Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mars Hill's Narrative Theology - What's Missing in This Story?

First, let me start by clarifying something that confused me from the beginning. We're not talking about the Mars Hill of Seattle, WA where Mark Driscoll preaches. When my uncle first approached me asking, "What do you think about this 'Mars Hill' thing?" I immediately thought of Driscoll's church in Seattle.

No, instead, this is Mars Hill Bible church of Grandville, MI where Pastor Rob Bell has championed his statement of Narrative Theology, coupled with the New Exodus teaching, with great popularity (an estimated 10,000+ weekly attendance). My question is this: What's missing in this "story?"

As I first began to read their statement of Narrative Theology, I was admittedly pleased. The narrative approach to developing theology and doctrine is quite fond to me. In fact, many might say that my first book, Thy Kingdom Come: A Prayer of Victory, was itself an expression of Narrative Theology. Obviously I don't think that the approach is altogether without merit. For a more in-depth look at the topic of Narrative Theology at large, I recommend this answer by Ra McLaughlin (though I've not explored any of the other claims that may be found at that URL).

So, what IS missing in Rob Bell's story? What left me—at the end of just one single PDF page—writhing in my desk chair? Allow me to offer a surface-level critique of this increasingly popular statement of faith, and then I invite you, the reader, to share your own take on the matter. Perhaps some of you have more first-hand experience that may shed light.
  1. The statement is devoid of any affirmation to the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ. The statement, found in paragraph 6 of the aforementioned statement of Narrative Theology, reads: "His path of suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection has brought hope to all creation. Jesus is our only hope for bringing peace and reconciliation between God and humans." It seems that this is just strong enough to preclude anyone from holding only to the Exemplary Atonement theory, but it (and the entire narrative as I read it) is devoid of the concept of wrath, atonement, death as penalty for sin, etc.
  2. My second critique was a little less obvious and it took me a while to find this. Read the document again, if you can, through the eyes of a total non-believer. Do you see how the plural first-person "we" would include you, the non-believing reader, in the narrative? I have no confirmation that Rob Bell preaches, or even holds this position, but this theological statement is extremely friendly to the Universalist.

In summary, I must conclude that this statement of theology is unique in it's ability to say so much while affirming nothing at all. The purpose—in my opinion—of a doctrinal statement should be to guard sound doctrine and affirm that false doctrines are not propagated at your church. By Mars Hill Bible Church's statement, what could be refuted? Universalism? No. Legalism? No. Pelagianism? No. Yikes!

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  • While I understand your concern, from my own limited knowledge and experience of Rob Bell I would guess that it has more to do with differences in communication styles between generations and cultures than their doctrinal beliefs. It may be that they believe everything you question, but they do not say so to the average believer. I know this may be controversial, but one thing we do need to admit is this - not everyone is going to be a theologian and perfectly understand doctrine. Does that mean we don't teach it? Of course not. We have an obligation as teachers to faithfully explain the Word of God. But the generation that is growing up... Generation Y... Seems more interested in exploring the relational aspects of Christianity about reconciliation between God and man and less about understanding traditional statements of faith.

    This may seem controversial to you, but we must continually ask ourselves not only what we believe, but exactly how we share that with the world. Even if you disagree with me on some of this, I would hope that you agree that the purpose of a church's website should never be leaving the viewer scratching their heads because they don't understand.

    We don't necessarily need to use the words "substitutionary atonement" in order to teach people what it is, and I think at times in our eagerness to teach doctrine faithfully we forget that we must do so at a level that the average person can understand.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 26, 2008 at 1:52 PM  

  • I appreciate your comment, Kevin, but why do we have to abandons orthodoxy to be relevant to culture? Why is it either/or not both/and? I am actually a Gen-Y'er myself. Even so, I'd like to see the church find a balance between contextualization of the Gospel and adherence to sound doctrine...

    That said, and seeing how contextualization ( whether for global missions or in our own evolving culture) is a hot button for me, I have a question for you about this Gen-Y issue. Is the fact that youth today are interested primarily in the Bible's relevance to them nothing more than a generational trend that the missional church should cater to, or is it actually another sinful manifestation of our humanistic selfishness?

    By Blogger Unknown, At November 26, 2008 at 3:51 PM  

  • I don't think you can really call being "interested primarily in the Bible's relevance to them" something new about Gen-Y. I think precisely this same sort of thinking goes back, at least, to the seeker sensitive movements which are primarily a Baby Boomer phenomenon, and arguably I think could be seen as having it's roots in the rise of liberalism in the 19th century.

    While "emerging" Christians reject the strict skepticism of those 19th century liberals, their focus on "mystery" and "paradox" ends up having precisely the same affect. Once you stat to view God as radically "other" or "unknowable" and conclude that therefore there are severe limitations to how much we can know about Him from Scripture, whether it's because of modernist doubts about the historical reliability of scripture or post-modernist doubts of about reliability of even language itself, you're going to be forced to find some other use for Scripture than as a way of knowing God.

    By Blogger Thomas, At November 29, 2008 at 1:21 AM  

  • Including "we" in the statement is important because this is a statement that all those "covenanting" with the specific body of Mars Hill (Grandville MI) are saying collectivly. So a non-believer may read themselves into this, but it would be wrong for them to do so unless they were planning on signing their name to the statement, which members do yearly.

    I am not a fan per-se of the statement, but then I don't have anything to disagree with either. It is simply too broad for me. But that may be what they wanted. Something that most true Christians could sign.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 1, 2008 at 12:41 AM  

  • For a better example, see

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 1, 2008 at 7:21 PM  

  • I personally have been working on a narrative theology for our church. The idea first came to me after reading Rob Bell's on the Mars Hill website. Most of the criticism that I see is that both attempts (narrative and systematic) are too far apart on the spectrum. There is something lacking in each of them. The narrative obviously is not all inclusive in it's explanation and the systematic method often is too difficult for the new believer to grasp. My proposal is that you do both. Use the narrative theology as a "building block" as Mclaughlin states, to the depth of understanding that systematic theology offers. As someone who is finishing his degree right now, I had to learn many study methods and practices to understand scripture on a deeper level. My advice is that any church that is thinking about doing a narrative theology combines it with a more thoughtful and scripturally accurate one. This way there is less room for criticism and more for understanding and revelation.

    By Anonymous cp, At February 13, 2010 at 1:42 PM  

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