Theology

What to Do With Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible”

I love the Bible.

Not just in the I’m a Christian and that’s what I’m supposed to say kind of way. I mean I actually pour over its pages for fun, randomly bring it up in conversation, and spent the last 3+ years in seminary trying to understand it in at a deeper level.

Chances are, most of you reading this love it too. That intrigue is probably why Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible? caught your attention. I know that’s why it caught mine. I wanted to see what he had to say about the book I love, and the text I have been trying to understand for the better part of my adult life.

In this article, I want to answer a few questions you might have:

  • Who is this book for?
  • What is it mainly about?
  • Should I read it?
  • Should those I pastor/disciple read it?

To answer these, I am going to briefly cover Bell’s main arguments from the book, what gems of insight I might’ve found, and what “troublesome” parts I stumbled across (depending upon your theological leaning of course).

Main Points from What is the Bible?

The Bible is a Library

The subtitle partially gives this idea away, but it’s worth restating because it’s a central part of Bell’s thesis.

The Bible is not one book. It’s a collection where “New ideas sit side by side with old ideas” (123). It’s vast, massive, expansive, and complex. I really appreciated how Bell emphasized this point. He wanted the readers to understand the grandness of Scripture (a point I have seen get lost in churches and classrooms alike).

But the Bible being a library does not mean the books are disconnected. Bell believes quite the opposite.

Bell believes the Bible is a library, but that does not mean the books are disconnected. Click To Tweet

The Bible is One Overarching Story of Progress

Bell’s book aims to show readers that the library of books is connected by the central theme of humans progressively understanding God in a better, clearer way. “The stories in the Bible – and the Bible itself – have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have” (116).

Jesus was/is the greatest revelation of who God is, and who we are supposed to be as humans. Which leads into probably his most potent and perhaps contentious argument.

The Bible is a Profoundly Human Book

This idea influences how Bell reads the Bible in two primary ways. First, we have to understand that these books were written and organized by “real people living in real places at real times” (21).

It is a human text, and because of that, Bell believes it can have biases and errors.

Second, it has a “human” goal. That is to invite readers into the life and experience God has for them.

The Bible Wants Us to Ask Better Questions

For Bell, the Bible should never be the end of the conversation, always the beginning. He follows a three-part explanation for how Jesus approached Scripture, and how we should as well.

  1. Interpretation – Communally read, discuss, argue, think and share what we believe the text means.
  2. Incarnation – “take the words and bring them to life” (157). Live out the interpretations we have discovered.
  3. Invitation – Bring more humans into the mix so that they can see what God is doing, ask more questions, and enter into the renewal of all things.

Personally, I really enjoyed the book. If you don’t mind the way Bell writes (for those of you who have flipped through any of his other books, you know what I mean), then he will take the reader on an awesome adventure. That being said, I wasn’t on board with everything Bell had to say about the Bible.

Below are a few things I believe he got right, followed by a few ideas you might want to be warry of.

What The Book Does A Great Job At

Emphasizing the Importance of Context

Context, context, context.

Seriously taking context into consideration is the one practice that will transform your Bible reading unlike any other. Bell begins his book talking about how once he began taking Jesus’ Jewish context seriously, the way he read the Bible was forever changed. “And once you see, you can’t unsee. And once you taste, you can’t untaste” (3).

Bell starts by taking Jesus’ Jewish context seriously, changing the way he read the Bible Click To Tweet

I know the same has been true in my own faith journey. Context is everything—and not just textual context (surrounding/related Scriptures, genre, etc.) but the historical, economic, socio-political context.

The beauty is in the details.

The more we can accurately understand the Bible then, the more appropriately we can apply it to our now.  

Refreshing Our View of Timeless Stories

Once the foundation of context is in place, stories you once thought you knew everything about become entirely new puzzles to be explored. Bell does a great job of opening up stories we’ve taken for a granted. A few of my favorites were:

  • Ruth and how her story is this beautiful crescendo to the Abraham and Lot conflict
  • Luke’s complicated relationship to the other Gospels, and how he works to highlight the marginalized
  • How crazy Revelation is, but how less crazy it sounds when you place its imagery in an ancient Roman context
  • Moses and his freshness (trust me, you just have to read this chapter)

Attempting to Tackle Topics that Usually Aren’t Up for Discussion

When we say things like the Bible is authoritative, inerrant, and inspired how often do we actually take the time to explain what we mean and how we should act because of these?  

