Rob Bell’s new book “What is the Bible?” seems to be on a trajectory that will cause a stir in American evangelicalism. His book requires a response, but I think a few words need to be said first about why responding to him is necessary.
Rob Bell is a controversial and influential figure and has been accused of being, at the very least, heterodox, if not a heretic. The word “heresy” is sometimes considered off limits for polite theological discourse. But abuse does not negate the proper use of something. Calling a preacher or teacher a heretic has gotten a bad name these days, because there is in fact such a thing as a “heresy hunter,” the kind of person who considers anyone who disagrees with them a heretic.
When labelling someone a heretic, we should be careful, but being careful does not mean we should never label someone that way. There are really only three Biblical doctrines that can rightly be considered heresy: denying the Trinity (1 John 22:2), denying the dual nature of Jesus (2 John 7, 2 Peter 2:1), and denying salvation by grace through faith (Gal. 1:6-9). (There are other doctrines adherent to these that, if denied, would make someone a heretic; but those other doctrines generally cluster around these three. Denying anything in the Apostles’ Creed can be considered heretical. For a good resource on this, see Dr. Harold Brown’s book Heresies.)
We do need to carefully distinguish between heresies and beliefs that are merely incorrect. The Bible itself actually teaches that there is a difference. Acts 18:24 says this: “Now a Jew named Apollos… [was] an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John…but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Notice Apollos is “competent in the Scriptures” and taught “accurately the things concerning Jesus” but was later corrected and learned the “way of God more accurately.”
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 that “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in according with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Paul says that what he lists here are of “first importance,” meaning one must get these doctrines right, then you can move on to others. In Christianity then, there is a hierarchy of important doctrines. Here he emphasizes Christ’s humanity and His divinity, and Jesus’ resurrection, which involved all members of the Trinity (Gal. 1:1, Rom. 8:11, John 2:19), and then mentions salvation by grace (v. 10).
Jesus Himself speaks along similar lines when He says in Matt. 23:23, “’Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!’” Jesus talks about the “weightier matters” of the law, yet back in Matt. 5:17-18 He says that not “one jot or stroke” shall pass from the law, emphasizing that anyone who relaxes the least of those commandments will be “least in the kingdom of heaven.”
So, as Jesus, Paul, and Luke attest there must be a difference between heresy and merely being doctrinally incorrect. Items in the latter category would be disputes about church government, millennialism, or modes of baptism. Questions around these are extremely important, but those who disagree with me on those issues are not heretics, they are genuine brothers.
Because of Bell’s influence, a response is needed to his book, but it does of course need to be charitable and distinguish between something that is merely wrong and that which is genuinely heretical.
So which category does Bell fit into? I will be doing a review of Bell’s book chapter by chapter, so for now you will have to stay tuned to find out.
Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.