Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part V
To fully appreciate this series, first, read the introduction, then the overview of Love Wins. Then look at the questions: Is Rob Bell a Universalist? and Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave? When Bell proclaims the universality of God’s love and holds out for people to have the opportunity to make decisions for Christ postmortem, should this be taken as heresy or orthodoxy? Is he a heretic or a saint? How are we to discern this? It is just up to our personal judgment or does it involve something more than that?
Understanding Heresy and Orthodoxy
To help us out, I want to turn to Alister McGrath, a respected evangelical and a prolific writer who holds a D.Phil. in molecular biophysics and an earned doctor of divinity degree from Oxford. In his book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, McGrath seeks to synthesize important recent studies in the nature of heresy to understand its contemporary relevance. He seeks to answer two primary questions: Who decides what is definitive and what is dangerous? And how are such decisions made?
McGrath first looks at the Christian faith by analyzing the nature of faith, the creeds, and the Gospel. He then explores the origins of heresy. In seeking to discover heresy’s roots, he takes us back in history to understand its background and early development. After examining the essential features of heresy, he looks at six classical heresies – ebionitism, docetism, valentinism, arianism, donatism, and pelagianism – that were identified by the church in the patristic period, to illustrate some “general principles that seem to underlie the origins and development of heretical movements” (McGrath 2009:11). Finally, he examines the cultural and intellectual motivations for heresy, as well as the relationship between power, orthodoxy, and heresy. He concludes his book by looking at the future of heresy. So what are the significant takeaways from this study?
Defining Our Terms
First, McGrath provides some working definitions for both heresy and orthodoxy. He defines heresy numerous times throughout his book with different nuances each time. The first definition in his introduction is, “Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith” (McGrath 2009:11,12). He mentions that heresy is a way of formulating “core themes” of the Christian faith that, over time, are recognized by the church to be dangerously inadequate.
When distinguishing heresy from orthodoxy, McGrath says, “Orthodoxy” and “heresy” are best seen as marking the extremes of a theological spectrum. In between these extremities lies a penumbra of views, which range from adequate without being definitive to questionable without being destructive. Heresy lies in the shadow lands of faith, a failed attempt at orthodoxy whose intentions are likely to have been honorable but whose outcomes were eventually discovered to be as corrosive” (McGrath 2009:12,13).
I appreciate his definition of doctrines as well. “Doctrines thus at one and the same time preserve the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life while allowing them to be examined and explored in depth” (McGrath 2009:29).
One of the more fascinating things McGrath discusses near the end of his book is how Protestants have dealt with heresy. Early Protestants were defined as heretics by the Catholic Church. So how did they deal with heterodox trends? They appealed to the “consensus of faith of the church as set out in the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon” (McGrath 2009:214), for Christianity as a whole declared certain teachings to be heretical.
But what about new heresies that might arise in the church? McGrath points out that it is extremely difficult for Protestants to do, for a couple of reasons. First, for Protestants, since “Scripture is the supreme rule of faith, no interpretive authority can be placed above Scripture” (McGrath 2009:215). So when there was a major controversy between Calvinism and Arminianism, they each accused the other of being heretical. But the problem, according to McGrath, is that “‘heresy’ is ultimately a teaching judged unacceptable by the entire church. The term is not properly applicable to either Calvinism or Arminianism, which represent divisions within one constituency of Protestantism – namely, the Reformed church” (McGrath 2009:215).
While McGrath speaks of heresy as something that must be identified by the whole of the Christian church, not a part within the church, he still finds defining heresy and orthodoxy meaningful today. When talking about the future of heresy, he says that “the pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity…In a fiercely competitive religious and cultural context, Christianity’s future existence and prosperity will depend upon its presenting itself in its more authentic forms” (McGrath 2009:232). And second, he reminds us that history often repeats itself, like with Gnostism, so we can look back at what the church has already declared as heresy.
So how do these ideas help us judge whether Rob Bell in Love Wins is teaching heretical ideas or if his teaching falls within the bounds of orthodoxy? In my next post, I will give you my personal judgment on the matter at hand.