Thursday, June 09, 2011

To Hell with Hell? Symposium Presentation

Below is the text of my presentation to the "To Hell with Hell?" Symposium. Some diveregences from this text were made during the presentation, especially towards the end. I hope you enjoy it. (NB: It is long.)
My topic is the current understanding of hell. That is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an impossibly large topic. For every ten people, there are 11 views of hell. So, for this presentation I will concentrate on the biblical, historical, and cultural background to Mr. Bell’s understanding as a help into understanding our own. As will hopefully be seen, Mr. Bell is not arising out of a vacuum, but out of a long tradition of questioning and thinking that does go back centuries. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Without possibly knowing all the influences behind him, Bell digs deep and yet goes farther than those before him. Whether we follow him or not is another story. What we can learn from him (and there are many things that can be learned) is how our own cultural and historical setting influence our thinking: no one theology totally comprehends the afterlife, or God Himself – no one human or human system can aspire to such great heights without itself being truly in the depth of an idolatrous hell. We shall return to think about our own views towards the end.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, an odd scene unfolds when the young servant of the false god Tash, Emeth by name, is found to be in the New Narnia:
Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.

"Then he breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And after that, he said not much, but that we should meet again, and I must go further up and further in. Then he turned him about in a storm and flurry of gold and was gone suddenly.

Each of the semesters that I have taught this text, students inevitably chafe at this scene. “Isn’t this teaching justification by works?” is a common rejoinder. I understand that reaction, but I think it may be beside the point (for some, however, that is always the point); instead, Lewis here is not focused on the fate of the moral infidel, but rather on the character of God. The question that I ask my students in return is: what is the nature of the God we serve? How do we understand Him in light of His name (ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I am, underscoring the freedom and constancy of God) and His revealed nature (God is love)? Mr. Bell is asking this same question.

It is my task today, not to demean Mr. Bell’s position, nor to defend it. I have been asked to define it – not in the dictionary sense of the word, although I think there is a very particular word for his belief that I will investigate. Instead, I am to set the stage, much like the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet, to place before us not the whole of the play, but to situate us in Verona, to introduce us to the warring Montagues and Capulets, to warn us ahead of time that the lovers are, indeed, star-crossed.

The cover of Mr. Bell’s book gives the impression that the contents concern “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” While this is true enough, it is somewhat misleading as well (I do not place this fault upon Mr. Bell; often writers have no control over either the title or subtitles of their books). It is similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (this is what happens when a Humanities professor is asked to speak at a symposium!): the title itself leads the reader to think that the book is about Dracula. However, and this is a spoiler – the book has been in print for at least a couple of years now, when Dracula is killed the battle takes up not much of a page. It simply isn’t important. The reader, when confronted with this, must ask themselves: what was this story really about? I’ll let you decide concerning Dracula. For Mr. Bell, “heaven and hell,” while being major issues (Dracula was, after all, a major character in that story) are only the precursory issues to the real event, the question: who is God?

But there is more to this question than initially meets the eye. Mr. Bell, as a consequence of his postmodern style and thought process, revives an ancient way of thinking about God and doing theology: the practice of apophaticism. Apophaticism is sometimes called the “way of negation:” it is a way of understanding God, not by saying what God “is,” but what God is not. The Creeds of ecumenical Christianity (the Apostles, the Nicene, the Athanasian, and I would add the Chalcedonian) are, in this way of reading them, not statements about what God is, but what He is not: He is not the Arian God, nor the Manichean, nor the Gnostic, nor the Mia- or Mono-physite. Instead, He remains beyond us and always out of our grasp. This last metaphor is important, since to have something (or someone) in our grasp means we have control of them, and when that is brought into the divine realm, that entails a belief in magic. Early Christianity, and I think Bell fits comfortably in this tradition, rejected the magical control over God by using theology as guidelines, not as propositions – God is too expansive, they would argue, to be controlled by our thought processes, but there is still truth that can lead us to Him – the economy of salvation. The apophatic way always must lead to an emphasis, not on what God is in Himself – not His essence, but rather on what He has done, especially in “Jesus Christ our Lord, who became man for us and for our salvation.” While we cannot fully comprehend God, we can know – have a covenanted relationship – with him because of what He has done and continues to do in Christ Jesus.

