Rob Bell talks about the Bible being a mystery. I have recently heard/read some criticism about this. The counter argument seems to be that God is very clear in the Bible and we can usually know what he means. I’d agree with this some of the time. Some of the time God is very clear. There are many literal passages that talk about God’s explicit wishes for us and his rules for living. The 10 commandments come to mind. But there are many, many, many other times where God is not clear. Why else are people still studying the Bible? Surely this is the reason we have theologians. This is why I went to Bible College. God is often not clear and it takes a lot of effort to understand his word. Subsequently there is much disagreement on theology and it’s practical outworkings. Philippians 2:12 says ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, not ‘here are all the answers, now just do as I say’. I recently read a piece by Mark Edward Sohmer that was critiquing Rob Bell’s ‘Velvet Elvis’, a book which I think is one of the best books about Christian living ever written. Let me quote Mark Edward Sohmer:
When reading through Velvet Elvis, it becomes clear that Rob has unfortunately adopted a low view of Scripture, even putting doubt into the reader’s mind that we can understand for certain what God has said. Rob wrote:
“The Christian faith is mysterious to the core. It is about things and beings that ultimately can’t be put into words. Language fails. And if we do definitively put God into words, we have at that very moment made God something God is not” (p. 32).
Please notice what Rob is saying here. He calls the faith “mysterious” and says it “can’t be put into words.” This is wrong because God has given us a divine revelation using words. The Apostle Paul often said phrases like “I would not have you ignorant” when speaking about the great truths about God. The Bible makes the audacious claim that we can and must understand God, and the reason is not because we’re so smart (because we’re not), but because God has explained Himself to us. Yet Rob teaches that we cannot know God’s truths for certain.
“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 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 the 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” (pp. 67-68).
Please note that Rob calls “Scripture alone” a “problem.” He says, “When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true.” He also makes the claim that the Bible we have is only so because a group of people voted a certain way, as if it could have played out that had the vote happened on a different day, maybe there’d be no book of Matthew, and the Didache would be considered canon. Rob demonstrates a very low view of the sovereignty of God and a high view of the power of man, two errors that continually show up throughout his book. The truth is that the present books of the Bible are the right ones because God made it so, not because of a vote by a group of men. Yet Rob teaches that the Bible contains its present books because a group of men said so, and as a result of his God-removed man-centered view of the establishment of the canon of Scripture, he rejects Sola Scriptura.
Let me address the problems with this assessment. Because I wholeheartedly agree with Rob’s theology, so this writing is a critique of my own in a way. Rob doesn’t says God can never be understood, because clearly he is saying that God can (if you read the book). He is saying that it isn’t as clear cut as we sometimes like to think. Particularly the way fundamentalists like to understand the Bible (Rob is American). Theologians throughout the ages have disagreed on almost every topic there is, so why do some people think they have the final word on God’s exact meaning? Other than saying ‘because it just is and here is a verse that I say means this’ I can’t see how we can be so sure. Most parts of the Bible aren’t so explicit. Although I agree that some are.
Jesus was renowned for speaking in riddles. His parables were deliberately confusing so that only those who wanted to understand would do the work to figure it out. Matthew 11 says ‘he who has ears to hear, let him hear’. This is about Jesus making people work for understanding. Even his disciples who lived with him all the time for 3 years didn’t get it most of the time! But obviously we’re so much smarter than them right? Right? Insert crickets chirping.
I also agree with Rob in that the Bible is the word of God, but it is also written by men. God works through people. As baffling as that is!
“He also makes the claim that the Bible we have is only so because a group of people voted a certain way, as if it could have played out that had the vote happened on a different day, maybe there’d be no book of Matthew, and the Didache would be considered canon.”
What?! Rob never said that. What a leap of logic. Rob is saying (and I agree, as does history) that men voted and put the Bible together. These men were lead by God and I believe God lead them to his will, but it was still put together by men. God uses us to fulfill his will, so the statement that all we need is the Bible is misleading. The Bible only came about as a result of God using people, as he continues to do now.
He continues to use people to illuminate truth. We were designed to live in the community. The Bible is very clear on this. God himself is community, a trinity. God says it is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18). We need each other. We are the body of Christ (1 Cor 12), we are all meant to compliment each other, not be carbon copies of each other who are self sufficient. No man is an island (I know that’s not biblical, but all truth is God’s truth!).
This is not having a low view of Scripture as the critiquer claims. This is, in my opinion, an accurate view of Scripture. Yes, it is the inspired word of God, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mystery. We can’t know with absolute certainty what God means quite a lot of the time. I don’t think being militant about the Bible’s meaning is helpful in any way.
We need each other. I need you, you need me. Let us look behind our assumptions and understand the Bible as so much more than something that can be reduced to simple concepts that don’t require each other to work through. We are never finished working out our salvation with fear and trembling. It is a constant dialogue both with God and each other.