Reformation Day Article: VELVET ELVIS COMPARED TO THE WILD BOARPosted: October 31, 2008 Filed under: Reformation Church History 8 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.” 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. 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.
I. Difference in Theology
When reading the works of both Bell and Luther it seems that there is a clear distinction between the two. Although a multitude of major differences exists between Bell and Luther, looking at one of the major doctrines will be sufficient to reveal that there is no theological unity amongst them. The five solas of the Reformation are “Scripture alone,” “God’s glory alone,” “Christ’s work alone,” “grace alone,” and “faith alone.” To be a part of this “movement” Bell would need to believe all these core doctrines. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that when addressed will show the differences between Luther and Bell. Luther’s reformation was against the Roman Catholic Church. And to be a part of this Reformation or as Bell puts it, “tradition” one must stand firm on the same core doctrine that had started it all. The question would be if Rob Bell believes in Scripture alone as a core doctrine.
II. A History Overview of the Doctrine of Sola Scriptura
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura means “by Scripture alone.” It is the belief that the Bible is the Word of God and is clear to any reader. Scripture interprets Scripture and it is the sole source of Christian doctrine. Luther above all other theologians during the Reformation and today is known for standing firm on this doctrine. But Luther did not repaint this doctrine of Sola Scriptura but restored it back to its proper doctrine. Although Luther in the sixteenth century was first to bring the doctrine to the forefront, the apostolic and early church fathers held to the same doctrine. The apostolic fathers saw Scripture as their authority because they sat under the feet of the apostles and their writings. Keith Mathison states, “Scripture and tradition were co-inherent concepts.” The apostolic fathers would have not seen a difference in their doctrines because they were strictly all from the apostles and their writings. They did not need a systematic doctrine of Scripture alone, for they already believed in Scripture alone, for that is where their practices came from. During the second and third centuries the church fathers, mainly Irenaeus, fought for the correct view of Scripture and their traditions at the time against the Gnostics. Also in the second century Clement of Alexandria wrote a letter called the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria. In chapters 16 and 17 of this letter Clement defends the absolute authority Scripture has over everything. In addition, men such as Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Athanasius, Hillary of Poitiers, and Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all believed in the authority of Scripture and that Scripture was the only authority to be given in the life of the Christian faith.
During the Middle-Ages when the development of the papacy had taken over, the need for Scripture declined. Between A. D. 500-1000 the popes and their councils replaced the authority of Scripture. Around A.D. 1300, the doctrine of the papal infallibility was in place, for there was no reason to have Scripture when people believed that the pope could tell them all they needed. With the late Middle Ages, scholasticism and humanism brought a whole new way of looking at Scripture. In the first 500 years of church history, the church was the sole truth of faith for it interpreted the Scripture. Now men like Thomas Aquinas and Duna Scotus began a new way of looking at Scripture. Their view differed in that they relied on extra-scriptural sources of revelation as equal and as authoritative as the Scriptures. This made a number of changes in the late 1300’s to many different areas for the church and empire.
As Scripture’s role changed during the Middle Ages, Martin Luther’s fight was to bring it back to its authority in the Christian faith. His intent was not to repaint the faith. Luther’s first hint of restoring the church’s view of Scripture was stated at the Diet of Worms, when he says:
Since the Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simply reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
Luther would not die for anything but what he believed to be true in the Word of God. Luther as well as standing firm in his belief stood firm on restoring the Christian Church and reforming it back to its rightful state. Luther wanted to echo that which the ancient church had stood so strongly for. The 1500’s would become the time of this well-known doctrine. During the next 300 years Scripture was seen as the final authority, and not many questions arose.
