Thursday, March 10, 2011

Carl Trueman on Rob Bell's use of Luther

(HT: Justin Taylor)

The ever interesting Carl Trueman provides a nice online tutorial on how to read Martin Luther. Trueman, an historical theologian at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, explains how Rob Bell's use of a Luther quote in his recent book does not deliver what Bell thinks it does.  You can read it here. What follows are Trueman's concluding remarks:
Popular books written for popular consumption are vital in the church; and Bell is to be commended for seeing that need. Further, when such books simply put forth an unexceptionable position, there is no real necessity for any scholarly apparatus; but when they self-consciously present themselves as arguing for significant or controversial paradigm shifts, the author really does need to cite sources. This is crucial because such citation allows the reader to engage in a conversation with the matter at hand. Indeed, the failure to do so actually prevents the reader from checking such for herself. In short, such an author does theology by fiat, adopting a dictatorial and high-handed approach which precludes constructive dialogue, whatever “conversational” rhetoric the author may use to describe his intentions. The message is not one of dialogue; it is rather ‘Trust me: everyone else is wrong, though I am not going to give you the means to judge their arguments for yourselves." That kind of approach lacks any real critical or dialogical integrity.

Building arguments on theological soundbites, especially from the works of prolific and sophisticated theologians such as Luther, is surely very tempting in today's instant internet age. We all want our fifteen minutes of fame but none of us want to spend any more than fifteen seconds doing the grunt work necessary to achieve it. Yet, like a lady of easy virtue, such an approach may have immediately seductive charms but ultimately proves a rather cruel mistress for the would-be historian. It also says much (and none of it flattering) about the competence of the editors at Harper, that they did not seize on this elementary error and correct it. Checking sources, especially when they seem to say something unexpected, is surely the most basic task of both author and editor.

The book will, of course, sell many copies, far more than anything I will ever write, I am sure. But then so did Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code; and that was a book with which, from the safely controversial content to the sloppy historiography, Rob Bell's latest offering would appear to have much in common.

Read the whole thing here.

I still think there is something about Bell's project that is commendable (as does Trueman, for that matter). But I also think that there are limits to what one can accomplish in "retrieving the ancient sources" if one at the same time wants to distance oneself from those ancient sources that are not agreeable to influential pockets of our 21st century Western culture. Thus, you have the phenomenon of those, like Bell, who speak of embracing the Great Tradition but only on their terms. So, they celebrate the accoutrements of liturgy but reject the authority that the ancient Church believed the liturgy requires. Incense, chanting, candles, and altars are fine; but male-only clergy with the authority to make theological judgments of a binding nature on moral matters that would embarrass your friends at the tattoo parlor or at the MLA convention are out of the question.

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