Let me start by saying I like Rob Bell. (You didn't think I was going to say that, did you?) As a part of some research I'm doing on Progressive Christianity, I've spent quite a bit of time with him lately—listening to lectures, interviews, and reading his books. Of all the Progressive authors I'm currently reading (Rachel Held Evans, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke, and Pete Enns among others), I enjoy Bell the most. This doesn't mean I agree with much of what he says, but he's articulate, clear, engaging, and seems like a genuinely nice person.
I recently read Bell's, What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. (That's one heck of a title.) With chapters like, "Moses and His Moisture," and "Smoking Firepots," and "And the Fat Closed In Over the Sword," Bell's creativity and excitement about his work is palpable.
One thing he excels at is storytelling and bringing in contextual clues that help the reader understand the bigger picture of the Bible. Sometimes he does this in a way that left me smiling and nodding in agreement. Other times it left me pulling out my hair and arguing with my computer (I read it on Kindle.) At times, the "bigger picture" he painted was entirely foreign to the Bible.
I've learned that when reading Rob Bell, I must always question his premises. He is brilliant at building a dazzling and compelling interpretation around a false premise. Before you realize what's even happened, you've jumped down a completely different rainbow, harvesting trinkets from an entirely different pot of gold—that may not contain any real gold at all.
Here's an example.
In a chapter called, "The Human and the Divine," Bell points out that the Bible was written by humans. He repeats this often throughout the book and even states in the introduction that "the Bible is a book about what it means to be human." (p. 4) He points out that "when you start there, [with the understanding that the Bible was written by humans] and you go all the way into the humanity of this library of books, you just may find the divine." (p.183) At this point, most people will just continue reading like nothing happened. But this is what I'm talking about—this is a false premise. Let me explain.
One key to critical thinking is to always question the premises. Someone can present an argument that is logically valid, but still wrong. Consider this argument:
Premise 1: All breeds of cattle have purple stripes.
Premise 2: Jersey cow is a breed of cattle.
Conclusion: Jersey cows have purple stripes.
Do Jersey cows have purple stripes? Of course not. But even though the conclusion is false, it correctly followed the premises, so technically, the argument is valid. This is why premises are so important. Let's look at Bell's premise.
Was the Bible written by humans?
It's true that the Bible was written by humans. But that's not the whole story, and therefore it should not be our starting place as Bell suggests. This is a lopsided view of how the Bible was written. God certainly used many different people who lived in various cultures and time periods to write the words of Scripture, but as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness."
The Greek word translated as "inspired by God" does not mean "inspired" in the same way a poet is inspired by his muse, or like a dancer who gives an inspired performance. It means breathed out by God. When referring to the prophecies in the Old Testament, the Apostle Peter wrote, "No prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:21)
Jesus said that when David wrote Scripture, he was "speaking by the Spirit," and He affirmed over and over again that He believed the Scriptures to be the very Word of God—inspired, authoritative, and historically reliable.
Are Paul, Peter, and Jesus wrong? Bell's premise suggests they are. His starting point is to throw out the doctrine of divine inspiration, or at least the traditional understanding of it. There is a short chapter in which he dances around the word "inspired," painting its meaning with the broadest of brushes. When he explains Paul's use of the Greek theopneustos, (God breathed), he writes that Paul simply meant, "They’re books, but they’re more than books." (p. 286) He compares this with being inspired by a song or having "something good, hopeful, true, comforting, healing, or genuine" breathed into you. (p. 286)
At the end of the chapter, he makes an important yet subtle distinction. He writes, "The Bible is inspired, in much the same way you are inspired. . .You’re just a humble, stumbling bag of bones and skin, and yet the divine, infinite, eternal creative force of the universe has breathed into you." When he compares that with the way the Bible is inspired, he writes that this "Library of books. . .have been breathed into. . ." (p. 287) This may not seem all that controversial, except that it implies the books were first written, then inspired.
The Bible teaches that the writers of Scripture themselves were "moved by the Holy Spirit" to write His "God-breathed" words...not that God took what they had already written and made it inspirational.
What's at stake?
If Bell's starting point is that the Bible is primarily a human invention, it's no surprise that he doesn't consider the events it records to be historically reliable.
When expounding on the idea that the Bible was written by humans, (are you seeing a theme here?), Bell wonders why Mary and the disciples didn't recognize the resurrected Jesus when they first saw Him. He casually mentions in parenthesis:
See what he did there? He's just assuming that his readers are too smart to think that Jesus' resurrection was actually "literal" (contrary to what virtually every Bible-believing Christian has affirmed for the last 2,000 years). He doesn't take the time to make that case (biblical or otherwise) or even to address the theological ramifications of tossing it aside. And just like that—he takes down a core essential Christian doctrine with nothing more than a parenthetical quip. He was able to do this because he had already set the reader up to believe the Bible is a book about what it means to be human.
At this point, Bell has positioned himself (and the reader) over Scripture as the highest authority and arbiter of truth. And he accomplishes this in just a few well-written, engaging, witty paragraphs.
I do have some points of agreement with Bell. For example, he writes that the Bible should be read "literately." This means reading it according to its genre and cultural context. I couldn't agree more. However, he almost immediately explains this to mean that any time there is something "extreme" (like Elijah being caught up into heaven), we should take that as a clue that it's probably not historical. (p. 80) His underlying premise that the Bible is more human than divine will surely taint any good point he makes.
Is the Bible primarily a human book? Jesus, Paul, and Peter didn’t believe so—and I think I’ll stick with them.