Response to Rollins in Grand Rapids

Here is a short response I wrote over the weekend to the Rollins article posted below.  The religion editor of the GR Press said that he is inclined to run it as a guest editorial, so I am hopeful.  Any comments or suggestions before it runs?

Near the end I ask why Rollins was invited to speak at Calvin’s upcoming Symposium on Worship.  I think it is great that Calvin engages in dialogue with those who have non-Christian views.  I personally have enjoyed and benefited greatly from its award winning January series, in which many of the speakers express viewpoints that differ from mine.  But I think that a worship symposium is different for two reasons. 

1. Since I assume Calvin intends its symposium to help us to better worship the true God, it seems that its speakers should hold orthodox Christian views.  Can anyone imagine God permitting an Old Testament Israelite or New Testament Christian to seek advice on worship from someone from a different religion?  Here I agree with J. Gresham Machen’s observation that liberalism is not authentic Christianity but something else entirely.

2. Even if I grant that Rollins lies somewhere within the realm of generic Christendom, yet his views on revelation preclude him from being knowledgeable on the subject of worship.  If worship is our response to what God has said and done, then what can we learn from someone who claims that he doesn’t know what God has said and done?  Isn’t this a bit like asking a Vegan to address a beefeaters convention?

Anyway, here is my essay, which is my response to the interview with Rollins posted previously:

I read with interest the Grand Rapids Press interview with Peter Rollins (November 15, 2008), author of How (Not) to Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief.  The article begs a fundamental question:  does Rollins believe that the Bible is God’s revelation?

            The answer seems to be no.  Rollins may concede that the Bible is a message from God, but this message is so convoluted with “metaphors that clash and smash together” that we cannot determine what the text means.  Rollins apparently believes that the message of Scripture is that we can’t know God.  The revelation is that there is no revelation.  Perhaps this is why, in How (Not) to Speak of God, Rollins declares that “When it comes to God, we have nothing to say to others and we must not be ashamed of saying it.”

Once Rollins gives up biblical revelation, the specific, historic beliefs of the church quickly follow.  As Rollins claims in the Press interview, “It’s not about what you believe,” for “The idea is not to get the right interpretation of Scripture….” 

Rollins pursues the logical consequence of this view in How (Not) to Speak of God, where he compares his Ikon community to a doughnut:  “Just as a doughnut has no interior, but is made up entirely of an exterior, so Ikon has no substantial doctrinal centre.” 

Since there is nothing to know, Rollins turns his attention to the only part of the Christian faith left—how we live.  He replaces “right belief” with “believing in the right way,” which means “believing in a loving, sacrificial, and Christlike manner.”  He suggests that while our Christian beliefs never describe “the Real or reality,” somehow they are able to transform us into lovers who follow the way of Jesus by embracing others. 

But how would this work?  Rollins violates his own principle of interpretation, for despite Scripture’s “clashing and smashing metaphors,” he confidently claims that he knows that God is telling us to love and care for one another.  So Rollins believes that he has “the right interpretation of Scripture” after all, something he insists is not possible.

To the point:  Rollins knows that God wants us to love one another, but he does not know who this God is or what he is like.  But how can he know the former if he does not know the latter? 

            Rollins’ professed dismissal of revelation raises a final question:  Why is he returning in January to speak at Calvin College’s Symposium on Worship?  Rollins may be a provocative dialogue partner about the shape of belief in a postmodern world, but in what sense is he a Christian contributor to the conversation?  If worship is our response to what God has said and done, then what can we learn about worship from someone who claims to not know what God has said and done? 

Rollins is right to emphasize our need to serve others, but he is wrong to suggest that ambivalence about the historic doctrines of the faith will help us get there.  As demonstrated in last week’s Kent County Congregations Study (Grand Rapids Press, Nov. 9, 2008), Christians in West Michigan find that their belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ supplies the resources and motivation to love their neighbors.  These Christians never stop serving because they never stop loving, and they never stop loving because they never stop believing. 







