“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.


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

  1. Doug, I’m not sure yet about Rob Bell: I just haven’t heard or read anything about him except sound bites. What you write about him seems to be based upon media sound bites. I need more information. I think that twitter bite about the gospel being Jesus bringing God’s love to us is correct. It’s a restatement of the first half of John 3:16. No, it doesn’t give the second part but I’m not so sure that twitter sound bites show someone’s complete view of salvation.

  2. Gerasimos,

    You raise a legitimate point. This is certainly not a full-orbed expression of his soteriology. At the same time, when the sound bites consistently miss the mark, a person can’t help but conclude that RB certainly has a gift of expressing the gospel in a convoluted way. Moreover, his narrative theology approach also gives us a clue that the sound bites we do hear are probably not too far afield.

    As far as the tweet about God’s love, it is incomplete. Yes, Jesus brought God’s love to us, but it fails to mention what why we need that love. Though admittedly, twitter is certainly deficient medium to express the gospel.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Doug,

    Your criticisms of Rob Bell would fade away if you regularly attended Mars Hill Bible Church in the Grand Rapids area and listened to him teach over a year’s time.

    I have done that myself, with my family, for the past year. It would also be beneficial for you to listen to the 3 pt. YouTube videos (links below) of Rob Bell talking to Mars Hill Covenant Members, speaking about things being said about him and the church. He responds to them, and clarifies his positions and disputes inaccurate criticisms. They are not what you present in your article above.

    Christian Regards,

    Ron McKee
    Grand Rapids, MI

    Links to the 3 Part Series on Rob Bell defending Mars Hill & beliefs taught:

    1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIKkvmSNUCY&feature=related

    2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8U9jto2D00&NR=1&feature=fvwp

    3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJLqyWAtpvE&feature=related

  4. Hi Ron,

    Thanks for the note. I listened to the three clips you submitted. He views his critics as pharisees, cowards, and people who have unresolved inner tension according to the clips. Is that engaging in the substance of the debate?

    He offered clarifying statements on the Bible and salvation. The statements were fine in and of themselves. Here’s a significant concern for me Ron. Your response is not atypical. What I mean by this is that your response is essentially “if you only knew what he really believed.” But I have yet to have anyone address what he himself said in in these interviews, which, as far as I can tell, were not hostile or “out to get him.” Moreover, D.A. Carson, a top-notch scholar expresses concern about his theology. Mark Driscoll in his book Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions includes him in the liberal lane of the emerging church based on what Rob Bell has articulated. My point is that Bell raises eyebrows not by virtue of a sound bite but based on the whole.

    Can you tell me where the defintion he gave for evangelical (cited in my post) is expressed any where in the Bible or in any of the historic Christians statements of faith? I sincerely want to know how that is a justifiable definition of evangelical?


    Doug Roman

  5. I’m finally beginning to understand why Reformed/Calvinist followers dislike Rob Bell so much. In of my experience, the Calvinist group places a very high emphasis on various teachers. And they are the personality type that must be told, in very definite terms, how something is, how it works, etc. In fact it appears to be this very character trait that draws certain people to Calvinism.

    But get this: NOT everyones personality is like that! Others (Evangelical, Emergent, etc – non-Calvinists) are NOT all hung up on the latest reformed teach-ING by the reformed teach-ERs. We already KNOW the gospel message, we don’t need it beat into our head a thousand times. And so, people like Rob Bell sound foreign to your ears because they are non-conformists. He is not preaching a different gospel at all; he just refuses to use the same old cliche’d words to say what the gospel is. And this IS the way to reach the un-churched. To keep preaching it the same way that church has been in recent years is almost a lost cause. Even the early church found creative ways to preach the gospel. Keep in mind that when a reformed teacher teaches – he is specifically teaching a reformed audience. When someone like Rob Bell teaches, NO ONE KNOWS who is listening, so he does not gear his speech to a specific denomination. In fact he almost always approaches preaching the gospel in a fresh way to attract those curious to the Christian faith. This also upsets Calvinists because of their strong belief in the doctrine of predestination, which unfortunately often gets it the way of evangelizing, which Rob is very shrewd, and good at.

  6. Justin,

    1) If you are even remotely suggesting that people don’t place a very high emphasis on Rob Bell as a teacher, naïve would be a good word to describe your view of the world. Incidentally, what’s so wrong about someone having a favorite teacher? It’s not a Reformed/Calvinist dynamic. You seem to be going out of your way to defend him.

    2) If by old cliché’d words you mean biblical terminology, yes, that’s important. The Bible is, after all, verbally inspired. The Apostle Paul uses the language of “repent and believe” in Gentile, non-Christian context (Acts 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). Why shouldn’t we use this language?

    3) Would you give me some examples of the “creative ways” the early church preached the gospel?

    4) You have mischaracterized the influence of predestination on evangelism for a Calvinist. The greatest missionaries have been Calvinistic in their soteriology. The history of modern missions disproves your statement.

    5) If the groups you mentioned (Evangelical, Emergent, etc – non-Calvnists) are so well versed in the gospel, why does survey after survey reveal that people cannot even offer a simple, Biblical definition of the gospel? You have assumed way too much. I might add, as others have noted as well as indicated in this blog post, that listening to Rob Bell won’t help clarify the gospel. He will only muddy the gospel waters. (By the way, there are Evangelical Calvinists.)


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