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.