Monday, February 19, 2007

Ben Witherington on Rob Bell

Dr. Ben Witherington attended a presentation given by Rob Bell (of Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids Michigan) at the University of Kentucky's Singletary Auditorium recently and commented on his blog about what he thought of that presentation. Rob Bell is best known for his Nooma Videos and his book "Velvet Elvis". Below is a small segment of Dr. Witherington's thoughts on Bell, both positive and negative. For the full post by Dr. Witherington click HERE.

There are a variety of things to commend about Rob and his two books "Velvet Elvis" and "Sex God". They often raise the right sort of questions, and it is clear that Rob connects well with the 20 something crowds. He is an engaging dialogue partner, and witty at times. I especially appreciate how self-effacing he is in his books in dealing with issues like his own struggles for example with depression. He is good at the relational level of things, and one can readily see that he has some pastoral skills. He also has some teaching skills as well. I am thankful that he takes the Bible seriously, and that he seeks to understand it in its original Jewish context. And he has some justified complaints about modernity and its world view as well. It seems clear that God is using him to reach a wide variety of young people, perhaps many who are not darkening the doors of church or can't relate to traditional church. The videos are engaging from a cinematographic and musical point of view, and there is content which is challenging, and not just fluff.

Having spoken of the promise of his writings and speaking engagements and videos, it is necessary in all fairness to turn around and talk about the problems. I will stick to a few major ones in the way he handles the Bible and issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. First of all it seems clear that Rob, in his valid attempt to read Jesus and the NT writers in the context of early Judaism, has not used good enough sources to really help him understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries A.D, and later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism.
Jesus was certainly not a rabbi in the later Mishnaic sense, much less like modern ordained rabbis. It is telling that the only time Jesus is ever really called rabbi by any of his followers is when Judas does so when he is betraying Jesus with a kiss. Jesus' approach to the Torah is not like later rabbis in various ways, not the least of which is that he does not cite (indeed he often contrasts his teaching with) the oral traditions of the elders, such as Hillel or Shammai and the like. Jesus spoke on his own independent authority. At times Rob seems too uncritical in his reading of sources like the truly dated works of Alfred Edersheim, and apparently he spends too much time listening to folks like Ray Vanderlaan, a local teacher in the Grand Rapids area who doesn't really much understand the differences between medieval Jewish rabbis and the context and ethos of teachers in early Judaism of Jesus' day. Rob needs to read some viable sources on early Judaism, for example some of the work of Craig Evans or George Nickelsburg or Jacob Neusner if he wants to paint the picture of the Jewish Jesus using the right hews, tones, and features.

The second problem area is ethics, which became very apparent tonight when Rob Bell was asked about homosexuality. His answers was evasive in part, and disturbing in other parts, and clearly unBiblical in other parts and in this he sounds like some other leaders in the Emergent Church movement. Some specifics should be mentioned.

First of all, Rob made the blanket statement that you have no moral authority to speak on this issue unless you have gay friends and understand their struggle. While I am all for having pastoral empathy with people and their struggles, on that showing, Paul should never have spoken on this issue at all. This comment by Rob is simply an unhelpful way of silencing important voices in a divisive conversation, and its not helpful. Indeed it goes against the whole M.O. of Rob himself, which is to honor other people's views and beliefs and questions.

Secondly, Rob then makes an argument from silence which is in fact misleading. The argument is this--- "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality". This is not quite true. Jesus took all sorts of sexual sin very seriously, even adultery of the heart, as Rob admits, and so it is no surprise then that we find Jesus telling his disciples in Mt. 19 that they have only two legitimate options: 1) marital fidelity (with marriage being defined as a relationship between one man and one woman joined together by God which leads to a one flesh union), or 2) being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom.

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dt said...

Chris--Fantastic post. As a Rob Bell fan is was interesting to hear a contrasting (but fair) critique of his work. dt

J. K. Jones said...

Good post. I also enjoy Bell's conversational style. I find it an interesting read, with some perspectives I share. What realy bothers me is Bell's perspective on what the Bible is about.

Rob says, “…this is why the Bible loses its power for so many communities. They fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible is just about things that happened a long time ago. / But the Bible is about today. / These stories are our stories. They are alive and active and teaching us about our lives in our world, today.” This view directly impaces salvation, our right standing before God. Let me clarify.

Jesus was clear in saying that the entire Bible was about Him (Luke 24:25-26). The intent is for us to know certain facts about things Christ did in the past and their bearing on us today. There is a reason for this. Our salvation; our right standing before God, eternal life, fellowship with God, and everything else that goes with it; was earned for us in the past. It was accomplished 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. We add nothing to this work. We through our faith are credited with what Christ did, and He is credited with our sin to suffer for (2 Cor. 5:21). If the Bible is not primarily about what happened in the past, then it is not about what Christ did for us in the past. If the Bible is primarily about our here and now, it is not about those things which earn our salvation.

I will continue to read your blog. Well done.

J. K.

mrclm said...

Thanks JK! This is the reason I like Mark Driscoll actually. He preaches the Bible -Genesis through Revelations- as being about Jesus. He's right, and so are you!

Thanks for visiting

Big Chris