One of the most important books since the Bible?

I gave up reviewing Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  It was all too depressing.

Seems I made a big mistake. Harper Collins have just published the Love Wins companion, and accordingly to their publicity:

…in The Love Wins Companion, Rob Bell offers commentary on the positive and negative attention his groundbreaking book is receiving, delivering a crucial supplement to one of the most important books since the Bible.

One of the most important books since the Bible? It is? And we know this for sure?  And HarperCollins felt the need to let the rest of us know?

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The Bible in English (2)

Appropriately for the year which sees the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, I’ve finally finished the Bible In English – that’s the book I referred to in my last post by Shakespeare Scholar and Professor Emeritus at University College, London David Daniell. To be honest it’s about as long as the real Bible in English, and has taken me longer to read. But it was well worth it.

One reviewer has said that “great history should be partiale, passionnée and politique. Professor Daniell achieves this superbly.”

That reviewer is quite right. Daniell is clearly passionée – a huge enthusiast for wonderful story of commitment, danger, adventure and politics which brought the Bible to us in our own Language. He has admiration for the Lollards who first brought the Bible in a version of English we would understand, but reserves his greatest praise for William Tyndale, whose translation introduced into English language such phrases as “give us this day our daily bread”, still familiar almost 500 years later. Tyndale died in 1536 as a martyr for his work, praying: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” And yet despite this (because of this?) only three years later the Great Bible, largely based on Tyndale’s work was, under Henry VIII’s command, placed in all parishes in the kingdom. Tyndale’s work also formed the majority of the base of the King James Bible, and perhaps every one of the more than 3000 translations since.

As an English scholar Daniell is alive to how much the Bible (starting with Tyndale) has influenced the English language, and is extremely partiale in expressing opinions about his favourite (Tyndale) and least favourite English stylists. But you always feel that this is primarily not about loving the English Language, or the technicalities of this or that approach to translation. As Daniell says:

Tyndale would have commented that such things matter far less than the truth that “Scripture is a light and sheweth us the true way, both what to do and where to hope.”

As a history of how generations have worked and suffered, sometimes to death, to make that Scripture available to us in a language we can understand, this book is magnificent.

The Bible in English (1)

Over the past couple of years I have been dipping in and out of a marvellous book by Shakespeare Scholar and Professor Emeritus at University College, London David Daniell, called The Bible in English published by Yale University Press.

He sounds like my sort of chap… Loves John Buchan (so do I!), used to sing second tenor (same as me!) with the London Symphony Chorus. And he loves the Bible, not just as literature, but, as far as I can ascertain from reading the book, because he loves the Gospel. I am sure it is a very scholarly work, but it’s not a hard read and is full of great stories and anecdotes, as well as some pithy and amusing commentary.

It’s fascinating to see how the Bible in English has evolved. Daniell leads us through the early years from the 8th Century Lindisfarne Gospels, through Wyclif and the Lollards. We linger over the story of Daniell’s beloved Tyndale and then pick up the pace through the 16th century with Coverdale, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops Bible and finally the King James Bible of 1611, whose 400th anniversary of course we celebrate this year. He talks extensively about the Bible in America, there is a detour into the world of Handel’s Messiah, and then through to the Revised Version, and the present day.

There are gems throughout the book, but what tempted me to post on this was a fascinating curiosity of a Bible-translation from the 18th Century by a certain Edward Harwood DD, who I later discovered was educated at the same Grammar School in Blackburn I attended 250 years later.

Harwood decided to produce a translation of the New Testament following in the literary footsteps of his contemporaries, Samuel Richardson (Clarissa), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), Tobias Smollet and Lawrence Sterne. Not perhaps the best models for the Word of God.

His title page explains:

As Daniell says:

When it came out James Boswell called it a ‘ridiculous work’ and C. S. Lewis remarked in 1950 that Harwood was ‘no doubt…by our standards, an ass.’

There are some amusing examples. This for example is the start of the parable of the Prodigal Son, followed by the much more direct prose of the Authorised/King James Version

A Gentleman of a splendid family and opulent fortune had two sons. One day the younger approached his father, and begged him in the most importunate and soothing terms to make a partition of his effects betwixt himself and his elder brother — The indulgent father, overcome by his blandishments, immediately divided all his fortunes betwixt them. (Harwood)

A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. (KJV)

Amusing…appalling even, but it gets worse. Try this from the Sermon on the Mount

Do not think that the design of my coming into the world is to abrogate the law of Moses, and the prophets – I am only come to supply their deficiencies, and to give mankind a more complete and perfect system of morals. (Harwood)

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (AV)

If Jesus came into the world to give mankind a more complete and perfect system of morals, I’ve been reading a different Bible.