Since the Reformation the doctrine of Sola Scriptura has been more heavily debated than ever before. The Enlightenment in the late 1800’s brought a philosopher mind-set and led to attacks of the revelation of Scripture. Then with the modern mind-set in America and movements like higher-criticism, people continued questioning what exactly was true in Scripture. In post-modern times we have individuals even asking what “truth” is because many people have been influences by these ideas or lines of thinking. Today’s postmodern culture has led to everyone’s own personal definition of truth. Exactly when the doctrine of Scripture alone came to be an actual doctrine in the churches can be argued. However, the importance is not when the doctrine came in to the church or not when someone repainted the view of Scripture but that Sola Scriptura has actually been a part of the Christian church since its origins.
III. Sola Scriptura and Luther
“By Scripture alone” is the essence of the of the sixteenth-century doctrine. Many scholars see this doctrine as the main principle of the Reformation. For this is where the Roman Catholic Church erred. The Roman Church in their apostasy and perverted popes had distorted this doctrine and tried to find revelation in other means than the Scriptures. Luther by no means tried to repaint this doctrine but rather restore it to its biblical mandate. Keith A. Mathison wrote this about Luther and this key doctrine of the Scriptures:
Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin did not create a new doctrine when they began to combat the tyranny and apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church with a call to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The classical Reformers were, in fact, calling the church back to its earlier teaching, back to a one-source concept of revelation, back to Tradition. They asserted that Scripture was the sole source of divine revelation, and they denied the existence of a supplementary source. They also asserted that Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church, in accordance with the ancient rule of the faith, as summarized in the Christian creed.
The reason that Mathison can say this is because Luther himself had said this before. Mathison, as well, uses a letter written on the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, written by Martin Luther himself.
This article moreover has been clearly believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to this hour – a testimony of the entire holy Christian Church, which, if we had nothing besides, should be sufficient for us. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the united testimony, faith, and doctrine, of the entire holy Christian Church, as this hath been held now 1,500 years, from the beginning, unanimously in all of the world. Whoso now doubted thereon, it is even that same though he believed in no Christian Church, and he condemneth thus not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but also Christ himself and all the powerfully attested this article, where we say, “I believe in a holy Christian Church”; Christ namely, Matthew 28:20:” “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the world”; and Paul, 1 Timothy 3:15: “the Church of God, which is the pillar and ground of truth.”
Luther did not bring about something new to the Christian Church. Luther’s intentions of reforming the church were to bring back what was found in Scriptures. Luther’s passion for Scripture alone is seen all throughout his work. He saw that Scripture was the final authority of the church and made this clear in many of his paradoxes that he used to make known the gospel. He illustrated the paradoxes of Scripture like the hidden God and the revealed God, theology of glory and the theology of the cross, outer man and the inner man, and faith and assurance. But his main two that dealt with Scripture alone were the paradoxes between law and gospel and the distinction between the word and the spirit. Luther saw that separating either of these two from the other led to what had happened to the Roman Church. Luther strongly emphasized the fact that when preaching the Word, you cannot separate the Word and Spirit. He made a point to show that Scripture must be taught in accordance what the Spirit had done in the Scriptures. Luther’s cry for the gospel by Scripture alone was a passion he carried throughout all of his works.
So it is not at all in keeping with the New Testament to write books on Christian doctrine. Rather in all places there should be fine, godly, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers without books, who extract the living Word from the old Scriptures and unceasingly inculcate it into the people, just as the apostles did. For before they wrote, they first of all preached to the people by the word of mouth and converted them.
Luther’s passion of the Word was something he could never separate from the Spirit. He believed that bringing the Spirit and the Word together demonstrated the gospel. Luther states:
Gospel… means nothing but a sermon and a crying out of the grace and mercy of God, earned and won by the Lord Jesus Christ with his death. And it is really not what is in books and composed in letters, but is more an oral sermon or the living word, a voice which sounds in all the world and is publicly cried out so that one hears it everywhere.
