Thinking Out Loud

January 12, 2010

Rob Bell: Defending Dust

I’m not prepared to go to the wall defending everything Rob Bell says or does, but I think some balance is needed against the mounting criticism online, of which perhaps this piece (click here) is a prime example.

Rob Bell in his pre-minstry days, at 18 months

I’ve watched a number of the NOOMA videos, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen Dust.   I have heard the sermon that it’s based on however, and therein lies a huge difference.   I’m a big fan of Rob’s preaching, but on days like this one, I sometimes wish that NOOMA didn’t exist.   The full sermons offer the full experience.    Nonetheless, I find this concept somewhat straightforward.

Peter asks Jesus if he can join him walking on the water.   Rob brings a lot of cultural context to this request in the full sermon, and in other teachings.   Peter, you see, is a lead disciple.   His impulsive nature is actually manifest in the fulfilling of what is expected of the token ‘older’ talmudim   (Peter has a mother-in-law, so he’s married; Jesus tells him to look inside a fish to find a coin to pay the tax “for you and I;” the other disciples being too young for that tax.)   The disciple is expected to do what [i.e. everything] he sees the rabbi doing.

Peter gets out of the boat.  (Starts well.)   He walks on water.  (Going good.)   Then he takes his eyes of Jesus.  (Not so smart.)    He looks down.  (Getting worse.)  He wonders what the heck he is doing out there.   (Sinking starts.)

Bell points out that it’s not that Peter doesn’t believe in Jesus.   Jesus is unmistakably walking on water.    This is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of fact that Peter and the other disciples can see plainly.  (We “believe” Jesus walked on water, all they had to do was look.)

Peter is just not sure he can do it, and he begins to sink.    Again, it’s not that he doesn’t believe Jesus can walk on water, or that Jesus can give him the power to also walk on water.   It’s just too big.   Too big for him to handle.    He doesn’t believe he can do it, even though it’s quite evident that Jesus can.

But Jesus believes in him, in fact Jesus doesn’t just restore Peter to ministry later on after his denial, he is constantly about the business of restoring and reinstating Peter to ministry. After the abortive water-walk, after the whole “get thee behind Me” thing, and after the three-time denial.

Bell in a slightly more recent picture

That’s what Bell is saying.   Do you get it now?   No?   Then give up.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.   Maybe it’s not that you can’t wrap your brain around it, maybe you just don’t like Rob Bell. Maybe you just can’t handle the idea that a new generation of communicators is taking the stage. Maybe you can’t remember when your earliest attempts to express your hope in Christ was packaged in difficult metaphors and rough-edged stories.

Rob Bell is not saying that the essence of Jesus’ ministry is “just believe in yourself.”   Bell, if he bothered to respond at all, would say that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.    This context is a unique presentation of a unique concept that applies to one disciple in one particular time and place.

His application is that Jesus believes you can do this. You can live this Christ-following life. He will give you the strength and the courage to live out this faith in a world of temptation, trial and opposition. He has faith in you to be His instrument to carry out His plans and purposes in your generation.

Give the guy a break on this one.   Or is that you really don’t want to? I don’t agree with everything he says, I couldn’t finish his friend Peter Rollins’ book, and the hiring of Shane Hipps may prove more problematic than anyone expected.

But as my mother would say, “don’t go looking for the hair on the egg.”

(And, for the record, I don’t agree with everything my pastor says, every author he quotes or every staff member he hires.)

And don’t extrapolate a pastor’s core theology on the basis of a ten-minute “discussion starter” video.


  1. I’ve actually had many similar conversations. I specifically agree with your thought on wishing NOOMAs didn’t exist. Sometimes I wish he’d quit writing books, too. I like what he says in both of those media, but I think they draw an inordinate amount of controversy. Of course, I don’t wish he’d actually quit doing those things, but it’s unfortunate that it has to come to that. I always recommend that people listen to his sermons before criticizing him.

    And what sermon was that based on? Do you remember the name?

