Sunday, July 17, 2011

The real impasse in the debate over Rob Bell

Mark Galli’s book, God Wins—a response, obviously, to Love Wins—was the topic of discussion last week. The book has been available on Kindle for a few weeks, though it doesn’t appear in print until August 1. In it, Galli explains why he thinks “love wins” is an insufficient understanding of the gospel, because it bypasses the question of God’s judgment and wrath. Hence, “God wins.” One almost wants to ask Galli whether he’s forgotten 1 John 4:8. But that’s a cheap shot. Since I haven’t read the book yet—and since I’ve already written a few thousand words on Galli in my series responding to his deeply misguided and misinformed review in Christianity Today—I defer to the recent blog posts by Roger Olson, a man I highly respect and deeply admire.

Olson, a friend of Galli, wrote about God Wins on July 7. There he made a number of ambiguous remarks that were clearly an attempt to praise the qualities of the man while criticizing the claims of the book. He begins by stating that “Mark is a serious evangelical scholar with an irenic approach to controversial material.” He then goes on to say, “I get the sense that Mark felt things that I did not feel and that I felt things Mark (and others) did not feel.” And later: “I think that may be because Mark is a member of a denomination struggling with rampant liberalism in which conservatives (by which here I mean people who value traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity) feel embattled. I, on the other hand, have been beset by fundamentalists and aggressive neo-fundamentalist heresy-hunters.” The rest of the review is just filler: Mark is a great guy, but he’s approaching this book from a perspective I do not share. Translation: his criticisms of Love Wins are not really about Bell; they are instead about Galli’s own issues within his ecclesial context.

Olson followed up that review of God Wins with another post on “Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books).” In this fascinating post, Olson puts forward the claim that what is really driving a book like God Wins is the whole Calvinism-Arminianism debate. He then states:
I think SOME evangelical Calvinists are so allergic to both Arminianism and liberalism that they tend to lump them together and not see their differences.  There’s something in American evangelical Calvinisms’ DNA that makes it see a trajectory from Arminianism (or anything like it) to liberalism.  I deny that trajectory and, in fact, tend to think it is the other way around (if anything): Calvinism leads to liberalism.
Olson compares Love Wins to the books related to the open theism controversy. He observes that the attacks made against both by Calvinists are the very same arguments used by Calvinists against Arminianism. What happens in these debates is that the particularities of open theism and Bell’s “open eschatology” (if I may put it thus) are lost amidst polemics about divine sovereignty and human free will. In Olson’s words, “the crux of the debate has to do with two different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:4,” and “the deep, inner logic of the attacks on Love Wins” are rooted in “Reformed assumptions about God rather than out of Arminian assumptions about God.” Olson then makes a very interesting comment that warrants further reflection:
Simply to respond that God Wins is to raise some questions from the Arminian side.  In what sense does God win?  Does God get everything he wanted?  Does God want hell–antecedently as well as consequently?  If you say no, then why does hell exist?  It has to be because of free will and that has to be because of God’s loving self-limitation.  If you say yes, then that raises a host of questions about God’s goodness.  There don’t seem to be alternatives.  Either God wanted hell antecedently, in which case God is a monster, or God only wants hell consequently (to the fall) and that means God doesn’t exactly “win” in every sense, right?  But love can still win IN THE SENSE that love wants free response and not coerced or programmed response.
There is much here worth examining in detail, but in the interests of brevity, I will summarize my thoughts with the following points. These are not meant to be exhaustive. They only hit on some of the key issues for the sake of further discussion.

1. The Calvinist-Arminian debate is an old one, but it seems blissfully unaware that there are serious alternatives to this rather stale binary opposition. It might seem a bit obvious, since it’s been suggested many times before, but a really compelling alternative is that of Karl Barth. Why? Well, it all comes down to understanding what we mean by freedom. The problem with both Calvinism and Arminianism is that freedom—whether the freedom of God or the freedom of the human being, respectively—has been defined in the abstract. The Calvinist freedom of God (i.e., the absolute sovereignty to determine the elect and the reprobate) and the Arminian freedom of humanity (i.e., the free will to determine one’s eternal identity in response to the gospel message) are both known prior to and apart from how God has actually exercised freedom in the person of Jesus. In other words, both are metaphysical conceptions of freedom. They are abstract notions not determined by the concrete particularity of God’s self-revelation. Now it may be that both sides simply don’t care; they like their metaphysics and cling to it tightly. That could very well be the case. But it’s important to point out just what is being assumed on both sides. In both cases, Christ is not definitive for what divine and human freedom means theologically.

2. Of course, to lift up Barth as a possible solution to the debate is not new, nor is it very persuasive to hard-core adherents of both positions. I suspect Calvinists and Arminians want their abstract conceptions of freedom, not because they care about the debates over metaphysics but because they are both deeply afraid of what it mean to go a different route. To put it directly, both Calvinists and Arminians are afraid of universalism. Calvinists need an abstract divine freedom (that is, an abstract decision of predestination) because their commitment to irresistible grace and the efficacy of God’s election means that a divine freedom determined by Christ’s reconciling promeity would result in the salvation of all people. Arminians need an abstract human freedom because their commitment to God’s universal desire for all to be saved (see Olson’s reference to 1 Tim. 2:4 above) would mean, again, that all humans would be saved were it not for our ability to thwart God’s will. But maybe—just maybe!—the problem is the presupposition by both sides that the salvation of all people is absolutely prohibited as a possible option in theology. Maybe our abstract commitments to a non-universalist eschatology and to certain notions of what freedom means for God and for human beings are at the root of the problem. Maybe we should let the reconciling mission of Christ determine what we can say about freedom and eschatological consummation.

3. In other words, the following claim by Olson is a false binary: “Either God wanted hell antecedently, in which case God is a monster, or God only wants hell consequently (to the fall) and that means God doesn’t exactly ‘win’ in every sense, right?” The answer is no and no. I agree with Olson that God would be a monster for willing hell in advance. The old doctrine of double predestination is indeed a diabolic position to hold. But the Arminian alternative fares no better. Is a God who sends people to hell really much worse than a God who is impotent in the end to save those who reject the gospel (or never hear it in the first place)? The former is a God who is sovereign but cruel; the latter is a God who is weak but loving. The former is protologically monstrous, while the latter is eschatologically monstrous. But it’s unacceptable either way. If all are not finally saved, then God cannot be said to have “won.” And a God who does not “win”—who does not fully and finally accomplish God’s own perfect will—is simply not the God attested in scripture.

4. We can put the problem another way: for both Calvinists and Arminians, love and justice have been defined in the abstract, i.e., apart from God’s concrete self-communication in Christ. Thus both pit love and justice in a competitive relationship. Calvinism grounds the competition in God’s eternal predestination—so that God determines where love will “win” and where justice will “win.” Arminianism grounds the competition in the conflict between a loving God and a sinful humanity: God loves everyone, but this loving divine will is overpowered by a human refusal of this love that, according to the rules of the game, forces God to exact justice. If we begin with Christ, however, it turns out that love and justice are non-competitively related, since it is precisely the love of God for all that God’s cruciform justice serves to accomplish. Justice is simply the form that God’s love takes in the event of the cross. The notions of love and justice are not theologically meaningful independent of and prior to the actualization of God’s just love in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. The attempt to define them in advance and then figure out how they relate theologically results in this intractable debate.

5. This whole debate also seems to take for granted the notion that eschatology refers to something “beyond death,” that is, beyond each person’s individual perishing. Maybe that’s something we need to reconsider as well.