More Thoughts about “Generous Orthodoxy”

Generous Orthodoxy

I have received many responses to my comments on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins—responses both to the brief remarks by me quoted in USA Today, and to the longer piece I posted here explaining my endorsement of Rob’s book. Many of the responses were strongly positive, several also quite negative, with some others—especially the many tweets that I saw about my remarks—simply passing the word around.

The responses that got to me most were those who complained that I was being unfair, as I was quoted in USA Today,  in characterizing many of my fellow orthodox Evangelicals as advocating a “stinginess” that takes “delight” in the reality of hell. I apologize for that characterization. It was unfair, and it puts the focus on the wrong issues.

I owe the “generous-stingy” distinction to the late Kosuke Koyama, who said in a speech I once heard him give, that in approaching the Bible we need to decide whether the God of the Scriptures is a generous God or a stingy one. I like that way of putting things. But I like it because it is a way of focusing on the conception of the divine attributes that we bring to our theological discussions. It is another thing to accuse others of taking delight in the idea of God sending people to hell. I should not have done that. I’m sorry. As Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying, we must always speak of hell through our tears, and most Evangelicals do just that.

But I do want to say more here about “generous orthodoxy.” In my role as president of an evangelical school that brings together folks from many theological traditions—in that role—I work with a broad conception of orthodoxy.  In this context, historic orthodoxy draws on the early church fathers, on thinkers in the middle ages, on the broad Reformation movement, and on the various revival and renewal movements of recent centuries.

A case in point: suppose someone at Fuller denies the doctrine of the “intermediate state,” insisting that after death the believer continues to be “with the Lord” as  someone whom the Lord still loves and will raise up on Resurrection Day—but that the time between death and resurrection is not one of a continuing conscious state.

Is that orthodox? I would say so, in the broad orthodoxy sense. People can quote Luther in support of that view, as well as many Anabaptist thinkers. In more recent times “soul sleep” has been held by various Adventist groups. The denial of the intermediate state, wedded to a strong advocacy of a future resurrection, is within the bounds of historic Evangelical orthodoxy.

As a Calvinist Christian, though, I hold myself in my own theology to the stricter standards of the Reformed confessions, to which I subscribe. And that tradition clearly teaches the intermediate state as a conscious condition, and I would argue that any Calvinist who denies that doctrine has gone beyond the limits of Reformed orthodoxy.

Or a simpler case: To insist on adult baptism by immersion is within the bounds of Evangelical orthodoxy. But it is not within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy.

Back to Rob Bell. I find nothing in his Love Wins book that violates the standards of a broad Evangelical orthodoxy.  I say the same for John Stott’s argument in favor of the idea of annihilationism as a legitimate alternative to the teaching that the lost face an eternity of endless torment.  I might argue with both Bell and Stott on specific points—but the argument would be within the boundaries of historical orthodoxy.

Now, about hell in particular. I believe in hell as a populated realm of eternal separation from God. The Bible teaches it, and I believe that divine justice requires it. As I struggle theologically with the reality of hell, though—and especially with the question of how many people will be there—I look for guidance within my own tradition of Calvinist orthodoxy. And that tradition provides me with what I consider to be two very plausible principles regarding the populations of heaven and hell.

First principle: People with defective theologies can go to heaven. Here I can appeal to at least two thinkers whom no orthodox Calvinist would (or at least should) ever accuse of liberalism.

The first is Charles Hodge, the great theologian of the “Old Princeton” of the 19th century. One thinker whom Hodge regularly singled out for special criticism in his three-volume Systematic Theology was the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. When Hodge had studied in Germany in his younger years, he had seen firsthand the influence of Schleiermacher’s liberal theology.  Hodge was deeply disturbed by the German theologian’s embrace of the rationalist critique of biblical authority, which had the effect, Hodge insisted, of undermining the most fundamental tenets of the historic Christian faith, including Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

At one point where Hodge was setting forth his critique of Schleiermacher—who had by this time been dead for several decades—Hodge offered, in a footnote, a brief personal comment about the person whose theology he had been criticizing. He tells how, as a student in Germany, he had frequently attended services at Schleiermacher’s church. He was taken, he says, by the fact that the hymns sung in those services  “were always evangelical and spiritual in an eminent degree, filled with praise and gratitude to our Redeemer.” He goes on to report that he had been told by one of Schleiermacher’s colleagues that often in the evenings the theologian would call his family together, saying: “Hush, children; let us sing a hymn of praise to Christ.” And then Hodge adds this tribute to Schleiermacher: “Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now?  To whomever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour.”

The second stalwart is the late Cornelius Van Til, longtime professor of apologetics at Westminster Seminary. I visited him once in his Philadelphia home, shortly after I graduated from college, and I asked him some questions about his stern rejection of Karl Barth’s theology. While others in the evangelical world were welcoming many of Barth’s contributions as a clear step back toward traditional orthodoxy, Van Til was insisting that Barth’s theology was nothing more than “the new modernism” in disguise.

In posing a question to Van Til about this, I began with these words: “As someone who does not see Karl Barth as a real Christian, what….?” Van Til cut me off sharply right there, and in an excited voice, he said, “No! No! I have never said Barth is not a Christian. Never! What I have said is that his theology is not genuinely Christian. If all that a person knew about the Gospel is what they learned from his theology, they could not come to Christ!”

Van Til was saying something here that is simple and straightforward: a person can have a highly defective theology and still have a heart that has been transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Barth, from Van Til’s perspective, was setting forth a theological system that fell far short of biblical fidelity. But that did not mean he was not a genuine Christian. Hodge was making the same point about Schleiermacher: he had a bad theology, Hodge said, but we can tell from the hymns that he sang that he longed to be with his Savior in heaven.

Second principle: We have good reasons to allow some mystery about who will be “in” and who will be “out” in the end. Here, for example, is another solid 19th century Calvinist thinker, the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. We must not assume, says Bavinck, “that in the eternal state of the reprobate God reveals his justice exclusively, and that in the eternal state of the elect he manifests his mercy exclusively. Also in the church, purchased with the blood of the Son, God’s justice is revealed; and also in the place of perdition there are degrees of punishment and sparks of divine mercy” (latter italics mine).  I don’t know exactly what Bavinck had in mind in saying this, but he was clearly warning us against simply assuming that all divine mercy gets shut off toward people who have died without clearly accepting Christ.

And then there is the Westminster Confession, the Reformation era document that is a touchstone for many of us on questions of Calvinist orthodoxy. After stipulating that “[E]lect infants, dying in infancy”—and who therefore have not had the opportunity to accept Christ as a conscious act—are nonetheless “regenerated and saved by Christ,” the Confession goes on to add that : “So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” And the grounds for these verdicts is that the sovereign Spirit of the Living God “worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.”

Even on the strictest standards of Calvinist orthodoxy to which I hold myself accountable, then, I find some room to hang a little loose on the exact populations of heaven and hell. There is a hell. Those who persistently live in rebellion against God are heading in that direction unless they turn from their wicked ways. Beyond that, we have every reason to live with a good dose of mystery about how things will turn out in the end.

Rob Bell suggests that maybe Ghandi will make it in when the final accounting is revealed. I am not sure about that. I’m not much of a Ghandi fan. But when I began teaching at Calvin College in the late 1960s, folks were still talking about a debate that had taken place over the claim of William Harry Jellema—a revered philosophy teacher at the school in earlier days—that Socrates would show up in heaven. In those days the Christian Reformed Church was not easy on heretics. But the church never called him to account for his views.  I’m not sure about the Socrates case myself. But I am happy to leave such cases to the judgment of a sovereign God who—Westminster again—“worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.”