Over the next week or so, I will be posting various posts on this particular book which has been recently published, first in Kindle and soon in hardcopy, by Tyndale House Publishers. It is billed as the first ‘market direct response’ to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. While this will be a review of sorts, I have purchased this book on my own. All opinions of this book are mine and mine alone – as they always are – and should not reflect an attack on either Mark Galli or Tyndale House Publishers.
On the dedication page, Galli writes that the book is dedicated to a Sunday School teacher who taught him, at age 13, that the words of Jesus are true because, well, Jesus said them. This is circular reasoning and presents a formal logical fallacy. When a statement such as this is made, I recoil, not because I disagree that Christ is who He said He was, but because a foundation which lacks empirical investigations is to me always lacking what is really Truth. If you are not willing to investigate something because of who said them, then it presents a problem for me accepting what you have to say. It sets up, in my mind, a premise that the ‘bible cannot be questioned’ which is a cover for the hidden meaning of ‘don’t question my interpretation of the bible.’ The reason we have denominations, sects, doctrines, and a history of Councils and the such is because people see the bible differently and instead of making such an allowance, each side falls back to the only argument one needs, ‘Jesus/God/Scripture said it; I believe it.’ What worries me in this dedication is spiritual immaturity in that has the faith and reason of Galli grown past that 13 year old boy who learned from Sunday School teacher not to question Jesus’ words or Jesus Himself? Here, I receive the words of Edward W.H. Vick in his work, History and Christian Faith, “Christian faith, which is not purely rational, can nevertheless be shown to be reasonable. (p27)” This idea shows up again in the introduction, in which Randy Alcorn states that “Christ’s words about hell are clear.” Yet, if they were clear, as it seems every doctrinal position seems to be to those who hold it, then we would not have had so many disagreements early in the Church, or are only the words on hell clear and not those on the Eucharist. Here, admittedly, Bell fails in exegeting the words of Jesus, but it seems that Galli (and Alcorn) have drawn a line in the sand already about what is ‘clear’.
The introduction was written by Randy Alcorn, a fellow Evangelical who is himself an accomplished author and a minister in his own right. He begins by introducing Galli as not an “intolerant fundamentalist,” calling him instead “open minded.” Galli may be, but in reading some past articles by the author, I get the sense that he is territorial, as are most theologians, even Bell. I am not comfortable with an opening telling me what the author is not as I have found that if your opening statement is a defense against what you expect to be called, you have in fact been leaning that way, while trying to hold yourself above the label. Do I really think Galli is intolerant? No, I do not. I do think that he is, as I just said, territorial, especially over certain key Reformed-doctrines, and most notably, over hell. I do think that these doctrines, however, which he holds tightly too, precludes the notion that he can rightly be called a ‘big-tent evangelical’, however, as Alcorn labels him. I note, sadly, that Alcorn doesn’t classify Galli as a ‘big-tent Christian’, but only as a ‘big-tent Evangelical’ which for me signals the limiting of that tent to the exclusion of Catholics, Pentecostals, the Orthodox, and Emergents.
Alcorn sets the stage for Galli’s take on Bell, by seemingly positioning Bell as a post-modern theologian (Bell is many things, but a theologian he is not) who believes that he has the ‘luxury of remaking theology on the fly.’ Bell’s book is not about remaking theology, but about reforming certain viewpoints. In reading Bell’s book, the one firm thing that I believe we can boil his book down too is to not condemn people to hell, but to let God have his own justice. This notion of universal reconciliation is not Bell’s alone, and nor is it a post-modern take on Scripture. Willimon, Wright, von Balthasar, C.S. Lewis, MacDonald, and the list builds backwards for centuries have all expressed, if nothing else can be said, a firm hope in the restoration of all things (Acts 3.21). Oddly enough, Alcorn quotes Lewis in stating that these ‘new viewpoints’ aren’t simply better than the ancient ones because they are new. Indeed, as I could name others, besides Origen, who in the ancient Church has more than expressed a hope of restoration of all of Creation, but preached it and were not debated, such as Eusebius and Marcellus and even Athanasius. But, these things are said so as to minimize Bell’s own objection to penal substitution, which Alcorn says is minimized by Bell. Alcorn, and I assume Galli, aren’t viewing Bell objectively, but on the grounds of whether or not Bell’s work upholds penal substitution. This is another example of circular reasoning, in that PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) is automatically conferred a status of unquestionable authority, so that everything must line up with it or, without merit, be wrong. Alcorn promises that Galli “embraces these doctrines” drawing on Jesus and Paul, along with names familiar in the Reformed Tradition, such as Luther, Edwards, and Spurgeon. I wonder aloud here about Irenaeus, Marcellus, Origen and others who wrestled with these doctrines long before Luther became a family name among the German peoples. Further, Alcorn preemptively posits Galli’s work against Bell’s by rooting the former to the ‘biblical and historical rock’ with the latter merely languishing on ‘cultural sand.’ This is expected, depressing, but expected.