One last example from 1 Cor 13

Benevolence is unruffled; is benign: Benevolence cherishes no ambitious desires: Benevolence is not ostentatious; is not inflated with insolence.

It preserves a consistent decorum; is not enslaved to sordid interest; is not transported with furious passion; indulges no malevolent design.

It conceives no delight from the perpetration of wickedness; but is first to applaud truth and virtue.

It throws a vail of candour over all things: is disposed to believe all things: views all things in the most favourable light: supports all things with serene composure.

Benevolence shall continue to shine with undiminished lustre when all prophetic powers shall be no more, when the ability of speaking various languages shall be withdrawn, and when all supernatural endowments shall be annihilated.

Oh dear! If you want to see what Edwards has done to your favourite passage then you can find the whole work on Google Books.

Worth consigning to the dustbin of history, then.

However, Daniell reminds us that we cannot be too smug. How about this from another translation of 1 Cor 13

[1] If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate…. [11] When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good…[12] We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! (1 Cor 13:1, 11-12)

Is this really any better?  Daniell comments on each verse:

[1] Ecstasy? Nowhere in the passage does the Greek refer to that… Paul’s ‘sounding brass and tinkling cymbal’ have vanished, their place taken by a banal commonplace from a B-movie soundtrack…

[11] Barely recognisable as Paul’s ‘I spake as a child’ passage, this, for the sake of appeal to an immediate visual image, again with sound added, totally abandons the Greek. Worse, it corrupts the sense. Paul is not describing infantile gratification. He is illustrating spiritual growth by a parallel with human mental maturation…

[12] …This is the world of feel-good fiction. Instead of the wonder of Paul’s ‘being known’ by God, ‘face to face’, is the singalong triteness of the sunshine…

And in case you are still wondering, this is Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

Perhaps an unfair comparison? Possibly… You decide!

Love Wins (6) – A summary of opinions

I thought it would be interesting to collect together a summary of some of the best writing and also talks on Rob Bell’s book. Here are a few I have found which I will add to over the coming days:

A truly excellent talk by Don Carson, followed by a panel discussion from The Gospel Coalition Conference entitled, God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty.

Lauren Winner’s essay on Rob Bell in the New York Times Book Review

God Is still Holy and What you learned in Sunday School is still true.  A Review of Love Wins, by Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor, University Reformed Church East Lansing, Michigan.

A review of the book by blogger Denny Burk: Revising Hell into the Heterodox Mainstream

The first book to respond to Rob Bell is Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” by Michael E. Wittmer PhD, who teaches systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

A video of the debate between Rob Bell and Adrian Warnock on Premier Christian Radio. There is an excellent series of posts by Adrian Warnock which you can find here. I think we can conclude that Adrian Warnock is not exactly a Rob Bell fan. Certainly in the interview Rob Bell proved very hard to pin down – that seems wrong to me. We should be clear about what we believe and don’t believe and if we don’t know, we should say so. Anything less is dishonest.

An interview between Martin Bashir and Rob Bell on MSNBC

Love wins (5) – taking a break

I am struggling with this idea of reviewing Rob Bell’s Love Wins chapter by chapter. I’ve re-read the chapter on hell and the next one posing the question “Does God get what God wants?”  I’ll try to post my responses soon, but am getting more and more frustrated by the God that Rob Bell describes. He’s just too small.

So for some light relief I dipped into a book by Joni Eareckson Tada which I have been meaning to read for years, and I found this quotation from the great 19th Century Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon, preaching on the text  from Matthew “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

…my text has yet a greater depth of sweetness, for it says, that “many will come and will take their places.” Some narrow minded bigots think that heaven will be a very small place, where there will be very few people, and only those who went to their church. I confess, I have no wish for a very small heaven, and love to read in the Bible that there are many rooms in my Father’s house. How often do I hear people say, “Ah! small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. There will be very few in heaven; for most of the people will be lost.”