Luther saw the importance of Scripture alone. He saw the importance because he lived in a time period in which the Scriptures were not read, practiced, or even heard of. He knew this first hand, and would not back down from making the Scripture clearly shown, so that the gospel would further in its work. Luther believed that the Scriptures were enough to bring man fully to God and that no other book and writer compared to that of the divine writers and books of the Bible. Luther based his doctrines all on Scripture alone. Luther, when writing to Erasmus, shows us not only his beliefs in the sufficiency of Scriptures alone, but goes further in showing his fear of how Erasmus would use other means in revealing the Scriptures. Luther was in fear of men that used the popes’ words as equal standing to the Scriptures. He recognized the pride of men who claimed the Spirit’s name but used their own spirit in interpretation of the Scriptures. He says:
Here is my answer to you. What you say is part truth, but not all of it. It is true that we shall not detect the spirits by appeals to learning, life, abilities, majorities, distinction, or to ignorance and lack of education, or numbers, or standing. However, I do not applaud those who take refuge in bragging about the Spirit. I fought last year, and am still fighting, a pretty fierce campaign against those fanatics who subject Scriptures to the interpretation of their own spirit.
Luther in fear of himself misusing the Scriptures was conscientious of those who would divide doctrines because they were hard to handle. Luther dealt with this much in his time, especially with Erasmus. Erasmus viewed some truths as clear but he was still searching for the wisdom of God in other truths. Luther explains first that God and His Scriptures are two different doctrines. He then goes on to explain how God is incomprehensible to man; many things are hidden. But to speak of Scripture the same way would be incorrect. Luther states this problem in dealing with Scripture in his day. Today dealing with the emergent movement is similar for they are looking to find ideas and doctrines that are not revealed. Luther states this at its best:
But the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists (whom now you echo, Erasmus) – who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used these unsubstantial specters to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their own subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the tomb, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light- that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign for ever? And are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures- and what more will you find in them? You see, then, that the entire content of Scriptures has now been brought to light, even though some passages which contain unknown words remain obscure. This it is unintelligent and ungodly too, when you know that the contents of Scripture are as clear as can be, to pronounce them obscure on account of those few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another.
Luther’s view of Scripture alone is not a new song or a new idea. It is not repainting the Scriptures, but restoring them to their rightful authority in the believer’s heart and then to life. Luther dealt with the Scripture like no other. Luther’s desire was not to repaint a doctrine, but we see from his writings that his goal was to bring the church back to its biblical authority. Scripture was to be the final authority in the Christian life. To say Luther repainted his time or this doctrine is preposterous. It is outrageous to even think that the man called a “reformer” or any of the “reformers” would have wanted to be known for bringing new doctrines to the table of Christendom. Luther attempted to reform the Roman Catholic Church and its theology. He left whatever was not Scriptural. Luther was reforming at the time, and now we say “reformed,” not because he was coming up with something new, but because Luther reformed the church from the corrupt popes, councils, doctrines, and theology that the Roman Catholic Church created and used for its own pleasures. Luther summarizes Sola Scriptura to Erasmus:
But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e., lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness truth… Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear scriptures of God… if you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures but he that hath the Spirit of God… If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.
Rob Bell parallels Erasmus in many ways. If Luther did not even think of Erasmus as a believer, surely a man such as Rob Bell cannot call himself a contemporary of Luther nor claim to be a part of the tradition that Luther started.
IV. Sola Scriptura and Bell
In chapter two of Velvet Elvis Rob Bells tries to relay how difficult it is to come to grip with and interpret the Scriptures. Bell’s view of Scripture seems to encourage all people to believe what they want. His interpretation of Scripture tends to lend itself to multiple meanings. His use of epistemology ends up deconstructing the text. This ends up leading to a pluralistic relativism view of Scripture. Luther would never have agreed to this way of hermeneutics, nor did he ever practice this in his preaching or teaching of the Scriptures. Bell comments like this:
But let’s be honest. When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving their opinions about the Bible. It sounds nice to say, “I’m not giving you my opinion; I’m just telling you what it means.”
