Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A couple of book reviews about books about hell

Our local denominational pastor cluster decided to read a book and discuss it together. Somebody suggested reading Love Wins, Rob Bell's recent book about hell and eternity. Somebody else suggested we read Francis Chan's Erasing Hell, which was written as a response to Bell, too; the idea being it would be interesting to get both points of view before having the discussion. And so we did.

Quickly. . .

Rob Bell asks good questions. He asks the questions many Christians are afraid to ask. He challenges long-held beliefs, but in a gentle, winsome, inviting way. He invites people into the discussion in a friendly, folksy way. And he makes you think.

He also tends to shy away from direct answers, which leaves some people feeling irritated. Bell pushes the conversation in certain directions that lead to certain conclusions, but he never flat out says "here's the answer." He leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Still, he challenges the traditional understanding of hell and eternity, making the case that it is both untenable and unbiblical, the idea that the God we worship would torture people in hell for all of eternity simply because they never found Christ in the short time they had on earth. And yes, he does deal with the biblical texts, this isn't just Bell opining on his personal opinions. If you want to listen and stretch, you might find yourself agreeing with much of what he says.

Then again, there's this.

Francis Chan supports a much more traditional understanding of hell. While not agreeing with Dante's vision of flaming dungeons and devils with pitchforks, Chan peruses scripture and sees truth in the common doctrine of hell as eternal, conscious punishment for those who don't receive Christ in this lifetime. He responds to Bell and other non-traditionalists, dismantling their arguments against hell. And he makes it quite personal, as he wrestles with his own seeming lack of passion to share Christ while believing so many are destined for eternal torment.

So here's my take: Reading Bell is fascinating and interesting, in that it requires some thinking to understand where he's heading; it's new territory, which at least keeps things intriguing. And, unless one simply reads Love Wins in order to attack Bell, it does force the reader to rethink their own beliefs on both the scriptural texts and the nature of the God we worship. On the other hand, Bell doesn't deal so well with the larger corpus of theological understandings of hell. He makes it clear that nobody could ever talk of God's glory and hell in the same sentence, when, in fact, our Reformed brothers and sisters do that very thing. A fact which Bell seems to ignore or forget.

On the other hand, reading Chan is like retaking a class in Bible College 101. He simply rehashes the common understandings of the texts and seems incredulous that anybody might interpret them differently. For a subject so important, the book reads like "Hell for Dummies," a quick overview that never really wrestles with possible alternate understandings or readings.

I realized while reading these books that it became a nice example of my last book review, Clark Pinnock's The Scripture Principle. Because in the end, while it appears these two are arguing scripture, it's really a hermeneutical argument. Bell is beginning big picture, trying to understand God and then read scripture in light of who God is. Chan is beginning in the minutia of individual verses and working outward to try to understand what God must be like. Both views have some validity; without saying I agree with the outcome, I will say I appreciated Bell's approach more.

In the end, there are better books on the subject, although these two might be the most accessible. If you've never given much thought to the theology of hell, and would like a quick introduction, these books would be a good place to start. If you really want to be challenged to think through the subject, there are many books that are much more comprehensive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An initial thought on a violent week

You're right, it's not guns. And it's not violence in our movies and television shows. And it's not violent video games and violent music. And it's not the breakup of the family. And it's not a particular mental condition. And it's not about the death of religion in America. And it's not about the inherent alienation so prevalent in teen culture. And it's not the way electronics have supplanted real relationships. And it's not the urbanization of society. And it's not all the chemicals we've been pumping into the environment. And it's not the dehumanizing work of advertising. And it's not an American tendency toward retribution and violence in response to perceived insult. So let's not talk about any of those things.

Instead, it is:

guns AND violence in our movies and television shows AND violent video games AND violent music AND the breakup of the family AND our inability to deal with mental illnesses AND the disappearance of religion in America AND the inherent alienation so prevalent in teen culture AND the way electronics have supplanted real relationships AND the urbanization of society AND all the chemicals we've been pumping into the environment AND the dehumanizing work of advertising AND the American tendency toward violence in response to perceived insult.

So let's talk about ALL of those things together, because they are all part of the problem, and they all need to be addressed if we want to find a solution.

(feel free to add your own items to the list, if you think it's helpful).

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: The Scripture Principle

Over the years, I've come to recognize that most disputes about theology, doctrine, and practice stem not from misunderstanding the Bible itself. So often when we debate and discuss doctrinal issues we spend our time pitting verse against verse, or debating original intent, or attempting to work through translation issues.

In reality, as I've come to realize, it's not the Bible that's the problem, and it's not even our understanding (or lack thereof) of the biblical text. Disagreement comes at a much more fundamental level - how we read the text in the first place.

It's a question of hermeneutic - how do we approach scripture? What assumptions do we bring? Through what lenses are we reading the texts? I find that, more and more, when I debate theology or practice I first have to have a discussion along the lines of "but how do you approach the text in the first place?" Otherwise we spend all our time throwing verses at each other, when in reality we're not even understanding those verses the same way.

