Friday, May 20, 2011

A Generous God

A Generous God

In a recent article in Christian Century, pastor Peter Marty argues in favor of what he calls a “generous God,” favorably citing Pastor Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Marty claims that “charging Bell with being a universalist doesn’t work” in part, because “the idea never appears in the book.”

Really? What the broad Christian tradition has understood as universalism* never appears in the book? Not only are many of Bell’s ideas lifted straight out of the 19th century universalistic tradition, but Marty also goes on to describe Bell’s project—correctly or incorrectly—as being based on “the firm conviction that Jesus is bigger than any one religion.” Marty continues, “He is the cosmic Christ who will not be co-opted or owned by any one culture.” A few lines later, once again representing Bell, Marty writes, “Christianity does not save. Islam and Judaism do not save. God saves.”

Let me offer two further examples. Because Jesus opens many of his parables with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Marty claims that Jesus speaks in the language of promise, not threat. Of course he fails to mention that many of these parables end with the threat of exclusion from this kingdom. In fact, the threat of eternal judgment comes from the mouth of Jesus more than anyone else in the New Testament.

Marty also quotes John 3:16, “God so loved the world…” emphasis on “world.”  According to Marty, “Had John been interested in shrinking the gospel or lessening the scope of the cross, he might have proposed that “God so loved only Christians.””

Hmmm. Did Marty not read the rest of the verse, let alone the following verses (or the preceding verse for that matter)? The Bible I have says “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say “that whoever believes in whatever god they have access to or feel good about.” It says, whoever believes in him, Jesus Christ.

The point of the text in its context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is that God loved people so much he was willing to “be lifted up,” that is, to die for them in order to reconcile them to God. All that is required, is belief in this truth. In fact, as verse 18 points out, those who believe will not be condemned but those who do not are “condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  Oh yes, those words come out of the mouth of Jesus.

What is curious to me is why Marty and others are so repulsed by the accusation of universalism*. If someone were to sit in my classes, they would come away with the clear idea that I am a Calvinist, not because I necessarily state that up front, but because anyone vaguely familiar with Calvin’s teachings would recognize that I am quite comfortable with much of what Calvin affirmed with regard to Christian doctrine. Calvinism may make me unpopular with some, but that is not ultimately my problem.

Likewise, the teachings that Marty affirms are clearly universalistic*. Yet, he wants to eschew the idea that he (or Bell) are universalists. My question is why. If you believe that the teachings you espouse are the correct way to understand Christian doctrine, and if those teachings fall clearly inside the boundaries of what the Christian tradition as a whole has identified as some form of universalism, why not just admit to being a universalist* and defend your position?

Even more curious to me is the tone of folks like Marty. For example, Marty is critical of believers who assert that Scripture teaches some (those who reject Christ) will suffer eternal separation from God. He suggests that making such a convicted claim amounts to spiritual immodesty. The only “modest” position is agnosticism on this matter. Yet Marty seems to know with at least as much conviction that Scripture teaches no such thing. So how does his conviction amount to spiritual modesty while the conviction of his opponents is not?

Beyond that, Marty is also convinced that those who walk through the door of his church who have been spiritually injured by these spiritually immodest “devout believers” will not be wounded by either him or those who populate his pews. Aside from the rather thinly veiled arrogance in such a portrayal, if he is wrong in his convictions it would seem that these folks will walk away just as spiritually injured by his teachings as they would walking away from those more devout folks he is quick to criticize.

All that is to say, that when you put together texts like the very ones Marty mentions with the general dealings of God with his people in the Old Testament, one gets a pretty clear picture of what God requires from those who are to be considered part of his kingdom. That being said, taking a further step down the path of “who’s in, who’s out” is unwarranted. Ultimately, the eternal destination of each human person is God’s decision and God’s alone. It is not up to us to speculate on the destiny of either Ghandi or Osama bin Laden.

But it is also irresponsible for Christians to suggest that what you believe and who you worship does not matter. In Scripture, God clearly tells us how to have abundant life in his presence now and in the age to come. To allow folks to think that we really don’t know anything at all about the way of reconciliation that God has offered is, as far as I can tell, the ultimate spiritual injury.

* While philosophers of religion have made distinctions between  “religious pluralism” and  “inclusivism” (positions that do not deny that some persons might be finally condemned to hell), and full “universalism” (a position that says no one will be in hell), most run-of-the-mill evangelicals, as well as a significant number of older systematic theologies, consider these two distinctions to be types of universalism. If Marty and others don’t like the label “universalist,” why not self-identify as “inclusivist” or “pluralist”?

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