“Militant Mysticism”: Rob Bell and the Word of Truth

I’ve just finished preaching through Ephesians 1:3-14.  I concluded the series on this portion of Ephesians yesterday with vv. 13-14,

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, [14] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. 

There is enough content here to preach at least two or three messages.  Incidentally, Martin Lloyd-Jones preached seven sermons from Ephesians 1:13-14 (Lloyd-Jones’ exposition of Ephesians is found in an eight volume set.  Volume one, God’s Ultimate Purpose, contains his sermons from Ephesians 1, including the ones on vv. 13-14).  Two phrases are found in v. 13 that describe the Scripture, “the word of truth” and “the gospel of your salvation.”  Together they offer a comprehensive picture of the Bible. 

The Bible is the word of truth.  In the ESV, the phrase “word of truth” is found four times (Psalm 119:43; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:18). The phrase in the original, ton logon tes aletheias, is found five times in the NT (2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:18).

The Bible contains the gospel of your salvation.  The Bible expresses the message of the gospel, Christ’s death for our sin and resurrection from the dead, which is relevant to all generations because it redeems the sin-captive heart (Romans 1:16).   

John Calvin comments on these phrases,

Two epithets are here applied to the gospel,—the  word of truth and the gospel of your salvation.  Both deserve our careful attention.  Nothing is more earnestly attempted by Satan than to lead us either to doubt or to despise the gospel. Paul therefore furnishes us with two shields, by which we may repel both temptations. In opposition to every doubt, let us learn to bring forward this testimony, that the gospel is not only certain truth, which cannot deceive, but is, by way of eminence, (kat’ exoken) the word of truth, as if strictly speaking, there were no truth but truth itself.  If the temptation be to contempt or dislike of the gospel, let us remember that its power and efficacy have been manifested in bringing to us salvation (Calvin, Commentaries, 21:207).  

As I was thinking on the description Paul uses for Scripture in Ephesians 1:13, “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” I recalled an interview with Rob Bell.  Rob Bell is the featured speaker in a popular series of short films entitled NOOMA.  According to the NOOMA website, these films are “a series of short films that explore our world from a perspective of Jesus. NOOMA is an invitation to search, question, and join the discussion.”  I’ve watched a couple of them.  Rob Bell is also an author, speaker, and founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand, Rapids, MI.  As of 2005, the church attracts over 10,000 people to its two Sunday services each week.  

Mark Galli, Christianity Today’s senior managing editor, interviewed Rob Bell last Spring.  The interview appeared in the April 2009 edition of CT.  We find some very telling statements about Bell’s view of truth and the gospel.   



Rob Bell and “the word of truth”

Mark Galli: You’re essentially reframing the gospel—at least the gospel you inherited, the gospel we have known as the gospel in North America for the last couple hundred years.

Rob Bell: I am leery of people who have very clear ideas of what they’re doing from outside of themselves: “You have to understand that I’m doing this and doing this.” I would say that for 10 years, I have tried to invite people to trust Jesus. You can trust this Jesus. You can trust him past, present, future; sins, mistakes, money, sexuality. I think this Jesus can be trusted.

I often put it this way: If there is a God, some sort of Divine Being, Mind, Spirit, and all of this is not just some random chance thing, and history has some sort of movement to it, and you have a connection with Whatever—that is awesome. Hard and awesome and creative and challenging and provoking.

And there is this group of people who say that whoever that being is came up among us and took on flesh and blood—Andrew Sullivan talks about this immense occasion the world could not bear. So a church would be this odd blend of swagger—an open tomb, come on—and humility and mystery. The Resurrection accounts are jumbled and don’t really line up with each other—I really relate to that. Yet something momentous has burst forth in the middle of history. You just have to have faith, and you get caught up in something.

I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I’m really absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know.

Rob Bell and “the gospel of your salvation”

Mark Galli: How would you present this gospel on Twitter?

Rob Bell: I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.

