Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A little thing called context

Yesterday a couple of friends of mine were talking, and one of them was relating Mark Driscoll's comments about Rob Bell to the other. I got involved in the conversation, and the long and the short of it is that I ended up listening to Driscoll's entire lecture. This address was delivered at the convergent conference at southeastern baptist theological seminary in September. Mark admitted that he put the entire thing together in a few hours, which is unfortunate, because words have impact in this internet age, and his arguments about Bell are way off base.

Mark criticizes Bell for three specific things: (1) Using rabbinical writings and other non-Christian books to understand scripture (2) A passage in Velvet Elvis and (3) Having Brian McLaren fill his pulpit. I will address each one.

Mark's argument is that the rabbis did not know Jesus, and therefore their writings are of no value because Jesus claims that all of scripture is about him. There is a profound logical mistake in this thinking. Rob Bell and others do not look to the rabbinical writings as the final authority, but as a way of understanding the context in which the scriptures were written, and how they might have been understood by those who read them. If we throw out these writings as spurious because of their non-Christian nature, we must then throw out all of the understanding of Greek and Hebrew that we gain from non-biblical sources. After all, those sources are used for the same purpose: understanding the real meaning and use of the words in scripture. Either non-Christian works can help us understand the word of God, or they don't. If they don't, we are in a heap of trouble because every single version of the bible we have relies on these sources for their translations, and without them translation would be impossible.

I have not read one of the books Mark rails against (A Brief History of Everything), but having listened to sermons by Rob Bell and having read his books, I am certain he (Rob) doesn't interpret the book or use it in the way Mark understands it and assumes it is being used. I have, however, read Velvet Elvis, and so I will address that point next.

Mark's second argument is about a passage in Velvet Elvis. Mark states that Rob argues against he virgin birth (he doesn't), and then proceeds to tear apart an argument that Rob did not make. Let me explain:

In the chapter entitled "Jump" Rob discusses our understanding of God, and what we base our beliefs on. Just prior to the discussion that freaks out Driscoll (did he read the whole book, or did someone just ask him about those pages?) Rob writes: "The truth about God is why study and discussion and doctrines are so necessary. They help us put words to realities beyond words. They give us insight and understanding into the experience of God we're having...If they ever become the point, something has gone seriously wrong. Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master."

Rob continues later "Each of the core doctrines for him is like a individual brick that stacks on top of the otehrs. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble... Like he said, no six-day creation equals no cross." Then what Rob does is, to me, brilliant, and to Driscoll, horrifying. He changes the focus so that this doesn't become a debate about the length of creation, because that isn't what this is about. It's about how we form and understand our view of God. So rather than make it a debate about a single issue, he switches to a straw man issue to make a point. Mark misses this entirely. To Mark, Rob is now arguing something very bad, which Rob is not. Let's read on:

"What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry..."

I'm going to stop here. Obviously he is being absurd. He isn't claiming that Joseph was Jesus' real biological father because that might engage an argument he doesn't want to engage. He is only making a point, hence "Larry" is really his father. But he continues:

"But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things"

I (Joel) will add that, in fact, a completely appropriate translation is "young woman" and a few bible translations use that.

Rob's point here is that it's not just that someone dug up Larry, but that you also discover that this could be supported in scritpure. Maybe the interpretation you always thought was true was not true, and there were others that would allow you to hold to the authority of scripture and still be a follower of God while losing something that you hold so dear.

Again, Driscoll completely misses the point. Rob is VERY clear here that this is not a discussion about the virgin birth, and yet Mark jumps in to the fray to DEFEND the virgin birth against Rob's heretical teaching. Rob closes by asking "Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?"

That's what this is about. It has nothing to do with the virgin birth. Just in case you missed it, Rob affirms the virgin birth on the very next page. Mark mentions this, but adds "but we just don't need it" which is not in the text of the book.

What concerns me here are two things: First is that Mark would take on Rob without truly taking the time to understand the book or even talk to Rob (or others) to see if he is off base. The second point requires a little digression. In an earlier discussion on Brian McLaren he goes off on a book called "Recovering the Scandal of the Cross" which I think is a terrible book. So on that, we agree. The problem is that Mark also completely missed the point of that book as well, and his comments are unfair and distort what the book is trying to say rather badly. Now, to reiterate, I thought the book was terrible. I am not trying to defend Joel Green and Mark Baker, but if Mark is this far off base on his comments regarding the two books I have read, what does that say about his other comments?

So my second point is that his poor treatment of Rob's book and of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross leads me to believe that he has probably missed something in the other books he critiques as well. So should I care about his comments regarding Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt? Well, I certainly don't agree with them like I did before I heard the section on Rob Bell. But then, I haven't read any of Doug or Brian's work, only what they said in Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church. Thus, after Mark's rant on Rob, I have to retract my initial agreement that I don't think McLaren should cover Rob's pulpit. I don't really know enough about what Brian really believes to have an opinion on that. All I know is what Mark said and what little Brian wrote in the aforementioned book.

And that's the real problem. Things like this weaken the impact of your teaching of the bible. I like Mark. I loved Radical Reformission. I loved his chapter in Listening to the Beliefs. I have enjoyed his sermons. But to someone who is not firmly a Christian, does his clear misunderstanding of the writings of Bell and others make him less authoritative of a preacher? Does it call in to question everything he teaches? To me it does.