13 responses to “Response to Rollins in Grand Rapids”

  1. The push to open the door to culture in the church has finally revealed its true threat – to eventually dig up and reveal the problem: the modern-day shallow theological rooting of the modern-day church. I am convinced that it is the church’s own inablility to communicate doctrine in a valuable and plain way has become the silver key that has unlocked pandora’s box. And the threat revealed is as old as Hosea’s time when calves were left in Dan and Bethel to allow for ‘convenient’ religion but ended up carrying with them 3 generations of God’s people. They reinterpreted God – moving the boundary stones of revelation that God had set up – until there was little to recognize of the true God who brought them up out of Egypt.
    Why can’t we recognize the responsibility of the church to see doctrine as the ‘rock’ upon which we stand and not the ‘springs’ upon which we bounce? Where is the church that cannot be shaken from her path – even by the gates of hell? After all, isn’t this originally Jesus’ idea?
    Or – are we to revert to allowing so many doors of re-interpretation open in the church that eventually we erect an image to worship our own ‘unknown’ God?
    (“What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you…” – Paul the Apostle, Acts 17:23)

  2. Diana O’Connor

    If Rollin’s is so sure about the second greatest commandment “love you neighbor”, why is he not aware of the first greatest commandment?

  3. Well put.

    Plug your book at the end.



  4. I have not read Rollin’s book, but from what I gather here and other sources, it does seem to exalt in remaining in the shallow end of the theological pool. The doughnut metaphor seems to hint at this being an intentional theme in their religious practice.

    While we must accept the premise that we can never fully know God, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that we can know nothing of Him.

    We should also not use this premise to remain in our intellectual laziness, pretending that since we can’t know the whole, then the little bits and pieces we do pick up are not worth picking up.

    Rollin’s whole idea seems to me to deny the work of the Holy Spirit. We can fully accept the fact that the Bible is often seemingly contradictory, and sometimes not historically accurate. But we also can and should accept that the Bible was inspired by God, and that His Spirit will speak through the words and stories to those who would listen.

    Instead of asking “what” Rollins worships, perhaps we should question “how” exactly he worships in light of his theology and ideas. In that light, a worship symposium would be very interesting indeed!


  5. Adam F.

    Since the Symposium’s theme is parables,* I’m confused about how Rollins could have much to say.

    Rollins is obviously in love with ambiguity. Well, I believe parabolic speech is somewhat ambiguous–since parables are narratives or figures of speech, they require a critical and reflective engagement. The funny thing is, with critical and reflective engagement, we discover that ambiguous parables actually communicate distinct truths.

    If Rollins doesn’t talk about parables, maybe he’ll talk about mystery and awe in worship. The Psalms are full of awe, but that’s the awe of God (ie, see Psalm 29). By contrast, Rollins seems to be in awe of awe.

    *The Symposium’s essay about their Parable theme —

  6. mikewittmer


    Aha! Rollins’ new book is on parables, so that may be the connection. Still, it is a conference on worship, so it doesn’t seem to be a good fit.


    Fine response, though I wonder where you think the Bible is not historically accurate?

  7. Only time for a quick note here. Pete Rollins will be at the Worship Symposium as part of a panel discussion on the emerging church. The panel consists of myself, Scot McKnight, Jason Clark and Pete. We are also writing a book together. At the panel we will basically present a summary of each of the two chapters we’ve written for the book. There will be two respondents, including James K.A. Smith. The book itself consists of a critical engagement with emerging. Each of its authors, I beleive, would see himself as a critical insider.

    Hope that helps. Here’s a link to the Worship Symposium description of the panel:
    Ours is the first seminar listed on Thursday, 29 January.


  8. mikewittmer


    Thank you for your quick note, Kevin. I have used your provocative book on Christian materialism in my seminary class, so I appreciate hearing from you.

    I encourage academic dialogue with people of differing views, and so I appreciate the spirit behind your new book. Still, some categories seem to be distinctively Christian, and I wonder what someone who denies revelation can add to a conversation on worship. And unlike McKnight and Smith, who I have heard critique Emergent, I wonder how “critical of Emergent” Rollins can possibly be.

    Must every conversation include the most extreme views? Or is it sometimes appropriate to say that an individual’s perspective has placed himself outside the boundary of helpful dialogue? I guess I’ll have to read your new book to find out, but I suspect that the church will benefit more from your and McKnight’s chapters than from Rollins’.

