Rob Bell and the Fault Lines of Protestantism



(Collins English Dictionary)

1) (Earth Science/Geology Science) Also called fault plane Geology the surface of a fault fracture along which the rocks have been displaced

2) a potentially disruptive division or area of contention

This spring, Protestant pastor Rob Bell of Grand Rapids, MI. published a controversial book entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person that caused controversy to erupt throughout the evangelical Protestant world.

The book basically presents a Protestant version of the heretical Balthasarian doctrine on hell - that in the end, we can expect or at least hope for a universal salvation of every human. He asserts that hell is simply what we created for ourselves by rejecting the will of God, but does not see it as an objective state of a damned soul in eternal separation from God. This book has prompted everything from blog responses by irritated evangelicals (here) to formal critiques in Christianity Today (see here) to television interviews (here and here).


It is not my intention here to critique Rob Bell's heresy; as Catholics, we know this has been done centuries ago and settled de fide at the Council of Florence. Plus, as you can see above, evangelicals have already given this false prophet a severe drubbing. I am more interested in what this controversy reveals about Protestantism in general based on the evangelical response to Bell's controversial book.

This controversy exposes and stresses some of the theological fault lines intrinsic to Protestantism in all its forms, fault lines across the concepts of authority and biblical interpretation, i.e., sola scriptura. Here we witness the failure of sola scriptura in practice. Look at the evangelical response. Every faithful evangelical knows Rob Bell is wrong; they are alarmed by his heresy and incensed by it, but other than appealing to the Bible, they have no way to conclusively prove Bell is inaccurate and, more importantly, no other standard against which to judge Bell other than the same standard he himself is using for his own justification - the Bible.

Granted, many arguments are more or less biblical even without and authoritative interpreter; we don't need to appeal to the Magisterium to disprove from the Bible the Mormon doctrine of a universe populated by billions of gods with their own planets having celestial sex for all eternity. St. Thomas says that as long as heretics admit some truths of Divine Revelation, appeal to Scripture is appropriate:

"Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another." (STh, I, Q. 1 art. 8).

But sometimes appealing to the Bible alone does not do any good. The Arians and the orthodox both appealed to Scripture during the 4th century Arian controversy. Both sides brought forth Scripture as evidence supporting their arguments, for two months, in fact; but in the end, it was apostolic Tradition and an investigation of the early Creeds that firmly established the Truth that the Father and the Son were of the same substance. As long as two sides are simply arguing the Bible to each other, each can simply say that the other is misinterpreting or misreading passages, as the Arians did to the Catholics and vice versa. As long as both sides simply say the other is misreading the passage, all the respective sides can really do is preach to their own people that the other side is wrong without really disproving the other's position.

This is further compounded by the fact that apostolic tradition is not appealed to. If Rob Bell were a Catholic priest or bishop, it would be an easy matter to roll out before him the long testimony of the Fathers and the Saints on the matter; we could present him with Benedictus Deus of Pope Benedict XII (1336), which states, “According to God’s general ordinance, the souls of those who die in a personal grievous sin descend immediately into hell, where they will be tormented by the pains of hell.” we could take him to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which stated, “Those (the rejected) will receive a perpetual punishment with the devil.” We could have reminded him of the Union Councils of Lyons and of Florence, which declared that the souls of the damned are punished with unequal punishments (poenis tamen disparibus puniendas, Dz 464, 693).

All of these are de fide explanations of the data of Sacred Scripture. Here there is no wiggle room - no potentiality for accusations of "misinterpretation" or "misreading." Here, since doctrine is settled not just by appeal to Scripture but by the testimony of Tradition, which is an interpretive testimony, there is no argument. If he were Catholic, his errors could be authoritatively condemned, his opinions anathematized, and himself excommunicated if he persisted in them (of, if he happened to write in the 1960's, he could be promoted to Cardinal, but I digress...)

Bell actually is the logical conclusion of where Protestantism will lead one. After all, the whole Protestant movement was based on the premise that the Church could, and indeed had, erred on several fundamental points of doctrine for several centuries. If Protestants accept Luther's premise that Catholicism had erred in its teachings on justification, the Eucharist, devotion to the saints, etc., then on why can't Rob Bell make the similar assertion that Protestantism has erred in its teaching on the reality and eternality of hell? Rob Bell is where you wind up once you admit the principle that the universal Church can and has erred in matters of doctrine.

This brings us to the final problem, that of a lack of living authority. Since there is no central authority recognized by all Protestants (and since Bell is a non-denominationalist), nobody within the Protestant world can authoritatively order Bell to be quiet, remove him from his pastoral position or threaten him with canonical penalties. Basically, the whole Protestant union stays together on a fuzzy "consensus" of opinion, which when broken or challenged, as in the case of Bell, provokes a furious outcry.  In fact, the outcry is so furious for the very purpose that Protestants know they have no authority or tradition to appeal to and that sola scriptura does not work. Unity hangs by a thread on a shadowy, undefined consensus of "essentials" that nobody really agrees on anyway. If this consensus is threatened, unity is shattered and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.

No appeal to Tradition to clarify exegetical problems. No acceptance of Tradition as an intepretive norm. The fallacy of the whole edifice of Protestantism being erected upon the foundation of challenging beliefs that have been handed down. Lack of a living authority to evaluate and censure opinions and persons. These are the fault lines of modern Protestantism which are being ripped open by the heresy of Bell.