    Comment by Steven Rossi — January 12, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  2. I remember confronting (Pro 22:11) a celebrity who participated in producing a video about Bell. When I asked him why he spent 10’s of thousands of tithe on producing a video to bash a brother, I never got a response. When I have confronted other ‘leaders’ with concern about this matter, I have had all but one take a moment to think through what they were doing. I agree with you. Dust is one of my favorites, and like you, I don’t subscribe to all of his theology (it makes it easy not to worship him, as I am supposed to be worshipping Jesus), I think the same thoughts after him as you. I think of the statement in Bulhorn… Jesus is tired of it… and some of us are too… tired of the ones who think that the atonement wasn’t enough and have to help God out by shooting a brother… I tell folks frequently… do you really think that ____________ woke up this morning and said…. “Hey, I would like to be a heretic today.” No… we sin so we are reminded that it is not man who we worship but God. Thanks for writing this and being frank… some of us have forgotten that we are supposed to be wearing the dust of our rabbi and instead are wearing eu du toilette pharisee and it never looks good or smells good…

    Comment by Derek Iannelli-Smith — January 13, 2010 @ 5:31 am

  3. I remember that video, and it was a good message, an encouraging message. I noticed the same idiosyncracies as the critic on the Aletheia site. But because I’ve seen several NOOMA’s and have formed the opinion that Bob Bell (BB) isn’t a heretic (or heretical) I can easily understand his point – or what I think his point is, which is this…

    QUOTE FROM DUST: “I mean faith in Jesus is important, but what about Jesus’ faith in us?”

    I asked myself, why would Jesus have faith in us? The answer is simple. He has faith in God, and God has chosen us. Also, Jesus KNOWS what we can do (face it, he does), its not **really** faith in us, its more of a KNOWLEDGE of our potential VS what we actually do. We need to not forget we are talking about the Creator of all, no mistakes, knowledge of everything here.

    So anyway, I think he’s just expressing this…

    “Hey, you can do it, God knows you can. If God knows you can then you really have no reason to doubt yourself, do you?”

    I think he’s encouraging people to follow God’s call because God will equip them and He doesn’t call those who are not ready. People make mistakes, not God.

    Comment by George Conklin — January 14, 2010 @ 1:14 am

    • Yes. Well put, though I’ve never seen him referred to as “Bob Bell” before!

      How many times do people hold back from taking a step of faith because they don’t believe they can do it? Good point.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 14, 2010 @ 8:59 am

      • The very definition of sin is, “there is a way that seems right unto man, but the end thereof is death.” This is acting with faith in yourself, but not in God. Bell’s point is NOT a good point. We don’t need faith in ourselves, we need faith in God and in the power which HE provides.

        Comment by Stephen — February 24, 2010 @ 8:15 am

      • [This comment should appear as a reply to #3(c)]

        Once you’ve read the Bible and spent several years — or in my case a lifetime — in church, you’re not going to exclusively be defeated by a lack of faith. You’re going to be defeated by a “lack” of your own worthiness.

        That’s why books on spiritual identity (knowing who you are in Christ) are always so needed. People need to be taught what the Bible teaches about the positional truth scripture teaches on what Christ’s atoning sacrifice makes us.

        …I think this is getting to be like an argument between Evangelicals and Mormons. Everybody is using the same terminology but it has different meaning for each group.

        …No actually, I take that back. It’s more like an argument between U.S. Republicans and U.S. Democrats. Every subject is polarized because the partisan belief is that there are “sides” and the other side is wrong… To repeat something I said elsewhere here, all this energy should be spent on atheist blogs confronting unbelief.

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 24, 2010 @ 10:01 am

  4. I hear what you’re saying, but I think Bell is wrong. Subtly, but unhelpfully. If Peter failed because he doubted himself, his problem was focusing on himself in the first place. Peter couldn’t walk on water, fine, but Jesus called him. Obviously he didn’t call Peter because of his well-known water-walking skills. Jesus call was grounded in his own nature, not Peters.

    Reject this and you have a merit-theology. I’m hoping people can see how destructive that is. What Bell said wasn’t too bad assuming that you feel it has no consequences, that people don’t necessarily trace a thought through to it’s conclusion, but if they do, it can be harmful.

    I’d still recommend most of his stuff to our youth groups. I’d just make sure they hear a gospel-centred response when he goes a bit off-kilter.

    Comment by Jamie — February 18, 2010 @ 4:37 am

    • I’ve had a lot of discussions on this one with people off-the-blog. Obviously, the enemy of faith is doubt, and Peter’s doubts arrive when he takes his eyes of Jesus. But I think Rob is right inasmuch as Peter assumes an “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have enough faith for this” kind of posture.

      As to merit-theology, I suspect Bell would argue that this alternative interpretation he applies to this particular narrative isn’t meant to be applied as a general spiritual principle. In the end, it’s your third sentence that nails it; Jesus called him. It’s not “believe in yourself,” but it’s “I have chosen you.”