If we understand God by seeing, primarily, what God is not, we may get to the question at hand: what sort of god does Bell not believe in? Here is where the important bits of his thought about hell come into play:
“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every other single person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (Bell 2)
While just in the first pages of the book, these are the questions that reverberate all the way through. These questions give us an insight into the kind of god Bell is rejecting (the language of ‘rejection’ is not too harsh here, as Bell says on page 182, “Have nothing to do with that God”). The god that Bell rejects is one that creates “billions” of his creatures with no other intention than to plunge them into everlasting agony, despair, and torture. He rejects a god who gives a fiction of free choice, while deciding before to cast into hell for sins that they could not help but commit (for who has resisted his will?). Bell ably describes it thus:
Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony (Bell 174).

And so, as all good apophatic theologians must do, Bell returns to the economy of salvation to understand what God should be believed in, should be followed, should be worshipped, should be “glorified and enjoyed forever.” It is here that he sees Jesus, not as angry judge, not as helpless victim, not as good moral example, but as God incarnate, doing what God incarnate does – love. Returning to the previous quote, what sort of God “goes great lengths to have a relationship with them,” that is, is incarnate of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again on the third day, and then promptly turns around and says: “Too late!”? The very economy of salvation, of Christ becoming what we are, so that we might become what he is, as Irenaeus said, militates against that.

It is here that the Biblical background comes into view. Much of Bell’s critique swells around an old Calvinist question: is God able to save? I put it that way because I’ve heard many amateur theologians confront their ostensibly Arminian friends about this: if the atonement is not limited to God’s elect, why doesn’t He save everyone? Is He not powerful enough to do so? Bell affirms that God is all-powerful and His will shall be done: the question becomes “what is God’s will?” For this, Bell relies on I Timothy 2:1-7:
Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men: for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle – I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying – a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
The will of God, which shall be done on earth as it already is in heaven, is for “all men to come to the knowledge of the truth” for Christ “gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” This God is “good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145, Bell 101), His anger “lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Ps. 30), so that already God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34 (“The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation”), this revelation is qualified by the shortness of God’s anger. Three to four generations is hardly “everlasting.”

There are other passages, both explicit and implicit, that Bell draws on. These are often the head-scratching passages, such as I John 2:2, “he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole word” or Matthew 12:31, “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.” Matthew 25, which seems to be in the background to the Lewis piece read earlier, also comes into play. Here we see the Son of Man judging between the sheep and the goats, the sheep going into eternal joy, the goats into eternal destruction. Note that the “nations” – the Gentiles! – who did not know they were serving Christ are ushered into the Kingdom, not Christians who are looking for Jesus’ face in the widow, orphan, stranger, and prisoner.

While there can (and should) be many objections to Bell’s reading of the economy, I must leave that to the able hands of Dr. Shidemantle: I am just setting the scene. But this introduction to the real question is vital. The uproar over this book should not concern the specifics of Bell’s doctrine of hell, nor do I think it really does. Frankly, we do not have enough information to make adequate judgments about the details of the damned afterlife. Maybe Meatloaf does, but he returns us to Mr. Bell, since he “would do anything for love.” Instead, the uproar over this book concerns our conceptions of who God is, what He has done in the economy of salvation, and how that applies to all of world history, especially the parts of Christendom.

Bell’s views on the afterlife, both heaven and hell, flow out of his belief concerning God. It is important to mention, as he does throughout the book, that his views are not of his own invention: they are, in fact, ancient. He says, “In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well” (107). The view, though he does not use the word, is known as apokatastasis. Instead of hell being a punitive place of torture, it has a pedagogic and purifying function, as least in the case of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and, possibly, Gregory of Nazianzus. For each of these writers – all of whom are well respected among the Fathers – the main issues are the image of God, the telos (purpose) of the incarnation, and the nature of God. While they all have difference, they share these common foundations.