Bell’s view here is that men can have many views of the way people teach the Scriptures. Which one is right is left up to the individual. Bell implies that Scriptures cannot have just one meaning or interpretation. Bell’s view of people giving opinions leads to nobody ever being able to hold to a truth as absolute. Previous to this statement he says, “When we are serious about dealing with the Bible as the communal book that it is, then we have to be honest about our interpretations. Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective”. Although the Bible may be a “communal book” its purpose is to glorify God by the work and redemption of the Savior Jesus Christ through the enabling of the Holy Spirit. It is not a subjective book left to each reader’s or preacher’s interpretation. All believers must adhere to the truths of the Bible. They should know what they believe and know with surety the truths contained in its pages.
Lastly, Bell’s view of Scripture so sharply contradicts Luther’s view that clearly Luther would not have worked with him. Luther would not work with individuals that differed with him in anyway. Luther refused to work with men of God like Zwingli and Bucker. And it could be argued that Luther would have not worked with Calvin either due to the differences on the Lord’s Supper. One can conclude, therefore, that Luther would have never worked with a man that would say such remarks as this:
This is part of the problem with continually insisting that one of the absolutes of the Christian faith must be a belief that “Scripture alone” is our guide. It sounds nice, but it is not true. In reaction to abuses by the church, a group of believers during a time called the Reformation claimed that we only need the authority of the Bible. But the problem is that we got the Bible form the church voting on what the Bible even is. So when I affirm the Bible as God’s Word, in the same breath I have to affirm that when those people voted, God was somehow present, guiding them to do what they did. When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true. 
Bell’s remarks bring into question what truth is and what its origin is. Bell, as a postmodernist, has a fixed view. After the church has stood on truth and the Bible for nearly 2000 years the postmodernist now believes it is not true. Bell contradicts himself on this view of Scripture. After he says Scripture does not have to be a part of the Christian faith, he makes this remarkable statement: “At some point we have to have faith. Faith that God is capable of guiding people. Faith and God has not left us alone. Faith that the same Spirit who guided Paul and Peter and those people in a room in the 300’s is still with us today. Guiding us, showing us, enlightening us.” Bell seems to not have a Scripture alone mind-set, but it is likely that he believes he will find new truths or a new meaning in the Scriptures. Again, this contradicts the tradition he claims to be a part of. Luther never found Scripture to change over time based on the culture. Rather, Luther stood for one truth, one interpretation, and one meaning. Not only has Bell left truth up for grabs but he has completely become a deconstructionist. And that is something that Luther never was.
V. Concluding Thoughts of Their Differences
Bell and Luther do not have much in common when it comes to the Scriptures. Bell sees that time shifts in culture should lead to a change in Scriptural revelation. He may use trendy terms or ways that may seem cool or hip to today’s audiences, but a man without Scripture alone, or a substandard view on the doctrine of Scripture alone, leads to a different gospel. Believing that culture may change interpretation and meaning certainly changes the gospel. Looking for changes in the doctrines of God, Jesus, the Bible, theology and future, change the good news told of in the Scripture. And to alter doctrines and deconstruct the Bible from its original intentions is disdainful to the Lord. You cannot bend the picture too far before it is distorted. One cannot change the message of the gospel in any way, shape, or form. If the message of the gospel has been changed, truth has been changed. In John 14:6, Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” If we have changed the basic doctrines of Jesus, truth, Scripture, and what is the way and the truth, then how can man even come to life? False saviors, false views of the Bible and false systems of theology lead to a false gospel.
Luther started the Reformation when he saw the importance of Scripture and its authority. He did not change doctrines that were good but rather he revised bad doctrines back to their original truths and greatness. From the beginning of the Reformation Luther placed Scripture first and foremost before all of his work. Luther states in the beginning of his studying in Scripture:
The writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time, in order that through them we may be led to the Holy Scriptures. We are like men who study the sign-post and never travel the road. The dear fathers wished, by their writings, to lead us form the Scriptures, but we so use them as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought all to work and toil.
