Monday, January 01, 2007

Rob Bell and 'Velvet Elvis'

Lately I have been hearing a lot of talk about the new Nooma DVD series by Rob Bell. I watched some of these DVD’s and the Premier TV interview with Rob and also started reading his book “Velvet Elvis”, and listened to some of his sermons. As a result I thought that it would be worth writing about these on my blog for the benefit of anyone who comes across them.

It appears that although Rob is an ‘Emergent Church’ leader, his DVD’s are being watched by many who would not consider themselves ‘Emergent’, and who from the content of the DVD’s would be unaware of some of the beliefs that Rob holds to. I found that the book “Velvet Elvis” is much more revealing about these, although (as is common with the Emergent Church) he does tend to be quite vague about some of his points, which no doubt will leave those unfamiliar with the movement to give him the benefit of the doubt concerning statements such as,

“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry,” (p.26)
“I’ve been told I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I’m learning is that Jesus believes in me....God has faith in me.” (p.125)

Rob’s thoughts on doctrine:

Rob’s goal is to repaint Christianity as he does not believe that the present way of Christianity is working. Rob likens the present form of Christianity as being a brick wall made up of bricks of doctrine that are dependant on one another (p.26). He argues that not only does the wall keep people out of Christianity, but also if one brick (doctrine) is found to be faulty, then the whole wall crumbles. The answer to this, Rob believes is a trampoline: Rob sees Christianity as a trampoline on which people can jump, and the springs of the trampoline are doctrines, which are helpful, but they are not as important as in the brick structure. The most important thing according to Rob is to jump; he argues that you never need to defend a trampoline, instead you just jump on it and invite other people to jump on it. The problem with this approach is that nowhere in scripture is a trampoline defined as the model for the Christian faith, nor do we find that doctrine is helpful but not important; instead we find verses speaking of the importance of good doctrine and warnings against false doctrines. The following verses are only a few examples of this:

1 Timothy 6:3-4 3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing;

Ephesians 4:11-14 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;

1 Timothy 4:6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

Titus 1:7-9 For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward … 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.

Titus 2:1 But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.

Titus 2:7 in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified,

On the one hand it can seem noble that Rob is trying to find ways to invite people into church, and to not exclude people; on the other hand the Bible is clear that good doctrine is important and that church leaders have a duty to teach correct doctrine and to correct people who do not agree with biblical doctrine.

Christianity as a way of life:

Perhaps the success of Rob’s Nooma DVD’s is because of his emphasis on living out the Christian lifestyle. On it’s own this would seem like a positive attitude, however in ‘Velvet Elvis’ it appears that this emphasis is because Rob downplays the historical accounts written in the Bible and instead views the Bible as a metaphor for our present day lives. This can be illustrated by the following quotes,

“Is the greatest truth about Adam and Eve that it happened or that it happens?... This is why the Bible loses its power for so many communities. They fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible is just about things that happened a long time ago.” P.58-59

Now in his book Rob is not actually saying that these things such as Adam and Eve did not happen, but he is implying that whether they happened or not is not as important as how they can be used to understand our life experiences today. The danger of this approach is highlighted when Rob writes,

“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if, as you study the origin of the word ‘virgin’ you discover that the word ‘virgin’ in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word ‘virgin’ could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being ‘born of a virgin’ also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?

What if that spring were seriously questioned?
Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?
Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live?
Or does the whole thing fall apart?

I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. I’m a part of it, and I want to pass it on to the next generation. I believe that God created everything and that Jesus is Lord and that God has plans to restore everything.
But if the whole faith falls apart when we re-examine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place was it? ”

Whilst Rob claims to believe in the virgin birth, he implies that if scientific proof were found to the contrary then a person could still be a Christian and still see following Jesus as the best possible way to live. This is worrying because the virgin birth is taught in scripture, and explains how Jesus could be God as well as man. If this was actually false then not only would the Bible be found to be lying, but furthermore Jesus would not be God, and God would not have sent his son to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Without this, it is impossible to be a Christian, but Rob seems to emphasise living the Christian lifestyle more than believing in who Christ is and what he has done for us. Whilst a Christian lifestyle is important, it is also fundamentally important for a Christian to hold to the historical truths that the Bible teaches. The apostle John actually wrote his gospel for this very reason:

John 20:31 ‘but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.’

The apostle Paul also shows us the importance of believing the historical truths of Jesus’ life,

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

That Paul did not use these events as a metaphor, but instead taught them as historical facts, shows that being a Christian is not just a lifestyle, it also involves embracing the historical truths that God’s word teaches.

