The internet is filled with speculation concerning Rob Bell’s orthodoxy. A friend on facebook asked about the orthodoxy of neo-Calvinists, such as John Piper who question Bell’s orthodoxy. This debate is rather confusing, as it forces us to ask: Who has the authority to judge orthodoxy? (The question of Bell’s orthodoxy is much better addressed in my friend Micah’s post “Is [Christian] Universalism Heresy“.)
If I wanted to question the orthodoxy of Calvinists, I would have to point to the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672. Recognizing this synod would be roughly equivalent to accepting that all of Western Christianity is heretical — this is somewhat more than I would want to accept.
If I limit myself to Nicene Christianity, then I can consider John Piper’s orthodoxy in light of the Creed, I will look to John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church. I will consider the rather longer “Elder affirmation” as an expression of their teachings.
The Nicene Creed, as found in the Common book of Prayer is as follows:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
When I compare the statements to the creed, I am rather forced to admit that Piper’s church is within the realm of Nicene Orthodoxy. It would be rather crazy to observe that their statement does not describe the Father as Almighty, considering that the context considers this a given. The Calvinist idea of “sovereignty” is built on the almighty power of God.
Going through the rest of the creed, it is trivial to find literal quotes of the creed lines within the statement. Bethlehem Baptist seems deliberately Nicene compliant. If, I search for any reason to condemn them, they are clearly, with all Western Christianity, condemned by the Eastern Orthodox Jerusalem Synod in 1672 This blog post shares condemnation by chosing to use a form of the Creed which adds “And the Son“. Clearly, I do not wish to accept a council who’s purpose was to condemn all Protestants and Roman Catholics as heretics, and to prevent Latin ideas from contaminating Greek Christianity. My feeling is that Orthodoxy must be an invitation to explore, not a political tool to silence and control.
While I have personal concerns that treating substitutionary atonement as the only valid theory invites various Christological heresies, I cannot reject the theory as heretical, only observe that it is incomplete. It has the difficulty that it has Christ standing in the place of sheep and chickens. The humanity of Christ is unimportant under this theory — and the deity of Christ is a matter of debate. I think the debates about the nature of Christ, which were settled by the Nicene creed are rampant in the Evangelical world because of this incomplete picture of atonement. The elder’s statement seems to imply that Bethlehem Baptist recognizes that salvation is more than the forgiveness of sin, so even this danger of heresy so prevalent among Evangelical churches and preachers seems answered.
Putting aside my own opinions, Piper’s church is as orthodox as any protestant can be. We might wish to argue with his conclusions, we may question if his Calvinism is fair to God. We might question how God could claim God wants to save everyone, [2 Peter 3:9] when its God’s will do damn the majority of humankind, or the related question: “How can we rely on scripture if we know God lies to us?” but we can only ask questions which he likely struggles with himself. We cannot condemn Piper as a heretic without condemning ourselves by the very measure we use to judge him.
In the end, John Piper, Rob Bell, and I are struggling to understand our relationship with God, who wants to connect with Humanity and restore us to a relationship. We do not understand a God greater then ourselves, but we all approach theology prayerfully and with a sense of awe. In the end, we all place our hope in a merciful God, for none of us expects to be saved through knowledge of theology. God is bigger than we can know, and more awesome than we can imagine — so, we continue to imagine.