Michael E. Wittmer, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, (Edenridge Press, 2011), 172 pages.
In his introduction to Christ Alone, Michael Wittmer affirms his respect for Rob Bell and for Bell’s purpose in writing Love Wins, namely, “to start a dialogue about the most important issues of our faith.” His own book, Wittmer says, is “my attempt as an evangelical to join that conversation” (1).
It is an understatement to say that the best-selling Love Wins has triggered conversation. Some of the response to the book has been essentially favorable, including from notables like Eugene Peterson and Richard Mouw. Examples of substantial critique (mixed with varying degrees of appreciation) include Mark Galli’s review in Christianity Today; an essay by James K. A. Smith of Calvin College (who wonders if “hoping” and “imagining” are the most reliable ways of doing theology); the blog posts of James Spiegel, professor of philosophy at Taylor University (focused on the logical fallacies of Love Wins); and Kevin DeYoung’s comprehensive critique that appeared soon after the release of Bell’s book.
It seems clear that Love Wins has generated such a fervent response because its ideas (and assumptions) go well beyond what first appears to be its major focus—whether or not there is really a hell and whether some will spend eternity there. As Wittmer writes,
It’s impossible to reassess the subject of hell without reevaluating our beliefs about Scripture, God, sin, Jesus, the cross, and salvation. . . . So in this book I will not only examine Bell’s provocative statements on hell, but even more importantly, I will provide a serious and fair critique of his new vision for the Christian faith (3).
As far as I know, Wittmer’s Christ Alone is the first book-length (158 pages) response, and even though he has responded quickly, he has not done so superficially. As a professor of systematic and historical theology at a conservative evangelical seminary in the same city as Bell’s Mars Hill Church, he was well-situated for a variety of reasons to write this rapid response. For example, Wittmer and Bell both grew up in essentially the same theological (evangelical/baptistic) and cultural (Midwest) environment. Both were educated at colleges and seminaries that are identified as evangelical. And both men have written previous books that include critique (to varying degrees and with differing intensity) of what they consider to be “mis-beliefs” that mark Bible-believing, evangelical Christianity. But as the contrasts in these two books show, their similarities are accompanied by profound differences, not only in their beliefs about crucially important realities, but also, it seems clear, in how they form those beliefs.
Even though this review is focused on Wittmer’s book, given that Christ Alone is a response to Love Wins, it is necessary to interact with Bell’s work as well. Still, my primary purpose is not to act as theological umpire between the two, but to summarize and assess Wittmer’s book on its own terms. He clearly states his two goals for the reader: First, “to help you understand the biblical and theological issues,” and second, “I hope to persuade you to side with what the Scriptures and the church have historically said about these issues” (3). Wittmer writes clearly, although I must confess I do not understand the specific relevance of the title. And he presents his arguments with as much simplicity as such weighty themes permit. So, along with pastors and theologians, the serious-minded layperson can most certainly benefit from the book as well.
Exegetical, Theological, Philosophical, and Pastoral
Throughout the course of Christ Alone, Wittmer interacts with Bell on a number of levels—exegetical, theological, philosophical, and pastoral. Of course it is crucial in such a book that he do so in a way that fairly represents Bell’s own work. Michael Horton, who wrote a very engaging preface for the book, highlights this and other key features of what constitutes a good critique, and, with Horton, I think that Wittmer succeeds in terms of his analysis and assessment of Bell’s ideas.
For one example of Wittmer seeking to be charitable (and not only corrective), he highlights his agreement with some of the key points that Bell makes about heaven, including important ways that evangelicals have misunderstood all that is really involved in “the new heaven and new earth” (see chapter 3). More generally, Wittmer credits Bell with asking a series of important questions that thoughtful Christians (and those considering Christianity) are bound to ask and seriously consider. But at this point Wittmer’s focus turns to substantial concern, as he writes,
Besides such enduring questions, however, Bell’s opening chapter raises many questions that few evangelicals are struggling to answer. In my view, these additional questions don’t drive us deeper into the mystery of God. Instead they seem to raise doubts about the evangelical view of salvation (8).
