The Center of Christianity? A Response to Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan recently posted a review of the new book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, on The Gospel Coalition‘s website.
The review is, as might be expected, a stinging critique of Bell and his theology.  Before I launch into my response, I want to draw an important distinction.  I think critique and discourse are extremely important to the development of the Christian faith.  Through conversation we grow in our understanding of God, one another, and the world we are called to live in and minister to.  In that sense, I have always appreciated free thinkers like Bell who challenge previously held presuppositions and force us to reconsider beliefs we might have taken for granted.  That process of questioning and reconsidering, of reformulating and rediscovering our faith, is vital to the continued relevance of the Church and its mission.  Reformed, and Always Reforming should be a maxim for Christians today, and to that extent those like Bell who force the continued reformation, or perhaps reformulation, of the Christian faith are of great service to the contemporary church.  With that said, I am also quite happy to see such thinkers critiqued and the inconsistencies of some of their experimentation pointed out.  Our faith is made stronger by those who ask difficult questions.  It is also made stronger by those who point out that not all the answers to those difficult questions work.
So all of that is to say that what I am not doing in this response is defending Rob Bell.  Nor am I going to argue for anything like his position.  I leave that to others to argue over.  What I do wish to address, however, is a grave error that I think has cropped up in the Evangelical, Neo-Reformed response to Bell.  This is the claim that “traditional Evangelicalism” represents “traditional Christianity.”  Such a claim is patently false.  Many of the responses given by DeYoung and others to Bell’s proposal have rested on the idea that they represent “the center of Christianity,” and therefore they can make the judgment that Bell is heterodox or perhaps heretical.  This kind of arrogant isolationism by Evangelical leaders is extremely detrimental to the development of sound theology and to the spiritual nourishment of their followers.  Evangelicals need to remember that they represent a tiny minority of the global Christian community, and a minority that has only really existed for the last hundred and fifty years or so.  This means that while you can disagree with much of Bell’s theology, the case for your disagreement needs to be more than “this isn’t Evangelical.”
To illustrate using the most glaring example (to me) in DeYoung’s review, lets look at the issue of the atonement.  DeYoung sarcastically comments on Bell’s views about the atonement:
So what does Bell believe about the atonement? He starts with the familiar refrain that there are many images for what the death of Jesus accomplished and none of them should be prized more than another (though he claims Christus Victor was the dominant understanding for the first thousand years of church history). The point is not to argue about the images. “The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is” (129).
DeYoung goes on from here to question how it would be possible for Bell not to take a penal substitutionary view of the atonement and in effect dismisses Bell’s views.  What is disturbing about this is that Bell is exactly right here.  DeYoung needs to go back and read his historical theology:  The Christus Victor motif was the almost completely unquestioned understanding of the atonement in Christian theology for the first 1200 years of Church history.  Later scholastics in the Middle Ages would begin to tinker with more legal ideas- such as penal substitution- but those would not become popular in Christian theology until after the Reformation, and then only in Reformed circles.  In most Orthodox traditions, by which I mean Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, much of the Anglican Tradition, and even some Lutheran and Methodist theology, Christus Victor is still the dominant motif for understanding the atonement.  Bell is, in all likelihood, expressing the view of the atonement held by two-thirds of contemporary Christians!  DeYoung is welcome to disagree with this view, and I am sure very good arguments could be made for his own position.  However, to substantiate such disagreement he is going to need more than dismissive sarcasm and some vague allusions to Leviticus (which, for what its worth, I think he has utterly misunderstood in his comments) and some proof-texts from Paul.  As a student of Biblical studies, I would go so far as to say that every passage DeYoung alludes to can be interpreted to fit with Bell’s theory without much difficulty.  DeYoung’s blind assertions do nothing but demonstrate that he is unaware of a world beyond his Evangelical bubble.