While I don’t believe Bell did a particularly great job at explaining these ideas, I do appreciate him taking a fair amount of space for hard questions to be asked of them. What we believe about the Bible is always going to influence what we believe from the Bible, so we have to struggle with these concepts.

Where The Book Went Off Track

Saying that “All Truth is God’s Truth”

Now, I do partly understand where he was trying to go with this.

He’s expanding upon the “all things” concept from 1 Corinthians 3. He does this in multiple places throughout the book, but chapter 23 is where he tries to push it past its limits.

Depending upon your theological leaning, his argument might seem like a perfectly legitimate place to take the verse. But if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of transcending beyond the Christian religion (as in, Jesus may or may not be the only way to God) then you may want to build some boundaries around this idea.

Saying that “There’s Only One Kind of Sin—the Kind that God has Forgiven in Christ”

This really disappointed me because Bell’s chapter on sin is honestly fantastic.

He captures the raw sorrow of it—why it’s so much more than this religious concept, but something that actually damages our lives and our world. Maybe if he defended the statement more, I would have been (a little) more okay with it. But as it stands, I believe he misses the mark on this one.

Saying that There’s No Real Difference between the Word of God and the Words of God

Bell’s entire book is about the Bible and yet, one of his final points is how the truths found in the Bible can be found pretty much anywhere else, because “lots of things are the word of God” (266).

What?!

This was another moment of disappointment. Although he partially rescues it in the following chapter (which addresses the topic of authority), I think he missed the opportunity to make the Bible stand out as something truly unique in God’s purpose for the world.

With all that, let’s take a look at the 4 questions we asked at the beginning:

Who is this Book For?

This book is for people who would not normally pick up a book on the Bible.

Non-Christians, people who have left the church, and people disenchanted with the current state of the church. The book doesn’t include footnotes and rarely adds in the refence (chapter/verse) for the portions of Scripture Bell is addressing. Because of this, the book reads very quickly (the average reader could cover all 300+ pages in just a few hours).

What is it Mainly About?

Convincing readers that the Bible is relevant, interesting, and useful. It’s a book for people, not just Christians. And it’s as much about questions as it is answers.

Should I Read It?

My opinion: Yes.

Whether or not you agree with Bell’s main points, he does a great job of showing how context can transform the way we read the text. Plus, he does end the book with an excellent list of recommended books. (Also, his short essay on pages 319-322 titled “A Note on Growing and Changing” is perfect for anyone who has experienced an evolution of their theology in the past few years.)

Should Those I Pastor/Disciple Read It?

It depends.

In my opinion, this book should be read/discussed communally (like in a small group). Bell is all over the place and this can be overwhelming (especially if you haven’t heard many of the ideas before). I think it’s a great introduction into how we can approach Scripture.

But that’s it, only an introduction.

Do you plan on picking up a copy?

And if you’ve already read it, what was your biggest takeaway?

 

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15 responses to “What to Do With Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible”

  1. David, I imagine that my biggest concern about what is really a neat book, is that he says that the Bible is not just for Christians, but for all of humanity.

    Of course God loves all people – let’s get that out of the way.

    And, let’s also state for the record that many people can pick up a Bible and get the general gist of the Biblical story.

    Those things said, the question comes as to whether or not humans can pick up the book in isolation, without the aid of readers, and come to the general conclusions about the Bible’s “big picture” apart from a tradition, a community, and a shared experience (worship) that makes the Bible’s big picture intelligible? When I read Bell, I love his prose. However, I see many insights into scripture that I didn’t fully understand until my SECOND Master’s degree in New Testament.

    Of course, I am still reading. And, I am not saying that God cannot speak through scripture. However, it seems that, over time, the more we bring to the text – tradition, support of a community, education – the more that we can get out of the text (That’s a paraphrase of something one of my NT professor’s at Duke – Douglas Campbell – said.

    1. These are some excellent observations and questions.

      First: “To what extent does submitting to the Bible as God’s Written Word and already having faith that its basic claims are true to the reader’s life inform a reader’s understanding of the Bible?”

      I think that phrasing assumes there’s agreement on its “basic claims.” And to what extent are we allowing those claims to influence our lens of Scripture versus the other way around (having the Bible tell us where to start and where to end up).

      Second: “How do the presence or absence of tradition, church, and scholarship impact the way one reads the Bible?”

      YES! This is the question we need to be asking. This is also why I am excited/curious about continuing to have the Bible translated into remote languages. By bringing in peoples from traditions and histories almost completely removed from our own (as in jungle tribes, etc.), we have the opportunity to truly see the Bible with new eyes.

