Rob Bell, Peanuts, and Why Theology Doesn’t Save

Thank you, Charles Schulz.

I needed to say that first.

So, I think much of Rob Bell’s theology, particularly in books of his like Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is riddled with confusion and error. His positions often seem unclear. When questioned about what he’s written, his muddled answers only add to the uncertainty people have about his beliefs. Either his thinking is this murky or he’s simply being disingenuous. Whatever the case, while there is (or has been) much about Bell I do appreciate and admire, I’d have a hard time making the case that he is an orthodox evangelical. Certainly most prominent evangelical leaders have written him off as a false teacher and heretic.

I say all this, but I still might meet Rob Bell in heaven. Despite my objections to his stance on the doctrine of hell and his affirmation of same-sex marriage, he might very well still be my brother in Christ. And like others in this life who vehemently disagree with Bell over biblical interpretation, I just might have to spend eternity with him.

There’s only one reason I can say this. And it’s not that theology or theological beliefs are unimportant. Our beliefs are incredibly vital; profoundly so, in fact. How we think shapes how we live. What we believe shapes our actions. More significantly, there are beliefs that are true and some that are not. Truth matters to how we live, to how we worship, to our relationships with one another and with God.

So there’s still only one reason I can say that I might have to share eternity with Rob Bell. And the reason is: my theology is not what saves me.

If theology is really important to you, you might want to sit down and breathe. I will explain.

Part of what I want to say is that each of us has an imperfect, incomplete, even sinful theology. None of us has it altogether right. Between what we believe and what is truly the case there is a gap, a space that we will never be able to cross this side of the new heaven and new earth.

There is also a distinction between what I believe in my head and what God is doing and has done in my heart and in my life. Plenty of us were saved without having our creeds and confessions memorized and without having written a flawless statement of faith. Those of us who are followers of Jesus spend a lifetime growing in our theological understanding and maturity. Some of us never get past the basics of middle-school Sunday school lessons; others of us may end up wrestling with the theological giants of church history. Either way, the extent of our knowledge doesn’t necessarily determine our spiritual position or our spiritual maturity. I have Christian brothers and sisters much wiser than I am, even though I have studied theology at the graduate school level. That this can be the case is likely no surprise to anyone.

So, again, it is not what I believe that saves me. I can have impeccable theology. My grasp of biblical history might be disturbingly accurate. But I could be far from God. Intellectual pride might be an obstacle to repentance. Academic acumen is no barometer with respect to my relationship with God.

All that said, there remains a connection between theological beliefs and our relationship with God. Obviously, if I do not believe I need to repent of my sins but instead think that my good only needs to outweigh my wrongdoing, then this might be an indicator of where my relationship with God might be. If I think that human beings are intrinsically good, then my ears might very well be deaf to the gospel save God’s willingness to open them wide to his proclamation.

In any event, it is not the act of my believing in something that redeems me. Similarly, it is not my increasingly clear understanding of biblical Christology or my growing grasp of Trinitarian doctrine that restores me to God. Rather, these beliefs name (or try to name) who God is and what he has done to make such restoration possible.

One of the reasons I even wanted to flesh these thoughts out (and no doubt imperfectly) is that I often see Christians from one identifiable camp or tribe labeling believers from another group or camp. The tone of the discussion gives the impression that because so and so believes (or at least seems to believe) this that there is no way they will enjoy being in the presence of the Creator God for all eternity.

But while it’s true that someone’s theology might be all wonky, I think we need to stop short of judging their relationship with God. Yes, enter a theological debate with them. Ask hard questions. Press for clarification. But always do so in a winsome, kind, and gracious way. And even if we think that given their theology there’s simply no way they could be genuinely Christian, I think we should keep such judgments to ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I know full well that the Bible is clear that we are to watch our life and our doctrine closely. I know that there are basic beliefs that are non-negotiable. What bothers me is what seems at times to be a lack of humility in intra-Christian debate. There are participants who always appear so sure of their positions and therefore of the erroneous beliefs of their opponents. I’m not sure this approach either furthers dialogue or provides a sound witness to a watching world.

All I know is that there has to be a balance between standing up for theological truth and integrity and demonstrating humility and grace in doing so. Speaking the truth in love ought to be our approach. Speaking with the person you disagree with and not simply about them might be a start.

In the NT becoming one of the saved doesn’t appear to require absolute theological correctness. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Or as Jesus tells us, Repent, and believe in the good news. Theological maturation proceeds from rather than precedes conversion.

There is much in my own theology that is unfinished, wrong, and, no doubt, silly, influenced by culture, tainted by my own sinfulness, and in need, therefore, of repair and clarification. Whether or not my theology is closer to God’s truth than that of Rob Bell’s theology may be beside the point. Theology may in some sense be foundational but it is not fundamental. Our minds are to be transformed and renewed, yes, but this will happen to each of us with varying degrees of maturity and depth over the course of our lives.

Of course, in the end growing in our theological understanding takes intention and willingness on our part, the desire to grow in our knowledge of the God who has made us and redeemed us in Christ. And I dare say the presence of this desire to grow in our understanding of God because of his love for us says more about our relationship with God than does the level or quality of our understanding.

 

 

 

 

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