Brian McLaren Defends Rob Bell against Mohler's Critique

Controversial evangelical pastor Brian McLaren has come to the defense of Rob Bell, taking on R. Albert Mohler, Jr.'s critical review of Bell's new book, Love Wins, in a recent blog post.

Anticipating Bell's "baptism in hot water" with the book's publication, McLaren said he was waiting for an opportunity to speak up on behalf of his friend and Mohler's March 16 blog post gave him that chance.

For weeks, evangelical leaders have hammered Bell for his views on heaven and hell as expressed in his new book Love Wins. Bell is accused of being a universalist, dismissing the sacrifice of Jesus' death on the cross, and not believing in hell, among other things.

In his blog post defending Bell, McLaren uses a baseball metaphor to point out four errors in Mohler's critical arguments against the book.

First, McLaren takes issue with Mohler's line of argument that his interpretation of the gospel is the gospel itself and that Bell is attempting to promote a different version of the gospel to make it more popular.

Mohler wrote: "We have no right to determine which 'story' of the Gospel we prefer or think is most compelling. We must deal with the Gospel that we received from Christ and the Apostles, the faith once for all delivered to the church. Suggesting that some other story is better or more attractive than that story is an audacity of breathtaking proportions."

McLaren responded, "[H]e (Mohler) is wrong to assume that Rob is saying his story is better than Jesus' story. Rather, Rob is suggesting that Jesus' original story (as he interprets it) is better than the version many hold and proclaim today."

No articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning proclaimed by Christ and the apostles, McLaren argued. He said Christians therefore should proclaim their interpretation with "humble confidence" rather than "a naive and excessive confidence."

McLaren also disagreed with Mohler that Bell was questioning the interpretation of the gospel he received because he was in search of a "popular or palatable version." Bell, already a "wildly popular" megachurch pastor and author, started to question the version of the gospel he received because he was convinced from his studies in scripture that it wasn't the best interpretation, he said.

"He (and many of us) may be wrong," noted McLaren, "but if we're wrong, it's not simply because we are trying to pander to 'contemporary culture.'"

The A New Kind of Christianity author then goes on to refute Mohler's second claim, which charges Bell with divorcing holiness and justice from God's loving character in his consideration of the traditional doctrine of hell, turning love into "mere sentimentality."

According to Mohler, God's holiness and justice requires the traditional doctrine of hell.

McLaren wrote that concerns raised over the traditional doctrine of hell are based on justice and holiness, not because of sentimentality.

However, he pointed out that "it's very hard to square the idea of eternal conscious torment with a just or holy God." Even from a human stand point, a human father punishing his children's disobedience with 10 seconds in the fireplace would be unjust and unholy, said McLaren.

If a definition of justice and holiness characterized by "the imperfect...suffering eternal agony" would be unworthy of a human being, "how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own," he asked.

Siding with Bell, McLaren said he found it "more reasonable and faithful to the full witness of Scripture to conclude that love wins through God's restorative (not merely punitive) justice." However, he denies that this belief as "traditional universalism."

In his third point, McLaren rejected Mohler's argument that those who reject the traditional doctrine on hell is embracing a liberal theology that killed and emptied out many mainline Protestant churches at the end of the 20th century.

McLaren provided a slew of reasons other than theological liberalism that might have killed mainline Protestantism. Potential culprits for the death of mainline churches included liturgical and organizational rigidity, a lack of visionary leadership, and a failure to adopt tech-savvy marketing methods like evangelicals.

McLaren also suggested that mainline Protestantism might not be dying at all but preparing for the birth of a new generation of Christianity. Also, evangelicals might be headed toward a similar downfall as the church has a higher college attendance rate or grapples with hypocrisy or disconnection from real-life issues.

On the final point of argument, McLaren said he actually agrees with Mohler's statement that "a secular society feels no need to attend or support secularized churches with a secularized theology."

But he is quick to note that Mohler might be confusing secularism with liberalism.

"To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism - economic and political - simply dressed up in religious language," said McLaren.

"If that's the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he'd still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community."

McLaren concluded his post by asking for those who ascribe to a traditional view of hell to give a "fair hearing" to those who "can't in good conscience defend that view any longer."

"I imagine Rob Bell feels a lot like I have on many occasions: it's not that the critics have accurately understood what I'm trying to say and have explained why they disagree. It's that they've misrepresented what I'm trying to say and have explained why the misrepresentation is audacious and ludicrous," he lamented.

"If we seek true understanding and give one another a fair hearing all along the way, knowing we'll all strike out sometimes and even commit an error or two from time to time, whoever 'wins,' love will win."

On Tuesday, Denny Burk, dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to McLaren's post. He said he disagreed with McLaren's framing of the issues and his responses to Mohler.

Burk, a professor of New Testament, also criticized McLaren for not clearly stating his arguments. McLaren is known for delivering well-stated arguments but remaining vague on his positions.

"You'll only be able to know your interpretation of his argument which is not the same thing as his argument," he wrote.

Mohler said he will be responding to McLaren's article, according to Burk.

McLaren recently released a new book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.

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