We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology

The novelist Saul Bellow once remarked that being a prophet is nice work if you can get it. The only problem, he suggested, is that sooner or later a prophet has to speak of God, and at that point the prophet has to speak clearly. In other words, the prophet will have to speak with specificity about who God is, and at that point the options narrow.

For the last twenty years or so, a movement identified as emerging or emergent Christianity has done its determined best to avoid speaking with specificity. Leading figures in the movement have offered trenchant criticisms of mainstream evangelicalism. Most pointedly, they have accused evangelical Christianity, variously, as being excessively concerned with doctrine, culturally tone-deaf, overly propositional, unnecessarily offensive, aesthetically malnourished, and basically uncool.

Many of their criticisms hit home — especially those rooted in cultural concerns — but others betrayed what can only be described as an awkward relationship with orthodox Christian theology. From the very beginning of the movement, many of the emerging church’s leaders called for a major transformation in evangelical theology.

And yet, even as many of these leaders insisted that they remained within the evangelical circle, it was clear that many were moving into a post-evangelical posture. There were early hints that the direction of the movement was toward theological liberalism and radical revisionism, but the predominant mode of their argument was suggestion, rather than assertion.

Rather than to make a clear theological or doctrinal assertion, emerging figures generally raise questions and offer suggestive comments. Influenced by postmodern narrative theories, most within the movement lean into story rather than formal argument. Nevertheless, the general direction seemed clear enough. The leading emerging church figures appeared to be pushing Protestant Liberalism, just about a century late….

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