Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Authority to Question

My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?

Eugene Peterson on the Bell-Hell controversy:
I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says. But I think they’re worth saying. I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people. I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.
The whole interview is short, and really worth a read for its concise power. But because of its conciseness, many of Bell's detractors seem overly-confused. So let me try to clarify.

Questions. Are. Biblical.

To not allow questions is un-Godly.

Peterson is not saying that if you don't agree with Rob Bell's conclusions, then you are a moron in need of a shrink. Nor is he arguing the time-worn Na-na-nana-boo-boo defense. Pastor Peterson is merely stating the fact that dogmatism has no room in a living, breathing community.

Disagreementphoto © 2009 Scott McLeod | more info (via: Wylio)

See, in the end it doesn't truly matter what our beliefs on hell are* - because they are not central to the Gospel. Jesus is. And Jesus and God are bigger than our questions, bigger than our doubts, bigger than our insecurities, and bigger than our securities.

The bible is God's story with us. And as it is the finite and limited and suffering and broken humanity coming into contact with the infinite and great and holy God, it leaves us with many, many questions. Not nice questions. Not tidy questions. Not easily answered questions. And certainly not binary, yes-or-no questions.

rika is © 2008 ryuu ji | more info (via: Wylio)Anybody who thinks differently either has his ears and eyes closed to the suffering of the world (think Japan. Think of the thousands dying this morning from starvation while we suffocate on pizza. Think of bombs or mines going off on children this afternoon. Think of cancer-survivors in your family. Think of abandoned and neglected on your block), or has her eyes and ears closed to half of the Bible.

The searing suffering of Job and the Psalms. The madness of Ecclesiastes. The Father of Nations who dared ask the Lord to spare Sodom. The Jesus who dared ask his Father to spare his fate.

To ask questions of authority - whether that authority is God or the Church Fathers or, in this case, a particular strain of Catholic and Protestant theology - is necessary. It's part of our Christian walk as we follow the steps of Jesus.

But to tell us that we can't ask questions?...

A place where there is certitude - as Peterson notes, perhaps a bit irritably - is when Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his day. Not for being lax, not for their questions. But because they put restrictions on the people which limit their access to God (whom Jesus himself delivers them to):
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them...
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
Matthew 23
A favorite passage of the Doctrinal Police, however, is in Galatians 1:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
But the immediate and proper context makes it clear that this isn't about points of doctrine (which is unfortunately how it became standardly interpreted in the Greek-and-Roman-influenced West), it's about more burdens between Jesus and his followers. For instance, in the next chapter we find this:
You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law...
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. (NLT)
But of course you don't need to go there or the next chapter, since just before the curse verse is this gem:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.**
It's Christ - Jesus - who is in the center of this all. It's not Christ's gospel, per se. And it's certainly not, "My interpretation of the Bible." It's the Good News of the Ascension of the New and Real Lord, Jesus Christ.

Now: why do I care? I'm not a pastor. I don't have a financial stake in the Evangelical field. Why am I up at the Lordforsakenhourof 1:30am writing this?

I can't help it. Christians are my family - brothers and sisters. Even when we have spats. Even when I disagree strongly with my literal blood brothers, we're still familia. So I want to go beyond the simple talking points and certainly beyond the anger and frustration. (not so sure I can do so at 1:30, though...). Galatians 3 saiz:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
* I don't want to say they're not important. They are. But they're not the end-game. They're not the litmus test. There is no indication of that whatsoever in the Bible and to point to that being the case is stretching.
** All the translations are in NIV unless otherwise mentioned.


  1. Yes, questions are biblical. If you could search on question marks in the gospels Jesus would have far more than anyone else! But answers are equally biblical.

    Yes, the Pharisees placed severe limits on how people get to God. But so did Jesus and Paul. The very text that you quoted states that a person is made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ. That is very limiting. Bell's book tells us that you can deny Jesus Christ and hate the gospel and eventually you will get to God anyway.

  2. What question is Rob Bell asking? I saw him answer a bunch of questions. And what a lot of nonsense came out of his mouth! And I mean that. Non-sense. It made no sense. She'd ask him a question and he'd ramble on for five minutes without answering her question but just making stuff up.

