William Willimon 2, Rob Bell 0

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If you have read this blog for long, or others (why would you read others?) then you will remember the controversy which erupted over ]]’s book, ]]. It actually began due to a tweet by ]] which simply read, ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’. I’ve since read and reviewed Bell’s book and found it lacking of the need to have such a controversy. It was, after all, nothing really new, and in all actuality, more of a pastoral book. Indeed, it was truly a pastoral book because it was Bell telling his congregation to shut up about sending people to hell.

Willimon’s book was published in 2008. I hadn’t heard of it until I read a post by another author who happens to be a former UMC student pastor. But while reading this book, I had to wonder why Willimon wasn’t given the treatment that Bell was…

I would postulate that either it didn’t make it on the radar of Piper et al, or maybe Piper wasn’t really wanting to confront a well-known conservative United Methodist Bishop. Or maybe, Bell is just really easy to pick on because he dresses funny. Whatever it is, I ponder these things when I read statements such as the one on page 14:

The Revealer who delights in revelation desires recipients for the revelation. So a first response to the question, “Who shall be saved?” might be, “Well, who is created? What creatures are so beloved by the Creator that the Creator cannot let them alone? Who is God’s favorite conversation partner? These are the ones God saves.”

That’s not nearly as vague as most of Bell’s book. Considering everything said before and after that statement, about how God doesn’t want to be alone and seeks to be near us, then we are left with only a few legitimate answers to Willimon’s questions.

Willimon, unlike Bell, is a theologian. This is a strength for him, actually. Further, where as Bell is concerned with our own self-imposed hells, Willimon is concerned with God’s salvation. The viewpoint between the two are different. For Bell, it is more about humanity’s actions and choices; for Willimon, it is about God in Christ.

He begins chapter 2 with,

“Who will be saved?” is not as interesting a question as “Who saves?” That which makes Christian salvation counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and strange is the God who saves.

The Bishop is deeply concerned with having God placed in the right order. Salvation is God’s and not ours. It is a gift, not earned. It starts and ends with God. For Bell, I get the feeling that humanity is the center of the universe. In reading so far, there is a sence of some of the Reformed Tradition mixed with self-professed Wesleyanism.

So far, so good.


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6 Replies to “William Willimon 2, Rob Bell 0”

  1. Joel,

    I’m curious: What is there in Willimon’s book that strikes you as Wesleyan? I tend to think of him as just so much more supporting evidence for William Abraham’s claim that Wesleyan theology is dead.

    I have not read Willimon’s book, but my past experience with his work does not make me expect much. I was at Duke while he was chaplain there, and his stuff (at least at that time) just seemed to be too much in step with Duke-style narrative theology, which I find very problematic on scriptural grounds, and which certainly does not comport well with Wesley’s general approach. Is there anything really Wesleyan about Willimon’s theology? Or is he just like Hauerwas, who likes to refer to himself as “Wesleyan”, while never, ever, ever, ever saying anything remotely in line with Wesleyan theology?

    You quote Willimon as saying, “The Revealer who delights in revelation desires recipients for the revelation.” That’s pure Barth, and has nothing to do with NT theology or with Wesleyan theology.

    1. John, I have picked up on much of what you have said – which is why I ended the post with:

      In reading so far, there is a sence of some of the Reformed Tradition mixed with self-professed Wesleyanism.

      Also, this book is actually tagged with the idea that he is ‘draw(ing) on Wesleyan tradition and the teachings of Karl Barth to examine carefully the biblical teaching on the reach and scope of God’s salvation while enabling readers to explore and reach their own conclusions on the question of whether all will, in the end, be saved.’ Personally, I think that he is more Barthian than Wesleyan

  2. Thanks.

    I have doubts as to whether Barth and Wesley can be mixed. I think that mixture might cause an explosion.

    1. John,

      It may be that Willimon is doing his best to hold on to the Wesleyan part while interpreting Barth. The book is interesting on several levels, and not least, now, in trying to pick out the truly Wesleyan aspects of Willimon.

  3. I agree that it can be hard to tease out Wesley from reading Willimon. Barth and Yoder (via Hauerwas) are the clearest elements.

    Wesley, however, walks hand-in-hand with the Reformed folks for a long way before they part company, though, so much of what feels like Reformed might be Wesley lurking next to them.

    On the plus side, when Willimon quotes Wesley, he generally does so without doing violence to what Wesley was trying to actually say. This is better than many of us United Methodists treat old John.

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