Thursday, April 7, 2011

Who's Orthodoxy? Rob Bell and the "Rule of Faith"

Richard Mouw has defended the orthodoxy of Rob Bell's book Love Wins. He is quoted in USA Today:
But Richard Mouw, president of the world's largest Protestant seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary based in Pasadena, Calif., calls Love Wins "a great book, well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity and passionate about Jesus.
Mouw has defended himself here and here.

On the broad orthodoxy he writes:
"But I do want to say more here about “generous orthodoxy.” In my role as president of an evangelical school that brings together folks from many theological traditions—in that role—I work with a broad conception of orthodoxy.  In this context, historic orthodoxy draws on the early church fathers, on thinkers in the middle ages, on the broad Reformation movement, and on the various revival and renewal movements of recent centuries.
A case in point: suppose someone at Fuller denies the doctrine of the “intermediate state,” insisting that after death the believer continues to be “with the Lord” as  someone whom the Lord still loves and will raise up on Resurrection Day—but that the time between death and resurrection is not one of a continuing conscious state.
Is that orthodox? I would say so, in the broad orthodoxy sense. People can quote Luther in support of that view, as well as many Anabaptist thinkers. In more recent times “soul sleep” has been held by various Adventist groups. The denial of the intermediate state, wedded to a strong advocacy of a future resurrection, is within the bounds of historic Evangelical orthodoxy."
Certainly it is right to say that Evangelical 'orthodoxy' is broader than the Westminster Confession or the Second London Baptist Convention. It is even true that historic Christian orthodoxy as a historic category is broader than the heirs of the Reformation. And while the debates over justification by faith alone are matters of spiritual life and death (cf. Gal. 1 for example), it is also true that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxy are "orthodox" as is comes to issues like Christ, his two natures, the Trinity and the judgments.

But the question remains who determines orthodoxy?  We cannot simple proclaim a position to be "orthodox" because we know "good people" whom we like who hold to it. Rather the Bible and history have set the bounds of orthodoxy. The Bible is the first ordering principle over what is orthodoxy and what is not. The Bible is the ground of all subsequent man made creeds--which are indeed written by man.

Yet the bounds of orthodoxy while laid out in the Bible that contains all that we must believe, have also been fought over in church history. While the Bible gives us all guidance for faith and life, church history can clarify for us what beliefs are first order, second and third (see Al Mohler's Theological Triage for a helpful clarification). The church has often had to clarify where the bounds are much like a person on a foggy day does not see the red light until they get close to it. The marker has always been there but until history stumbled up to the red light--and some people clearly ran the light--we came back and wrestled with the Word of God as to what he communicated and where he laid the marker.

Orthodoxy is indeed confined in historical categories. Men laid down the pattern of sound doctrine by going back to the word of God and said: "this is what Scripture teaches, this is what the whole church believes." Just as we cannot come along two thousand years later a rewrite our Bibles we cannot come along and rewrite the historic definitions of what orthodoxy is. IF a person believes the Bible says something that is out of line with historic orthodoxy--we should always follow the Bible first but we have to at least have the honesty and integrity to say "hey, I'm not orthodox." 

Yet the issues of orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy are so time tested--it is neither safe nor wise to pretend we see something in the Bible that no one as ever seen before. Reinventing what must be believed is never good. Since the faith has been passed down 'once for all' --crossing outside the historic pattern of orthodoxy is to put one on deadly grounds both because of the clarity of the Bible but also because of the crystallization through struggle of where orthodoxy is.

Mouw argues that he "work[s] with a broad conception of orthodoxy." I am glad this includes the church fathers. However, if we go back the Rule of Faith, which is the predecessor to the Apostle's Creed--denying eternal punishment/condemnation for the unrepentant sinner has always been considered unorthodox. The Rule of Faith, which historical sets the 'broad' parameters (e.g. not as specific as say the Westminster Confession) also sets specific parameters (e.g. things are clearly needed to be believed to be orthodox). 

In Rob Bell's book he clearly (if you can uses that to describe his writing style) does not believe that the judgment of God is final and that eternal conscious punishment is the ultimate fate of the wicked. We have not laid out the Biblical arguments for why this is wrong--but it is clearly "unorthodox" by an standard historic definition that is guided by the foundational pillar 'the Rule of Faith'.