      And there are limits. Peter sees Jesus walking on water and decides he can do that, too. I can buy into Rob’s concept here with Peter as the “lead” disciple. But Peter should never have thought he could feed 5,000 with a few fish whole-wheat buns! Nor should he have ever thought at this point he could the sick; although later he (God through him) did just that. He actually had a huge amount of faith for the water-walk, when you think about it.

      The story continues to amaze me with its complexity.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 18, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    • Well put, Jamie.

      Comment by Stephen — February 24, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  5. This is NOT a generational issue. Bell, like other emergents, does not let Scripture speak for itself for what happened in the context of the actual event, but rather deconstructs Scripture to say what he thinks it says in today’s context. Case in point. What allowed Peter to walk on water? Faith in himself or in Jesus’ ability to make this miracle happen? Try as he might, no matter how much faith Peter had in himself, he would have never walked on water. The reason Bell is the first person to ever come up with his interpretation is because it is his own interpretation, not what Scripture teaches. Peter was not later restored because of something inherent in himself, but because of the forgiveness of Christ and the ability of the Holy Spirit to enable him. Jesus sent the disciples out to make disciples because HE gave them power, not becuase of inherent ability which the disciples possessed to make this happen. The ongoing deconstruction of Scripture is why the world must be warned of Bell, McClaren, Pagitt, Tickle, et al.

    Comment by Stephen — February 24, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    • What does Peter lack? He has spent time with Jesus. He is seeing, with his own eyes, physical evidence of Jesus walking on the water as though the water were a solid, not a liquid. Jesus invites him to come. So what does Peter lack?

      Is it that he can’t fully invest himself in Jesus? There are only two reasons for that possibility. The first is that perhaps he would think Jesus can’t be trusted. But later, he will be the first to recognize Jesus as Messiah, as God in flesh. The second may be that he just doesn’t think he is good enough. This is the factor that makes countless thousands (millions?) of Christians afraid to “step out,” in prayer, in faith, in ministry, in evangelism. Perhaps they are hampered by lack of self-confidence, perhaps they are harboring secret sin.

      Up until this debate started, the commonly held prime interpretation of this passage was that Peter took his eyes of Jesus. But what does that mean? In this debate it’s being forced to mean that Peter lacked faith in Jesus. But when Peter’s eyes met Jesus’ eyes, it was a two-way gaze. Jesus’ will wasn’t that Peter drown out there. (The Hebrew culture had a general phobia about water; this would extend to fishermen.) Peter needed to transfer his intellectual faith in Jesus from his head to his heart. He needed to act on all that faith meant in that moment. The alternative is to say, “No, I can’t do this;” and turn around and jump back in the boat.

      I hear Bell’s version of the narrative as Jesus saying to Peter, “Peter, believe that with me standing here with you, you can do this.”

      To me, knowing a very large compendium of what Bell believes, the second in italics is implied and doesn’t need to be stated. To those who have written Bell off as a heretic, the fact that the section in italics isn’t said outright condemns him.

      Bell does let scripture speak for itself. In his world, scripture is three-dimensional, he describes it other teaching as a jewel or a large multi-faceted diamond. To conservative Christians in the Western world, as much as I hate to say this, scripture is very one-dimensional; and when people of that ilk come to more complex New Testament passages — such as The Prodigal Son — they have a hard time dealing with the fact there are at least a half dozen acceptable applications to the story.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 24, 2010 @ 9:52 am

  6. […] at this one, the story we call “The Prodigal Son” only because it reminds me of the Rob Bell Peter Walking on Water Controversy which is still getting comments.   This should drive some of the same people equally nuts.  But […]

    Pingback by Peter Rollins Makes His Point Well, Despite My Earlier Misgivings « Thinking Out Loud — February 26, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

  7. Some of you are completely missing the point entirely. Rob Bell never even came close to implying that Peter was walking on the water because he believed in himself. Rob Bell never came close to saying that Peter began to sink because he lost faith in his own power, personality, actions or potential. The entire point of the illustration is that Jesus had faith in Peter as his disciple. He would have never called him to be his disciple if he didn’t have faith in him. Furthermore, Jesus had faith that Peter would walk to him on the water or he never would have called him to come. Peter didn’t loose faith that Christ was able to walk on the water. Peter lost faith in his calling. He lost faith in himself in that he was the person that Jesus called. He was ready to take a few steps in his Rabbi’s footsteps but he was not ready to walk in the adversity of the wind and the waves because he lost faith in his calling.

    Comment by Brent — May 8, 2010 @ 2:48 am

  8. This may be a dead thread, but the debate seems to be very much alive elsewhere. It seems to me that this discussion continues as a result of poor communication. Mainly, people get hung up on the word faith in that they only will see it as applying to faith in God. Substitute a different word for faith, and you might see some lights go on in the other camp.

