disrespecting Scripture

One of the most perplexing traits of Love Wins is its cavalier attitude toward texts. Whether it was contradicting Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins, mistranslating the Greek term for eternal, omitting Revelation 20:11-15 from its chapter on hell, or wrenching one line from Martin Luther until it meant the opposite of what Luther clearly intended, Love Wins repeatedly misrepresents the viewpoints of others.

The recent New Yorker essay noticed this and asked Rob Bell about it. The article mentioned the Luther letter and Bell’s quote from Philippians 2, which omitted “under the earth” from Paul’s declaration that “every knee should bow.” The New Yorker alleged that Bell omitted this phrase because “under the earth” would probably mean hell, and then it observed that “Bell’s book is full of carefully chosen and sometimes carefully truncated quotations.”

When The New Yorker asked Bell whether he is misleading readers, he replied, “You’re just picking the verses you like? I think everybody is.”

As every parent knows, “Everyone is doing it” is not a defense. It’s an admission of guilt. And it’s more evidence that Bell does not think the Bible is God’s Word in the same way that you and I do. He would probably say that the Bible is God’s inspired word, but if he really thought it was would he go Thomas Jefferson on the quotes he doesn’t like?

Someone who believes he has God’s Word does not speak with ellipses. Jeremiah did not say, “God wants you to know that…you will return to this land.” Moses did not edit the Ten Commandments down to eight on his way down the mountain, and preachers who believe they are speaking for God will say everything God has told them, or face the consequences.

Bell is not alone in his treatment of God’s Word. If recent book reviews are accurate, there are other rising stars who want to be considered evangelical (I’m aware that Bell shrugs off labels) and yet glibly misrepresent what the Bible is saying. I suspect this is where the new battles will erupt—and is why Scripture is the theme of next year’s ETS.

Don’t be overly impressed by the glorious adjectives people use to describe the Bible, but pay attention to how they use it. What they do with Scripture—not what they say about it—will tell you if they really believe it’s the Word of God.

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25 Responses to disrespecting Scripture

  1. Rick McGarry says:

    Has it been your observation that those who subscribe to inerrancy treat scripture with significantly greater respect? I know that logically they should, but do you think it really works out that way? Besides, Bell must be right. What about all those bumper stickers?

  2. mikewittmer says:

    Rick: I have witnessed conservative pastors handle the Bible extremely poorly, but I don’t remember hearing one say he’s omitting parts of verses because everyone does it. I think the largest difference is that Bell says he’s doing it on purpose, while conservatives are much less intentional. Which also means they do it much less too.

    Personally, my goal is to always do justice to every text. I’m not saying that any theological perspective can comprehend the entirety of God’s revelation, but I never ignore the passages that don’t fit my system. People may disagree with my conclusions, but I don’t want them to ever say I pick and choose the parts I like. Well, they can say it, but I don’t want the charge to ever stick.

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  4. I don’t agree with Rob Bell’s interpretation of Scripture, but I do agree with him that everyone, including Evangelicals who subscribe to inerrency, will pick and choose which scriptures to take as dogma and which ones to ignore. I think sometimes we mistakenly think that if we read the Bible “literally” we are automatically relieved of the responsibility to be discerning in how we apply it. We simply say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

    But then there’s that frightening realization, that I think Mike has portrayed in his book “Don’t Stop Believing,” and in this post, that it can’t stop at just “believing.” We have to do something with the Bible, not simply believe it, and what we do with it is directly linked to how we interpret it, which seems to differ greatly even within American Evangelicalism. Which is perfectly fine, I think, realizing that the Bible even says, “God works through different people in different ways, but it is the same God who achieves his purpose through them all,” (1 Cor. 2:6) and his purpose is, ” …to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to Himself through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5) And Love is the motivator in all God does, and “we understand what love is when we realize that Christ died for us. That means we give our lives for other believers.” But how does one discern truth and practice love? One way, is through a renewed conscience.

    I like the way William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne say it in their book, “Suspect Tenderness – The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness” which is about the late Daniel Berrigan, a priest who became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, burning draft records and describing himself as a “fugitive for peace.” One of the chapters in the book called “Conscience, Tactics, and Hope” explains how conscience is exercised by the Christian:
    The inescapable issue in conscience for Christians is what has here been called the
    social or political context in which conscience is exercised; that social or political
    element in conscience refers concretely to the activity of the Holy Spirit historically
    upon the community of believers and the members of the community evoking their
    experience of renewed humanity for the sake and service of human life in the
    world… Still, the Christian community is diverse and dispersed, its members have
    different capabilities and locations, in the sense of humanizing life for all mankind,
    are multifarious and cumulative and, not infrequently contradictory. The exercise of
    conscience is, therefore, is not the same thing as the arrival at consensus. In
    specific circumstances within a particular segment of the body of Christians, there
    may be a coincidence of conscience and consensus…That conscience is not
    mechanical or narrow but FREE in its use and far-reaching we take to be a tribute to
    the vigor and versatility of the Holy Spirit, as well as a sign of the imagination and
    seriousness with which Christians are called to regard and become involved in the
    history. (emphasis added by me).

