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"We shape our God and then our God shapes us" (Rob Bell)

Adrian Warnock cites Rob Bell's Love Wins:
"Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer. This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us."
Adrian replies saying:
"I am sorry Rob, God either exists or he doesn’t. We cannot shape him. He is God! He is what he is. We cannot mold him in our own image but must find him in the Bible and worship him."
I imagine Adrian will feel a bit betrayed by me here but: I think Adrian missed the point. I agree with Adrian's saying we can't shape our own version of God, but I don't think that's what Bell is saying here.

Far from saying we're allowed to "shape" God, I think Bell is saying that evangelicals have done precisely this, and ended up with an unbiblical view of God. Bell still speaks of such evangelicals as we.
The underlying principle is that our view of God shapes how we live.Which is true.
And Bell is out to accuse Evangelicals of being mean-spirited, not interested in social justice and quick to judge.... because, reasons Bell, the god of evangelicals is the god who we need to be rescued from.
Bell says in the Premier Radio interview, that he longs for a better story than the one he has heard from many evangelicals. And if what's he's heard is not a straw man but a reality, then he should long for more, shouldn't he?

1. I agree our view of God shapes how we live. As many have argued, we become what we worship. (See GK Beale's book with that title, or lots of John Piper's work).
2. The observation that evangelicals can be mean, narrow and judgemental is not without basis - in my life and I probably in the lives of others. I had a particularly convicting personal light-bulb moment about that sitting in an evangelistic talk by Mike Reeves about 18 months ago... it's been character-reshaping as its sent me into a fresher knowledge of the Triune God, as I realised that I lacked love. Eugene Peterson writes that "being loved creates a person who loves" and so if I'm loveless I ask whether I'm full of the love of the Father, Son and Spirit - as Paul prayed in Ephesians 3 that we would be.
3. Given that we're ALL prone to such harshness, I would love Bell to have been a bit more generous, forgiving and kind with those he has in his sights. Love might win some.

There are two questions to ask.
1. Is the Bell critique right?
2. Is the Bell alternative answer right?

Bell writes, describing the dilemma that some evangelicals have:
"they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn’t safe, loving, or good. It doesn’t make sense, it can’t be reconciled, and so they say no. They don’t want anything to do with Jesus, because they don’t want anything to do with that God."
Bell is concerned that this is what people think God is like. And he's right to be. If we think the Father is unsafe, unloving and not good we have a problem. The question is is the Father loving? And if we only believed in hell and judgement because we believed in a judging Father, what then if the Father loves what happens to the doctrines we held before...

As I've said before I'm much more concerned by the indifference and lack of passion in Bell's view of the love of God than I am in the lack of wrath. I think the lack of wrath comes from the lack of love, rather than from an excess of love as some have observed. Bell is writing to disaffected fundamentalists and evangelicals, exactly the kind of people he expects to react very strongly against him, but in hope that some of them might be warmed to his vision and his questions. I don't think he gets the right answers consistently, but I don't think anyone will be helped if the wrong issues are challenged in this important discussion.

I think Bell gets the critique right, I think he doesn't articulate the answer clearly, or particularly rightly and so I find Love Wins to present a view of God that is less attractive than I think the Bible portrays.

The question Bell is asking is whether we need Jesus to rescue us from his Father? He says no. I say, it's a question of Trinity (as you'd expect me to say!). A question of who Jesus is, and who his Father is. And evangelicals need to be able to articulate the cross is Trinitarian terms a whole lot more clearly.

It's Trinitarian confusion that leads to observations of "cosmic child abuse" and "the God lurking behind Jesus", caricatures of the gospel that must be rejected - but if you're going to reject them you need an alternative. And saying, "that we need to balance our talk of God's love with his Holiness and Wrath" wont wash. We need a deeper sense of the love of God, that casts our sin in deeper terms than rule-breaking and more in terms of spiritual adultery, of our scorning of the beloved Son and his loving Father and of the people loved in the Son... and of who is then wronged and why, to know the heart of God. And we'll need a richer view of salvation accomplished by the Triune God in perfect unity, and of salvation's goal as bringing us into relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit in their renewed world.