A correlation between Bell and Luther’s view of Scripture alone is not visible. It would seem that they do not come from the same tradition. Luther dealt sternly with liberal theologians such as Erasmus, saying, “I read our Erasmus and my enthusiasm for him decreases daily… I fear he does not sufficiently exalt Christ and God…; things human count more with him than things divine.” The same can be said for Rob Bell. “I read our Bell and my enthusiasm for him decreases daily… I fear he does not sufficiently exalt Christ and God…; things human count more with him than things divine.”
 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).
 Bell, Velvet Elvis, 12.
 Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 167-77.
 Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, Vol. I. (ed. Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker, Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology, (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964), 117n.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 33 (ed. by Philip S. Watson Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 26.
 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, (Translated by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 123-25.
I am not going to quibble about the theology of Bell vs that of Luther, I think you did a good job of explicating the differences. What I am going to challenge is your understanding of what Bell means when he talks about ‘repainting’ the faith. The way I understand it is that Bell wants to remove the things that have been added that are inconsistent with the faith as he perceives it.
Again, he may perceive the faith in ways that are different than Luther, but then again Luther did not have everything right either. I DO think that Luther would agree with Bell. The church should always be reforming. It should always be challenging the accepted perception of God and the faith.
The traditions that commonly link themselves back to the Reformation, I would argue, do a good job of exalting Christ and God, but they do it to the deficit of things human. Jesus did not only say that we should love God with our whole being, but that we should love others as we love ourselves.
The correlation I see between the two is that Luther was reminding us of our responsibility toward God, and Bell is reminding us of our responsibility toward others. Taken to the extreme, neither is correct. Taken together and ‘all the law and the prophets hand on these TWO commandments.
Excellent points on the historicity of Luther and the Reformers’ religion. One of the main problems with Bell and the emergent folk is that they do not read the primary sources but recreate history around their thinking.
Excellent historiography of the doctrine of sola Scriptura… very helpful. I am glad to see your emphasis upon the One-Source theory of tradition as the context of sola Scriptura so that it would not be confused with solo Scriptura or Scripture in the nude as many modern Evangelicals think of it as.
Luther and Bell would not agree. Dewalt perfectly delineated the huge epistemological differences between the two. Bell states: “Things changed. Thousands of people connected with God in ways they hadn’t before.” This statement of Bell’s is misleading. He wants people to assume it is okay to repaint the Christian experience where we see Luther in fact wanting to restore it to the apostolic tradition. The Reformation was not anti-tradition. No, they held a very high view of Creeds and confessions along with the Apostolic Fathers right until the middle of the Medieval Church.
Bell is not being honest but rather not working with the primary sources and reinterpreting the Reformation to make it work into his ‘emerging’ Schleiremachean view of history and of the development of the Church (i.e. he’s saying ‘that was Luther’s way of doing things and here is our way, they’re both legit and I have historical precedence’). This idea is not only foreign to what was thought but down right deceitful to lead people astray like this.
“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.”
While if Bell may in fact mean by this that we should learn how to interact and defend THE Christian faith once delivered to the saints in the ‘dilemmas’ being posed, then fine but I doubt this is what he is referring to. He wants a recreation of the Christian faith in every age, ‘if this kernel of practice works in the present we will take it but the elements of Luther’s time are in no way imposed upon us.’ This thinking is contrary to historic Christianity and what the Scriptures, coinherent with the Creeds, display for the watching world. This spectrum is nothing but the old liberal view of Scripture, tradition, and Christianity.
I would also like to the comment on this part of the quotation to prove this pastor wrong: “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 rhetoric, or I should say sophistry, is so close to that of the classic liberalism that it should be spotted immediately. “that in Jesus, God came among us.” What is that? That he showed a new kind of life? No, Christ did not primarily come to be a new law-giver. He did not give a law that was a lot easier to obey than the Mosaic Law. This idea of Christ as our new guru is not only consistent with classic liberalism but with Roman Catholicism. Bell is not apart of historic Christianity which sees Christ’s coming as penal, judicial, forensic – as a life lived vicariously for his people in agreement to the Father’s just demands for our sin.
