Before leaving behind the topic of midrash and how Bell uses it: if we (Evangelicals) are going to gripe about the “liberties” Bell takes with the text, then we need to hold ourselves and other popular preachers to the same standard.
Are we really willing to restrict ourselves only to the author’s intended meaning when we preach?
The people who complain about Bell on this point are, I think, more offended by the ideological content of his sermons–care for the poor! stop making war! take care of the earth! treat LGBTQ people with dignity! (such controversial topics)–than they are by the way he treats scripture.
So: when you evaluate Bell (or any communicator who rubs you the wrong way), be on your guard that you don’t baptize ideological disagreement and call it “standing for the authority of scripture.”
SECOND, Bell interprets the Bible according to the narrative schema developed by NT Wright and others. Wright et.al. have suggested that the entire Bible be read as a drama where God creates, creation rejects him, God sends Israel to rescue his creation by bringing Messiah into the world. Various labels for the parts of this story have been used; my favorite is:
- Creation (Genesis 1-2)
- Corruption (Genesis 3-11)
- Covenant (Genesis 12 – Malachi)
- Christ (the Gospels)
- Church (the rest of the New Testament)
- Completion (throughout the New Testament)
Wright refers to his version of this scheme as “a five act play” (he combines Church and Completion, as I recall) that is still being written.
In this scheme, the controlling metaphor for God’s interaction with the world is the Exodus motif. People are in bondage, oppressed by the sinful systems of the world and by their own sinful choices. They cry out to God, and the God who hears the cries of the oppressed responds to all who cry out to him.
How does this affect his hermeneutics? Basically, Bell interprets individual passages by working from the outside inward, from the big story to the individual passage.
This gives a consistency–his critics would say, “sameness”–to his interpretations, because he is bringing up the same things (oppression and God’s response to it) in practically every passage. But that’s to be expected if Exodus, God’s deliverance of the oppressed, is your controlling metaphor!
Side note: I once went to hear a series of papers on the New Testament written by Carmelite scholars. I was amazed that, with EVERY PASSAGE THEY DISCUSSED, they somehow read that passage to be about the Eucharist, even passages that I (with a high view of the Lord’s Supper) would never have read that way. Why did they read them that way? I suspect it’s because their controlling metaphor for reading the Bible was Eucharist-shaped.
THIRD, Bell is influenced by Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin, specifically de Chardin’s reading of Colossians 1 (the cosmic Christ, in which the entire universe is reconciled to God.)
Most Evangelical eschatology is pessimistic: whether by rapture or by Jesus’ return, we escape a world that is getting worse and worse. The current creation is rejected by God, burned up or done away with, in favor of a new creation.
But de Chardin, by emphasizing Romans 8 and Colossians 1-2, builds an optimistic eschatology. All creation is redeemed, the entire universe is reconciled to God through Jesus. The earthly systems of power and oppression are done away with, and a new era of fellowship with God and with humanity. This = Revelation 20-21, where the new earth is realized as heaven and the old earth are brought together, God “reconciles” or joins the two realms.
In Colossians 2.8, Paul refers to “the elemental powers.” Pace most readings of 2 Peter 3.10, 12, this term does not refer to the periodic table, the atomic building blocks of the physical universe. He is referring to godless systems of power, value systems that reject God (e.g., might makes right, security through violence, he who has the gold makes the rules, everyone is in it for themselves.)
Romans 8 and Colossians 1-2 clearly teach that the reconciliation God made through Jesus Christ is not limited to sinful humanity. This reconciliation is universal. The term most often used to refer to Jesus as universal reconciler is “cosmic Christ.” This universal reconciliation is sometimes referred to as “the Omega point,” (de Chardin’s term, I believe), taken from Jesus’ declaration in Revelation that he is the Alpha and Omega (beginner & completer of God’s reconciling of the cosmos.)
I’d intended to make this entire section neutral, but I’ve failed on that point. Hopefully, the descriptions will be helpful, or at least thought-provoking.
Ok, next post: what I think about Rob Bell’s hermeneutics, and some speculation regarding his motives.