Mystery

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.

End quote.

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.

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11 Replies to “Mystery”

  1. Great work Megan. Edward Sohmer saying that we can know God seems an arrogant assumption on the power of man. Humility? You can’t put God in a box. If you want to get to know God (who is beyond our full comprehension) it is not enough just to read and understand the Bible, faith without works is dead. Surely you must live it too and it’s only in that context, where it speaks into how you live your life that it is relevant and that it is alive and active.

  2. This is a good post, Tink. Good to see someone’s watching the watchman. I haven’t read much of Sohmer’s stuff, any more than Luke’s read out to me, but in some points he does seem to make some conclusional jumps. But I think that Rob Bell, and the books, are partially to blame. Whether the material is wrong or right, I’d say it’s at least ‘open to misinterpretation.’

    I want to hear more about why you’d choose Velvet Elvis as one of the best books about spiritual living. I mean, a lot of people do, but I just don’t see it.

    I’m reading it a second time, and finding it just as hard to get anything out of it. There are some great images, and he can really tell a story – but at the end of it, I’m not really taking anything away. It’s almost… forgettable.

    Most other Christian books I’ve read have had bits and pieces stay with me. I mean Mere Christianity informed nearly every aspect of my behaviour and outlook. (Maybe it’s unfair to compare to C.S. Lewis though)

    Anyway, I know that these kinds of books do more for some people than for others, and that’s why I’m interested. I’d love to hear more general thoughts about the book. What do people/did you get out of it?

    1. I love ‘Mere Christianity’, what a brilliant book! I think everyone should read it, Christian and non-Christian alike. And yes, it hardly seems fair to compare anyone to C S Lewis 🙂
      I get so much out of Velvet Elvis. I’ve read it twice and I plan on reading it more, I think regular readings lift my soul. I feel encouraged and motivated to life life with integrity for God. And it provides a good framework for living out God’s word. It’s not just a nice bunch of theological statements, I think it’s a really practical book.
      Like you said, different books do different things for different people, this one is right up my alley. I’m not sure I can point to particular bits that have stood out for me, I think the whole thing is excellent.
      And perhaps some of it is ‘open to misinterpretation’, but surely all literature is if you want to put it that way. Even the Bible!

  3. I think your description of how the Bible is authoritative for the Church is spot on. The recognition of canonical authority was a community project and the reading and interpreting of scripture continues to be a community project. The Bible did not drop out of the sky fully formed on golden plates like the Book of Mormon is supposed to have done. It came together in a fully human way and the Church confesses (and for good reason) that the process was superintended by the Holy Spirit so that the final form of the Bible is inspired by God and authoritative. Even if it HAD fallen from the sky on golden plates there would still be multiple possible readings so we would still have differing opinions. We can validly claim that the text of the Bible has divine authority and is fully inspired. What we cannot claim is that any one individual reader of it has an infallible grasp of its meaning. This is exactly why we need to read the text together as the people of God. The Bible is the Church’s book.

  4. You have picked out such a small portion of the critique Megan. I feel Rob is a master of subtlety. He sows seeds of doubt in the inerrancy, authority and trustworthiness of scripture. Satan used the same tricks on Adam and Eve….”Did God really say…..?” An example in point – Page 44 of Velvet Elvis “It is possible to make the Bible say whatever we want it to, isn’t it?” It is precisely this type of leadership that keeps people trusting leaders to interpret for them rather than take responsibility to spend time in the Word themselves. People become sheep under pastors instead of under Jesus.
    Regarding the unknowability of God for us… Jesus said “Unto you is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). Paul teaches in Romans 16:25-26 “the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest.” Ephesians 1:9 says, “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will.” Rob says on page 32 of Velvet Elvis “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”. Yet the New Testament repeatedly tells us that we can (and must) know the mysteries of God.
    You also have to remember that we have the illumination of the Holy Spirit when we study God’s Word. “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13) I believe it would be far more constructive to encourage God’s people to search the scriptures for God’s wisdom than to make them distrustful of it’s authorship.
    On page 29-30 of Velvet Elvis, Rob talks about how his church holds a “doubt night” where people can express their repressed doubts. He said “It wasn’t the information that helped them – it was simply being in an environment in which they were free to voice what was inside”. How sad that it was an exercise in a therapeutic freedom of expression rather than being helped by the opening up of scriptures to address those doubts and fears. His theology does not include repentance. Regarding a woman who was studying witchcraft (pages 89-90) he said “I hoped that our community would continue to be a safe place for her to question and study and discuss and hear that God loves her exactly as she is”. But the Bible does not teach that God loves her “exactly as she is.” If she’s studying witchcraft then she’s an enemy of God through her wicked works (Colossians 1:21). But of course, this is the unpalatable side to God for us, isn’t it? We don’t like to hear about the judgement or wrath of God. To indicate to this woman that’s it’s ok to live like this is condemning her to hell by a sin of omission, on his part. Not a loving act at all, but to her it may seem loving to let her be who she wants to be. But then, Rob’s newest work suggests hell may not be what we have traditionally been taught! In his work “Love Wins” he also asks “Would a loving God send a Buddhist to hell?” Rob teaches that everyone is forgiven; they just don’t all know it. The Bible teaches that only those who repent and put their faith in Jesus are forgiven.
    Rob wants God to be palatable to the world. But the Bible tells us in Jesus words, “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake” (Luke 6:22). It can be a hard pill to swallow for the faithful, but we have to love God more than the world. We can’t have a foot in both camps.
    Enough. There are many things that could be said, but can’t be in this space.

