I’m reading Velvet Elivs: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell, one of the leaders of the Emergent Church. Bell brings up several problems with sola scriptura in the second chapter of the book, titled “Yoke.”
At first, I wondered why he chose such an unusal name. As I figured, it’s named after Matthew 11:30 where Jesus tells his disciples that his yoke is easy and his burden light. But there’s a deeper meaning to the name. The Bible, Bell argues, is a very difficult book to grasp. When you’re wrestling with it, you bring your own experiences and interpretations to it. No one reads the Bible for what it says, Bell insists, all you’re doing is giving your interpretation of the words. It was no different in ancient times.
Every rabbi had his own interpretation of the Bible. This was called his “yoke.” Every once in a while, a rabbi would come on the scene with a brand new yoke. Before anyone would take the new yoke seriously, the rabbi would have to have hands laid upon him by two established rabbis. That, Bell argues, is the significance of the passage where Jesus has both John the Baptist baptize him, and the voice from Heaven declares that he is the Son of God.
That, Bell says, would be recognized as the two established rabbis laying their hands on Jesus, and that Jesus’ new yoke was legitimate. The problem inherent in this Bell’s interpretation of the facts is that this seems to relegate Jesus to the role of teacher or role model. It doesn’t declare that Jesus’ “yoke” is the yoke; instead, this description allows for it to be one yoke among many.
I just stumbled onto an article from the Christian Science Monitor that scares me a little bit. It appears that most Americans define their own theology.
According to a recent Barna survey, 71% of Americans are more likely to form their own religious beliefs rather than follow an established tradition. The number rises to 82% for those under the age of 25. These “cafeteria Christians” pick and choose beliefs from among various denominations, and even from non-Christian religions.
Some might argue that this isn’t bad. Many Catholics, and even some Protestants, would see this as the natural outgrowth of sola scriptura–without the authority of the Church, everyone is free to create their own doctrine. This, however, is a corruption of sola scriptura. The corruption of something good should never be confused with the thing itself.
Why is this a scary thing? Look at what people believe: half don’t believe in Satan, a third believe that Jesus sinned, and two-fifths don’t see an obligation to share their faith. These things are clearly contradicted by Scripture. Satan is an established fact, as is Jesus’ sinlessness, and the Great Commission from Jesus himself makes sharing our faith obligatory.
In a point of irony, more Americans believe that right beliefs lead to eternal life than right behavior. Ironic becuase there is no check or balance on what people are believing these days.
But should we expect that to be the case? After all, let’s look at the leading Christians of today. Joel Osteen preaches the centrality of man. T.D. Jakes preaches the prosperity gospel. Look at the Emergent Church leaders and their desire to redefine every doctrine of Christianity for a modern audience. None of these men place any emphasis on the proper discipleship of new Christians, leaving them free to decide what is right for them rather than what is true.
Divorcing Scripture from the tradition used to interpret it is dangerous. How many people are going to read Scripture carefully, and read the history behind it, consult commentaries and set aside the daily study time and devote a large portion of their lives to getting their doctrines right? Few, if any, I’m sure. Instead, they are going to find what makes sense to them and run with it, without ever finding out the history or philosophy behind each doctrine. Few people are going to develop their theology that carefully.
The problem inherent in a concept like sola scriptura is that it puts too many cooks into the kitchen. This isn’t what sola scriptura was ever meant to be.
Biblically speaking, not everyone is called to be a teacher. But we are all called to be disciples of Christ. Like the Bereans, we should search the Scriptures daily to see if what our teachers tell us is true. But we should hesitate to become our own teachers, lending instead some credence to those who have devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures and history of the church, those who understand sound doctrine and teach it. Everyone becoming their own teachers, as is the trend, fosters spiritual anarchy.
Over Christmas, my cousin asked me if I had ever heard of Rob Bell. At the time, I hadn’t. My cousin told me that he enjoyed Bell’s teachings, especially his NOOMA video series. My cousin found his teachings biblically grounded.
So I decided to research Rob Bell, and I discovered the book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. The title screams “Emerging Church.” I admit that I have little exposure to the Emergent Church. All I know is that they divorce tradition from their reading of Scripture, as if Scripture were written yesterday and for them only. The best definition of the Emerging Church can be found at the excellent Parchment and Pen blog, here. C. Michael Patton doesn’t call the movement heretical, but he has several major critiques of the positions that many emergers take.
Despite all of this, I still find myself in agreement with some of the things that Bell has to say in the first chapter of Velvet Elvis. But, the best poison works when you mix only a little bit with the good stuff. And that is, in my opinion, how the Emerging Church works on orthodoxy. I find myself in agreement with much of what Bell has to say, however, there is just a little bit of poison that creeps in there, and that damages the good work he does.
Bell compares doctrines to the springs of trampolines. The springs are what makes the thing work, and without the springs, the trampoline would be useless. Many people, he thinks, treat doctrines like bricks in a wall instead. If one is damaged, the wall comes tumbling down. That isn’t how Bell views doctrine. While he affirms it as necessary and believes in all of the essential doctrines of the faith, he doesn’t believe that to question any one of them will knock the wall down. In fact, he sees this questioning as necessary for our faith.
Here is where I disagree with what Bell has to say. I see doctrine as the brick wall. If one falls out of place, the wall becomes unstable. Again, I sympathize with Bell’s pleading that treating doctrine in this way leads to beating people over the head with it, and then it becomes a barrier to good relationships rather than an invitation to join Christ’s church. However, as I have defended in the past, sound doctrine is necessary. Would you rather have a spring–pliable and easy to break–as the foundation for your faith, or a brick–firm and solid?
I’m not saying the questions are bad. I view questions as a necessary part of our faith. God isn’t looking for yes-men. He wants questioners. Look at Abraham, Moses, and Job. All of them questioned the grand design of God’s scheme, and God didn’t punish a one of them for it. In fact, he entered into a dynamic, give-and-take relationship with them. That’s what he wants from us today–a dynamic relationship where we aren’t afraid to go to him in prayer with our toughest questions. And I believe that he will answer them in due course.
Like many emergers, Bell is hesitant to place many doctrines of the faith as central and necessary for proper understanding of Christianity. This is, I believe, Bell’s major error and the poison that creeps througout his teaching.
Recently, Bell made an appearance on the blog A Little Leaven, where the writers analyze an appearance he made at an inter-spiritual conference. Supposedly the voice for Christianity, Bell simply promotes love and forgiveness as a better way to live rather than grounding these tenets in Christ. There is nothing distinctly Christian in what Bell says at the conference. That is the same error that he makes in Velvet Elvis–advertising the Christian way as a better way, rather than the only way.
To his credit, Bell isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, or have the tough questions asked of him. But most of his answers, as he himself states, revolve around this life and the relationships within it. The Bible, however, teaches that this life is fleeting vapor, and that attachment to things herein is not the way to live. The Bible teaches Jesus Christ as the object of our faith, and our hope for the future.
I hope to continue posting more thoughts on Bell’s Velvet Elvis as I read this alternately fascinating, alternately heretical book. That combination amounts to one of the most interesting reads in a long time.