    The versatility of the Holy Spirit is paramount I think, in the FREE use of conscience in the everyday life of the regenerate Christian. It is for freedom that Christ set us free! I know this was long, but thanks for reading. =)

  5. Craig L. Adams says:

    Just out of curiosity: do you feel this way about the NT authors’ use of the OT? After all, if it is true that: “What they do with Scripture—not what they say about it—will tell you if they really believe it’s the Word of God” then it would seem to follow that either the NT authors did not believe that the OT was the Word of God — or they believed it in a very different sense than we do.

  6. mikewittmer says:

    Jackie: I am not aware of any biblical passages that I ignore, so I disagree with your premise. I’m sure there are some verses I interpret differently than you, but that’s not the same as ignoring them.

    Craig: I am unaware of any place where the NT omitted part of the OT message because they didn’t like what it said.

  7. Mike – you said, “People may disagree with my conclusions, but I don’t want them to ever say I pick and choose the parts I like. Well, they can say it, but I don’t want the charge to ever stick.”

    I think you are holding yourself to a seemingly unattainably high standard. If you want to be a machine instead of a human, I think you could possibly accomplish this. I think when Christ became human, he elevated the state of humanity. We don’t need to despise our humanity, but realize that God accepts us as we are, and so we can accept ourselves. Yes, we don’t perfectly interpret the Bible, but should we beat ourselves up for it? We don’t beat our children up for not understanding everything (hopefully) so should we beat ourselves up as God’s children?

    Rob Bell may have picked and chosen scriptures to make a point, but I think he makes a good one – that God loves and doesn’t want to send people to hell. He may have gone to an extreme to make his point that was unneeded – denying the existence of hell – but his message, the Gospel of God’s love for us, is still good. I think Paul has a good grasp of this when he says, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Rob Bell may have become liberal with Scripture to save some of the liberals, but should we beat him up for that?

  8. And by saying “ignoring” I mean “don’t apply equal importance to in application.”

  9. mikewittmer says:

    Jackie: You are conflating interpretation with selection of texts. I gladly admit some of my interpretations are wrong, and if I knew which ones they were I would change them. All I’m saying is that I don’t know of any biblical text I delete.

    More to the point, we fundamentally disagree on the nature of theological liberalism. I side with Machen who declared that liberalism is an entirely different religion than Christianity. A liberal gospel cannot save, because there is no grace in it. As I demonstrated in “Christ Alone,” “Love Wins” is a graceless book.

  10. I’m not sure I really disagree with you on liberalism, Mike. I agree that liberalism is devoid of grace. But can we use the Bible to speak the language of the liberals so that we can reach out to them with the gospel? Paul used pagan beliefs and language to reach out to the pagans. He used a statue of an “unknown god” to tell them about the True God. Maybe I’m wrong that this is what Rob Bell was doing. Ok got it. I can’t judge Rob Bell’s motives for writing what he did. But would it possibly be appropriate in some case to use a liberal interpretation of the Bible and of reality to share the gospel with liberals? Or is it more important to retain your conservative integrity than to share the gospel?

  11. Machen was also suspicious of mixing religion and politics, and he found attempts to establish a Christian culture by political means insensitive to minorities. So I wonder what he would have thought about modern American “conservative” evangelicals?

  12. mikewittmer says:

    Thanks for these comments, Jackie. I think I would have the same reservations as you regarding American evangelicals and politics. Much that occurs here is embarrassing, and I don’t hesitate to speak about it.

    Regarding how to reach people with the gospel, I think it’s important to distinguish between a point of contact and the content of the gospel. Paul wasn’t telling the Athenians that their altar to an unknown god meant they were halfway home, but he used it as a point of contact to talk about Jesus. Almost every point Paul makes in Acts 17 is calculated to counter the Athenians’ beliefs. Even when he quotes their poets, he does so to show that they are living inconsistently with what they believe. The point of his sermon–and its climax–was the resurrection of Jesus–which directly countered the strongly held beliefs of everyone there.

    I’m willing to use any point of contact to reach people with the gospel. But I refuse to change the gospel to reach them, for then I won’t be of any help when I get to where they are. Here’s the tension: we must reach people, but we must also have something to reach them with.

  13. Agreed Mike – point of contact has to distinguished from content of the Gospel. Very good point indeed. But what are we communicating if our ‘Gospel’ is all about having the right interpretation of scripture instead of the right relationship with God?

