In Which I Reprimand Rob Bell

April 7, 2011

This isn’t another blog post about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Not exactly, anyway.

(Though I wouldn’t want to feel the need to apologize if it was! A book is at it’s best when it stirs good dialogue. Of course, that dialogue is at it’s best when people have read the book in question, but I digress.)

Before I get into where I’m going with this, I will say that the reprimand of Rob Bell that is to follow is not because of what he had to say in Love Wins. I read the book and I enjoyed it. I agreed with some, I shook my head at some, and I was challenged by some. I didn’t burn my copy when I finished it — it would be difficult to burn an ebook anyway. My own response resonates some who are more eloquent than I am: Eugene Peterson, Greg Boyd, and Richard Mouw. And of course, the blog series by JR Woodward that I’ve previously linked to.

I want to express my dissatisfaction with Rob on one particular statement he has made. As he has been running through the gauntlet of interviews that have come with the release of the book, several times I have heard him say something to the effect of

“I’m not a theologian, I’m a pastor.”

With this, I take issue.

A pastor is, by necessity, a theologian. Even a Christian is, by necessity, a theologian. And I could go so far to say that every human is a theologian. Theology is words about God. It is humanity’s attempt to grapple with a perceived reality that is beyond our understanding.

Now I understand the point that Rob has been trying to make. Love Wins is not written to be some kind of academic level theological argument about eternity. It is a book written at the popular level, stirred by his work as a pastor and born out of conversations he has had in the midst of the pain and hope of people he pastors. I get that.

But theology is not some body of knowledge to be mastered. It is a conversation about something that no single human, and no single community, can master on their own. It requires participation by many, so that a collective understanding can form. John Franke describes it this way:

“the work of theology is never completed in some sort of once-and-for-all fashion. It is a living enterprise, a social practice of the church that will continue without end. Theology is not something that falls to earth from heaven in pristine form. It is always a human and earthly enterprise.” (Manifold Witness pg 117)

Yes, we do need professional theologians who spend more time engaging and furthering this conversation than others are able to give. And I value the voice of experts who have studied and reflected more on these deep issues, which is why I’m willing to drop a quote from a professional like Franke into the conversation. But professional theologians are not the sole owners or guardians of orthodoxy, and it is harmful to the greater church for us, and for Rob, to suggest that they are.

Every pastor must see themselves as a theologian, one who engages with Scriptures and culture to bring an understanding of the ongoing activity of God to their congregation. And with that, to invite their congregation into a similar engagement on Monday through Saturday. (And this very idea is one that Rob Bell has influenced me on as much as anyone.)

So Rob, you are a theologian, and please don’t say otherwise. To say you aren’t is to capitulate to those who would use that title to dismiss you, or to prove by their long winded essays that they are more right than you.

You are a theologian, and you are doing the kind of theology that is perhaps most important in our day and age — the theology that merges study of an ancient text with the questions and experiences of contemporary souls. And I understand that this is a scary kind of theology for some, because it means that our personal or collective preferences and desires might color our conclusions. But…that is the only kind of theology there is.

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