Monday, March 7, 2011

Who Says Rob Bell is a Heretic?

If you haven't heard, evangelical pastor Rob Bell is being accused of heresy. But not by the CDF (though they probably would if he was Catholic).

It hasn't even come out yet, but other evangelicals are accusing him of heresy, or at least calling him a false teacher, based on what appears to be some sort of universalist stance (according to the promo-video and publisher's description) in his up-coming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

It may be too early to tell if Rob Bell truly is a universalist. But I have found the evangelical backlash as being, frankly, very revealing of how bankrupt sola scriptura is. This is because, if Rob Bell were Catholic, and if he is actually putting forward some kind of universalism, then he would indeed be teaching heresy...

...but I can say that as a Catholic because I believe that God has placed an organization here on earth to make such a determination. And universalism has indeed been rejected by that organization, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

It's not simply my opinion of what Scripture teaches against Bell's. We Catholics believe that Jesus gave his apostles authority, which was passed down through apostolic succession to the Magisterium of the present day, to settle just these kinds of disputes. But subtract the Magisterium from the picture, as evangelicals have done, and these kinds of disputes can be no more than just that, differences of opinion.

Yes, evangelicals want to base everything on the Bible, but I'm sure Rob Bell quotes (and perhaps twists) Scripture in his book, which means evangelicals who disagree with his conclusions have a limited number of options.

First, evangelicals can enter into respectful debate with Rob Bell on a level playing field. They can produce arguments with the hopes of showing Bell the error of his ways. Maybe they'll convince him, maybe not. But if not, which I think is most likely, I'm sure that the evangelicals who are upset by Bell will not be content to agree to disagree. Surely, many people will be misled, or at least confused, by someone as prominent as Bell teaching something like universalism. Such evangelicals rightly see universalism as attacking the heart of the gospel and not something that can be left to the realm of non-essentials. Which leaves them with the other options:

Next, when biblical arguments (even correct ones) fail to persuade, evangelicals can cite Christian history - which is exactly what one prominent evangelical, Justin Taylor, did. A CNN article reports:

"Though [there are] many things that separate Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, 'this isn’t one of them,' Taylor said. 'We’ve historically agreed on many things, the person of Christ, heaven and hell. This isn’t a peripheral academic debate...' "

I've heard a similar argument used by evangelicals against the acceptance of homosexual behavior by Christians. This is what Christians have always believed, they argue. Evangelicals are learning what Catholics learned a long time ago. Since we believe that God's full revelation occurred at a point in history, with no need to be added to, when disputes arise we should favor the older doctrine over the newer one. This is partly what Catholics are doing when they cite what they call Tradition.

The problem with evangelicals ever citing "the historically Christian view", however, is that they've already rejected a large number of historically Christian beliefs. They've already rejected parts of the historic Bible, apostolic succession, the Councils, the Mass, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, regenerative baptism, all of the sacraments, the infusion understanding of justification, the traditional view of sex and marriage, everything about Mary and the saints, and the use of icons in worship, to name a few. If a person wants to be in line with what has been historically Christian, evangelicalism is the wrong place to be.

When presented with arguments from history, Rob Bell can give the same reply that other evangelicals give regarding the beliefs just listed: I don't care what the Church says or what has been passed down in the Tradition, I'm going to follow (my own interpretation of) the Bible.

There's still one option left: an evangelical can just simply declare Rob Bell as wrong. No need to humbly say that one reads Scripture differently, but just that Bell is wrong. And this is what Justin Taylor has done. Taylor has come right out and declared Bell "a false teacher".

But what gives Taylor, or any other evangelical, the authority to declare something like that? In other words, who put him in charge? Just because someone might be a popular, or even a well-respected evangelical leader, it doesn't give them to the authority to decide definitively what is or is not God's teaching.

And some evangelicals realize this. They see that being humble means not imposing one's own interpretation. But others, rightly convinced that universalism is uncompromisingly wrong, but finding themselves with no living authority on which to fall back, will take themselves (or their favorite leader) as the authority by which to condemn everyone who disagrees. Thus, as I argued back when I first started this blog, sola scriptura tends toward either pluralism or fundamentalism.

When I was at Wheaton College, the "Harvard of evangelical schools", I had an evangelical friend once lament to me how the theology teachers would never just come out and call something heresy. They always simply presented different sides of the debate, maybe "showed their cards" and let you know their viewpoint, but always left the door open for you make your own decision. I told him that what he was desiring was the God-given authority of the Catholic Church.

And the authority of the Catholic Church is exactly what evangelicals need in this situation: an authority, not just a human authority, but one with real authority from God, to step in, stand up for the truth, and legitimately declare for us what is and is not heresy.