To add to what has been insurmountably been stated: there is a context out of which we define the doctrines of Scripture. For many in Evangelicalism, they hold to solo Scriptura and not what Luther put forth. Luther and the other Reformers saw Scripture in a churchly and Creedal context. The Creeds were authoritative, although not the norming norm, they indeed held weight. If a person does not confess Christ as fully God and fully man, he is not united to Christ.
Bell confuses Luther and the Reformers with modern Evangelical notions of ‘me and my Bible’ – pure Biblicism which is simply not true. What Bell does not know how to deal with is Confessionalism at its best, for it is an entirely different animal from that of conservatives and liberals, post-conservatives and emergents, Evangelicals and fundamentalists. Confessionalism does not fall for the Kantian division between the rational and irrational, the noumenal or phenomenal. Epistemologically Bell does not know how to incorporate this third view and therefore feels free to reinterpret history for his benefit.
How does one exactly overdue their emphasis on God? I would really like to see that panned out. You are posing a false dilemma.
If you read the Reformers, the Reformed tradition, or the Lutheran tradition, they in fact place quite a bit of emphasis on serving our neighbor. I do not think you know the primary sources nor are you using them correctly if you have, in step with Bell.
When the Reformation used the term semper Reformanda, it was always in the context of Ecclesia Reformata. There is an essence to the Faith that never changes. What does continually Reform is the accidental parts of theology, faith, and practice. For example, in the Reformed tradition, the Westminster Standards were changed to exclude a Establishmentarian view of Government that were originally apart of the 17th century originals b/c it was believed to be inconsistent with the heart of Calvinism/Reformed theology.
This is a great article!
Bell is doing a lot more than reminding us of our responsibility toward others, he in many ways wants to fundamentally change the way we view God. This in and of itself is not bad, as Luther demonstrated. However, I think the comparison between Bell and Erasmus is very fitting. What are we “reforming” toward?
Just like some politicians appeal to “change,” making an appeal to “reforming” is such a nebulous statement unless one clearly defines what they mean by reforming. Toward a more biblically accurate view of God, or toward a view calls into question the authority and clarity of Scripture? I think Luther’s statement to Erasmus, “Your thoughts on God are too human” is very fitting for Bell as well.
Good reading here. I loved the compare/contrast work and the explanation for those who may not be familiar with one or both men. Keep at it man!
As always, great thoughts. I don’t think I can add anything to what you said but I’ll at least put my 2 cents in.
“Your thoughts on God are too human.” Case and point of Bell. Well stated.
@ Pastor Chad:
I think I would have liked to see your “quibbling” about the theology of Luther v Bell. Quibbling doesn’t sound nice, so instead, I would have liked you to expound on what you know about the 2 specifically because as you continue in dialogue it shows you don’t know either very well. Luther’s main enemy, if you will, was the Pope and the fact that the Bible was not being interpreted correctly; people were in danger of hell because the truths of the 5 sola’s, mainly sola fide, were not taught and instead were anathematized by Rome. On the other hand, Bell’s main fight that he is picking is against the disillusioned children of failed fundamentalists, prohibitionists, and even early church marketers. People are tired of the legalism and moralism present in 95% of evangelicalism, so Bell instead presents an easy going, neo-evangelical message – “We just have to choose which reality we want to live in.” What does that even mean? I’ve heard new age guru’s with more solid statements than that! To equate the Reformation that began with Luther to the “reformation” that Bell claims he’s a part of is quite ignorant of the beliefs of both men.