Alcorn goes on to criticize Bell’s book because it asks ‘hundreds of questions’. Undoubtedly, this method of ‘preaching’ is distracting to some, but as a device meant to engage an audience, it is a powerful one. As I noted, Bell’s book is a sermon, and nothing more. No doubt, if you have listened to Rob Bell preach, you would find yourself, with the voice in your head, hearing his voice reading the book to you. But, Alcorn seems to suggest that only certain questions are allowed, which I can take to imply means that only those questions which Alcorn and Galli feel worthy are allowed. Alcorn makes use of Pilate as an example of fool-hearty questioning and then quotes God who is quoted by Galli in speaking with Job telling the sufferer to brace for some return questioning from the Almighty. The issue here, however, goes back to the dedication, and in my opinion, creates a separation where there shouldn’t be. God in Isaiah tells us to come to him, to reason with him (Isaiah 1.18). Further, theology is a dialogue about and with God (Augustine, City of God VIII, i), and what is dialogue without questioning? And, returning to Pilate, hardly are the questions of a ‘self-absorbed’ individual, but the rhetorical device of the Gospel writers showcasing the power of Christ in a variety of ways. Without Pilate’s questioning, we would not have some of the most beautiful words during the Passion, such as, “My Kingdom is not of this world…” Even in the doubts of Thomas is Christ magnified. But again, I am only really reflecting on Alcorn’s reflection of Galli’s reflection on Pilate.
I find it odd that Alcorn quotes Lewis, who as I noted above, spiritually descended from George MacDonald. Lewis, just as Bell does, believes in Hell. There is no scriptural means of escaping the notion of a literal hell. Yet, Lewis offers some insight into harrowing of that particular place in several of this sanctified imaginative works. Alcorn also acknowledges a quote from the ‘broad-minded Christian’ Dorothy Sayers. But, in reading both Bell and the quotes provided, I do not see a fixed gulf which separates the two. Indeed, Bell acknowledges hell. As does Lewis. Sayers. Jesus Christ. Alcorn addresses, which I hope Galli will, the recent philosophy that God is all powerful and thus, what God wants, God gets. But, he does so in a confusing manner. He acknowledges this to be true, says that Justice is included, because what God wants is not limited to the salvation of everyone. I have had to reread that one several times, because if you acknowledge that the Will of God is so pervasive as to accept that God wants holiness and will get holiness; that God wants Justice and will get Justice; then you must equally accept that if God wants salvation for everyone (Acts 17.29-31; 1 Timothy 2.3-4; 2 Peter 3.9), then He will indeed get salvation for everyone. The use of Lewis and the notion that God gets what God wants is a confusing way to buffet against the perception of what Bell is trying to say.
Alcorn wonders aloud on whether on not we can still claim to be ‘bible believers’ if we ‘radically’ reinterpret the words of Christ about such things as hell, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, moral issues and His deity. I would like to know what Galli would say about Creationism? Inerrancy or inspiration? Or a host of other issues which people who still claim to be ‘bible believers’ (ignoring for the moment that this term puts something between Christ and the individual) have ‘changed’ their views on over, not just the last few years, but over centuries. Would Galli and Alcorn have been opposed to (Zwingli,) Luther and Calvin in the 16th century when they sought to ‘radically reinterpret’ the words of Christ and Paul to come to the Reformation Era understanding of salvation by faith alone? Can we be just a little more objective and note the surprising situation in which we find ourselves we accuse others of such measures which our forefathers and mothers were themselves accused by the religious establishment? “But we’re right!” we shout; and so did they – and so do everyone and all the while claiming to be, as opposed to their counterparts in history, ‘bible believers.’ The issue for real ‘bible believers’ is to believe that the bible means, and not what we think it says, because admittedly, the bible generally says what it says in our language.
In closing the introduction, Alcorn notes that he believes that our sins are big enough to deserve eternal punishment. Indeed, perhaps. Perhaps the young teenager in Africa who knew nothing of Christ and instead worshiped the pagan gods of his fathers, who was slaughtered in genocidal rage, deserves eternal punishment. Or perhaps, the woman who was raped repeatedly by her ministerial father who did so while repeating the Lord’s Prayer, who so hated God as to think of not better end then to take her own life deserves eternal punishment. But I, like Rob Bell and others, cannot say that and nor will we say that. Will Mark Galli?
From Alcorn, I get the sense that this book will be response out of fear – fear that Christ is not being upheld high enough. That is the danger of universalism, but Rob Bell is not a universalist.