By now you’ve no doubt heard that the Christian corner of the internet blew up over the weekend over Rob Bell’s upcoming book, Love Wins, a galley of which has been resting untouched on my desk for several weeks. If you’re just now tuning in, my friend Sarah Bailey at Christianity Today has the best roundup of what went down in what order. Basically, a post by Justin Taylor, who we’ve criticized before in these pages, announced that Bell is a universalist and started a chain-reaction of high-profile “new Calvinist” pastors (John Piper, Josh Harris) denouncing Bell on Twitter before they’d read the book.
But as much as I find Taylor’s tendency to instantly punish theological diversity obnoxious, I don’t think he’s the most important part of this story. The theology behind him, much of it written by John Piper, is the real story.
I realize Piper would be the first to tell you he’s a sinner and that he’s not perfect. But I can’t help noticing that his reaction to these bubbling web controversies often seems to be arrogance—a rather unfortunate pattern considering how voluminously the man has written and preached on humility, and how dogmatically the people in his denomination believe in self-effacement. (He even went on sabbatical from public ministry last year to examine “pride” in his life, among other things.) Still, the rigid certainty in Piper’s theological interpretations, and the interpretations of his close followers, seems to given him license for bizarre overstatement and snarky dismissal of those who disagree. His first reaction to a rumor on the internet that Rob Bell is a universalist is, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” “Public nudity is a form of God’s judgment,” he wrote in January. “Encouraging it or enjoying it is a form of hate.” Two weeks later, he praised Kevin DeYoung, a younger New Calvinist writer, for denouncing the “inclusivity” in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. “Kevin DeYoung is more reliable than C.S. Lewis,” Piper tweeted. Back in 2009, Piper baldly stated that a tornado that hit a Lutheran church during a vote on admitting gay clergy was a sign from God of his displeasure.
If you’ve ever been in a Sovereign Grace church, the denomination most closely aligned with Piper’s teaching, you may have seen the manifestation of this absolutism couched in humility. You would likely have noticed humility is mentioned from the pulpit virtually every Sunday, and an palpable air of self-examination hangs over the congregation inside and outside the sanctuary.
I believe this attempt to nourish humility is genuine, but it’s also a farce. Because if you believe in the “authority of Scripture” the way these people do, and the rightness of their own leaders and teachers the way these people do, how can you really be very humble toward people who believe differently? And when this rightness trickles down into a rigid system of how people should live and relate to one another, as I’ve seen it do, how can you even be humble toward your own friends in your own church? Thus the Sovereign Grace obsession with humility often feels empty and absurd, as if people are trying to convince themselves they have something to be humble about when they don’t really believe they do. In the real world, their theology drives the displays we see regularly on the internet: quick denouncement of any thought that diverges from the Way God Interprets the Bible As Revealed to John Piper Et Al. If that’s not fundamentalism, I don’t know what is.
I really have heard it all from these people when it comes to their assurance of the authority of scripture, but they can’t escape the reality that there are many things, including hell, on which the Bible is thoroughly inconclusive. As Jason Boyett explained today, you can’t draw any clear idea about hell from scripture without exegetical gymnastics. And on issues like this, you’d think people as deeply committed to self-examination and humility as Piper and Company ostensibly are would give other Christians some room for error. Especially, especially when those Christians are—like, God help us, all Christians should be—hoping people don’t have to burn in an eternal fire.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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