If you will, please convince me that Luther would agree with certain statements that Bell makes by giving proof from Luther’s writings in comparison to Bell’s. First, and I would contend most important, look what Bell states right off the bat – he wants to change THEOLOGY, not cosmetic, superficial things. Once you understand his premise for the rest of his book, it will come as no surprise when he does in fact change and try to reform key points of theology, namely sin, a literal hell/heaven, the virgin birth, the infallibility of Scripture, etc. Scary phrases should grab your attention as a pastor and wave huge red flags, especially ones such as, “Heaven is full of forgiven people that God loves, that Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people that God loves, that Jesus died for. It just depends on which reality we choose to live in.” If things like this aren’t contrary to Scripture and we can’t say that they are objectively, God help the Church. Keep reading and studying, but may I suggest you leave Bell and the other emergents out and incorporate more of our historical fathers who had their eyes set on Christ and not being hip.
I love it that when someone disagrees, they must be ignorant, or uninformed. Love it!
Well, this is giving someone the benefit of the doubt. We can just go straight to pride and unwillingness of the heart to submit to God. This may be in fact what Bell is doing but we are not discussing that right now in the main post but that his arguments are fallacious and misinformed and dead wrong
Okay, I think I have to wade in a bit more deeply here. There are differences in the way that Bell and Luther discuss certain things, even points of doctrine. This I agree with. However, there are some ways in which I very strongly disagree with Luther as well. When we read Luther’s 95 theses, for example, he takes as given certain things that we would definitely not agree with. He agrees that the pope has the authority through the canons to impose certain penalties.
“8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
“9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
“49. Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
“71 . He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
“72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!
Luther also takes it as a given that purgatory exists, though he disagrees with his contemporary theologians as to what that looks like.
“17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
“26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.”
So, let me ask you. Have we ‘repainted’ that faith that Luther held onto? Or do we continue to believe in the power of the pope to administer pardons? Do we continue to believe in purgatory?
Wading in even a bit deeper I want to take issue with the way that Bell is presented in this article. He is not given the benefit of the doubt, but misconstrued. For example, when Bell talks about not believing that it is possible to make the claim of the Reformers that the only authority we need is the scriptures, he is not taking a post-modern/liberal view of truth, but rather an Orthodox view. Here is the context of the citation for Bells rejection of scripture as reference above.
“This is part of the problem with continually insisting that one of the absolutes of the Christian faith must be a belief the “Scripture alone” is our guide. It sounds nice, but it is not true. In reaction to abuses by the church, a group of believers during a time called the Reformation claimed that we only need the authority of the Bible. But the problem is that we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is. So when I affirm the Bible as God’s Word, in the same breath I have to affirm that when those people voted, God was somehow present, guiding them to do what they did. When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true.”
“In affirming the Bible as inspired, I have to affirm the Spirit who I believe was inspiring those people to choose those books.”
Far from being a rejection of the authority of the scriptures, it is a recognition that the scriptures are recognised and properly interpreted within the context of the church, or the faith.
Thank you for more interaction and explanation of what you have said.
You stated: “So, let me ask you. Have we ‘repainted’ that faith that Luther held onto? Or do we continue to believe in the power of the pope to administer pardons? Do we continue to believe in purgatory?”
You would be correct to wit if this was in fact a reading of Luther and his entire corpus. Not even seven months later of his posting the 95 Theses, Luther said of himself that he was a papist himself when he wrote the 95 Theses. Luther did not have his evangelical conversion till later. His writings were continually changing as he discovered the locus of interpretation around Christ as our Vicarious Substitute in his active and passive obedience, the law/gospel distinction, Two Kingdoms, etc.
In taking his mature theology, we can say what has been said concerning Luther. Dewalt, citing Luther’s more ‘Lutheran’ works, has indeed interpreted him correctly as well as the Reformers.
Concerning Bell’s understanding of Scripture, I would disagree that it is not in fact orthodox or what the Reformers held to. The quotation your provided shows how unorthodox and in fact liberal his understanding of Bibliology is. People are not inspired; councils are not inspired. Only Scripture is inspired as a text. He speaks of inspiration as something that happens when songwriters find inspiration to write. This is a very Gnostic understanding of spirituality.