09 March 2011

Open Letter to David Fitch

by Frank Turk

Dear Dr. Fitch,

I was surprised to find out that we share a small squadron of common twitter followers, so good on them for having such fine taste.

What I love about the Blogosphere is that it is truly a public square. You know what I mean: it's a place where the President of SBTS, the Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, the federal head of Crossway Books, the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology, Scot McKnight and a ne'er-do-well like me can all sit around and think out loud together about things that, let's face it, most people will never, ever even hear about -- things over which 97% of people will never get their giblets in a bunch. It's also why I like to work a day job in the world of people and stuff: it sets all these tempests in the digital tea pot to the right size and scope.

So two weekends ago Justin Taylor took objection to the content of the promo video Rob Bell and his publisher put out about his forthcoming book, Love Wins. And Justin's friend and mentor Dr. John Piper pointed to the piece with a rather twitterific statement: "Farewell Rob Bell [link]." You get what I mean by "twitterific," I am sure: exactly enough characters less than 144, and exactly to the point. Anyone who didn't get what Dr. Piper meant was probably not following him ...

... except of course some people did not understand what he meant. I read one young guy over at BeliefNet who thought Piper meant (in so many words), "You are dead to me, Rob Bell." Which is, again, why the blogosphere is so much fun: you don't even have to be remotely credible to say something and have people read it as if it was a recently-uncovered primary text debunking the mythology of Abraham Lincoln.

Now: what does all this have to do with you? Well, of course you know that your wrote a brief piece at your blog which you titled as "Rob Bell’s Frenzy: Why We Need Other Ways to Do Theology and Some Other Off-The-Cuff Observations." Now all our readers at TeamPyro know it, too, so it'll drive some traffic your way. I'm writing because [A] my comments at your blog didn't make it into the conversation, and I though they were pretty civil, if dissenting, and [B] I think that our point of disagreement is utterly worth exploring in spite of being part of the ignoble binary scream which is like a dog whistle to most people's ears.

So you wrote a couple-three things about the dust-up last week, which we can sum up using your own bullet points:

  1. Does this reveal the inherently defensive impulse of the Neo-Reformed movement?
  2. Is this the best way to pastor/lead the church into the future?
  3. Is this the best way to do theology for our times?
  4. [Authors like Rob Bell] offer some good thoughts and helps, but then they fail to deliver on their promise.
  5. The “Rob Bell HarperOne” episode speaks to the growing need for another place to do theology from whence the emerging church can find direction for the challenges of the new post Christendom landscape we find ourselves living in.

To which Dr. McKnight gave a hearty "excellent post, David," and Dr. Anthony Bradley gave it a "Fantastic!"

I'll grant you this: I felt like the weekend was the new reformed/discernment blogosphere's re-enactment of the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street". You know the story -- the point was not that there was nothing to fear, but that it was so easy for the actual threat to manipulate good people into destroying themselves through fear and paranoia. Did the promo video really deserve the 24/7 coverage it got? I just can't imagine …

Anyway, that said, I also appreciated that you took the constant balking of the folks like Rob Bell out for a brief spin in your post -- because you are right about this: their coyness doesn't really do them any favors. If Rob Bell is really a guy who believes in Hell, being coy about it is like being coy about gun ownership: pretending to be agnostic but keeping a loaded pistol under the mattress is just putting other people at risk.

All right -- so why the open letter if we have so much in common here? The one thing I think you discounted in your brief post (and kudos for being brief, btw -- the subject was not that rich) was the backlash against the "Neo-reformed" which was at least as vehement and at least as antagonistic and defensive and at least as "alarmist" (these are all your words). One of the things I thought was simply amazing was the extent to which people would go to denounce Dr. Piper and Justin's statements. I mean, let's face it: these guys aren't hardly watchbloggers. These guys aren't committed to the quest for apologetic truth at all costs. These are guys from whom the most scary thing they can usually say about anything is that it is "unfortunate" or "unhelpful" or "unwise". Just because the word "unorthodox" crept in this time, the left-of-center crowd completely lost it -- and that's actually to their own discredit.

Let's assume for a moment that the "Neo-reformed" were utterly wrong this time around. How does it actually demonstrate that for those who disagree with them to get churlish? Did Dr.Piper actually wish Rob Bell dead with a three-word tweet? Was it really unfair for Justin to notice that promo video and find it unhelpful -- so much so that armies of anonymous commenters would rise up to say all manner of things?

If we're concerned about the best way to lead, and the best way to do theology, and delivering on promises, and so on, isn't the right thing to do to engage objections clearly, robustly, and toward some positive end? The best thing about your own post, in spite of its omissions, is that it does actually have something greater to say than slamming the Piper/Taylor axis as a bunch of grumblers. Whether that's a good end or not may yet to be seen, but doesn't the right level of circumspection also turn out one's own faults so that, in the balance, the call to reform or to renewal can be a common cause and not just an us-against-them struggle the get control of the narrative?