  3. "Blogs have more room for people to disagree with you..."

  4. Dean, you said:
    The very text that you quoted states that a person is made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

    ABSOLUTELY!! That's exactly my point! That's why I bolded the parts about "in Jesus." Jesus is the center of the faith. He is our faith. Amen!

    That is very limiting.

    Well... I'm sorry you feel that way. I (and Paul and Jesus and the apostles and Luther even seem to all agree, imho) think that faith in Christ is rather very freeing. But if you like to carry heavy burdens, go on ahead.

    Just please don't wear us down with your need.

  5. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Blogger ate my first comment. Rather than trying to reconstruct it, let me ask this, Jasdye, since clearly asking questions is acceptable: how is using terms like doctrine police and dogma in conjunction with the people/positions with which you disagree, not in contradiction with your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ?


  6. Sorry that blogger at your comment, Rebecca. it likes to do that. Bad Blogger! Bad!

    As per your question, once again, I have no problem with the positions themselves. I have not made a decision in regards to the hell issue, but I'm seriously thinking it over. (More on that later, perhaps) So it's not like I really care what position the Eastern Orthodox, the Neo-Reformed, Rob Bell, NT Wright, or Joe Blow holds. I'm not going to withhold fellowship from one person or another because of a difference of opinion. That would be putting a gate in the Kingdom of God that God hasn't put up.

    The problem is the attitude that says that we are not allowed to hold different positions. That's dogma and doctrinal policing. That's putting a gate and fence up. Whereas Jesus said that HE is the door.

    Does that make sense?

  7. Anonymous2:21 PM

    let's be honest - the idea of a God who sends the majority of people to suffer forever due to their actions for 70 years is an idea you can't help but question. Even if someone lands right back where they started - agreeing with that doctrine/idea - it is making such a crazy claim that you have to question it. You have to wonder if there is a better, more gracious one. That is what I wish the Rob Bell haters would understand - of course someone would question it. So let them! Part of me wonders if they don't want them to question it because they are nervous where they will land.

    I also agree it is hard to believe that God would punish one of his followers because they didn't have a correct view of hell.

  8. I think that if all of the people critiquing Rob Bell's interviews were forced to be interviewed on live television by people who only asked yes/no questions that assumed incorrect conditions, they would find that they could come off pretty poor as well.

    But then, Bell has stated quite openly that he interviews very badly, and he reacts badly to surprises.

  9. Dean, have you ever considered reading the passage in Galatians to read "the faith of Jesus Christ" instead of "faith in Jesus Christ"? That we are saved not by identifying the correct object of faith, but by what Jesus Christ himself did, whether we or the whole world are aware of it or not?

  10. I agree, whole-heartedly, with your post! I have nine children and over the past 23 years as a father, I've learned that asking questions is a fundamental part of growing up. There's been plenty of times when it's drove me crazy, but it has always been worthwhile, in the end. It is one integral facet of how our children learn.

    So it is, I think, with our spiritual growth. I remember several times when Jesus appeared exasperated at the disciple's questions, but he was patient because he knew that they would grow thereby. Any approach to the faith that discourages the asking of questions is only going to lead to stunted growth. There are many things, in my walk with God, that I have not understood. Some of these were deal breakers. If I could not have asked the questions, been allowed to wrestle with the answers, I don't think I would be where I am today.

    Fact is, God is not threatened by our questions, neither should we be. If someone is asking questions, they are thinking about their faith. And while there is a mystical dimension to our faith, where what we feel and experience can not necessarily be put into words, there is a portion of our faith that can and should be articulated in thoughts and words. How else could we facilitate the "renewing of our minds, proving or examining what is right and good?" (ro 12:2)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  11. "dogmatism has no room in a living, breathing community."

    I dunno Jason... you sound pretty dogmatic about that ;o)

  12. Consider it a parameter then, um.. Batman. (don't worry, your secret's safe with me, Steve ;) )

  13. Christopher,

    You have nine children??

    May the Lord bless you and keep you. May his face always shine down upon you...


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