We tend to think of the image of God as what we were created in, but have lost. For the early writers, the image of God is what has been restored in Christ and what will be totally restored as people are incorporated into the body of Christ, who is the image of God. Man, as mankind without remainder, has been made in that image, so man, as mankind without remainder, must be remade in that image. For this reason did God become man. “Coming in human nature to restore humanity, he spread out his holy bodily form to the ends of the earth and gathered mortals and formed them into one. He placed this one into the arms of the great Godhead after he had washed away all stain with the blood of the Lamb and, as leader of mortal humanity, lifted them up on the path to heaven” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina). The very telos of the incarnation was not merely to deal with sin, for that would leave man basically as he was ontologically; rather, the purpose was to raise man to a new height, higher than Adam himself, through the resurrection of the body in union with Christ. That is must happen to all stems from their reading of I Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” The nature of the God who is doing this, then, could not want to torment His image eternally, but rather would want to purify it. For those who come by faith to the Christ, this purification happens in this life. For those who do not, it seems that hell is their lot, until they are purified – here we should see the beginnings of the doctrine of purgatory. In fact, the doctrine of apokatastasis is often called the “purgatorial” view of hell. All the writers, including Bell, shy away from saying that hell shall one day be emptied: a view that was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 543AD: “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of the demons and of impious men is temporary, and that is will have an end at some time, or that there will be a complete restoration (apokatastasis) of demons and impious men, anathema sit.” The hope that is held out, though, is that maybe the mercy of God will win out over His judgment, as James (2:13) tells us, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Hell is meant, not to punish, but to educate and finally restore the soul that was recalcitrant during life. Whether or not it is successful depends on what one thinks of the relation between God’s will and man’s will. It is obvious that if the god is a puppet-master, then none of this matters: human freedom is an illusion. This is a god that Bell does not believe in. Yet, he retains an interesting strain of predestinarian thought: Love Wins. In the end, God gets His way, His “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even the most hardened of sinful wills came be wooed, swayed, and persuaded by this mighty and loving God.

In the midst of all this comes the problem of time and eternity. As noted before, Bell is particularly reluctant to have anyone sent to “billions and billions of years” of torture and torment. Instead, he presents hell (and, it could be argued, heaven) as a state of mind. At this point, it is helpful to see that he recommends C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. This delightful story concerns a man who has dreamed (much in the tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) of being in Hell and in Heaven, watching the interactions between the various inhabitants thereof. Much of the story is conversations between the Bright (or Solid) People – those in bliss – and the Ghosts – those either in Purgatory or Hell itself. The poet George Macdonald acts as Lewis’ Beatrice (for those of you who know Dante’s Divine Comedy), explaining the strange sights and experiences the narrator encounters. At a certain point, Macdonald begins to unravel, ever so slightly, the mystery of hell, heaven, time, eternity, and the fate of every person who has ever lived. I quote at length:
“Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
He goes on to speak of the conditions of pride, hubris, and navel gazing that characterize the damned and will continue to do so eternally. The narrator asks about the saved, then, and elicits this response:
“Ah, the Saved…what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed , when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”
To this the narrator responds, “Then those people are right who say Heaven and Hell are only states of mind?”
“Hush,” said he sternly. “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains.”
In other words, Heaven is the true reality. For God’s will “to be done on earth as it is in heaven” means that God’s reality is the true reality, our reality either conforms to Him through union with His Son and so can be heaven, or maybe better, eternal life even now, or it deforms from God into a shadowy existence hardly worth calling existence at all. This being away from man’s telos, his ultimate goal of union with God in Christ, is the worst torment of all. It involves becoming more and more fully what one had started to become during physical life; all the inhabitants of “hell town” hate each other and themselves, moving further and further away from one another and the celestial bus that could ferry them over to the other side, until night falls and darkness covers all.