So I ask you to consider it, and apply it as you see fit in the future. There's not massive call to repent here -- just a thought if we're really thinking about ways to make Christ known in a post-Christian society. Thanks for your time, and may God bless you.


Paula Bolyard said...

Well said, and not at all churlish, I might add! Some of the "don't be a hater" crowd (not necessarily Fitch) have lobbed the most self-righteous attacks. Sure, some of them have been couched in very polite language, but they have been attacks all the same.

Thomas Louw said...

Sorry Frank.
I read your post then I read Dr David’s blog.
Then I read your post ”backwards” still a bit unclear as to the point.
David doesn’t seem to come down on ever side, seems to me he hopes all Bell wanted to do is advertise.(Surprise, Surprise)

I think Dr David doesn’t want to stake his claim “trying the fence on for size.” This actually doesn’t look in character for me.

He has taken on Willow in the past.

I do agree however that we are helping Bell promote his book, in a sense.

Matt Kennedy said...

To me, the most frustrating aspect of the response to John Piper and Justin Taylor is typified by this statement:

"How else do you explain their lightning quick jump into condemning a book they haven’t read?"

What no one on the evangelical left seems willing to deal with is that

1. Bell has already shown himself willing to barter away biblical orthodoxy in the name of "repainting" Jesus for the contemporary mind...see Velvet Elvis.

2. The initial response has not been based primarily on the book that has yet to be read but on the video that everyone has seen.

The questions Bell asks in the video are not honest questions. They are mocking questions that purposefully twist the truth, posing it in such a way as to make biblical teaching appear absurd.

Good pastors sometimes play the devil's advocate, posing questions as a skeptic in order to lead skeptics to the truth but that's not what he did. In his questions he mis-characterized...no, he lied, he bore false witness about the core biblical doctrines of salvation and judgment, holding them up to ridicule--and then left the questions and the ridicule hanging.

Why did he do that? What would lead a Christian pastor responsible before God to proclaim the good news of God's salvific work in and through Jesus Christ to mock the truth?

There is no need to speculate in Bell's case. He did it to sell his book. It's a video promoting a book.

So here's Bell--a "pastor" who has a clear record of casting doubt on the scriptures and the teachings therein--mocking the biblical doctrine of salvation in a promotional video hawking his book and people wonder why Piper and others respond so negatively.


Good letter. Thank you for it. I almost have a harder time dealing gently with the David Fitches of the world who seem to want to triangulate and curse both houses than the Rob Bells

Robert said...


Did you leave a comment there and it didn't get published? I was just reading through the comment stream to see what you had written and didn't see it at all. I did see that one lady took on his points and responded to each one. Nobody really paid much attention to it, though.

While it may not have been Mr. Fitch's intent to do so, it seems that his first point leads people to line up on the one side and pile up their disdain for the "Neo-Reformed/Calvinist" people. And the way that he wrote that point seems much stacked up against the "Neo-Reformed" crowd. I love how "neo" is the new term that everybody loves to use to single out a group of people...just change the o to w and it means the same thing, but I guess new just isn't quite as edgy. I guess Paul would have been the "neo-apostle" and would have received the same treatment in his time if they had computers and blogs and such.

I liked how he made sure to distance himself from the Emergent church...he just said the emerging church. Because you know, people like McLaren and Bell aren't really emergent any more...just emerging. And we have to find a way to engage such out of the box thinking that is emerging from the minds of these guys.

Anyways...thanks for pointing us to this blog post and for your write-up. It is always nice to know how people are thinking about things out there and what we might expect to hear any time we defend our faith against false teachers like Rob Bell.

Anonymous said...

Is the label "Neo-Reformed" a disparaging one?

My favorite sentence, "If we're concerned about the best way to lead, and the best way to do theology, and delivering on promises, and so on, isn't the right thing to do to engage objections clearly, robustly, and toward some positive end?"

Well done, Frank.

Allen said...

Excellent post Frank. Nice comment Matt. I am thankful in one sense that Bell has stirred the pot and got some folks fired up. Now, let's direct some of this energy towards sharing the Gospel!

David Fitch said...

I LOVED THIS POST! And I think you have a excellent point. Recently I've just published a book where I examine the tendency of evangelicalism to organize around what it is against. And so I worry I fall into that habit too much w/ regard to the Neo-Reformed groups. And yet, there is a way to engage together in theological reflection that moves us further into truth and what God is doing & calling us into. I felt the Piper, Taylor 's of the world weren't doing that, they were jumping the gun revealing some of the impulse to police and gain an unhealthy enjoyment at pointing to another (popular) pastor's demise. I actually think, given what I said about publishers leading the younger church theologically, that we need healthy reflection and pushing back on on e another in the bogosphere. But we must rid ourselves of this negative impulse (myself included).
... I think I need to flesh out more theologically where I see the dangers in the New Calvinism for the American church. Perhaps int he coming post, I'll expand on your post.
Thanks man! for your labors for Christ's KIngdom
David Fitch

Mike Westfall said...

