Let’s be clear: we worship Christ, and not the Bible. But to slide from that position to one which says that ‘infallibility lies with Christ, and not the Bible’, or, ‘the word of God is to be identified with Christ, and not the Bible’, is to get stuck in a quagmire of confusion. It is to set aside the testimony of Christ himself to the Bible, and also to place in serious jeopardy the Bible’s witness to Christ.
Yet it is just such a slide into confusion that besets Steve Chalke’s recent utterances on the subject of Christ and the Bible. In seeking to distance himself from what he sees as the misreadings and misunderstandings of the evangelical community that nurtured his faith, he resorts to misreadings and misunderstanding of his own.
Let us agree with Chalke that every sensitive Christian will have questions (‘huge questions’?) about some sections of the Bible. Let’s agree, too, that in facing up to these we want more than platitudes and special pleadings. We want moral and intellectual integrity. We want the mind of Christ. And let’s agree, further, that sometimes we have to say: ‘I’m not sure what God is saying in this particular text.’
But let’s have a closer look at where Chalke goes with all of this.
According to Chalke, there is a noble heritage of courageous people who challenged the accepted theological teachings of their day.
At one time, for example, the likes of Copernicus and Galileo were dismissed for believing in the ‘modernist’ and ‘unbiblical’ idea that the earth was not the centre of the solar system, and in a different century, Wilberforce and friends were accused of ‘liberalism’ by many in the Church for their stance against slavery.
Well, this is not a very good start from someone who says that he is committed to ‘an intelligent and responsible way to live’. Chalke seems to accept uncritically the mythology that has grown up around Copernicus and Galileo, and conveniently ignore the fact that Wilberforce (unlike himself) never allowed his social activism to dilute his commitment to biblical truth or to the biblical gospel.
Chalke spends spends some time circling around 2 Timothy 3:16, which teaches that ‘Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (NET©).
He asks: Does the idea that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ imply that it has been ‘dictated’ by God? I’m sorry, but this is just a straw man, because virtually no Christian believes that the Bible as a whole has been handed down from heaven like that. Let’s move on.
The Bible, Chalke reminds us, is a library of diverse books written over a period of 1500 years. These books, ‘for all their extraordinary consensus, also contain some conflicting, and even contradictory views…they bear the hallmarks of some of the limitations and preconceptions of their times and cultures’. What makes them special is that each book of the Bible (for all its defects and limitations) comes out of a profound experience of God on the part of its author or authors. In other words, it is not the Bible, but its authors, that are ‘inspired’:-
Through the lens of their consciousness, culture, worldview, language and personal history, their writing contributes to the development of humanity’s moral and spiritual imagination, which is being constantly stretched and enlarged by its growing understanding of God.
The view that Chalke is opposing here is the one that says that:-
the books they produced add up to some kind of infallible ‘divine monologue’, through which God dictated a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to authors who were no more than copy typists or automatons.
But, again, this a view that no-one holds. It’s another straw man. And it’s careless and misleading.
‘The word of God’
Moving on swiftly, apparently without noticing how far he has departed from the ‘intelligent and responsible’ approach which he espouses, Chalke asks if 2 Timothy 3:16 implies that the Bible should be regarded as ‘the word of God’. On this question
the Bible itself is unambiguous: ‘The word of God’ is a person not a book. On this all of the writers of the New Testament are agreed.
No. That’s wrong. ‘The word of God’ is indeed a person. But that expression is also used in the New Testament for the gospel and (wait for it…), the scriptures.
Chalke is, of course, entirely correct in asserting that Jesus himself is the key to Scripture. But ‘even as he spoke of fulfilling the scriptures’ (Matthew 5:17) Jesus is
famous for his numerous challenges to its actual text and attitudes. Why? Because they were all partial, and pointing to something better. They were pointing to him!
Here’s what we might call a ‘reverse non sequitur‘. Yes: the Old Testament Scriptures were ‘all partial, and pointing to something better’. Indeed, ‘they were pointing to him!’ But no: this is not a logical inference from the assertion that Jesus made ‘numerous challenges to its actual text and attitudes’. The few sayings in which our Lord appears to limit the authority of the Scriptures must be placed alongside the tidal wave of teaching which uniquivocally assumes or affirms its authority.
For Chalke, it’s not only Jesus who challenges some of the Old Testament Scriptures, but Chalke himself who denies the validity of some of the New Testament teachings. When he dismisses the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:12-15 on female leadership, I can admire his candour (“I do not agree” with it, he says), but at the same time shows that either he is refusing to wrestle with the more difficult texts of Scripture, or that, having wrestled with them, he has been defeated.
The argument that the Bible needs to be corrected by Christ is hopelessly circular. For, if we cannot trust the Bible when it speaks to us about gender and sexuality, for example, how can we trust it when it speaks to us about Jesus himself? We then have the Bible (in the form of words attributed to Jesus) correcting the Bible (in the form of words attributed to the prophets and apostles).
In the case of 1 Timothy 2:12-15, Chalke says that doesn’t reflect Jesus. But how does he know that? And what about the ‘hard sayings’ attributed to Jesus himself? Is he going to say that our Lord never said such words, but they were put into his mouth by the writers of the Gospels? Again, how would he know that? Once again, in judging everything else in Scripture by what he imagines to be ‘the mind of Christ’, he is ignoring the witness of Christ himself to Scripture.
Returning briefly to 2 Timothy 3:16, Chalke informs us that the term ‘all Scripture’ is ‘often read to mean applying to the whole of the Christian Bible’. Well, not by any self-respecting commentator, preacher, or Bible teacher it isn’t. Such a person would know perfectly well that the words must be referring to what we call the Old Testament Scriptures. But such a person would be entirely justified in pointing out that the New Testament writings are no less ‘God-breathed’ than the Old Testament Scriptures, on the basis of their ‘pre-authentication’ by Christ and their witness to him.
In the light of what Chalke has written so far in his article, it is confusing (and probably confused) of him to deny that he is saying that the Bible is ‘wrong’. He attempts to ‘get out of jail’ by saying, in effect, ‘I’m not saying the Bible is wrong; I’m saying that we are wrong when, for example, we ‘imagine that these writings are not impacted by the personalities, politics, social and moral understandings of their authors, we are wrong’. But who imagines such things?
Agreement – at last!
Finally, in his last two sentences, Steve Chalke says something with which I can heartily agree:-
Even when I disagree with others, it is by my love and respect for them, as Jesus explained, that everyone will know that we are his disciples.
[Detailed discussions of the kinds of Bible passages and teachings mentioned above may be found in various posts that I have linked to this one]
See also various responses by David Robinson, including this one.