  1. Great analysis. Enjoyed it. Agree with you that Adrian didn't engage with what Bell said.

  2. Thank you for this post Dave, you have given me food for thought and the challenge to be loving you experienced resonates with what I have seen in my own character recently. It is also good to seem some one willing to engage with the areas where Bell has a point.

  3. Hmm. I think I get what Bell is saying, although what he says comes across as a caricature to me. Certainly I've not really encountered this sort of teaching in evangelicalism much, but maybe I've just been lucky.

    "...the God lurking behind Jesus" - isn't this what it's all about? Does Jesus reveal what God is like or not? If there is even a hint that what is revealed in Christ is only part of God, or not fully God, there is always going to be this suspicion that Jesus is just God putting on his friendly face, and that somewhere behind there is a god who is unknown and may well be completely different...

  4. I do think it's something of a caricature, though I see it from time to time on campus and elsewhere, and I imagine Bell is going to argue it's exactly what he's grown up with. Might be a more USA issue than UK, though it might just be the ugly face of over-enthusiastic and over-confident Young, Restless & Reformed types sometimes too.

    "the God lurking behind Jesus" is the issue, and I appreciate Bell for articulating that so helpfully. If there's one bit of this book I'll be quoting for some time, I think that'll be the line.

  5. Also on the caricature, it's the same thing I hear Mike Reeves articulate, for example in the latest NB magazine, as "the God people don't believe in" who sounds much more like The Accuser, or the gods of some other religions.

  6. The idea of balancing God's love/wrath/holiness is very unsatisfying. Gives me the impression of love = hot, wrath/holiness = cold and they make a sort of lukewarm God we have to accept because there is no alternative.

    We definitely need to see our sin as the spiritual adultery it is: bearing the rotten fruit of our natural hearts that hate the beautiful Son. It is irrational and disturbing. It is corrupting, marring, and destroying; no wonder God hates it so much, if only we could grasp even a fraction of his hatred for sin!

    His love pursues and wins us, though we are unfaithful whores who spurn him for other lovers, he does not abandon us to our adultery, going to the cross to have us for his own. If only we would cast ourselves into his love, and be caught up in the beautiful dance of the Triune God, where no darkness is found, only light; no sorrow, only joy; etc.

    Yet those who continue to despise him will face the fury that is borne of the fierce and protective love for his bride. And we who have given ourselves to him, though we are unfaithful, ought to rejoice in a husband who fiercely rages against those who would seduce us away from him. It gets hard when that is people, not just Satan/worldly things, and complex when it's our own hearts, though Romans 1-8 handles that.

    It is a wonderful thing that he is jealous. For it means that one day evil will no longer be tolerated anywhere, and our marriage will be consummated, Christ ever after to feast joyously with his bride who he has won and given himself to.

  7. What a thought- provoking, generous and challenging post in equal measure. Thank you.

  8. That's pretty much the question I have been asking: is Bell reacting against a straw man or against a subset of evangelicals he has found unloving, unwinsome and unpleasant? I suspect it is the latter. You tease out the way to respond very helpfully, but I wonder if you could go a bit further:

    1. Is Bell's critique right or wrong?
    2. If right, is his answer right or wrong?
    3. If his answer is wrong, how wrong?
    4. What does a proportionate and loving response look like?
    5. How do we best argue against his answer without dismissing a critique that may be correct, or without being perceived to have tipped over into the very attitudes he may be railing against?

    I can recall an incident when I responded in an unloving way to someone who had levelled their sights at me for being unloving, but had done so in a doctrinally poor way. And, of course, in my response completely validated them entrenching their own view.

    If I think Bell has got some critique right, but answers wrong (which I do), how do I appeal to him and reason with him in such a way as it doesn't just reaffirm him believing the wrong things on the basis of the way he perceives me to be unloving? How do we critique lovingly? How do we hold in tension demolishing arguments with genuinely loving those who make them?

  9. I think 'Love Wins' is actually a book all about the nature of God. The questions he raises in it about heaven, hell and salvation are all questions asking 'What kind of God?' and then saying 'So what?'. And so although there is more he could have said, I do think he does a pretty good job in sharing who God and His love for humanity and the cosmos earthed in the nitty gritty reality of human existance. The book is certainly not perfect and is questionable in places, but then so is every book written about God, aside from Scripture itself!