    The argument for Jesus statement “you of little faith” applying to Peter’s inability to believe in himself is one that stems from a cultural, rabbinical standpoint. Jesus would have been raised with a strong Jewish heritage. I think Rob Bell has a strong argument (but you would have to read more about what he says on this topic, instead of taking this video out of context).

    Lastly, I don’t see how Peter’s faith in Jesus can be brought into question here. It was his belief in his own ability to do what his Rabbi did that he faltered on. If he lost faith in Christ, he would have turned to the other disciples and said “Throw me an oar, this guy is crazy”. Instead he said “Lord save me!”.

    Comment by ash — September 27, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    • Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you fully. Feel free to come back with some links where this discussion is still continuing; I might like to revisit this in a future post.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — September 27, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

  9. Are you willing to retract your support of Rob Bell now that Love Wins is out? Or do you support the heresy of universalism as well as the heresy that God had faith in man?

    Comment by Berean — April 17, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    • I’m not Rob’s judge and neither are you. I’ve always had concerns about the way he goes about saying the things he does, but I fully defend his right to say them. Love Wins follows in a long line of historical writers who have re-examined different elements of doctrine, but Bell stops short of dogmatically advancing a new doctrine; he’s just asking questions.

      In a recent poll, Christian bookstores were asked to differentiate between titles which (a) ask significant questions, versus those which (b) plant seeds of doubt and undermine belief. I said I would definitely not stock the latter, anymore than I would stock books by Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong which seek to suggest that nothing we read in scripture is historically reliable. But I have no problem with former category.

      I will not retract a thing.

      Bell’s alternative reading on this stops short of the kind of fantasy scripture that his friend Peter Rollins would conjure up. It’s not the main point of the story, but, a year later, I still think Jesus is saying to Peter, “I chose you, I invited you to step out of the boat, I have faith you can walk on water; do you trust my choice?”

      One of the fundamental questions that has to make up our response to the gospel is, “Are we willing to trust Jesus with our lives?” Jesus thinks Peter can do it. But Peter doesn’t think Peter can do it? He doesn’t need to trust in Jesus for this because he can clearly see Jesus is walking on water. It’s not, “Can God provide the elements of the miraculous necessary to pull this off?” Rather, it’s more like, “Can I do this without screwing it up?”

      As to Bell’s other beliefs, they aren’t beliefs if he’s just asking questions. But if you want to see others questioning hell, you don’t have to look any further than John Stott.

      I grew up in a system that taught, “It is appointed to humankind to die, and after that follows judgment.” I have no problem exploring other avenues of thought on this blog, but personally, I’ve never deviated from that. But I do think it’s important for us to keep two things in mind:

      (1) Jim Engle’s and Emory Griffin’s studies from the ’70s which show that while guilt and fear are great for making short-term decisions, they’re really bad for making long-term disciples.

      (2) No matter what we believe, the ‘life’ that follows this one, even for the believer, is going to hold some surprises. I believe that within a split second of seeing God for the first time — something our non-glorified bodies are incapable of — with the cherubim and twenty-four elders surrounding the throne; a lot of bets are quickly going to be off.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — April 17, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

  10. I’ve heard this Rob Bell interpretation and sermon many times. And have thought about it a lot. The thing about this interpretation is that it’s based on a preconceived notion that all of us evangelicals reading this bring into the text: Namely that Jesus is preparing Peter for ‘ministry’ as we define and think of it today (evangelical ministry, consisting of ‘the great commission,’ etc…). But I don’t think Jesus had this in mind. I think Jesus was trying to teach a brand new concept the world had never known before– the notion of our relationship as people vis-a-vis God being based on ‘FAITH,’ and not on our ‘works’ (works of the Mosaic Law in specific). This was a brand new way of relating to God that was unheard of in the history of humans relating to God. That is why Jesus spends so much time teaching ‘faith’–what it means, what it’s like, etc…). So in this boat and sea story, Jesus is teaching the concept of faith itself to the disciples, and only that concept— not how to ‘live day to day in faith in Jesus so that you can do ministry (as we think of it today).’ Faith is the believing(trusting) that God has the ability to do something, and no human effort or energy is required. That is all he was teaching. So Peter stays up based on God’s ability and energy, and not his own energy or ability. No need to unnecessarily complicate things, as I think has happened with Rob’s interpretation. Ok. My 2 cents. Thanks.

    Comment by Dave Smith — November 28, 2014 @ 9:58 am

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