VELVET ELVIS COMPARED TO THE WILD BOAR: Part One


I. Repainting or Restoring?
Rob Bell states:
There are endless examples of this ongoing process, so I’ll describe just one. Around 500 years ago, a man named Martin Luther raised a whole series of questions about the painting the church was presenting to the world. He insisted that God’s grace could not be purchased with money or good deeds. He wanted everyone to have their own copy of the Bible in a language they could read. He argued that everyone had a divine calling on their lives to serve God, not just priests who have jobs in churches. This concept was revolutionary for the world at that time. He was articulating earth-shattering ideas for his listeners. And they heard him. And something big, something historic, happened. Things changed. Thousands of people connected with God in ways they hadn’t before.
[1]
Although there is no apparent problem within this statement made of Luther and the beginning of his reformation, Bell goes on and adds:
But that wasn’t the end of it. Luther was taking his place in a long line of people who never stopped rethinking and repainting their faith. Shedding unnecessary layers and at the same time rediscovering essentials that had been lost. Luther’s work was part of what came to be called the Reformation. Because of this movement, the churches he was speaking against went through their own process of rethinking and repainting, making significant changes as a result. And this process hasn’t stopped. It can’t.
[2]
Would Luther agree with Bell’s analysis of the situation? Luther would assuredly see himself rethinking the faith, but it is highly unlikely that he saw himself repainting the faith for indeed he did not. To clearly understand Bell’s statement one must know his definition of “repainting.” It appears that by “repainting” he means to change, correct, or bring something new in to the situation. Bell’s following comment supports this theory.
By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps. I mean theology: the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future. We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived, and explained.
[3]
Bell’s idea of repainting faith is to change doctrines, theology, and truths. Arguably, however, if one changes the truths of God he ends up with a different God. If one repaints Jesus, there is a different Jesus. If one changes the truths of the Bible, the natural consequence is the doctrines of God and Jesus are changed. And to repaint salvation causes the gospel to be something of man’s own making. Luther would disagree vehemently with such actions.
Bell goes further in his view of Luther and the Reformation stating:
I’m part of this tradition. I’m part of this global, historic stream of people who believe that God has not left us alone but has been involved in human history from the beginning. People believe that in Jesus, God came among us in a unique and powerful way, showing a new kind of life. Giving each of us a new vision for our life together, for the world we live in. And as a part of this tradition, I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming.
Bell’s flaw is that he equates “repainting” with “reformation.” Furthermore, he claims the Reformation repainted theology. The Reformation did nothing of the sort. It may be more accurate to say Luther “blew the dust of the painting.” Luther did not bring new doctrines and theology into play, but blew the dust that was covering the church for much of the medieval time period between 650-1400 A.D. Luther brought the church back to life and restored that which had been corrupted during the Dark Ages. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were not to repaint the faith. His goal was to restore the faith. He was beginning to blow the dust off the church which the Dark Ages had covered; this was the magnum opus of Luther’s life. Luther from the time he stated his Ninety-five Theses to the end of his life never tried to create or bring new doctrines into the church; he did not attempt to repaint but rather restore that which was already written in the Word. In fact, if Luther’s intent was to repaint the faith he would have continued in Catholicism. At the time the Roman Catholic Church had repainted the church. With the tradition of popes, councils, and indulgences over a period of 800 years they watered down doctrines and theology. Biblical truths began to be covered by the dust of popes, councils, the oneness of church and state, and rules regarding sacraments and indulgences. If Luther wanted to repaint God, Jesus, the Bible, theology and the future he would have stayed with what the Roman Church was doing at the time. Luther did not repaint anything. He restored the faith of early church fathers like Polycarp, Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Constantine, Athanasius, Basil, Jerome, Augustine, Patrick and Columba.
Luther stood not only for what he believed to be true at the time, but what had been true throughout time. He did not tolerate new doctrines but restored doctrines that had been covered or forgotten about by the Roman Church. Luther stood firm for the faith that was already revealed. He did not ask questions to lead him to new doctrines or new theological systems. Luther’s work was to restore what had been forgotten. In some ways reform did bring many questions to the table. Some of them would have gone like this: Who is the mediator between man and God? When Christ said, “Repent” is that meaning a one time or constantly? Who is the forgiver of sins? Salvation and grace comes through whom? These could have been some of the questions Luther asked at the time of the Reformation.
[4] In contrast, Bell’s outlook on Luther’s reforming the church is quite different than restoration. He states:
In fact, Luther’s contemporaries used a very specific word for this endless, absolutely necessary process of change and growth. They didn’t use the word reformed; they used the word reforming. This distinction is crucial. They knew that they and others hadn’t gotten it perfect forever. They knew that the things they said and did and wrote and decided would need to be revisited. Rethought. Reworked.
[5]
Bell makes a point in his statement that the contemporaries of Luther were continually changing. It is important to consider what they are changing. Are they changing theology for theology’s sake or are they changing what had been practiced and taught incorrectly in the Roman Church at the time? The answer is clearer when the difference between the two words “reformed” and “reforming” are meted out. “Reformed” is to change for the better. “Reforming” is simply the process of doing that. The contemporaries of Luther were in the process of changing the doctrines of the church. A key point, however, is that they did not try to make something new to appease the cultural change from the medieval time period to the reformation period. Much change was due to the lack of knowledge of in the Roman Catholic churches. Luther and his contemporaries were in the process of changing doctrines but not in the process of creating new ones. They were in the process of correcting what had been wrong. They were in the process of restoring what the Catholic Church had cleaned out of their churches. These men wanted to right what had been wrong. Their intentions had nothing to do to the changing of doctrines like God, Jesus, the Bible, and theology.
Bell goes on right after his statement about Luther’s’ contemporaries to say, “I’m part of this tradition.”
[6] One would conclude, therefore, that Bell must look at the doctrines of God, Jesus, the Bible, and theology the same as Luther did. Furthermore, he must promote change according to Scripture alone. He must desire change for God’s glory alone. He must have a theology of grace alone and faith alone. These are what Luther believed and lived. Luther did not repaint the Reformation with these doctrines but restored them in the churches at the time and so did his followers. Bell’s book Velvet Elvis does not indicate that these are doctrines he holds to.
Luther stood for all these core doctrines in his process of restoring the church during the Reformation. He saw them as an importance in Scripture. For these were not new doctrines of God, Jesus, the Bible and theology. Theses doctrines of the five solas were always in Scripture. Bell’s claims of comparison to Luther are erroneous if he does not agree with Luther. During the Reformation Luther wouldn’t have anything to do with groups that differed from him in beliefs such the Jews, Anabaptist, Catholics, and peasants. Would Luther work with Rob Bell? Zwingli and Luther agreed on almost every doctrine but on one occasion after three days of discussing theology, Luther found his difference in the Lord’s Supper. He henceforth refused to work with Zwingli in the Reformation.
[7] It is hard to envision Luther allowing Bell to work with him in these processes of restoring or as Bell says, “repainting” the Christian faith. Bell cannot be compared to Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation.