Both Bell and Lewis work within similar understandings of the afterlife at this point, especially the idea that we become what we were in life (although Bell is less clear about this than Lewis). Part of this revolves around the idea that in death humans cease to be in time, even though we cannot properly imagine such a state (we are, in this life, necessarily time-bound creatures and can only think in such terms). Eternity, then, is less a quantity of moments as it is a quality of life. The thinking stretches back to Boethius in the sixth century. For him, as well as many other Christian philosophers and theologians, God exists and acts in the Now, the moment that contains all moments of what we call past, present, and future. This is why asking what God did before the creation of the world makes no sense: there is no before “in the beginning” – for there is no time. Instead, the quality of being fully oneself, which is what God is, is what is given to us through Christ (note here that Boethius, although he uses heavily philosophical language, is not far off from the Eastern Gregories): we have “eternal life” both now and after death. For those who do not place their trust in the Son, though, who insist on the primordial Augustinian sin of selfish pride, they are already dead, under judgment, under the wrath of God. Whether that it an everlasting – in the temporal sense – state of being is unclear, but quality-wise it is eternal, total, unrelenting. It reminds one of the parable of the wheat amongst the tares: while they look similar for a time, eventually they show their true colors, and then are divided according to what they, by nature, are and have always been.

This brings us to Bell’s most extended exposition of Scripture: the tale of the prodigal son. The party that is thrown when the prodigal returns is like Heaven, with both the damned and the saved there. The saved, knowing they have nothing to offer, are invited in; the damned, even though they have been in possession of the party all along, refuse to come in and so lose all. The attention is not focused on the choice of the saved – the choice there was to base service, but instead glory was given – but on the choice of the damned. Here, then, Bell is not presenting a stereotyped Arminian theology: the saved are not saved by their “choice” to accept Jesus, but by the love of the Father. The damned, however, are damned by their own choice because they cannot humble themselves enough to be in the Father’s love – even being in His presence is a hateful thing.
“[The elder brother’s] problem is his ‘goodness.’ His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father…Our badness can separate us from God’s love, that’s clear. But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well” (186-7).
Here Bell engages in a trenchant critique very similar to that of Karl Barth. Barth claimed that Jesus was the Aufhebung of religion. In the larger Church Dogmatics this is mistranslated as “abolition” or “destruction.” Instead, it means that religion – our response to God – must undergo death, so that it might be purified through resurrection. In other words, our religion must be transfigured if it is to be true:

Our relation to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say ‘God.’ We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place Him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. We assume that He needs something: and so we assume that we are able to arrange our relation to Him as we arrange our other relationships. We press ourselves into proximity with Him: and so, all unthinking, we make Him nigh unto ourselves. We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with Him, we permit ourselves to reckon with Him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part. We dare to deck ourselves out as His companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. We confound time and eternity. This is the ungodliness of our relation to God. And our relation to God is unrighteous. Secretly we are ourselves the masters in this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust Himself. Our arrogance demands that, in addition to everything else, some super-world should also be known and accessible to us….And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves. Our devotion consists in a solemn affirmation of ourselves and of the world and in a pious setting aside of the contradiction. Under the banners of humility and emotion we rise in rebellion against God.

Bell’s critique of our understanding of who God is is an act of Aufhebung, an attempt to show that many times those of us engaged in theology and ministry worship our mental constructs, our ways of semi-magically controlling God, so that we might have the control. All those who have any experience in ministry know the temptation to take control, know the need for certitude instead of mystery, know that sometimes God does not act in ways we prefer nor in time frames that are suitable. For Bell and for Barth, this is a fatal toxicity: the real rationale behind it is not a true understanding of God – who apophatically is always beyond our grasp – but a desire to be god ourselves. It is the primordial sin. “Our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well.”

It is at this point that Bell’s rhetoric combines all three historical and cultural strains we have been investigating. “As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity’” (150). The human tendency is to create idols, idols in our own image and idols that suit our agendas, to which we ascribe the names of Yahweh, Jesus, the Trinity, and other “cages and labels.” Instead, Jesus takes our sin-limited view, and transfigures it continually: it is always under judgment, being purified by God’s fire, so that it might be a true response to the mystery that is the event of Jesus Christ. Here his exegesis takes on an original stance concerning John 14. The much beloved passage, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” is often used to say, in effect: if you don’t follow our way (you don’t belong to the right church, you don’t believe the right theology, you don’t pray this prayer, etc.), you cannot come to the Father – because we are Jesus’ representatives. Instead, Bell turns the traditional understanding on its head: it is a passage, not of hubris, but of humility:
“What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him” (154).
That is, we don’t hold the key to Jesus, Jesus holds the key to the Father. Our response to God, even our response of faith and obedience, must go through Jesus – through death and out the other side through resurrection – is they are to be pleasing and acceptable to God.