And that is the tragedy of this whole incident. I believe that Mark has done damage to his reputation and his authority as a preacher through this chapel message, and that truly saddens me not only for Mark, but because it harms the message of the Gospel as well. Mark is a gifted preacher, clearly. He has done great things in Seattle and God has blessed his ministry. I am still a Mark Driscoll fan and I want him to be successful and proclaim the word of God for all of his days, I just pray that he will be more careful about what he says about other teachers and writings, and that he will recognize how it affects the message that matters, the message of the cross.



Anonymous said...

It was part of a conference and not a chapel message.

Also, his name is spelled "Mark" not "Marc".

renewingmind said...

Unfortunately I wasn't there. What I listened to sounded like a chapel message from the introduction. I have done a slight update to reflect that.

Secondly, thanks for the spelling correction. I (obviously) am not perfect! :-) Only Christ holds that title...


hcfischer1 said...

I would be interested to know what you think after you read some of McLaren and Pagitt's stuff. Bell probably wouldn't have made it on Driscoll's top three even last year but he's saying some more emergent things lately. I know Bell considers himself emerging and not remains to be seen. Either way it would have certainly been more biblical to talk with these men first, according to the Matthew 18 principle for confrontation. I know Driscoll has taken a position of humility since December. He, himself, has noted his own temper.

On a side note: I love that you talk about the emerging topics and you roast your own coffee. Green Coffee Coop- by any chance?

Anonymous said...

I know you have already moved on to other issues, but I finally listened to Driscoll's message and then read your comments.

I have not read any of the books mentioned, I am only responding to the message and your comments, and really, only one specific issue. There is still plenty of what Mark said and you wrote that we could discuss, but I just want to comment on this:

In true Joelidian form, I would like to submit that you might have missed Driscoll's point about Rob Bell, just as you claim Driscoll missed Bell's. I agree on the one hand that Driscoll seems to be too harsh on Bell's comments -- like overkill, since Rob was not actually arguing against the virgin birth. But upon further reflection, Driscoll's point was not necessarily just to defend the virgin birth, either.

Driscoll was using Bell's example to discuss the very methods someone would use to either attack or defend ANY doctrine. His whole point for bringing it up was to illustrate what he sees THROUGHOUT the "emergent village" -- that there are leaders and teachers and speakers and writers and pastors who are willing to open up dialogue about almost anything, and they are not only willing, but eager and in some cases aggressive to create large amounts of doubt and uncertainty about the truth and veracity and relevance of God's word in people's minds. Confidence in Scripture (and not just on matters that are genuinely debatable, but confidence in any part of Scripture) is being replaced by a somewhat blind faith in human reason, human forms of spirituality, and human research. Whether or not Bell was actually attacking the Virgin Birth is not as crucial to Driscoll's point -- which is that other rock-solid doctrines have already been attacked and subsequently abandoned (sovereignty and omniscience of God, definitions and roles of gender and sexuality and marriage, the nature and duration of hell, the Trinity, the accuracy of Scripture, and so on). The virgin birth could very well be the next one to be largely abandoned, even if Bell is not the one to lead the way.

Bell may have been using the virgin birth as a "ridiculous" example (as you say), but in today's discussions, no doctrine is sacred enough to be a "ridiculous" example or universally accepted as a ridiculous example. A ridiculous example might be the true length of a cubit or something like that -- something that is universally accepted, but if research could prove that we have had it wrong all along, we all would have to make adjustments -- but it would not change the GOSPEL. The virgin birth is not one of those topics -- it WOULD change the GOSPEL.

Just because Bell goes on to affirm the virgin birth on the next page does not atone for his placing any seeds of doubt in the readers mind about it. And even if no one actually doubts it, the fact that someone would say to themselves, "Yeah, if there was undeniable evidence that Jesus had a human father, we would have to rethink that doctrine" makes it a far more dangerous discussion than the emergent folks realize. The average newer believer in our culture already naturally places human science and psychology way above the statements of Scripture -- we don't really need our pastors and teachers creating more doubt. Do we need to demonstrate that we understand that doubt? Absolutely. Do we need to abandon our confident affirmation of the truth in the process? Absolutely not!

The virgin birth is so foundational to everything the Bible teaches about Jesus, it should not be one of the things that should EVER be called into question. If there is no virgin birth, there is no God-Man Savior and the Bible is not telling us the truth! Just like the physical resurrection of Jesus. If there is no resurrection, there is no Christianity. But the more consideration someone gives to all of the writings of the Jesus seminar, the more attractive some of those theories become. I actually liked Driscoll's comparison to Genesis three, when Eve was willing to dialogue with the serpent, and the more she considered his words, the more appealing the forbidden fruit became.

It seemed to me that Driscoll was trying to point out that the emergent crowd has lost its bearings and lost its foundations and are willing to consider any possibilities, so that there is no telling what errors are just around the corner. It seemed to me that Mark was not claiming that Rob had abandoned the virgin birth, but he was claiming that Rob called it into question by using it in that discussion, and that Rob did not have the sense to realize how central that truth (and others) are to the faith.

Anyway, I don't really know enough about either Mark or Rob to give much support or criticism either way, and I greatly appreciated your "own response" that we should pray for both of these men and their ministries to many, many people.

In Light of His Grace,

renewingmind said...

I think you really have to read Velvet Elvis before you can decide who is right on what is said in the book. Bell's point is this: could your faith survive the loss of the virgin birth? Or would it end for you?

As for coffee, I am part of the coop but I don't buy coffee there anymore as we started buying full bags (120lbs) after my friend bought a commercial roaster...