My friend, I differ from you. Do you think that Christ will let the devil beat Him? That he will let the devil have more in hell than there will be in heaven? No: it is impossible. For then Satan would laugh at Christ. There will be more in heaven than there are among the lost. God says, that “there will be a number that no man can count that will be saved;” but He never says, that there will be a number that no man can count that will be lost. There will be a host beyond all count who will get into heaven. What good news for you and for me! for, if there are so many to be saved, why shouldn’t I be saved? Why shouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t the man over there in the crowd, say, “Can’t I be one among the multitude being saved?” And shouldn’t that poor woman there take heart, and say, “Well if there were but half-a-dozen saved, I might fear that I wouldn’t be one; but, since many are to saved, why shouldn’t I also be saved?”

Fantastic! Far from preaching a kind of second-chance-universalism Spurgeon preaches nothing more or less than the Glory of Christ. God’s mercy is rich and wide and the invitation is for all, now. God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We can be saved NOW if we respond to Christ’s invitation. Why wait? Why risk being thrown outside?

Love wins (4) – Heaven

Bell summarises his chapter on Heaven as follows:

There’s heaven now, somewhere else
There’s heaven here, sometime else
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place

Nothing contentious there. I applaud Rob Bell’s efforts to show that there is more to Heaven than somewhere “above the bright blue sky” you go when you die. He is right to emphasise that Jesus calls the Kingdom of heaven now, for justice NOW, for peace NOW. And he is right to paint Heaven as MORE real than Earth, and to show that eventually there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. Christians need to be much clearer that heaven is not simply (or not at all) clouds and harps and white robes. There is too much taking of the vivid allegorical imagery of Revelation and making it literal.

At the same time though, I don’t walk away from this chapter with a clearer picture, but a more confused one. Bell says that

Much of the speculation about heaven…comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who “know” everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings – those things take time.

Really? What does Paul mean then in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (ESV)

or this when talking about the resurrection:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 ESV)

Perhaps I have my eschatology confused but it seems from a general balanced reading of Scripture that when we die we go to be with Jesus in heaven. As Paul says we will “depart and be with Christ.” Immediately. We will be “at home with the Lord.”  Then one day at the resurrection

Christ returns and raises from the dead the bodies of all believers for all time who have died, and reunites them with their souls, and changes the bodies of all believers who remain alive, thereby giving all believers at the same time perfect resurrection bodies like their own. (Systematic Theology, Grudem, p. 829)

At the same time creation will be renewed as something fit for our resurrection bodies to live in.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth. And we will be changed people in it!

I suspect Bell believes all this. I just wish he would be clearer about it.

Above all I wish he could say clearly that ultimately our life here and now (on earth), or our life then and there (in heaven), or our life then and here (in the new heaven and the new earth after the resurrection), is about how we respond to Jesus NOW. Now, at the time we meet Him and the time he invites us. What happens is dependent on our heart attitude to HIM and his invitation to acknowledge that he is our King and to follow him and put our lives and future completely in his hands. The thief on the cross did that. The Rich young ruler couldn’t on his own.

The great news, the GOSPEL news is that none of us can respond to Jesus’ invitation on our own. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

 

 

Love Wins (3) – Questions, questions, questions

So to the next chapter.

Questions are powerful things. And Rob Bell is the master of them.  With a question you can cynically demolish a position without appearing to take sides, or genuinely respond to the problems and stumbling blocks many people face.

Sometimes it seems that Bell is describing positions which people think Christians hold.  Repeating the misunderstandings about the Christian faith which genuine seekers after truth have, because that’s what they’ve been taught, or what someone has told them Christians believe or the Bible says.

So by picking different parts of the Bible, Rob Bell comes up with verses which seem to say that becoming a Christian happens in so many different ways it’s no wonder we are confused. I can see how people could on the face of it become confused from a casual reading on bits of the Bible. So how can we know for sure? Let’s hope later in the book he explains that. After all, that’s pretty important isn’t it? That determines both our life now and our eternal future doesn’t it?

Or does it?

Do people who are not followers of Jesus spend an eternity in Hell? Is having a personal relationship with God something which the Bible even talks about? What happens if the missionary that was supposed to be coming to tell you how to become a Christian gets a flat tyre? How can God send some people (many people) to Hell, and still be a God of love?

I just really hope he answers some of these questions, but I worry that he won’t.