[1] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 11.
[2] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 11.
[3] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 12.
[4] Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1976), and Jan D. Kingston Siggins, Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Christ (New Haven and London 1970: Yale University Press, 1970).
[5]Bell, Velvet Elvis, 12.
[6] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 12.
[7] Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 167-77.
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2 Comments on “VELVET ELVIS COMPARED TO THE WILD BOAR: Part One”

  1. Michael Krahn says:

    Hey,

    I just finished writing a series on Rob’s book “Velvet Elvis” that I think you’d be interested in.

    Read and join in on the discussion at:

    http://michaelkrahn.wordpress.com/rob-bell/

    Michael Krahn

  2. Clark says:

    dewalt,

    The context and correct interpretation of most of quotes you used relieves the need for such criticism.

    The way Bell describes repainting is: “Shedding unnecessary layers and at the same time rediscovering essentials that had been lost.” So anything appearing to be “new” would be either because, in Bell’s opinion, it had been covered up by unnecessary layers, or it had been something essential but lost. To me (though as I will soon state, Bell’s words do NOT invoke a comparision to Martin Luther), this is EXACTLTY what Luther was a part of in the Reformation–recovering essentials, from the Bible, that had been lost because of the layers of heresy and malpractice of the church at the time. Remeber what you wrote about him?: “He did not tolerate new doctrines but restored doctrines that had been covered or forgotten about by the Roman Church.” Sounds like what Bell wrote.

    Secondly, you quickly assume that Bell wishes to change truth and God and doctrine, as if Bell clearly understands Biblical orthodoxy and takes a pass, seeking something which willingly betrays the God of the Bible. I would contest, that the “new” theology about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, and the future which Bell speaks of is a change in PERCIEVED othodoxy, in order to recover to orthodoxy, and certainly orthopraxy. If percieved orthodoxy is never questioned, wrestled with, examined, than our faith has much more to do with tradition than truth or Scripture. And we all know how Luther would feel about this.

    Instead, Bell is articulating a “new” (or at least different, for Bell himself states, “if it’s new, than it isn’t true”) framework for understanding God, the Bible, salvation, etc. And if, as you state, he is trying to “change” the truth about God, why is it the book relys quite heavily upon Scripture. Truly, many books which rely on Scripture are capable of leading astray and telling lies, but you cannot examine Bell’s view on things if you do not examine the interpretation of Scripture he uses to arrive there.

    Thirdly, you seem to take offense at Bell’s statement, “I’m part of this tradition.” What you misinterpret is that the tradition he speaks of is not necessarily even that of Luther in making changes to the percieved faith. It is simply the tradition of the Christian faith in general. he does not equate his position with Luther’s. Read it again: “I’m part of this global, historic stream of people who believe that God has not left us alone but has been involved in human history from the beginning. People believe that in Jesus, God came among us in a unique and powerful way, showing a new kind of life. Giving each of us a new vision for our life together, for the world we live in. And as a part of this tradition, I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming.”
    This is the tradition of the Christian faith. The uniqueness of Bell’s mindset, rather, is that he sees a part of the tradition of Christian faith the need to keep changing, to keep moving, to never stop asking questions, even the same questions, again and again.

    Finally, I do not see value in this: “One would conclude, therefore, that Bell must look at the doctrines of God, Jesus, the Bible, and theology the same as Luther did.” Even if Bell did invoke a comparison to Luther, it would be useless to see if their doctrine matched perfectly. Luther is a man with flaws, and like all of us, flaws in his doctrine. His is not the standard we hold to, and we must leave room for him to be in error.


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