Excellent post, Frank. Fantastic!

Mike Westfall said...

Oops. I forgot to check the "Email follow-up comments..." box. Fixed.

Anonymous said...

But avoid dirreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are eHymenaeus and Philetus,
who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

Why are we so afraid to call this guy what he is, a wolf and a heretic, and we ought to sound the alarm so that people are not caught up in his slick, satanic, presentation of lies and blasphemies of the worst sort.

This is not mean spirited, for the aim of our charge is love for the church and we ought to deliver Bell over to Satan so that he also might be saved, because it doesn't matter what he believes about hell, it matters what he believes about Christ. And unfortunately, he has more in common with Jeremiah Wright than with orthodox Christianity.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...


Your open letter is meant to be a modest commendation for Fitch, but you touched upon something I noticed, which I put in these words:

"If love wins, why are Bell admirers so exercised that some oppose his teachings?"

8:11 AM, March 09, 2011

Anonymous said...

My favorite defense of Rob Bell thus far: You gotta remember, folks, he's an artist.

Wow! Well, then by all means proceed! I'm definitely going to be looking for ways to use the "I'm just an artist" defense in the future. :)

Robert Kunda said...

Was it really unfair for Justin to notice that promo video and find it unhelpful -- so much so that armies of anonymous commenters would rise up to say all manner of things?

Such a good statement. I've read some of the most shockingly hateful, yes hateful is a good word, things said about Taylor, Piper, etc., in the past few days that I would be awful repeating them even to respond. And kiss your mother with that mouth?

timb said...

Something that has me thinking is something that Dr. James White often points out: He spends a lot of time debating doctrinal opponents but he also spends a lot of time in his church building up and training the saints.

He often gets slammed for doing the former because that is often his public ministry. (defensive, attacking, critic, etc.) But no one sees the balance he has in the healthy construction of the life of the church.

So Justin Taylor, Piper, et al get slammed for what wasn't even a theological take-down or circling the wagons but a caution (warning might even be too strong) --and suddenly all the neo-Reformed everywhere are all about defense, attacking, circling the wagons? Is that really their tendency--or is that the knee jerk reaction of those who are not neo-Reformed? After all didn't a whole lot of neo-Reformed not even way in? Didn't the ones who did weigh in also say we still have to wait for the book? And offered careful "ifs..." to what they said?

Could it be that the neo-Reformed have a healthy understanding of how to build the church within the church? Could it be within these contexts they spend the bulk of their time exalting God rather than being alarmist? Are they/we really the defensive and alarmist all the time? --or is this just a skewed picture because they've made a few public statements that raised hackles b/c they dared to disagree and say 'this is a serious matter'?

So we are supposed to wrestle with tough issues but then when the neo-Reformed do and disagree, they actually aren't listening but attacking?

BTW: I'm just asking question ;)

DJP said...

Bertolet, you sly dog.

Not Ashamed said...

Just call me an old fashioned neo-reformed/Calvinist but we always have to be on our guard...if Bell is as so many suspect than Peter covers it under Gods mighty inspiration: 2Peter 2:1-3

1 But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.

It's an awesome realization to know that God is in charge and not man as so many are lured in by what I like to refer to as the
"cotton candy theology" its sweet/light/fluffy/not filling and you can make it any color you want but most importantly it has to be spun.

Bravo to Piper and Taylor as well as so many on this blog who continue to fight the fight...contending for the faith..Bravo...don't stop.

I see so many people even the elitists lining up at Rob Bells Cotton Candy Cart something that looks and tastes that good can't be that bad...can it?

FX Turk said...

I had 45 seconds to read the comments here and post a response.

We all realize that this post is not actually about Rob Bell and his book, right? This is about Dr. Fitch's note about the circus that followed the video.

Please review your responses against that, and act accordingly.

Halcyon said...


Since the combox hasn't exploded yet, I can only say that I am offended that your letter isn't more offensive.

I believe Mr. Bertolet has the best comment thus far. All Dr. Fitch did (out of good intentions, I'm sure) was to demonstrate how we are all capable of knee-jerkism. Highlighting another's "knee-jerking" under the auspice of moderation is not a good (or even clever) disguise.

Bill Honsberger said...

One way to help here is to resist the Admiral Achbar (sp?) moment and DO NOT BUY THE BOOK! How is that for subtle? It is not like a lot of people won't buy it anyway and then post and repost repeatedly ad nauseum. It is not like it takes any brainpower to figure out where Bell has been heading for many years. So don't enrich the false teacher by falling into the obviously quite successful marketing ploy.

Bill Honsberger said...

oops Frank sorry. Didn't read your reminder.

thomas4881 said...

I hear Piper has bigger problems. He's going to speak as SaddleBack Church.