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The "Great Apostasy" and Personalities (and Rob Bell)

March 3rd, 2011 | 5 min read

By Kevin White

The Great Apostasy is a common concept among Protestants. It comes in part from a true observation. If the old Catholics were not wrong, then we were wrong to break away. And we would need to repair that breach, and as the offending party. But, if the Reformers* were at least broadly right, if too much of the late medieval church had lost the thread of normative Christianity, then we need an account of how things got that way. Enter the Great Apostasy: at some point, they must have up and ditched the simple beauty of the Gospel for Popery and Assorted Dopery.

But there’s a huge problem with that theory. Namely, it didn’t happen. There is no place on the timeline to point to and say, here the Church lost her way. What happed was much slower, more subtle, and more unnerving.

The concept of “the development of doctrine” is important. Christ delivered the Christian faith to the Apostles. They, through the power of the Spirit, gave us a full revelation of all things necessary for salvation. But the reception of the Scriptures, especially of the New Testament writings, took time. And it took time to explicitly discover and expound the teachings contained therein. A major driver of this process was theological controversy. Explaining how someone went wrong requires one to better explain what is correct. (Compare Augustine’s rigorous teachings on grace with his slightly flabby Christology. Guess which debate was a local concern.) The image of organic growth is a helpful one. The whole plan of the giant redwood is present in the tiny seed.

But those who hold to the infallibility of Church Tradition skip an important implication of that image. Not all organic growth is healthy or correct. Some lack in nutrition or sunlight will distort its growth, and bad growths are always a concern. And even a perfectly attended plant needs trimming.

An example: it is right and proper to remember and celebrate our forebears in the faith. They are our examples, and the giants on whose shoulders we sit. So, the names and burial places of martyrs and other Christian heroes were honored. Then people chose to travel far and wide to see these honored places. Before you know it, teachers were ascribing a special grace or indulgence to such travels. Then, unhappy that Jerusalem’s pilgrimage sites were in the hands of unbelievers, they got a large group together and made an armed pilgrimage to conquer it. That one was called the First Crusade.

How was such a gradual regression able to happen over long centuries, without systematic correction? In part, because of the power of personalities. Take Pope Gregory the Great, an early forerunner of the medieval papacy. He led a major revival in biblical preaching, reformed church administration and worship, helped bring the Arian Goths fully into the orthodox fold, and launched major missionary efforts. These are all great things. He also increased the power of the bishop of Rome, urged the spread of relics across Western Europe, and encouraged the appropriation of pagan shrines and festivals. Not so good. His prestige was great, and rightly so. But it lent as much credence to the bad as to the good.

Gregory was a hero of the church, but if you fail to receive him critically, in the light of Scripture, he may lead you astray. Augustine was a great teacher, as were Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. And yet, each was flawed. They each serve to this day as pillars of the Church, and their writings contain much that is fruitful. And yet, following even these great ones uncritically will lead to error. We must have heroes, but we must not make them above scrutiny lest we take the wrong precedents.

The light of Christian truth was never fully extinguished. It was often distorted, or drowned in accretions, or locally ignored. This is especially true with regard to the doctrine of salvation, or soteriology. All the early controversies had soteriological consequences. But the big clarifying fight did not happen until the sixteenth century. And the rupture from it has not yet been resolved.

This has relevance for the present. There are many great teachers and exemplary preachers in our age. And many who, for various reasons, receive great esteem. We must take care to take from them only the best, the most faithful, what is most in line with Scripture. Or else the good in their ministries will be of little profit to us.

Which brings us to Rob Bell. This post was not originally meant to be part of the Bell-ruption in the blogosphere. But, my points about Medieval history also apply to the “controversy” over Rob Bell’s video and book blurb.

Bell, in his Nooma series, has made a couple of good videos, and a few highly questionable ones. But even the ones with the dodgiest teachings and most strained exegesis have top-notch production values. They have a technical quality that is all-too-rare in Christian media. Plus, he sounds so reasonable. Many people find his videos inspiring, overlooking or not noticing his problematic theological statements.

But winsomeness, production values, and inspirational impact do not render someone beyond criticism. Hell is core doctrine, even if it does not poll well, or if it’s so tackily proclaimed. We are saved from something, and not just our ennui or lack of social conscience. What we are saved from is the just sentence for our deeds and the natural consequence of our fallen estate. To reject, or pillory through rhetorical questions, a God who judges as well as saves is not rejecting the fevered fetish of fundamentalists. It’s rejecting the God revealed in Scripture, and erecting an expunged replacement. Even flirting with such behavior is big trouble.

Which means Justin Taylor, John Piper, etc., were right to raise the alarm.** I challenge Bell’s fans and would-be defenders to look and see if they aren’t giving too much heed to personalities. Standing with the guy they like even when he’s wrong, and blaming those horrid Calvinists, who are always easy to dislike. Because, step by step, undue adherence to leading personalities is part of the road to corruption. Because it is precisely when one gives undue deference to an admired teacher that one is prone to find oneself “within a forest dark/For the straightforward path had been lost.” (Dante, Divine Comedy, I.1.2-3)

* I must note that the Reformers did not reject Medieval theology as thoroughly as their rhetoric implied. Calvin for one was not above dropping favorable quotations. They generally took the tack that the errors they fought were of recent vintage, and they were simply offering a (major) course-correction. The strength of their language came in part from a pressing need to differentiate, and to goad the large mass in the middle into seeing the differences. There was continuity and discontinuity, and their context required them to focus on the latter.

** And besides, he’s trying to promote a new book. You think he wasn’t fishing for some controversy? (So, Matt, when are you putting out some explosive video?? Can I help???)

Kevin White