Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

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.

10 Responses to Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part V

  1. Have you come across any detailed critiques of McGrath’s book from the Reformed circles? I would be interested to hear their push back on his premises. Further, would these dynamics suggest that some circles of Protestantism would move towards a more centralized expression of authority?

  2. JR Woodward says:


    I’m not aware if there have been critiques of McGrath’s book from Reformed circles or not. It is a fairly recent book, it came out in 2009, and it is a synthesis of much of the latest research on the topic – heavily footnoted. But I couldn’t tell you if there is any pushback. But because certain reformed circles hold very strongly to sola scriptura, it poses a challenge as McGrath has stated. What he mentions in regard to the Calvinist/Arminian debate which may speak to your last question was that the Synod of Dort (1618-19), met together to establish the boundaries of Calvinist orthodoxy, but as he says because this simply represented a division of one part of the church, not the whole church, but “heresy is a teaching that the whole Christian church, not a party within that church, regards as unacceptable.”

    One of the reasons that we “Protest-ants” have so many divisions is because those who hold to sola scriptura in an absolute sense can not actually appeal to higher councils for the best interpretation, so we split and divide ad nauseam, unlike the Orthodox and Catholics, who have a different approach and work with different underlying assumptions. I address some of this more in my final two parts as it pertains to how the doctrine of love and unity ought to shape our approach to the doctrine of hell.

    That being said, most every denomination or division of Protestantism has their own view of orthodoxy and heresy that they obviously enforce, as do companies and any group of people on a mission. But obviously each of these divisions can’t speak for the “whole church” nor the “historical church”. I will talk a little bit more about this in my conclusion. I hope that is somewhat helpful.

  3. “This simply represented a division of one part of the church, not the whole church.”

    Perhaps this is why some parts of the Church are making stronger claims on who is in and out. If they say others are out, then (in their minds) they are no longer part of the “whole church” and thus the definition of heresy and orthodoxy becomes “easier”.

  4. JR Woodward says:

    Yes, for some people the “true” church gets really really tiny, and this strangely coincides with their “good news” which is “God chose to save us, not them.” In some ways it comes down to our understanding of election as well. I prefer to go the route of Newbigin on this, where God has elected us not for a place of privilege, but to be a blessing to all nations. This seems to fit the larger storyline better as well as the fact that as James says mercy triumphs over justice.

  5. Crispin says:

    Thanks for the insights on heresy vs. orthodoxy. This is very helpful.

  6. JR Woodward says:


    Glad you found them helpful. I’m thankful for all the research that Alister McGrath has done.

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  9. Fred Hayward says:

    We have a book club at our little Christian Reformed Church here in Grand Rapids, MI called “Facing East”. We have covered his eminence Metropolitan Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way”, Scott Cairn’s “The End of Suffering”, Frederica Matthewes-Green’s “The Jesus Prayer” and most recently, because of the it’s Eastern Orthodox leanings, Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. We are a small group, five of us. Next week we are going to do a repeat on Rob Bell’s book and open it up to more folks in the Church who want to discuss it.

    I haven’t found anything on the web yet as balanced and perceptive as your blog on this book. I will be recommending that all of those that are going to attend the book club to discuss “Love Wins” reads through your blog first. Christian Reformed folks tend to respect Fuller Seminary students in general so they may actually do it!! 🙂

    I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for covering this in such a lucid and comprehensive fashion without ever resorting to inflammatory rhetoric. I, the ultimate bull in the China shop especially appreciate this. God bless you!

    My humble attempt at getting my head around all of this is here: http://photonfarms.blogspot.com/2011/04/uncropping-our-gospel.html

    I absolutely love his grace Archbishop Hilarion’s book that you mentioned and have been reading it with great enjoyment in the past month or so. I also have started McGrath’s book recently, funny you should mention it.

    Because I am hoping to join one of my local Orthodox Parishes soon (http://stgeorgegr.com/) I attended almost all of the Holy Week services this year at St. George which is mostly in English and some Arabic since they are of Lebanese descent. I completely concur with another brother who posted earlier that if you can go to all of the Holy Week services you will be baptized in some of the most beautiful prayer/poetry/liturgy you have ever experienced. Especially take off all of Good Friday and Holy Saturday if you can and go to all of those services. Difficult… yes. Long…. yes, but overwhelmingly beautiful!!!

    Again, blessings on you and your ministry as God leads you.

    Peace on your journey!

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