I recently came across an article questioning one particular historical statement which Rob Bell made in his book, Love Wins.
The article was written by Carl Trueman and the offending statement is a quote from Martin Luther, which Carl says is taken out of context.
The accusation: Rob is using Luther’s remark to suggest theological ideas which Luther’s context does not entertain or allow. To use Carl’s words…
It is illegitimate to take a small quotation from a single letter and use it to extrapolate to a person’s general theology.
Carl does admit that taking remarks out of context is not an error of grave proportions and he refers to Rob as mischievous not malicious but that begs the question. If he really thinks that, then why would a notable figure such as he give public attention to a trivial issue?
Before I say more you need to know something about Carl. He is a highly qualified individual to be sure. In fact, it is his educational and professional “context” that give us pause. Why would such a highly qualified individual question Rob on an historical issue when the whole world is livid over Rob’s theology? Although qualified to do so, Carl mentions no particular theological topics and humbly bows out deferring to others:
Now, I do not wish to comment on the theology of Bell’s book. Others will no doubt do so with much greater competence and insight than I could ever muster.
False humility? Possibly.
Make no mistake about it, Carl is well informed theologically. If he wanted to speak to these issues he is more than able and since theology is the problem it makes one wonder. There may be motives behind the motive.
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Before he actually makes an argument about Rob’s contextual misstep he plainly says:
My interest…is historical and concerns a specific claim he makes relative to the thought of Martin Luther.
I’m not convinced. Read on and you will see that Rob’s remark was not misleading, did not misrepresent Luther’s belief and it didn’t ignore the elephant in the room which Carl’s criticism almost hypocritically does do.
Here’s the scoop on Carl.
Born in the United Kingdom, he received his MA at St. Catherine’s College, his PhD at the University of Aberdeen (1991) and has held several teaching positions. He joined the staff at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2001 and still holds the position of Professor of Historical Theology and Church History and holds the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History.
The most telling observation from that brief bio is, Carl is a Calvinist. He is reformed. He teaches at a reformed school. His articles are found on Reformation21.org and The Gospel Coalition both of which are internet hangouts for calvinists. In addition, Carl hob nobs with grace oriented (think calvinistic, five-points, tulip, etc.) churches and church groups. He can’t help it, he is surrounded. Carl is a calvinist.
The kicker is, Bell eschews everything calvinistic, not so much in word but in the theories he puts forth. Read Rob’s book and see. Every chapter oozes with calvinistic Kryptonite.
Now, I bring this up because I find it a little misleading for someone of Carl’s calvinistic stature to suggest theology has nothing to do with his remarks about Bell. History may be the channel of his criticism but I doubt it is the underpinning.
In fairness to Carl, you don’t find him spewing rapturous remarks about the wonders and joys of calvinism all over the net. What ever he says about it is very much under the surface net-wise and my conclusions are based on circumstantial evidence, albeit very solid circumstances. If he isn’t a spy or a closet free-willer he’s a calvinist.
Calvinism is one elephant in the room.
Also, and unlike many others on the net, Carl didn’t say Rob was a blasphemer. Mischievous, yes, but he said nothing about Rob being a conniving wolf in sheep’s clothing, lost, blind, wicked or the like. He may think that but he didn’t say it.
Thank you Carl for your moderation.
In fact, before he gets to his primary point and to clarify his purpose, he makes a remark that could be taken as a side door insult – as only the English can do – to all the negative hateful name calling…
…To avoid the usual indignant reactions from the guardians of conscience in the evangelical world, I want to stress that I am writing at this point solely as an individual historian. I am not here speaking as a representative of my church, my seminary, nor of some nebulous movement known as `evangelicalism.’
It’s hard to tell whether the “guardians” he refers to are those who hate Rob – his peers – or those who defend him. Both sides fit the description but…
Since he keeps company with Rob haters of note and is somewhat revered, he is in the unfortunate position of having to find and elucidate some fault in the book. Doing this will identify him as on the right side, without actually saying that of course.
Since Rob does use historical reference to make a point here or there and since Carl’s specialty is history, voila, he has a platform. Unfortunately, Carl loses more ground than he gains.
So, to get to the question.
Did Rob quote Luther out of context?
Well, if what Carl says is true then yes he did, sort of. But another question and one that is more important is, “Did Rob misrepresent Luther theologically?” and the answer is absolutely not.
