?” We know what we see in the story of Jesus Christ. “How do we know what we know of the character of God?” It is revealed to us through the story of Jesus Christ.

By addressing those questions in that way, Bell has inadvertently offended the many American evangelicals who would answer them differently. They would say the Bible is the ultimate revelation and authority for Christians — the only sufficient, necessary and infallible source of certainty and clarity. This is why they’re likely to describe themselves not merely as “Christians” — a term suggesting, again, that Christ is the center — but as “Bible-believing Christians,” which is wordier, but more euphonious than “Biblians” or some such more precise term.

Bell’s question — “What is God like?” — is wholly different from the question they are asking — “What is the source of authority?” And the difference there suggests why this disagreement is likely to get heated. Not only are we looking at two different and divergent inquiries, but two different and ultimately incompatible epistemologies. Disputes involving competing epistemologies tend to get heated because by definition they involve two sides that are unable to agree not just on the correct answer, but on what constitutes a correct answer.

In that sense, Team Hell was right not to wait to read Bell’s book before jumping all over him for what they suspect he says in it. They already know that whatever position he arrives at, whatever answer he gives, he is doing so on the basis of some other approach than the one they are using — the one they insist is the only right and acceptable and authoritative approach — the “authority of scripture.”

I tried yesterday to approach this question on their terms — applying the same language and something like the same epistemology that the Bible-beaters beating Bell with their Bibles are using. But that attempt was bound to fail — bound not to be persuasive to those committed to the naive claim of dependence solely on the authority of scripture.

Appealing to the text won’t work when we’re reading the text in such disparate ways that we might as well not even think of it as the same text. I’m trying to show how three 2,000-year-old stories — or, really, three variations of a single 2,000-year-old story — cannot be read as support for what they call the “literal” existence of Hell because these stories aren’t about that. They’re about ethics and redemption and the indivisible relationship between the two. But that’s not what they see when they read these stories. They don’t even seem to regard them as stories, but rather as “authoritative” doctrinal propositions. And seeing as those authoritative propositions contain words like “Hell” and “torment” and “lake of fire,” that’s all the authority they need as confirmation.

Bell’s approach, likewise, is bound to fail with this audience. “Is the doctrine of Hell compatible with the character of God as revealed in the story of Jesus Christ?” will meet with the same response as any other question: Concordance, proof-text, wham! — authoritative answer.

“Did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?” N.T. Wright asked rhetorically, apparently expecting the answer would be “No.” But “the application of biblical authority” is being done in exactly that way. The old dead-tree concordances have been replaced by searchable online texts, allowing evangelicals to seek out “biblical authority” by behaving as though they themselves were nothing more than “well-programmed computers.” (Or, rather, poorly programmed computers. Like some early beta version of “Eliza,” actually.)

Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, and a prolific writer of both scholarly and popular theological books, asked that question in a 1989 lecture titled “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?

That lecture provides a patient and thoughtful example of how to attempt engaging the other side in a conflict involving competing epistemologies.

Since Wright is better at this than I am, and since what he has to say here seems rather relevant to our discussion of the clash between Love Wins and Team Hell, allow me to excerpt a longish bit from Wright here:

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. “Authority” is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

… The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look. In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions. (1) How can any text function as authoritative? Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder. (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative? … (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began “Once upon a time …”?

… the regular views of scripture and its authority … inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is  — a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by turning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it. I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better. …

… We discover, as we look at the Bible itself, that God’s model of authority is not like that of the managing director over the business, not like that of the governing body over the college, not like that of the police or the law courts who have authority over society. There is a more subtle thing going on. God is not simply organizing the world in a certain way such as we would recognize from any of those human models. [God] is organizing it — if that’s the right word at all — through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit. And the notion of God’s authority, which we have to understand before we understand what we mean by the authority of scripture, is based on the fact that this God is the loving, wise, creator, redeemer God. And [God’s] authority is [God’s] sovereign exercise of those powers; [God’s] love and wise creations and redemption. What is [God] doing? [God] is not simply organizing the world. [God] is, as we see and know in Christ and by the Spirit, judging and remaking [God’s] world. What [God] does authoritatively [God] does with this intent. God is not a celestial information service to whom you can apply for answers on difficult questions. Nor is [God] a heavenly ticket agency to whom you can go for moral or doctrinal permits or passports to salvation. [God] does not stand outside the human process and merely comment on it or merely issue you with certain tickets that you might need. Those views would imply either a deist’s God or a legalist’s God, not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. And it must be said that a great many views of biblical authority imply one or other of those sub-Christian alternatives.

But, once we say that God’s authority is like that, we find that there is a challenge issued to the world’s view of authority and to the church’s view of authority. Authority is not the power to control people, and crush them, and keep them in little boxes. The church often tries to do that — to tidy people up. Nor is the Bible as the vehicle of God’s authority meant to be information for the legalist. … Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human. That’s what God is in the business of doing. That is what [God’s] authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like “authority of scripture” that is what we ought to be meaning. It is an authority with this shape and character, this purpose and goal.

(Please don’t settle for this excerpt. Go read the whole thing — his musing on how a narrative might be “authoritative” is particularly fascinating.)

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