WASHINGTON (ABP) — Controversy over Rob Bell's new book Love Wins has rekindled an old feud between a Southern Baptist leader and a pioneer in the "emergent" or "emerging" church.
Brian McLaren — author, pastor and innovator in presenting the gospel in culturally relevant ways — wrote on his blog that he wasn't surprised that one person leading the charge against his friend's book that questions traditional notions about heaven and hell would be Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Mohler reviewed Bell's book in a March 16 blog titled "We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology." The next day Mohler convened a panel of scholars on campus to warn students of dangerous ideas promoted by the leading figure in the emergent church.
Mohler gave similar treatment a year ago to McLaren's just-released A New Kind of Christianity, dedicating a chapel service to a panel discussion that charged McLaren with denying the fundamentals of the faith.
McLaren said he decided to speak up for Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church near Grand Rapids, Mich., and an already successful author and video producer, because of his own experience as a writer of "baptism in hot water" and the old saying that "it's not the attacks of your critics but the silence of friends that hurts the most."
McLaren challenged several assertions of Mohler's blog about Bell's book, including the observation that leaders of the emerging church movement were "pushing Protestant Liberalism — just about a century late."
"If some like Dr. Mohler want to reserve the terms Evangelical, orthodox, and even Christian for those who hold fast to the traditional view of hell, they seem to have the power and moxy to do so," McLaren opined. "Those of us who can't in good conscience defend that view any longer are certainly not condemning people who can't in good conscience stop defending it. But we are hoping at least to be given the courtesy of a fair hearing. To impugn our motives (that we are selling out the Bible for the pottage of popularity), to reduce our concerns about love and justice to sentimentality, to dismiss us with the 'L' word and a questionable narrative surrounding it, and to demean as 'secularized' our attempt to articulate a fresh vision of the gospel probably won't pass muster as a fair hearing."
Mohler responded in another blog that he wasn't using liberal as an epithet, even though some use the word that way, but as a theologian arguing that emergent church leaders in the 21st century are repeating mistakes of Protestant Liberalism in the 19th century — trying to rescue Christianity by surrendering doctrines deemed unacceptable to the modern mind. In both cases, Mohler said, one of the first things to go was the biblical doctrine of hell.
"We do not know who God is by knowing what love is," Mohler wrote. "We understand love by knowing who God is. But Brian McLaren seems quite ready to judge God by human standards of love and justice."
Mohler pointed out that McLaren's most important book, A New Kind of Christianity, rejected the Genesis account of God's actions in the story of Noah, describing the story as a "profoundly disturbing" example of intentional supernatural disaster leading to genocide.
"We should not wonder that he, like Bell, argues against the traditional doctrine of hell," Mohler said. "We should also not wonder, then, that McLaren likes Rob Bell's arguments for finding what he considers to be better ways of telling the Jesus story."
Writing around a baseball metaphor that many of Mohler's supporters would regard his panning of Bell's book a "home run," McLaren said reviews of Love Wins are only "in the first inning."
"So after the first inning of responses, I imagine Rob Bell feels a lot like I have on many occasions," McLaren said. "It's not that the critics have accurately understood what I'm trying to say and have explained why they disagree. It's that they've misrepresented what I'm trying to say and have explained why the misrepresentation is audacious and ludicrous."
"Thankfully, there's still time to see the conversation continue and deepen, and Dr. Mohler can be thanked for getting the first inning off to a strong and exciting start," McLaren concluded. "If we seek true understanding and give one another a fair hearing all along the way, knowing we'll all strike out sometimes and even commit an error or two from time to time, whoever 'wins,' love will win."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
Previous related stories and commentary: