Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book Review (#17 of 2009)

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell. (This book has nothing on its cover, so no picture posted).

I should note that here are two critical reviews of the book written by pastors that I have also read this week (PDFs):

I don't always see Bell saying what the critics accuse him of saying in this book. Which is important because most conservatives I know accuse him of being a "heretic," a "false teacher," "dangerous," and a "deceiver."

Bell is heavily influenced by Ray Vanderlaan, whose video series I once reviewed here. I have since found a more recent and very good critique of Vanderlaan that makes Bell's use of Vanderlaan very problematic.

But Bell has raised a question that I am working on answering in my own mind, something I've wrestled with in my mind for a few years:

Orthodox doctrine ("sola scriptura" or "scripture alone") says that the Bible is:
1. Perspicuous (or clear) such that anyone can read it and understand the one true meaning of the text; the meaning intended by the author upon writing.
2. Sufficient such that Scripture alone is all that is needed to understand scripture.

Also, 3. the mind of man is the same everywhere, so that anyone in any culture/context can read the text and find the same meaning.

Bell takes issue with this, saying "Scripture alone just isn't true." He contends that:
1. It's impossible to understand what the author meant in all passages without understanding the context they were written in and the context of the audience they were written to. Scripture alone isn't sufficient because it doesn't always give that context (for example, see my post about VanderLaan's look at John's letter to the 7 churches).

2. It is impossible for anyone to get the author's intended meaning, the one true interpretation, of the text because we all approach things from our own biases, culture, mores, etc. Moreover, our Bible has been translated into English such that some things get lost in translation.

The entire scholarship of post-modernism begins with linguistics. Certain European philosophers contended that the ideas behind language are different in different cultures, so things don't translate well--ie: we think differently. The doctrine that all men are of the same mind conflicts with this more modern view.

I go back and forth on whether or not I believe #3. I've intensely studied four different languages from four different language families. There are ideas in some cultures that are very difficult to convey in others.

I struggle with #1, and #2. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul commands the women not to pray without head coverings. The reason given from the pulpit of churches I've been a member of for this not applying today is that it had to do with the culture of Corinth. However, that cultural context is not given explicitly in Scripture and so that knowledge is an extra-biblical source used to apply the text today. How does that not violate the doctrine of "Scripture alone?"

Anyway, while I work on that with help from others (feel free to chime in!) I take issue with a couple other things in Bell's book, but not nearly as much as others.

Bell gives the caveat on the back cover:
"Test it. Probe it. Do that to this book. Don't swallow it uncritically. Think about it. Wrestle with it. Just because I'm a Christian...doesn't mean I've got it nailed."

I cannot really rate this book that I'm not sure about. It definitely made me think and go back to try and illuminate what was good and what was possibly heresy.


Jon said...

How does apply a person who does not have access to extra-biblical content. For example, a Russian who just found a Bible and reads it. Can he not read it and understand the text unless he has the study material? Does that mean he should not even read scripture since he cannot understand the full meaning? Maybe not ALL of scripture is perspicuous, but that does not mean it is ALL unclear either.

JDTapp said...

Jon, it's a good point. As a friend of mine put it, the reason we cannot just drop "Bible bombs" on unreached peoples is because the Word has to be proclaimed and taught, as we're told in the NT.
The problem arises that if some of scripture is perspicuous but some is not, how do we determine which is which? Who decides that?
I'm basically just trying to figure out where the line is between the orthodox doctrine and heresy (which Bell is accused of). I understand that there can be extreme positions on both sides.