Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Should Our Gospel Communication Be "Reductionist" in Its Theology?

Maggi Dawn wrote a blog post ( about the Rob Bell/Universalism controversy. She takes aim at Justin Taylor, who wrote on what Bell stated on a promotional video about his new book Love Wins and John Piper who dismissively wrote “Farewell Rob Bell” on his twitter account.
Dawn defends Rob Bell, not on his supposed universalist views, but on his ability to communicate and what he is trying to do. Bell is seeking to connect with disaffected Christians and “seekers” so he is purposefully simple and is not much of a theologian in his communications, whether written or spoken.

She writes:
"As far as I can see, it’s this, rather than theology per se, (communicating) that is Bell’s real gift. His writing and broadcasting actually covers very little ground theologically, and does so imprecisely, but what he does par excellence is capture the imaginations of those who have become disenchanted with Christianity, and haven’t enough patience or emotional energy to re-examine it … he is reductionist in his theology, but that seems to me to emerge from his deeper longing to communicate at the level of an evangelist and pastor. Once people are interested in theology the finer details can be worked on with theologians who – precisely because of their concern for the finer details – fail to communicate in quite the way Bell does. But if people never get interested in the first place, they will never hang around long enough to examine the finer details."

My question concerns her understanding that pastors and evangelists do not need (nor should they) be concerned about theology. I’ve been studying the gospel preaching of some of the early “evangelists” in the book of Acts, and they seem rather concerned with theology.
Peter seems very theological in his preaching. He doesn’t sugar coat his message (or isn’t reductionist) as he tells his listeners, “You crucified him” and that salvation is found in no other name (Acts 3.13-26; 4.8-12). Peter also mentions that Jesus is a “judge”. Paul, even in a Greek context is not reductionist when he tells his Gentile listeners that a day of judgment will come and that all people should turn from their “ignorance” (Acts 17.22-31).

My point is that if ever there was a need for “seeker sensitive” messages, it was in the early church when Peter and Paul were speaking before either antagonistic audiences or audiences who did not know all of the back story. Yet, these “evangelists” were not reductionist in their theology and Paul on several occasions urged his pastoral representatives guard their doctrine closely (e.g. 1Tim. 4.15-6). Paul even connects pastoral love to strong theology (1 Tim. 1.3-11). I think that our preaching to “seekers” needs to be thoughtful and understandable, but at the same time, we should not avoid deep theological truths. If we are reductionist in our evangelism, we could be accused of using a “bait and switch” technique when we start to discuss issues like election, atonement and the concept of Hell or an eternity apart from God.

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