by Phil Johnson
ast week on Tim Challies' podcast, the guest was Kenneth J. Stewart, author of IVP's Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Among other things, he claimed that the "uncoordinated . . . response of the conservative Reformed world" to Rob Bell's Love Wins constituted "a display of our disunity. . . a display of our failure to coordinate."
In Professor Stewart's words:
What I think our constituency was guilty of in that case is overkill. There might have been select spokesmen put forward from within our constituency, and they would be told to go to it. But we had too many people on the attack; too many people going for the jugular, and our movement displayed its unlovely side.
Challies' co-host, David Murray, quickly agreed, suggesting that once Challies and Kevin DeYoung had posted their reviews of the book, "all that needed to be said had been said."
Murray: "Tim, what do you think?"
Challies: "Yeah, I would tend to agree. . . . there was a little too much being said."
Professor Stewart then elaborated:
What does [our use of new media] display? What it can display is that we are ungracious. That we pile on. I like to think of what happened to Rob Bell in football terms. When the whistle is blown there's not to be any more tackling.
I had a few thoughts in response to this exchange:
- Of course I disagree strongly with Professor Stewart. In the first place, the response to Bell's book was hardly "a display of our disunity." The reviews of that book from the conservative and Reformed districts of the blogosphere reflected the strongest evangelical consensus I've seen since the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy disbanded. The only significant dissenting opinions were early complaints that Justin Taylor had jumped the gun, the critics were being too harsh, and other similar shopworn scoldings, mostly from Bell's own fan-base, erstwhile Emergents, and other espousers of postmodern values.
- It's hard to get evangelicals exercised about any point of doctrine nowadays. To scold them for supposedly overreacting at the rankness of Bell's damnable heresy strikes me as counterproductive—dangerously so.
- The notion that the Reformed blogosphere should be regulated like an episcopal body, so that certain designated spokespersons would be appointed by an oligarchy, a college of cardinals, a blog-Pope (or whatever) and "told to go to it"—with the rest of us being instructed to shut up—is a Really Bad Idea.
- Perhaps the main deficiency in the Reformed blogosphere's response to Bell's universalism is the speed with which the scandal blew over. The whole matter is already being treated as yesterday's news, as if the danger were past. Let's not forget that Arianism made most of its gains in the two or three decades after Arius's theology was categorically condemned by the Nicene council. There were many in those days who accused Athanasius of "overkill" because of his polemical persistence against Arius. (In fact, just about everyone complained that Athanasius was too relentless in his condemnation of Arius.) They were dead wrong.
- In my estimation, one of the most troubling characteristics of the neo-Reformed is the way so many work so hard to cultivate a culture of artificial collegiality, courting the world's admiration and the academy's esteem. Let's not encourage them in that. We need to be more concerned about declaring the truth and refuting worldly wisdom. Time Magazine's judgment about whether we are open-minded enough, diverse enough, or winsome enough is not a good barometer of how we're doing in the realm of apologetics.
- I also disagree with the insinuation that the early critiques of Bell were sufficient and the later ones superfluous. Justin's initial post hit in February before anyone else's. Judging from the sheer volume of comments, that was actually the post that seemed to stir the most ire. John MacArthur didn't touch the subject until more than a month later, but he wrote an extended series of posts that added up to one of the more complete analyses of Bell's error. The discussion in the combox at GTY's blog proves that "all that need[s] to be said" in response to Bell's book has not been said even yet. (I'd hate to think someone thinks MacArthur should have held his peace just because a couple of well-known bloggers had already written fifteen paragraphs or so).
- The hell debate has been brewing among evangelicals at least since Edward Fudge wrote The Fire that Consumes in 1982. It's not going away soon.
- The debate Rob Bell has provoked is not a game or a merely academic discussion. No whistle has blown; the down is not over. Bell has not retracted or recanted so much as a single sentence. His book is still selling briskly. If there ever is a time when "piling on" is appropriate, it's when Christ's teaching is being attacked so wolfishly. The suggestion that it's unsportsmanlike for too many people to comment is like saying David "displayed his unlovely side" when he whacked Goliath's head off. After all, he had already rendered Goliath unconscious! Was it "fair play" to go for the jugular (literally) while the giant was thus incapacitated?
- Controversy, though always unpleasant, is sometimes necessary, and it can even be good and beneficial. The idea that controversy is always evil is a falsehood that is as full of mischief as any heresy.