Listen to Tertullian on the "Rule of Faith:"
Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics. (On Prescription against Heretics, ch.13; emphasis added)
Listen also to Irenaeus:
1. The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess”to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,”and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against Heresies Book 1, ch.10.1; emphasis added).
Irenaeus goes on to make clear that this was believed by all the churches and if it was not believed it was not a true church:
2. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.  (Against Heresies Book 1, ch.10.2)
The final judgment--that is final with no hope of a second chance and condemnation into everlasting/eternal fiery punishment is the standard of orthodox laid down in the historic Rule of Faith.

Richard Mouw is right that "orthodoxy" as a historic category is broader than even evangelical orthodoxy. As a seminary president, he certainly has to stand for and not mislabel even those who might agree with his stance of the Westminster Confession as a binding confession for his Reformed position. He is right that there will be people in heaven who had bad (even terrible) doctrine here on earth but still trusted wholly in Christ for salvation. Where Mouw is wrong is to think that one can be 'generously orthodox' and stand outside of the bounds laid clear in history. 

While the Rule of Faith is not a binding Creed like say the Nicene Creed and the Rule of Faith was not written by a council--it does represent the earliest Christians beliefs. Philip Schaff, who is well aware of Annihilationism and Origen's doctrine of universal reconciliation (Apokatastasis), writes "Everlasting Punishment of the wicked always was and always will be the orthodox theory. It was held by the Jews at the time of Christ, with the exception of the Sadducees who denied the resurrection. It is endorsed by the highest authority of the most merciful Being, who sacrificed his own life for the salvation of sinners. Consequently the majority of the fathers who speak plainly on this terrible subject, favor this view" (History of the Christian Church, vol.2 pp. 606-608, emphasis mine). It was held by Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaues, Tertullian and others. Orthodoxy is defined by more than a mere counting of the church fathers--but even this is clearly in our favor.

While Origen and Gregory of Nyssa (no small contender for the faith) did hold to a Christian universalism--this view was later condemned. The point remains: the Rule of Faith--which became the guide for later articulation and clarifications of what is orthodoxy--clearly articulated eternal punishment is a part of the historic orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Tertullian and Irenaues own work further exemplifies this. To declare Rob Bell orthodox and then seek to articulate oneself is 'generous' is not at all "generous." 

Yes, we should be nice to Rob Bell as a person but according to the historical definition of the Rule of Faith--which was an important declaration of orthodoxy--Rob Bell is not orthodox by any sober historical definition. Let us have the integrity to be honest with history for we cannot wrestle with Bell's questions and answers if cannot first be honest with historical categories. The questions and answers Rob Bell gives should send us back to the Bible--and ultimately church history alone does not settle these questions but history can be a reliable guide. It can serve like a GPS tool added to the compass and map that is the Bible. We certainly cannot whitewash and rewrite definitions of orthodoxy that are laid down hundreds of years ago--such modern remaking of the rules will be our undoing where words and categories have no meaning whatsoever.

It is not generous to stare at the Rule of Faith in one hand and look at a recent work in the other hand--see the differences and declare both to be orthodox. History has laid the boundaries--the question is will we keep them or seek in the hubris of the new to redraw the lines according to our contemporary fancy?


John said...

I don't see how Protestant theology squares with those quotations from the Fathers. If there is one Orthodoxy, how can not one believe that the Church fell away from it, and that it was only recently discovered by schismatics? Could it be that Protestants are like the heretics referred to in the passages you quoted? It seems irrational to me for a Protestant not to hold to a "generous orthodoxy", for not to do so would be to invalidate his own beliefs.

Tim Bertolet said...

(1) Protestant theology is orthodox in its doctrine, if one defines orthodoxy by the early historic creeds.

(2) Certain doctrines of the Roman Catholic church developed later and cannot be found in the earliest church and church fathers.

(3) Protestants have always tried to show that in large part they were not departing from the historic faith but that the Roman Catholic church had departed over time. For example, John Calvin and John Owen made use of the Cappodocian fathers in their works.

(4) I think there is a difference between a generous orthodoxy--which I think recognizes the value of the early creeds without pretending there was no Reformation-- and calling "orthodox" something that was clearly out of bounds in the earliest doctrinal statements of orthodoxy.

(5) I do think the last Irenaues quote and some of Ignatius' work (not cited above) can be a little trouble for a Protestant, but it is no more troubling for a Protestant than it is for a modern Roman Catholic with their views of Mary, clearly not found in the early church. The simple argument is: (a) Protestants are getting back to Paul's original intent with justification by faith and (b) Thomas Oden has shown that salvation was by grace through faith in the early church fathers (which is a core belief of Reformation Protestantism)

Still it should be remembered that both Protestants and Roman Catholics agree on and confess things like the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Chalcedon. That is "orthodoxy".

Thanks for asking.

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...