Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism

Before I completely leave behind the debate between Rob Bell and Adrian Warnock, I want to share some thoughts on what this issue can tell us about the limits of evangelicalism.

Premier Christian Radio: The 'Heaven and Hell' DebateThe full debate is available as an online video, courtesy of Premier Christian Radio. This post is based on an extract from it posted on YouTube and also on Adrian’s blog, in a post where he asks, Has Rob Bell demonstrated clearly that he is not an Evangelical any more?, and answers his question with

because [Bell] has a very different approach to the Bible, it is hard to accept him as an Evangelical.

Here is part of that extract from the debate:

AW: To my mind, even in our interview today, you seem to have cast doubt on a very literal interpretation of certain Bible passages, and to me, that causes me problems in recognising you as an evangelical.

RB: … The book is my attempt to be true to the Scriptures and … to give this story its proper due, and to highlight perhaps things that are sitting right there in the text that people haven’t heard. So the idea that somehow I’m dismissing the Scriptures, then why do I spend so much time trying to get out what they really say?

AW: I never said you were dismissing them. I said you had a different approach to them.

But is Bell’s approach to the Scriptures really so different from the standard evangelical one? Or is the issue more with the conclusions that he comes to from it?

A major problem with the whole evangelical enterprise is that the Bible cannot be interpreted for life today without bringing to the text a whole range of presuppositions. Traditional “Reformed” evangelicals bring one set of presuppositions. Adrian brings a slightly different set. I bring yet another set. And then Rob Bell brings his own presuppositions. As evangelicals each of us interprets the Bible using more or less the same principles, but each comes to a different set of answers. The difference between those answers is not because some of us are rejecting the authority of the Bible, nor even for the most part with our approach in interpreting it, but because of our different presuppositions.

Now the “Reformed” camp may want to limit evangelicalism to certain sets of acceptable presuppositions and conclusions, perhaps only the ones Adrian describes as “a very literal interpretation”. Thereby they would exclude Rob Bell, and perhaps myself. Some of them might even exclude Adrian, for example because he accepts the charismatic gifts. But if the definition of an evangelical is someone who accepts the Bible as the inspired word of God, then it certainly includes those like Rob Bell who come to non-standard conclusions from those Scriptures.

I am very glad that at least here in England evangelicalism is quite broad, broad enough to include people like Rob Bell, and myself, who do not always follow the traditions of interpreting the Bible. After all, one of the essential characteristics of evangelicalism is that it puts the Scriptures above human traditions, which include traditional methods of interpretation and traditional conclusions. Therefore I resent the attempts of some, such as Adrian, to exclude from the evangelical camp those who do not follow the tradition which he reveres. The camp can and should be broad enough to include Bell and myself as well as Adrian and his heroes.

0 thoughts on “Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism

  1. I am tired of the word Evangelical and the wars of words over who is in and who is outside of the camp. The word has undoubtedly come to encompass a much wider range of beliefs and presuppositions than it used to, some of which perhaps all of us would unitedly oppose. I squirm to hear it applied to me sometimes, not because I want to disassociate myself from the Euangelion, but because I find myself unwillingly grouped with the likes of Westboro Baptist Church.
    Some have sought to reclaim the word by defining it but I’m sure that won’t be a set of clothes that all will want to wear. Stripping the word down to allow all and sundry to wear it would seem to deprive the gospel of its glory.

    ‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
    ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

  2. Tim, none of us accept a literal interpretation of the Bible when it doesn’t fit our theology. Does anyone believe God literally has a long nose? But that’s what Exodus 34:6 says, literally – see this old post and this one.

    Paul, you may have a point. But then surely there is a need for some kind of evangelical identity to distinguish us from liberals, catholics etc who put reason and/or tradition above the Bible.

  3. Thanks for the helpful way that you have been posting on this subject Peter.

    I first came across Rob Bell and Adrian Warnock on listening to Unbelievable two Saturdays ago. I enjoyed the discussion, was impressed by the gracious joyfulness expressed in Rob Bells tone and comments – Adrian was obviously was bound by a pretty rigid creed which was determined to pin labels on Bell but this apart, I was happy with his general tone. I followed the link from the website to his blog. There – what a disappointing difference! I was introduced to the strange world of fear-filled world inhabited by a group of reactionary Calvinists. Anything Rob Bell said was given the most negative possible construction – and this was manifest in the increasingly negative posts by Adrian; as one respondent said
    “Gotta say warnock is heading off a cliff with these virulent attacks on Rob Bell. They say republicans like to devour their young but they have nothing on calvanists evangelicals. ”

    As for handling Scripture honestly and being willing to learn from it – it has been my experience that such an approach is found more often in (shock horror!) catholic or even liberal settings than in avowedly Evangelical ones. In all settings the approach to the Bible is affected by prior commitments, often unacknowledged.

  4. Ray, thank you for your interesting comment. Sorry it was wrongly detected as spam – I just retrieved it. I am glad that I have also stumbled across your new blog, and look forward to seeing more interesting content on it. By the way, you might know my close friend Rev Peter Wyatt who is curate at St Thomas, Becontree.

  5. Peter, I think you’re quite right here. A key aspect of this controversy over “Love Wins” is who has the authority to define “evangelicalism”. I’ve observed that the reformed camp frequently claims this authority to the exclusion of all others.

    I just listened to the extract from the debate. I haven’t read the book, but I would rather be a Rob Bell, who is willing to study the Bible with an open mind, ask questions, maybe even think outside the box, than an Adrian Warnock, who seems to bring a set of presuppositions to the Bible and treats this as having equal or even higher authority than the text itself.

    If that means I’m no longer an evangelical, then I don’t mind!

  6. Thanks Peter,

    The blog is very new and I’m hoping to find time to start posting properly – I’ll have to wait till after tomorrow’s referendum duties.

    I have met Peter Wyatt and know the vicar Philip Wood reasonably well. St Thomas’ exemplifies the more gracious face of Evangelicalism is contrast to some of the other parishes in our deanery 😉

  7. Pingback: Does Adrian Warnock take the Bible literally? - Gentle Wisdom

  8. Well, Ray, I know about another parish in your deanery, the one I wrote about in my 2007 post Bishop refuses to ordain candidate who won’t take communion from him. Since I wrote that I have met several times its vicar, Mike Reith. I will not comment further as I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite.

    I wish you well in your referendum duties. You have, I’m sure, seen my views. I was also reminded that I commented on last year’s local elections in Dagenham. I guess you don’t have them again this year. I realise that if you are an election official you cannot comment.

  9. Re your Rob Bell comments. I tried to look at some Rob Bell books today to buy at least one after stumbling upon this controversy. My 2 local Christian bookshops refuse to stock them. What are they afraid of? Us being challenged?! Me thinking about God carefully? Who made them the protestant thought-police?!

    If thinking about my faith means me/Rob Bell being called liberals then perhaps I’d better just submit to it. God hates labels anyway!

  10. Hi Peter,

    I’ve been away from my pc for a few days with a long day on Thursday and preoccupation with preparing to preach at our two church centres today.

    Yes, I know Mike pretty well and the other two Reform type chuches in the deanery. We openly and strongly disagree in theology but can work together in some broader areas such as fighting racist parties in the Borough.

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