Allow me to explain?
Luther, in a letter to Hans von Rechenberg (1522), discussing the possibility of people coming to salvation without faith (after death), made the statement “who would doubt God’s ability to do that” and Rob repeated that quote in his book.
Let me say that again. Luther and von Rechendber are not disucssing the possibility of salvation after death. Their debate is about salvation after death even when the deceased person exercises no faith.
Obviously, the context of Luther’s conversation was different to Rob’s but not by much. A closer look shows Rob and Luther agreed on one significant point.
Rob is suggesting people could exercise faith after death and Luther was suggesting people were REQUIRED to exercise faith after death. Both were talking about post death salvation.
Rob believes faith is possible. Luther believes it is necessary. The arguments in both cases are similar. The line of thinking is the same.
If Luther is arguing for the necessity of faith after death the context isn’t as different as Mr. Trueman says. The reason for Luther’s discussion may be different but the topic – salvation after death – falls right in the middle of the philosophical/theological issues Rob is discussing.
So, Rob might have missed the context marginally – very marginally – but he didn’t misrepresent Luther’s beliefs or his conversation with von Rechenberg. Luther’s remark does apply.
And that brings us to a second elephant in the room.
You don’t have to be a highly qualified historian to know that Luther believed in salvation after death. He was trained in and mastered the Catholic system, which includes purgatory, a place where sinners are eventually made ready to be with God. It was an important part of the Catholic system and Luther taught it for years as a priest. He decried the abuses spawned by purgatorial concepts but he didn’t deny the existence of purgatory or the implication: people can be saved after death.
Luther’s exact words are helpful. The following is excerpted from a post by Dave Armstrong in which he quotes a portion Luther’s 1521 treatise, An Argument in Defense of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull.
THE THIRTY-SEVENTH ARTICLE
The existence of a purgatory I have never denied. I still hold that it exists, as I have written and admitted many times, though I have found no way of proving it incontrovertibly from Scripture or reason. I find in Scripture that Christ, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, David, Hezekiah, and some others tasted hell in this life. This I think was purgatory, and it seems not beyond belief that some of the dead suffer in like manner. Tauler has much to say about it, and, in short, I myself have come to the conclusion that there is a purgatory, but I cannot force anybody else to come to the same result.
There is only one thing that I have criticized, namely, the way in which my opponents refer to purgatory passages in Scripture which are so inapplicable that it is shameful. . . . (in Luther’s Works, Vol. 32:95-96)
If you consider the fact that Luther was arguing for the necessity of faith after death – if one is to be saved – then Rob said nothing historically out of line. If anything, Mr. Trueman came closer to misrepresenting Luther since he seemed to imply Luther’s theology couldn’t be reconciled with Robs.
Mr. Trueman ends by comparing Love Wins to The Da Vinci Code. If you’ve read both you can easily recognize that as a cheap slur even if you disagree with Rob. I’m surprised that the calvinistic cohort hasn’t seen Mr. Trueman’s article for what it is: a dodging of the bullet.
Don’t be fooled. If Luther were here today he would agree more with Rob and graciously allow Mr. Trueman a different opinion, that is, if indeed he differs.
Check out what Rob Bell believes here.
See a review of Love Wins, chapter 1, here.
See a discussion on the “Age of Accountability” here.
The Love Wins Companion offers valuable information for anyone wanting to explore further: insights and commentary by qualified individuals, in-depth exploration of significant Bible passages, detailed chapter summaries of Love Wins with questions and guides for discussion, historical evidence demonstrating the breadth and diversity of Christian ideas about heaven and hell and more.
In The Reason For God Timothy Keller confronts head on the questions that skeptics are asking, yet without a confrontational style. It is sensible, rational and engaging. A must read for every thinking person, Christian or not. His approach to hard questions about God not only provides answers it encourages us to develop analytical thinking skills. Also available is a DVD with discussion guide for small group interaction.
Yea, Rob has a way of writing that is enjoyable to read and he writes about questions that have long been ignored. In Love Wins he opened the door to theologies that have been dismissed for a long time.
Thanks for the comments.
Kacy Green says
This book was an unfolding of my own mind. Beautifully written!
Kacy Green says
I appreciate the analysis. F