Well, his lack of specificity led to justified criticism on his understanding of the gospel.  Indeed, Bell got the gospel woefully wrong.  Then, to reinforce his erroneous view of the gospel, he said this in an interview with the Boston Globe on September 27, 2009,

Q. What does it mean to you to be an evangelical?

A. I take issue with the word to a certain degree, so I make a distinction between a capital E and a small e. I was in the Caribbean in 2004, watching the election returns with a group of friends, and when Fox News, in a state of delirious joy, announced that evangelicals had helped sway the election, I realized this word has really been hijacked. I find the word troubling, because it has come in America to mean politically to the right, almost, at times, anti-intellectual. For many, the word has nothing to do with a spiritual context.

Q. OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?

A. I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.

Then again, in the October 2009 edition of Christianity Today a short piece entitled “Tweeting the Gospel: Rob Bell Tries Again,” they quote his tweet on October 5, 2009 which offers a definition of the gospel,

The gospel is the counterintuitive, joyous, exuberant news that Jesus has brought the unending, limitless, stunning love of God to even us. 

Some analysis is on order.  It is important to note once again that Rob Bell is the pastor of a mega-church not some armchair theologian.  This is a pastor-teacher, an author who is teaching people about the gospel.  It profoundly concerns me when pastors like Rob Bell sound so unconvinced about the gospel.  I’m also troubled by his definition of the word “evangelical.”  Where is the evangel in his definition of evangelical?  The Bible is “the word of truth” which should be proclaimed by men absolutely convinced of its message.  Charles Spurgeon said,

the true minister of Christ knows the true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains” (Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 72).

I will offer two observations on the debacle of Rob Bell’s attempt to define the gospel.  First, concerning “the word of truth” what truth is there in what he said: “I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I’m really absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know.”  This is non-sense.  His odd statement seems to grow out of, in part, his “narrative theology.”  It is statements like Bell’s that lead to humorous and justified caricatures like these:

(You can find the entire, hilarious collection here)

We can and should proclaim our faith with conviction!  Imagine if Luke wrote to Theophilus in Luke 1:4, “that you may be absolutely sure of the things we don’t quite know.”  Thankfully this was not the case.   Instead, Luke shares the unshakable conviction that the Christian faith is convincing and knowable.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, [2] just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, [3] it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, [4] that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

The Bible is indeed “the word of truth.”  It is inerrant!  It is trustworthy!  It is the word of knowable, unchanging, life-transforming, mind-stabilizing truth!  Instead of expressing the conviction that the Bible is “the word of truth” Bell is grooming a generation who will not live with the conviction that the Bible is “the word of truth” but rather who will live by the motto, “what is truth?” (Pilate’s response to Jesus in John 18:38).    

Second, concerning “the gospel of your salvation.”  What gospel are people supposed to hear and believe when they listen to Rob Bell?  What one hears from Rob Bell is an incomplete picture of the gospel, at best.  Frankly, Bell has blown it when it comes to defining the gospel.  When you read his definition of an evangelical it contains more proposed legislation from a socially liberal lawmaker than divine truth.  According to Bell, being evangelical means “caring for the environment”?!  Gimme a break.  Is there even a modicum of kerygma in his definition of “evangelical?”  Answer: no!   In fact, D.A. Carson states that the genius of the NOOMA films is that they are “gospel free” to a biblically illiterate person.  Conversely, a person with Biblical knowledge will fill in gospel truth when they watch the videos (listen to the four-minute audio clip of D.A. Carson on Rob Bell here).  In other words these videos teach moralism to an unregenerate person and they illustrate Biblical truth to a biblically literate person. 

How timely are the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking (Isaiah 59:14-15a). 

Sadly, truth and the gospel are strangely lacking from the most unexpected people: pastors, like Rob Bell, who are to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).  They are also conspicuously absent from the most unexpected places: churches which are to be the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). 

We can rest our hope fully on “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation.”  I encourage you to faithfully read and meditate on the Bible in 2010.