    However, his approach to the atonement is good theology because he seeks to present multiple metaphors.
    So you left with more questions. But then that's ok. One thing we can all say is that there is no doubting this guys ability to communicate!
    And Bell is approaching a theology of God from a particular angle, just as you are.
    Your emphasis is on spiritual adultery as a way of understanding sin, salvation etc (although I'm not sure how much weight there is in this and whether it is more of a reading coming out of our cultures fascination with sex...). And there are many other ways of seeking to grapple with the unknowable riches of God's mercy. I would say that the 'spiritual adultery' understanding is also lacking in Trinitarian theology. As is often the case the Spirit is sidelined. So the focus is Father-Son. A theology of relationship is key is terms of who God is, soteriology, eschatology, missiology etc etc. But 'spiritual adultery' may not be the best way in my opinion if we are seeking to be Trinitarian in our theology.

    Just some rambling thoughts! Shalom!

  10. @james. Why is there an assumption that those who don't believe in God or follow Christianity, despise God? I don't despise god, I simply don't believe he exists.

    I have integrity in what I believe, because I am being honest with myself. If god does exist I can't believe he would punish me for having integrity...

    I liked Bell's book, because he asked questions so many people ask. I liked his debate with Warnock too. He was good humoured. warnock was rehearsed and confirmed so much of why I dislike reformed evangelical Christianity. It's arrogant and affirms my atheism.

  11. I like Bell for his questions.
    My question for anyone who says "I simply don't believe [God] exists" is who is this god you think doesn't exist?

    More often than not it seems that people don't not believe in the God I do believe in, but are atheistic about a god who is very different and who I'd disbelieve in too.

    Bell identifies some of that 'problem', though I'm not altogether persuaded by the answer he offers.

  12. @Joe "I would say that the 'spiritual adultery' understanding is also lacking in Trinitarian theology. As is often the case the Spirit is sidelined. So the focus is Father-Son. A theology of relationship is key is terms of who God is, soteriology, eschatology, missiology etc etc. But 'spiritual adultery' may not be the best way in my opinion if we are seeking to be Trinitarian in our theology."

    Quite the opposite I think... when "sin" is rule breaking then the Spirit tends to be absent from the picture, whereas Spiritual Adultery and it's cure in Triune Marriage brings a fresh emphasis on marital intimacy between Christ and the church, which is all of the Spirit - needing to be filled up and filled out with the love and presence of the Spirit, else it's relationship in form but without substance.
    Seems to me that Marital language is key to the relationship a Christian has with the Son, whereas Adoption speaks of relationship (in the Son) with the Father - and both are only real when full of the Spirit. Triune Theology needs Adoption and Marital language.

  13. I quite agree about how lacking sin as rule breaking is in its understanding and theology. But I also see massive flaws in spiritual adultery as an alternative because it is not overtly Trinitarian and seems to be biblically shaky. In your post you speak of Father and Son and although the Spirit may be implicit, He is certainly not explicit. Again, I wonder if it is a theology born out of a culture fascinated by sex...

  14. Joe,

    The best scholarly work on Spiritual Adultery is Ray Ortlund's book God's Unfaithful Wife (previously titled Whoredom) which is in the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series. It shows that this is a thoroughly Biblical doctrine. Present in Scripture in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Judges, Ezekiel, Hosea, the Gospels, Ephesians, 2 Corinthians, Revelation (to give a few examples).
    I would say, yes our culture is sex obsesses but that the idea of spiritual adultery is not currently particularly popular in the church, though historically it's the main way of talking about sin. That's mostly because people talk about "sin against God" and their sense of "God" isn't specifically Triune.

    Not Triune? It really is - in that it actually takes the persons seriously. Sin against the Father is different to against the Son and different to against the Spirit. The point really is are we Christocentric, and if we are we'll find everything wrapped up with the Spirit, we'll see a marital relationship with the Son sealed by the Spirit who fills us up with the Son's love, and we'll see through the Son, an adoptional relationship with the Father, by the Spirit of the Son who is in our hearts and cries out to the Father.


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