    1. Of course I picked out a small bit to talk about. He goes on for 58 pages! And I think this is representative of the whole. Three quarters of what he says is a misinterpretation of Rob’s words and the other quarter is disagreement, which I happen to disagree with.
      You sound like you’re suggesting that we can know with absolute certainly what God means pretty much all of the time. Do you really mean that? Then why are people still studying the Bible if it’s so clear? Why is there so much disagreement in the Church? There are lots of things we can know for sure, but lots of others things that we can’t know for sure and we have to keep working through. Faith is never stagnant and requires us to keep engaging with it.
      You don’t think Rob’s theology includes repentance? He talks about it all the time! He definitely thinks it’s a vital part of the Christian experience. As do I.
      About that story about the witch woman, of course God loves her just the way she is! He doesn’t like her choices and wants her to change, but of course he loves her! You think God doesn’t love those who aren’t following him?
      And Rob never teaches that everyone is going to heaven.
      By the way, I think it’s unfair to read a criticism of a book without having read the book and use that as your understanding of it.

    2. Rob Bell is like Satan…lol.

      I remember the day when I was a teenager that I turned my back on the church and didn’t return for over 10 years. My Dad was talking at this particular church and that day they had a play. Members of the congregation were oufitted with signs that hung around their necks that denoted who they were and what they believed. For example, one said ‘I live in the Amazon Jungle and I have never heard the gospel’ and there was a person up the front of the church playing God. These people would walk down the aisle and confront God who would send them off to the wings, one side to heaven and the other to hell. Guess where they sent the person that had never heard the gospel? Guess where they sent nearly everyone…

      If that was what God was then I didn’t want a bar of it. So thanks to that church I made a decision (and I take responsibility for my own actions) to turn from the church and I ended up turning to many other unhelpful things to find meaning to existence. That meaning for me is very much in God now but in a loving God not a wrathful one. I think the wrath is confused with Justice and often goes without mention of mercy and compassion.

      God for me doesn’t delve into the culture of fear to control people like we see so much in our politics today. I remember at one of my hardest times an Uncle told me ‘God is nice and he likes you’ and it was that simple line that stuck with me profoundly and helped me to find my way back to God. I don’t think an unpalatable picture of a vengeful God helps people to find God and to find that harmony in God and their lives to be all that they can be. Maybe it does for some, but not for me.

      1. And before anyone comes out with you should Fear God, we are also told to Fear Not. A culture of fear and a proper awe and respect of God are different things…and maybe a different discussion.

      2. I agree with you Kris. I think God is justice, but his justice is tempered with mercy, compassion and above all, love.

        This idea that God will send well meaning Christians to hell because they get things wrong seems totally incongruent with the Bible to me. God loves us so much he sent Jesus to die so we could be reconciled to him. If he loves me so much that he would die for me, of course he’s going to forgive me when I get things wrong. Especially when I get things wrong when I’m trying to get it right. Even if my theology is wrong in parts, God loves me enough to forgive me for that. He’s not going to punish me forever in hell because I made a mistake. When God looks at me, he sees Jesus. Thank God!

        The Bible never says anyone is going to hell for having some bits of their theology wrong. Stories like separating the sheep from the goats are about those who do things in the name of God, but don’t actually let it change them on the inside. It’s about those who act pious and don’t have any sort of relationship with God.

        Rob Bell certainly does not fit this category. He has dedicated his life to living for God and helping others do the same. And you know what what? Even if he’s getting some bits wrong, he is definitely going to spend all eternity with God.

  5. In the early fourth century Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire and it became possible for the bishops to meet without being imprisoned or killed by the pagan authorities.

    Beginning in the late fourth century and continuing until the very early fifth century the Catholic Church met at a number of councils where the canon of the Bible was debated. These councils produced canons which were identical to the current 73 book Roman Catholic canon.

    As can clearly be seen the canon of the Bible was produced by the Catholic Church. The Church also existed long before the Bible – it was the early fifth century before the Bible existed as we might recognize it today, and none of the books of the Bible were even written until around 50 AD. But the Catholic Church began 20 years earlier, at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles.

    The Christians who wrote the New Testament were Catholic – they were Catholic for two reasons. One, they believed everything which the current Catholic Church (and only the Catholic Church) teaches (as is shown by the writings of the Church Fathers).

    And they were Catholic because there was no other church at the time. Myths such as the “Trail of Blood” simply do not hold water – the Catholic Church was, quite literally, the only game in town.

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