  14. Couldn’t we have differing interpretations, but agree on the dogma that’s important, as in the Nicene Creed?

  15. mikewittmer says:

    Jackie: I think you’ve hit on the important distinction between essentials and non-essentials. I happily include many differing interpretations in the Christian family, such as Calvinists and Arminians, complementarians and egalitarians, and so forth. You rightly picked the Nicene Creed because of its statement on the Trinity and Christology. The other essential doctrine, which is necessary for salvation to “work,” is grace. This is what “Love Wins” misses badly, and why if we love Jesus and love people we must say so. As I think I showed in “Christ Alone” (sorry for the plug), the controversy about hell is really a distraction from a far deeper problem in the book. It’s proposed gospel is a false gospel, which can never save anyone. I take no pleasure in pointing this out, but it would be unloving for me not to.

  16. Thanks Mike. Christ Alone will go on my (quite long) list of things to read! =)

  17. Rob Willey says:

    Mike, to further support your point, I reference 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul warns about false apostles. Like all analogies, of course, it’s not perfect, but the point is that Paul warned the Corinthians to beware of teaching from those who they would regard as eminent or distinguished, especially if they preached “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached … or a different gospel from the one (they) accepted …” Paul calls such teachers “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.” He goes further, equating them to one of Satan’s minions, since “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.”

    Paul, of course, is writing to believers, albeit fledgling in their faith, and Rob Bell is perhaps directing his book toward unbelievers. I also wouldn’t go so far as to consider Rob Bell an agent of darkness. But, would you consider him a “false prophet” or deceitful worker” to use Paul’s terminology?

    In his book, Rob Bell seems to be extending the promise of the Christian life, but with one hand behind his back. It appers he is offering salvation without judgment, which to me is, at best disingenuous, if not deceitful. Is it not “a different Jesus than the Jesus (Paul) preached … a different gospel …”?

  18. mikewittmer says:

    Thanks, Rob. Regarding your question, I’d rather talk only about the book and not give Rob a label, though it’s not hard to guess where I’d land. I think the book is even worse than you say. Love Wins doesn’t merely offer salvation without judgment, it doesn’t even offer salvation. And it doesn’t because there is no need to, because as Tillich said in the 40′s, so LW informs people that they’re already in by the mere fact they exist.

  19. Adam Forrest says:

    Rob Willey: Thanks for probing into the implications of “a different gospel.” After reading “Love Wins” and Wittmer’s excellent response “Christ Alone,” I became convinced that “Love Wins” offers a different gospel — one devoid of judgment, and consequently devoid of grace.

    However, I want to add an option to your two characterizations of the grace-less “Love Wins” message. I think you’re right the message could be shared disingenuously or deceitfully. The third option is that Bell shares the message earnestly; he could think he’s sharing the core gospel message, but he’s confused, or has deceived himself. If so, I see a connection to Bell’s claim that everybody is “just picking the verses [they] like.” This could be an object lesson in how to deceive ourselves: read Scripture with a blackout marker.

    Dr. Wittmer: I love your last paragraph in this post. It could go on a plaque: “Don’t be overly impressed by the glorious adjectives people use to describe the Bible, but pay attention to how they use it. What they do with Scripture—not what they say about it—will tell you if they really believe it’s the Word of God.”

  20. mikewittmer says:

    Thanks, Adam. I’m willing to give Rob the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his character. I suspect there are many issues going on that he doesn’t even understand. I will tell you that by the end of The New Yorker article I was feeling sorry for him and confident that he will have a second act. I just pray it won’t be as a pastor or Christian leader unless and until he changes his views. By the way, aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon??

  21. Rob Willey says:

    Mike, who’s character are you giving the benefit of the doubt – mine or Bell’s?

  22. mikewittmer says:

    Rob’s. Why do you ask, Rob?

  23. Rob Willey says:

    Mike, I was hoping you would vouch for my character since, like Adam, I also am trolling for babes on your blog. I have tried other sites, but obviously you have a proven track record of success. That’s why I’m posting comments. Gotta put myself out there. I am hopeful that your endorsement will lead me to the love of my life. So, how about it Mike? Can you do me a solid?

  24. mikewittmer says:

    Wow. I don’t know if lightning can strike twice. And seeing that Adam keeps checking my blog while he’s on his honeymoon, I’m starting to think this may not be the best place to hook up (just kidding, Adam and Rachel!)

  25. Rob Willey says:

    Adam, thanks for your comments … and in response I would ask isn’t it also possible that the “super-apostles” that Paul refers to in 2 Cor. 11 also thought they were sharing the core gospel message earnestly? Does the sincerity or genuineness of false teaching make it any less damaging? I would argue just the opposite; that it is potentially more damaging.

    Enjoy your honeymoon!

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