Trying to interpret Scriptures in a new way:

It’s interesting in Rob’s DVD’s to see how he often refers to Jewish rabbi’s to try and come up with new interpretations of scripture. This should not be a surprise if you read the beginning of his book and see that his goal is to repaint Christianity. Firstly it should be noted that great caution must be taken when using Jewish literature to interpret Jesus’ words. Scholars are not agreed on the dating of some Jewish traditions, and it is possible to read into Jesus’ sayings Jewish thoughts that did not emerge until years after Jesus had died and Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Secondly Jesus was so different to the Pharisee’s of his day that to try and define the Son of God by the actions of the one’s he called hypocrites seems a logical fallacy as well as the fallacy of parallelomania - where the obvious meaning of a text is changed to suit an apparent parallel in the culture.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this is where Rob writes concerning Peter walking on water and the falling,

“Who does Peter lose faith in? Not Jesus; he is doing fine. Peter loses faith in himself. Peter loses faith that he can do what his rabbi is doing. If the rabbi calls you to be his disciple, then he believes that you can actually be like him. As we read the stories of Jesus’ life with his talmidim, his disciples, what do we find frustrates him to no end? When his disciples lose faith in themselves.....The entire rabbinical system was based on the rabbi having faith in his disciples…. Notice how many places in the accounts of Jesus’ life he gets frustrated with his disciples. Because they are incapable? No, because of how capable they are. He sees what they could be and could do, and when they fall short it provokes him to no end. It isn’t their failure that’s the problem, it’s their greatness. They don’t realize what they are capable of....God has an amazingly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things. I’ve been told I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I’m learning is that Jesus believes in me....God has faith in me.” (p.133-134)

Firstly it should be noted that Peter was not able to walk on water because of faith in himself. Secondly it should be pointed out that Jesus does not pick us because he believes in us, on the contrary, scripture says,

1 Corinthians 1:27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29 so that no man may boast before God.


Ephesians 2:8-9 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast

Repainting Salvation:

Having described that Jesus died on the cross for ‘Everybody. Everywhere’ (p.145) Rob then writes,

“So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God. This reality then isn’t something we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making. (p.146).

Rob appears to be saying that people are forgiven without ‘doing anything’. Now he does not specify what he means by “doing something”, but the language he uses here (and elsewhere) is very similar to that used in ‘Universalism’ - the belief that everyone without exception will be reconciled/restored to God and saved (including Satan). This was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D. but has attempted to resurface at various times, and certainly appears to be emerging in both the UK and the USA at the moment. Rather than conversion and repentance, Rob is saying that people just need to live in it. Whilst this might sound like a very appealing new type of gospel message, it is not the gospel that either Jesus or the apostles taught: Jesus told people to repent,

Matthew 4:17 17 From that time Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Jesus did not say, “Forgiveness is here, you don’t need to repent, just live in the forgiveness.”
The importance of sticking to the gospel taught by Jesus and the apostles is highlighted by Paul’s warning to the Galatians,

Galatians 1:8 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!

It is essential therefore that we cling tightly to the gospel Jesus and the apostles taught.


Due to the vagueness Rob writes with, some may feel that I have mistakenly understood Rob’s points, that in fact he does believe in and practise orthodoxy. I hope that this is the case, but to such readers I would ask that you spend time looking into the Emergent Church movement to see if it’s leaders such as Brian Mclaren would also interpret Rob’s statements the same way that you do. In an interview with Andy Crouch, Rob Bell’s wife described Brian Mclaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” as their lifeboat when they were dissatisfied with church; the theology of that book therefore should be a helpful indicator as to where Rob Bell is coming from in his own book, if one is pressed for time as least look up what that book says about sin and the final state of man.

I also question why Rob who was taught at both Wheaton and Fuller, would write in such a vague style. No doubt he is aware of how ‘Universalist’ his book sounds and how ‘Liberal’ his views on the inerrancy of scripture sound; yet he writes nothing to clarify that he does not hold to these positions; instead he writes in a way that liberals would firmly agree with, but naïve conservatives would give him the benefit of the doubt for.

The very fact that Rob begins his book describing faith as a trampoline with doctrine as unimportant springs, should be a clear indication that the book is not based on biblical principles. Rob’s belief that doctrine is unimportant is not only unbiblical, but ultimately leads to a very serious error in teaching Universalism. Throughout the book Rob also tends to rely far too heavily on Jewish thought, which appears to be fuelled by his predisposition to repaint Christianity and reinterpret the Bible.

The end result of Rob’s writings and DVD’s and Sunday sermon’s is a collection of teachings that promote good living, but neglect the fundamental message of repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ and his substitutionary death and resurrection. This is what the majority of the Jews did, and now Rob has taken up their Rabbinic teachings and repackaged them in a format that is palatable for many evangelical Christians, a gospel of works and not grace.

Rob does however invite the reader to test his work, and I would urge all who read his books (including his soon to be released ‘Sex God’) and watch his DVD’s to test all that is said by careful study of the scriptures.

When the apostle John said the following,
1 John 4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

He used the Greek word ‘dokimazo’ which means to make a critical examination of something to see if it is genuine. It is the same word used in Luke 14:19 of someone wanting to test out oxen he has just bought. If you were to buy a car, you would want to check it out, that it works well and is not going to cause an accident. How much more should we check the books and videos that we read and watch and allow to influence our hearts and minds?

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