  9. Hey Mike,

    Fair enough. The purpose of the book (and of the panel) is a critical engagement w/emerging. Of the four of us authors, three of us are critical insiders. You’re right: Pete would not be a “critical” insider of emerging. He would be, so far as I’m concerned, a critical insider of church catholic. And for that reason I don’t think it’s fair to say that Pete denies revelation. In fact, I think that’s false. (He may, however, say some things that entail a denial of revelation. But that’s different. That would just show that he’s inconsistent. And if that’s so, then the thing to do is to point it out to him.)

    I disagree with some things Pete has said and one of the chapters of mine for the book is called “Whose Afraid of Philosophical Realism: Taking Emerging to Task.” In it I argue that many in the emerging movement mistake epistemic humility for religious skepticism and anti-realism. I argue that the allergy to creeds and concrete Christian beliefs is unnecessary. Even so, I am happy to be included in the conversation and count among my friends Pete, Tony Jones, and others in the emerging phenomenon. And I resonate with the animating impulses and cultural sensibilities characteristic of emerging.

    Finally, thanks for using my book in your classes!!! I’m gratified.


  10. Mike,

    I was thinking mainly of the geneologies in Genesis, or other equally nit-picky details that many use in attacking the historicity of the Bible. As a whole, the Bible is more accurate than other writings of the same time periods.

    I brought that up merely because when people begin denying the revelation of the Bible as Rollins does, many times it begins with the “lack” of historical evidence. This leads to understanding the Bible merely as “clashing and smashing metaphors”.


  11. John Witvliet

    Friends and Colleagues,

    As the host for the Worship Symposium, I am happy to reply. Our conference features a variety of sessions, including worship services, workshops, panel discussions, and more, with over 80 speakers involved each year.

    Out of 200+ sessions at the conference, there are some that focus on the conference theme, while many (including the session in which Peter is scheduled to participate) focus on other topics.

    Some sessions offer a prescriptive vision for the practice of worship. In others, we are hosting conversations with people with very different positions and points-of-view. So both this year and in past years, we have had discussions about Pentecostal and Roman Catholic practices, for example, with Pentecostal and Roman Catholic discussants, despite the differences that a confessionally Reformed institution has with these traditions. As we conduct sessions like this, we are very aware of our confessional commitments, commitments which we are eager to deepen, not erode.

    So this year, one of our panel discussions is about the emerging church, and Peter Rollins is one of our panelists. He is in town to participate with a team of scholars at work on book on the emerging church. We hope that the themes raised in this blog are, in fact, a significant part of the discussion, both in the book and in the panel discussion. We receive the insights on this blog as a source of wisdom for us as we host this discussion, and we welcome you to attend, and to raise these questions as the discusssion unfolds.

    As for the editorial, I would respectfully ask you to reconsider the paragraph about the Worship Symposium, at least until we have the opportunity to speak. The impression it could well leave about the conference is nearly the polar opposite of what we prayerfully attempt to offer in Jesus name.

    John Witvliet, Director
    Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

  12. mikewittmer


    Thanks for your kind and informative post. While I wonder about the wisdom of casting your net so broad, I told the Press to take out the paragraph about the relation of Rollins’ views to worship. That isn’t necessary for the piece, and my intent is not to cause trouble for you or Calvin.


    I wonder what Pete has said that would entail a revelation? Revelation would seem to require a message from God that discloses him. Pete may hold the first part of that definition (it’s not entirely clear to me) but he clearly doesn’t hold the latter.

  13. elden

    Rollins distortion of orthodox Christianity makes me ill. How arrogant that after the minds of St. Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, etc. we get a scholar? who thinks he can faithfully interpret revelation by throwing it out?
    It is not unlike Leonard Bernstein in writing his great music presupposing he could have discarded the methodology and musical logy of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach because he, Bernstein, is more qualified. Give me a break.
    Without orthodoxy what will we look like after “emerging?”
    Being loving little fuzzy balls would not have served the brave hearts of the great Reformers very well.
    There’s a time for loving our neighbor but also a time to put on the full armor of God and defend our faith. I say “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

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