From Inference to Conclusion
In what follows, Wittmer essentially adheres to the trajectory of Love Wins, critiquing many of Bell’s major ideas along with the exegesis offered to support them. Along the way, Wittmer occasionally presses forward from Bell’s premises to inferences and conclusions that might make Bell himself uncomfortable. But if Wittmer’s own logical method in such instances is sound, then the inferences and conclusions are fair game for critique as well (see, p. 74, for example). In these instances, I think Wittmer usually gets it right, but on one matter (Why convert now if you’ll have virtually endless opportunities to do so in the future?) I thought he may have under-appreciated what Bell wrote to counter that perspective (29-30). On the other hand, Bell so frequently presents his ideas hypothetically and in the form of questions that it is often difficult to know what he is, or isn’t, asserting.
When it comes to his critique of exegetical arguments, briefly, there is the example of Bell’s unique treatment of Jesus’s story of the rich man and Lazarus (27-28). Likewise Wittmer disputes Bell’s assessment of the New Testament words that English translators have rendered to include (at the very least) the concept of “everlasting” existence (see also Wittmer’s rebuttal of Bell’s idiosyncratic treatments of 1 Cor. 10:4 and Heb. 9:26).
In theological terms, Wittmer summarizes and then critiques Bell’s ideas on doctrines as crucial as the nature of God, the nature of the effects of sin and man’s lostness, with the related questions of the identity and mission of Christ and the nature of his atoning work. In nearly all of these areas, Wittmer argues that Bell’s ideas are not new, but are strikingly reminiscent of misbelief that the orthodox church has considered and deliberately rejected before (from the Pelagianism of the post-apostolic period to the theological liberalism of the early 1900s). And in relation to one of the central controversies associated with Love Wins, Wittmer’s evaluation leads him to describe Bell as an “incipient” and “functional” universalist (71).
Not So Much Conversation as Debate
While interacting with both books for this review, it became increasingly clear to me that this “conversation” on matters so central to Christianity is, essentially, a debate. Moreover, it is a reprise of the recurring debate that manifested itself not all that long ago in J. Gresham Machen’s classic work, Christianity and Liberalism. For Wittmer’s conclusion includes this:
Besides its reimaging of God, the largest problem with Love Wins is that ultimately it changes the biblical meaning of the gospel. This is a serious, life-and-death matter (139).
But Bell’s estimation of the view Wittmer defends is no less negative, no less stark. Bell’s criticism comes to a crescendo when he describes (many would say caricatures) Wittmer’s traditional/evangelical view of God and then concludes, “That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.” (Love Wins, 173-174). And on the very next page, with that same traditional view of God in mind, Bell ominously continues,
At the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this? Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality (Love Wins, 175, italics added).
In the preface, Michael Horton framed the larger situation this way:
The current controversy will fade away as quickly as it burst on the scene, but the widespread doubts to which Bell gave voice are deeper and wider than we probably imagine. So in a sense, [Bell] gave us a wake-up call, and Michael Wittmer has answered it. Although he engages with Love Wins directly, Wittmer’s case is just as relevant for the many other expressions of Bell’s thesis that we are sure to encounter in coming years (viii).
I agree, which is why I highly recommend this book.
Horton then counsels concerned evangelicals to follow Wittmer’s lead, “making the most of the current controversy to deepen our understanding of what we believe and why we believe it” (x). Horton is right that what is at stake is not only what we believe about God and the gospel, Christ and the atonement, sin and salvation, heaven and hell, but also why we believe it. What is—or more pointedly, what ought to be—our actual authority and source for what we believe as Christians or as evangelicals? Answering “Scripture” is clearly not enough, for both Bell and Wittmer turn to the Bible as their source. But Scripture interpreted how? By what principles and by what process? Can there at least be a working consensus that theological discourse should be characterized by principles and values that include a commitment to painstaking biblical-canonical exegesis, logical reasoning, careful scholarship, and doing theology respectfully in community with the church universal (see, for example, the final section of the Athanasian Creed), towards the goal of a coherent fullness of doctrine that is marked by (in a phrase from Wittmer elsewhere) “the charity of clarity“?
And can we at least agree that when it is time for our theologizing to be turned into pastoral communication (which is the primary form of pastoral care), it is incumbent upon us not only to raise provocative questions, but also to provide the church with answers—answers that are contemporary expressions of soul-nourishing truths of the faith and of the good, sound teaching of the inspired, inscripturated, apostolic revelation that we follow (1 Tim. 4:6-7) rather than that which we hope or wish for or imagine on our own?