In The Scripture Principle, Clark Pinnock attempts to lay out a coherent hermeneutic, a healthy, appropriate way of understanding and reading the biblical texts. And I found it extremely helpful.

For too long, the debate has been between fundamentalists and liberals, inerrantists and critics. For the last 100 years, these two camps have attempted to claim the high ground in reading and understanding the biblical texts. The liberal, critic-minded approach has been to claim human reason, insight, logic, and intelligence over the scripture. The Bible is a human collection of fables and legends, worth reading and studying if only to get a better understanding of the human experience, but anything divine or supernatural is automatically thrown out. The conservative, inerrantist approach has been to claim a complete Divine authorship, as if God penned the Bible as the One Perfect expression of all Truth. Any mention of supposed contradiction, any possibility of error, any challenge to historicity or scientific explanation is tantamount to heresy and proof of evil intent.

The problem, according to Pinnock, is that both approach the Bible from the same position - both become academic discussions and debates about the text, both attempt to push the Bible into human constructs, both seek to control the Bible. In neither case is the Bible given the authority it both claims and deserves for itself. "The Bible is not so interested in our academically proving as in our holistically seeing the truth, in our believing the gospel and actually obeying God."

In The Scripture Principle, Pinnock challenges both sides of the discussion, attempting to find a healthy middle ground. Ultimately, says Pinnock, the only proper response to the Bible is to submit to it, as it stands as God's revelation over us.

Two issues stood out as key for me in reading this book. First, Pinnock frames the Scripture Principle in terms of the Incarnation. Jesus was fully God present on earth. Jesus is the way to the Father. Jesus is the One in whom salvation is found. Jesus was divinity incarnate, able to lead the way to glory. Jesus revealed God's plan, Jesus spoke truth to all who would listen, Jesus performed miracles and so laid claim to the full authority of God. At the same time, Jesus was fully human. Jesus got tired. When he was cut, Jesus bled. Jesus could become irritated. Jesus had human skin that would scar when damaged. Jesus used all manner of stories and teaching methods. Jesus told fables. Jesus was very much "of the earth." God could have come in all Divine Glory and smacked us a good one. Instead, God chose to come in frail human form. We don't have to like it or even make sense of it, but it's what God did, so we can only accept it.

So, too, should we see scripture, according to Pinnock. Held within its pages is truth, is the revelation of God's plan; held within is the power to lead seekers to salvation, the power to give sight to the blind. The Bible speaks truth to all who will listen, the Bible claims the authority of God. And yet, the Bible was penned by humans. Humans who wrote out of anger, and love, and despair, and doubt, and joy. The Bible uses all manner of methods including stories and fables and arguments; the Bible is full of 'untruths' (think of Job's friends). The Bible reveals a progressive awareness of God's work, leading from the dim awareness of Abraham up through the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus. The Bible was written by specific men and women in specific cultures in specific locations at specific times in history. The Bible is full of seeming contradictions (the warlike OT God vs. the peace-making of Jesus; Paul commanding women to be silent, and then explaining how they should present themselves when speaking in public). This is the Bible we have. We don't have to like it, and we probably spend too much time trying to make sense of it, but it's how God has given it to us, so we can only accept it.

Secondly, Pinnock is clear about the role of the Spirit in wrestling with the text. Our understanding of the text is borne out of the wrestling between the Inspired Word and our human attempt at reading it. The Biblical world and our own worlds collide, and in that place, the Spirit continues to bring life and meaning. Sometimes that meaning is the same as the original writing; sometimes the Spirit brings new meaning to light. This is seen in the NT writings, as the authors mined the OT texts and found much there that was new in the light of Christ. It was true when Martin Luther, wrestling with Paul's teachings in Romans, suddenly understand the doctrine of grace in a new and clearer light. It may even be true of us today as we find teachings that apply to 21st century society that were unknown to men and women in the 1st century. But all of this comes, according to Pinnock, under two conditions. It comes when readers submit themselves to the texts, giving the texts the place of authority that we too often claim for ourselves, and it comes when the Spirit is alive and active in the reader. Thus, Pinnock would argue, we would never expect non-Christian critics to grasp the greater truths found within the pages of Scripture, as these are only truly revealed by the Spirit to Christ's followers.

Ultimately, Pinnock is clear that none of this discussion is worthwhile if it allows us to keep scripture at a distance. "God speaks through the Bible, not to make us scholars and scientists, but to put us in a right relationship with God and to give us such a religious understanding of the world and history that we can grasp everything better."

Both the liberal and conservative will find themselves challenged in the pages of The Scripture Principle; both, I believe, would be drawn to a healthier respect for each other, and for the Bible itself, if they wrestled with Pinnock's suggestions. It's actually a fairly healthy representation of the Evangelical Covenant Church's position on scripture; we claim the Bible as the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct, while not trying to pigeon-hole it into a specific doctrine of inerrancy or inspiration.

I should say this - The Scripture Principle is not an easy read; this is seminary-level stuff, but it certainly is worth the time and effort put into it.