      I think overall we’re thinking along the same lines – and not that far off from where Bell finds himself. If the Bible is a book for humans and not for Christians/Jews, then what would happen if you dropped it in the middle of nowhere – in a people group with no formally structured religion. What would happen? What would they create?

      Often its our “Christian” reading of Scripture that holds us back from seeing its true complexity and beauty. By making it a “human” book, we get to reset the stage and start fresh.

      Whether or not that’s the best method is fun part!

  2. bell is a false prophet, a heretic. His “Love Wins” denies God’s word in a huge way. Giving Bell any credit for anything, other than his heresies leads me to believe that you have not discerned this at all. Bell says no one goes to hell, because Jesus saved everyone on the Cross. There is no hell, whatsoever. His writings are trash

    1. Honestly, it is this sort of fear, and “we’re right, he’s damned” which keeps me away from most churches. An honest conversation about the history of the idea of hell would have to recognize that Bell isn’t the first one, or the only one, to question it. And to make the idea of hell the point at which one says, “I’m done!” with an author? — I just don’t get it. The evangelical churches I know read C.S. Lewis faithfully — and he wasn’t sure. And George MacDonald, a big influence on Lewis’ life, was definitely a universalist. With this absolutist sort of thinking, pretty soon we’re down to a tiny circle of people who sound just like us and the rest outside that circle are “false prophets.” (Language nobody in the world uses, its Christian in-speak.) The whole history of the Christian church from the 1st century to the 21st — is just way more broad. To claim we’ve got it sewed up is to cling to a tiny little branch as if it were the entire tree.

  3. Too bad Rob Bell knows nothing about context. He can say that word until he’s blue in the face, but he never actually applies it.

      1. (Shrug) Just read his last couple of books and compare them with the Bible. That’ll tell you all you need to know. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible isn’t that hard to understand – just hard to put into action.

    1. I’d actually encourage you to check the book out from a library or a friend. He actually does support it pretty well with examples from Genesis, Ruth, and Luke primarily. I really wish he cited more of his research though. His endnote section is rather short (and I don’t recall seeing any commentaries on it).

  4. I haven’t read Bell’s book, but I’d like to offer a couple of comments about some of your concerns.

    First, “all Truth is God’s Truth” is a foundational Christian claim, not something to be wary of in any way. It’s a claim all the early Christian apologists made (except Tertullian!) and it remains central today to any effort to relate Christ and culture. Regarding other religions, a good Christian theology of religions will affirm that whatever is true in other religions is, in fact true — but that doesn’t in any way diminish the final uniqueness of Christ.

    I don’t understand your concern about sin. The atonement covers every sin. There is nothing left to “do” for the forgiveness of sins. This, again, is just historic Christian theology. Your concern seems to center on whether everyone has _received_ this forgiveness, but that is a different issue.

    You don’t seem to understand the claim about the “Word of God.” Again, it is part of the historic Christian tradition that we can know a great deal about morality and God through reason and the natural law. There is a concept of “general revelation” in just about every stream of Christian thought. The precise relationship between general revelation and special revelation is a matter of debate among theologians and across traditions. Further, the _nature_ of special revelation is a matter of debate, and I suspect Bell is picking up here on Barth’s more dynamic concept of revelation. If Bell is really saying that there is no need for special revelation _at all_, that would indeed be a problem and would lead to Deism. But if he’s saying that God specially reveals Himself to humans dynamically not only in scripture but also through other experiences, there’s nothing radically wrong with that idea, though it might be contested.

    1. Thanks for your input.

      As a preface, I’m definitely not as well-versed in church history as I could be. I’ve read most of the classics, but I spend much more time in the OT and with related works. I’m not sure my brief synopsis did justice to Bell’s claims, so I would suggest reading his book and seeing if you come to the same conclusions.

      With that being said, I grew up in a mix of Pentecostal, Baptist, and Brethren traditions. What you say might be true, but its definitely not being taught/communicated in a number of traditions. I think I mostly followed my gut as to what was theologically familiar and what was not. The issues I found were significantly unfamiliar enough to warrant pointing them out. And I would assume that if they were for me, they would also be for wide swaths of the general evangelical population (seminary-educated or not).

      Moving to the last point – I think bringing up special vs general revelation is excellent! But my issue is that Bell does that nowhere (nor does he show any familiarity with Barth’s work). His communication of this thought absolutely leans towards “no need for special revelation” which is why I found it so strange.

      Thanks for taking the time to write a great comment! Definitely makes me want to brush up on my church history.

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