Another glaring example of DeYoung twisting the meaning of “traditional Christianity” has to do with his own exegetical stance.  DeYoung critiques Bell’s use of prophetic imagery about the future restoration of the earth, imagery that very frequently features the entire world worshipping God at Zion, by using a dispensationalist rubric and dismissing them as only applying to national Israel in the Old Testament.  While I vehemently disagree with dispensationalism, I am very willing to accept that this is a legitimate rubric of interpretation.  What I object to here is not that DeYoung is a dispensationalist.  What I object to is that DeYoung implies that his rubric is the traditional, Orthodox rubric for understanding these texts and therefore Bell is doing something radically new and suspicious.  Again, DeYoung needs to read up on his historical theology.  Dispensationalism as a system of interpretation has barely existed for two centuries.  Ironically, then, DeYoung is critiquing Bell for doing something new with these texts by himself reading them in a very new way!  Again let me stress, DeYoung is perfectly free to read the text this way.  However, he needs to be honest about his own assumptions and not present them as representing the “center of Christian Orthodoxy.”  Such a claim is false, and such deception in the process of critiquing another Christian thinker is detrimental the spiritual well-being of the Church.
Of course, ultimately DeYoung will likely dismiss my comments for two reasons: first, he will claim that I, or anyone representing any of the other Christian viewpoints I have mentioned in this post, do not adequately deal with the Biblical evidence.  Second, he will claim, as he does in arguing against Bell, that such viewpoints have ultimately fabricated a “different God.”  Both claims, I think, are circular and amount to DeYoung making the following statement:  “I know my beliefs to be true because I know my beliefs are true and anyone who disagrees with my beliefs must be wrong because they disagree with my beliefs.”  I am very sympathetic to the idea that we believe what we believe because we are convinced our beliefs are true.   I am not at all sympathetic to the kind of circular reasoning DeYoung is exhibiting here.
So for instance, I can anticipate that DeYoung will dismiss the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement as found in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy by saying these are not true Christians because they do not share his view of the authority of scripture.  Such a statement again betrays a lack of understanding of his own position within Christianity.  The authority of scripture which Evangelicalism cherishes is a product of Reformation era theology.  In other places I have discussed why I find a strong sense of sola scriptura to be problematic, but the short version is that we only know scripture because of traditions that tell us what scripture is (i.e., the canon is a tradition and not itself Biblical), and further we only read scripture through the lens of a particular set of presuppositions.  Even if we accept the Evangelical notion of scripture, to take the further step of claiming that all who disagree with this notion are outside of Christian Orthodoxy is not only a misreading of Christian history, it is also begging the question.  The Eastern Orthodox respondent can simply ask “why should scripture be our sole theological authority?”  To which the Evangelical answer will have to be that it is because our Evangelical tradition tells us it is.
DeYoung’s final chess-move is to claim that those who disagree with him, such as Bell, have fabricated a “different God” and therefore are unorthodox.  I believe just a little pushing and tugging at the meaning of this statement will reveal the unbelievable arrogance it represents.  Throughout Christian history, as DeYoung himself notes, there have been adamant disagreements about many, many theological issues.  DeYoung is especially fond of pointing out disagreements where one side was labeled heretical- such as the Arian controversy.  However, within the boundaries of Orthodoxy there have been many disputes as well.  As I have pointed out, there are many Orthodox understandings of the atonement.  To pick a very minor issue, there are many different interpretations of various Biblical passages- such as Jacob wrestling before crossing the river- which are considered Orthodox.  The debate about dispensationalism is another example of disagreement within Orthodoxy.  Even within dispensational theology there are disputes about details.  My point here is ask at what point DeYoung determines that a different God is on the table?  Do the pre-tribulation and post-tribulation dispensationalists both worship the same God?  Do Calvinists and Arminians worship the same God (gasp!)?  Do Lutherans and Presbyterians worship the same God?  What about Evangelicals and Roman Catholics?  In claiming that Bell has created a different God, DeYoung is attempting to cast Bell out of Christianity.  Yet, such noted, and clearly Orthodox, teachers as CS Lewis, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner have all expressed views extremely similar to that of Bell.  Did they all follow a different God than DeYoung?  And who gets to decide that?  Is it DeYoung who decides what God is like and what we can disagree on and not disagree on?  How did he get such sweeping authority to determine Christian Orthodoxy?  In the end, this claim by DeYoung amounts to a claim to absolute theological knowledge.  Such arrogance from a prominent Christian teacher, especially when employed to critique another prominent Christian teacher, cannot be beneficial to the Church.
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