This does present us with a difficulty: Bell intentionally is placing us in the position of the elder brother looking on as the party is starting. If we don’t have our theologies to give us certitude, or our liturgies, or our experience, what do we have? We have Christ, who has “become man for us and our salvation.” We have access, because of Christ and Christ alone, to God the Father who gives us His very Spirit – His life! – so that we might have communion with Him. The ever-present and ever-true testimony of this is the Scriptures, but we must always – with the Spirit’s help – resist the urge to turn the Bible, or our worship, or our experience into an idol with which to close off Christ to the rest of the world: to do so would be to repeat the error of the Judaizers, an error that we are too often prone to repeat.

Regardless of what we think of Bell’s position, the question posed by him is this: have we rightly understood God? Are we worshipping the Creator of the universe, who in His self-revelation shows us that He is love, His mercy is everlasting, His anger lasts but a moment, and is willing to die for us to live? And not us only, but also for the whole world? Or are we worshipping and following an idol? Here is where the story of the painting from chapter two comes into play. The culture we make is a reflection of what we truly believe, but it also shapes what we can believe. Here are some paintings of hell from throughout the years: how have they shaped not only what we think of the afterlife, but who God is? The task in front of us today in this symposium and outside in our lives and ministries is: what God are we presenting in our catechesis and our evangelism? Are we getting our doctrine of the afterlife from the Bible or from somewhere else? Much hinges on this question. Time does not allow us to look deeply into some of the “classic” hell sermons, such as Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or John Wesley’s “On Hell.” But it is clear that, at least as far as Bell is concerned, the traditional understanding of hell – whatever that turns out to be – has not fully integrated all the Biblical data and stands in need of, at least, readjustment. Bell would argue, it is clear, that readjustment may not be enough, but rather a complete overhaul is needed. I leave it to the other presenters to tackle that claim. We need an Aufhebung of our religion, of our ministries, to fully take on the issues that confront us today. There are two phrases that I’d like to leave you with, one theological and one from the humanities. The first is the oft quoted motto of the Reformation: “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei,” which means “the Church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God” – the “secundum verbum Dei” is often left off, but it is the most important piece. Since Christ is the Word of God, he is the one reforming us according to his Scriptural word. We must return to the Scriptures for wisdom and guidance. This will require us to take up the old standards of Scripture memorization and chanting, so that the people of God at any age may be equipped to serve. The second phrase is from the Renaissance: “ad fontes,” which means “to the sources.” Evangelical and Reformed Christianity has long shied away from the sources of our faith, the Church Fathers and the early Councils (not to mention the wealth of medieval sources). It is time, as we rethink these issues, to come to terms with what our faith is really about, what has “been believed everywhere, always, and by all,” as Vicent of Lerins advises us. We may start in the seedbed of our own traditions, whether that is Bonar, or Wesley, or Cranmer, or Calvin, or Luther, or Ratzinger. From there, we can progress back to the great masters of faith such as Bernard of Clairvoux (Calvin’s favorite monastic) or Francis of Assisi. Irenaeus and Ignatius, early bishops, will help draw us closer to the Scriptures as well. Bell’s challenge, in the end, is not for us to give up our doctrines and theologies, but to reexamine them – to be Bereans who search the Scriptures and the Tradition: to bring our own faiths through the death of Christ into his glorious resurrection light.

Much more, of course, could be said about the scene in fair Verona. Bell’s combination of apophaticism, apokatastasis, and aufhebung gives us much to think on. Many will not follow his conclusions as far as he does, but even one of my very Reformed friends said the other day, “I hope Bell is right.” As much as we talk about God, and claim to have His very mind, we are human: beset by sin and limited (thank God!) by our own finite existence. In the end, we rely on God’s character and nature, set forth in the Scriptures, in the person of Jesus Christ whom the Scriptures testify, and in the Spirit that is promised to “guide into all truth.” This is what we have: this is all that we need.

1 comment:

Adam Parsons said...

A really fantastic explanation, Russ. Any chance we'll get to read the rest of the symposium?