Piper vs. Bell: Thoughts on Two Ways of Handling Scripture

Two of my current reading projects are John Piper's God is the Gospel (reading) and Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis (finished). Piper, of course, is a bright, shining light in the constellation of Reformed Evangelicalism, while Rob Bell is a poster-boy for the up and coming Emergent Church. I am a long-time fan of Piper, having read almost everything he has written. By comparison, I am relatively unfamiliar with Bell, having seen only two or three Nooma videos, listened to only two or three on-line sermons, and read only this book (Bell's first). In general, I am comfortable with (although not completely uncritical of) the Reformed Evangelicalism which is so well-represented by Piper and consider myself aligned with it. At the same time, I am (in general) fairly uncomfortable with (although not completely unsympathetic to) the Emergent Church. I bought Piper's book because I have come to expect good, solid, gospel-centered edifying books from Piper. I bought Bell's book because I want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged with the phenomenon of the Emergent Church. I certainly do not view Piper as a guru. I certainly do not think Rob Bell has horns. Piper is imperfect and Bell is saying some thought-provoking things that the rest of us probably need to sit up and listen to.

With all of that said, in reading these two books almost side-by-side, I have noticed a fundamental difference in the way the two men handle Scripture. And it is worth calling attention to. Bell uses Scripture provacatively and subversively - to create doubt, prompt questions, and stir the tranquil waters of long-held beliefs. Piper uses Scripture persuasively and simply - to define truth, provide answers, and fill long-held biblical terminology (i.e. gospel) with biblical content. Bell sprinkles Scripture throughout his book as he whittles away at legalism, fundamentalism, and egotism. He throws out just enough Scripture to make us uncomfortable and questioning of our own assumptions - which may or may not be biblically founded. Piper saturates his book with Scripture as he relentlessly argues for one basic proposition, namely that God's greatest gift in the gospel is himself. Scripture so pervades Piper's pages that the reader becomes increasingly more and more convinced that what Piper is arguing for is truth.

Note: both books use Scripture. Both books are challenging some of my assumptions. Both books are thought-provoking. Both books are a mixture of truth and error (as all human writings are). But one book has served to strengthen my overall confidence in Scripture more than the other. And my prediction is that one of these books will far out-last the life and usefulness of the other, precisely for this reason: it resonates more deeply with the book which endures forever.


Colby Willen said...

I, too, appreciate the saturation of pure Bible in Piper's books, and I think the lack of a purely biblical presentation is the root of my own caution concerning the Emergent Church movement.

Btw, nice blog.

graham old said...

Brian, I think it is far from accurate to refer to Rob Bell as the 'poster-boy for the up and coming Emergent Church.' If you wanted a book to help you understand and engage with the "Emergent Church," then I would suggest something different.

Is it possible that the differences in how scripture is handled might be exaggerated here because of the different types of book? Would the results be the same if we compared Velvet Elvis with something like Tested by Fire?

Brian G. Hedges said...

Velvet Elvis is certainly not the only book on or about the Emergent church I've read. I've read Brian McLaren, Robert Webber, and others. But Rob Bell is a part of that movement. Just look up all the references to him and Mars Hill in Webber's The Younger Evangelicals. Even CT used Bell as a prime example of an emergent leader in their issue on the emergent church last year.

I don't think the differences in how Bell and Piper use Scripture are soley due to literary genre. In fact, both books purport to give clearer definition to the essence of Christian faith. Bell's book is subtitled "Repainting the Christian Faith." Tested by Fire (in the US, The Hidden Smile of God) is a different genre completely (biography).

graham old said...

Brian, I'm not suggesting that he isn't involved with the emerging church, simply that he is hardly it's poster-boy.

And I'm not suggesting that Rob doesn't use scripture differently to Piper; personally, I would hope he does. My point is that the differences would have been exaggerated here because the books are of a different genre and the authors have a different writing style.

David McKay said...

Appreciate your blog, Brian.

Haven't read Piper's God is the gospel yet, but I reckon reflection on Psalm 37:4
Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart
shows the truth of this insight.