The Line Connecting Rob Bell and N.T. Wright

10 May 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

I’m finally reading David Wells’ The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World.  This is the final volume in Wells’ series exploring the current state of “evangelical” theology and practice.  He says that it is a summary volume, and thus it has no footnotes or endnotes.  Nevertheless, he does interact with various theologians and names names and gives sources.

Chapter 3, “Truth,” has a subsection entitled “Evangelical Adventures.”  Here he discusses recent trends in how the authority of the Bible is understood:

In recent years this understanding of biblical inspiration and its resulting authority in all of life has been undergoing a major revision among some evangelicals.  The revision, on the high end, is evident in the work of N. T. Wright, for example and I. Howard Marshall; it is evident on the low end in experimenters like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and a host of other cultural fashionistas. (85)

He then goes on to describe how Marshall speaks of how the Holy Spirit has continued to enlighten God’s people since the time of Jesus, moving us beyond the New Testament.  Then he comes to Wright:

Wright, more adventurous than Marshall, disengages the authority of God from the authority of Scripture rather more radically.  In different ways and in different places he mocks the idea that Scripture contains timeless, unchanging truths or that it was ever meant to do so.  The authority of God is experienced as something other than the authority of Scripture.  This was his thesis in The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.  Wright offers a baffling illustration to make his point.  Suppose a lost Shakespeare play were found today.  Four of the acts have survived but we know that originally it had five acts.  What would we do?  Would we not try to create the fifth act as faithfully as we could so that the play could run its course?  That is our situation in the church today.  We do not have the fifth act of God’s revelation, the one for our present moment.

The problem with this, of course, is that the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play could be written in any number of ways with any number of outcomes.  So it would be with Scripture had God left us to our own wits. (85-86)

Wells moves on to discuss Bell and McLaren.  Then he draws the connection between these emergent authors and Wright/Marshall:

A line connects Marshall and Wright to Bell and McLaren.  It is that the authority of God functions separately from the written Scripture.  Marshall thinks the Spirit has liberated us from some of what is in Scripture; Wright thinks the Scriptures were never given to function as absolute truth in our world in the first place; Bell thinks the Scriptures simply send us on our way to do our own thing; McLaren thinks historic faith needs to be de-reconstructed for postmoderns so that the baggage of enduring truth can be dropped.

The common thread across this broad front is that Scripture cannot be fully authoritative at the level of its functioning in the life of the church today.  We are in fact autonomous, freed from its language and constraints as we shape our own understanding, in our own way, in the postmodern world.  At the end of the day Christianity is about filling out my story, being propelled on my journey by the Scripture or the Holy Spirit, and being propelled into the (post)modern world.  It is not about our fitting into the Bible’s narrative.  It is not about seeing it as an objective framework of truth… (87)

I’d never heard of that before.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Wells is right about this connection.  Wright gives me the heebie-jeebies.