Rob Bell on atonement or the bible versus (reformed) tradition


I was reading this article on Mike Morrells blog, about some preaching on aworship conference hosted by David Crowder. Looks like they had a very interesting and diverse worship conference over there, with not only Mr. Crowder, but also people like Matt Redman, Gungor,  the Welcome wagon, Derek Webb, and Rob Bell. Especially this last name still is very controversial for some people I think, and it seems that his talk about ‘the use of words’ has stirred something up in some people. Now when I read the article by Bob Kauflin @ worship matters, I get the impression that Mr. Bell has been on the more extreme side of his creative self, doing a vague talk about contextualisation and finding new ways as a poet to express the truth of the bible in new words.

He seems to have been saying something about finding new ways to communicate the gospel, and more specifically the atonement:

The Friday morning speaker was Rob Bell. His premise was: Words can be used in lots of ways. He reminded us that the Bible is made up of different literary genres, which should be interpreted differently. But he went on to suggest that the metaphors Scripture uses to describe Christ’s work on the cross are varied and influenced by the understanding of a particular audience, and that we’re responsible to come up with other creative metaphors to describe the purposes of the atonement. While I appreciate relevance and clear communication, developing our own metaphors for the atonement potentially undermines and distorts the gospel. Yes, it’s important to recognize and communicate the vast and multiple effects of Christ’s death and the resurrection, and yes, Christians can overemphasize theological precision and definition at the expense of actually communicating the good news. But every description of Christ’s work on the cross is connected to our need to be forgiven by and reconciled to a holy God. If we fail to communicate this, we have failed to proclaim the biblical gospel. To better appreciate why all metaphors for the atonement are ultimately grounded in penal substitution (Christ taking the punishment we deserved as our substitute) I’d highly recommend Pierced for our Transgressions, In My Place Condemned He Stood, or the article by Mark Dever, “Nothing But the Blood.”

But ‘deveolping our own methaphors’ and vague contextualisation thoughts are not exactly the first thing that I find when I look up what other people write about Robs talk on the fantastic worship conference (see here and here for a summary) The part about atonement is deeply rooted in bible verses from Pauls letters (like mostly, but Rob is very good at hiding his biblical back-up behind poetry and creative explanations) Rob is pointing to the way Paul in the bible uses a lot of methaphors explaining the atonement, and Mr Kauflin is narrowing down to the penal substitution version, influenced by his own particular tradition.

I’m sorry, but whatever your tradition says, penal substitution still isn’t the only way the atonement Jesus acomplished at the cross could be explained. In fact this way of explaining the atonement is only half a millenium old. I know some Christians see the atonement in terms of Jesus taking our punishment and God pouring out His wrath on Him and not on us, but that’s not the way in which Jesus sacrifice has been explained by Christians before the reformation. Ransom or Christus Victor ways of explaining the atonement are much older, and still present in evangelical thought (or in the classic narnia story).

The difference is not unsubstantial. In the old view Jesus is giving himself over to evil/death in our place as a ransom, which can not hold him. In the penal view Jesus’ sacrifice is to God himself, who needs to punish in order to be able to forgive. There are other views too, but I’m not getting into that now. I only want to point out that there are different views in the church.

(For an interesting rebuttal of the quoted book’pierced for our transgressions’, read this interesting but very technical article by Derek Flood, that shows us a lot about the church fathers views on atonement, and the way they have been misquoted in that particular book. )

So while I got the idea that Rob was more into cultural recontextualisation in postmodern context stuff with his talk about atonement methaphors (which is fine by me, even our way of wording penal substitution originates from such a thing half a millenium ago) the thing Rob is doing is starting from how Paul speaks about atonement. Which is interesting, since all the theories built around it are from hunderds of years after the New Testament was written… even from after the apostles creed… so they cannot at all be the core of the gospel.

In fact you can’t be more biblical than this: looking at how Paul uses different methaphors for atonement… If you don’t like someone going back to the bible te come up with something that is a lot broader than your tradition might say, maybe it’s time to evaluate the place your tradition has. Especially if you have a tradition that doesn’t like tradition at all like all reformation churches do for obvious historical reasons. If you don’t like new ways of saying what the bible tries to communicate, let at least the bible say what it wants to say, instead of giving your tradition the last word over someone who reads things in the bible that don’t agree with it.

Those are different things. I can understand that some people don’t like finding new ways to communicate the Truth, but it’s a wholly different thing to censor the bible from the lens of your tradition. That would be even more dangerous than miscommunicating the Truth of the gospel out of clumsiness…

Shalom

Bram

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7 responses to “Rob Bell on atonement or the bible versus (reformed) tradition

  1. Hey, your technical article link is broken. Great reflections, though!

  2. Link fixed. I don’t think you’d find it too technical though… But I’m not usually writing for theologians…

  3. “penal substitution still isn’t the only way the atonement Jesus acomplished at the cross could be explained.”

    What we’re saying is, all proper ways of explaining the atonement culminate in the penal substitution.

    • @ Ken silva: That’s what I’ve noticed, but that’s the interpretation of your tradition, not the bible. If you’re so committed to ‘sola scriptura’ you should let the bible say what it says and not project your theology on it all the time.

  4. wow, Ken Silva found you..you must be doing something right! (:

    Rob Bell just freaks people out, and is often hugely misunderstood.
    I think his chapter on “binding and loosing” Velvet Elvis…it’s a free read here (pages 40-69):
    http://www.zondervan.com/media/samples/ebook/0310267943_ebooksamp.pdf

    …helps us get a bit of what he means by new metaphors and new interpretations.

    Keep up the good work

    • I do own a physical copy of the book, it’s a classic…

      Where I disagree with our friend Silva is that he is more biblical than our friend Bell… If Rob Bell goes back to the bible to see which methaphors are used for the atonement by Paul, what we should do is listen to what the bible has to say, and learn from it, and not try to censor it through the lens of (reformed) tradition…

      But besides that, we might need new mathaphors indeed…

      (and oh, Dave, I remember now that I must have read your blog in 2004 or so, when I was looking for U2′s christian significance. It was way too flashy back then for me. Maybe the postmodern me taken to its consequences is be more comfortable with your writings…)

      shalom

      Bram

  5. Bram: LOL.. keep up the great work

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