The Rev Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust and high-profile Christian leader, has been making waves in the evangelical world for some time now. First came his book (co-authored with Alan Mann), The Lost Message of Jesus, in which he rejected the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’. Then, in early 2013, he came out in favour of same-sex marriage.
Most recently, in a paper entitled Restoring Confidence in the Bible, he has attempted to articulate his views about the nature and authority of the Bible. Chalke’s stated aim is to ‘begin a conversation’. He thinks that evangelical scholars have known all along that the Bible is a book of diverse and sometimes contradictory teachings, but that its true nature has been withheld from ordinary evangelical Christians, who continue to take a simplistic, literalistic, view of its contents.
Please note that I have attempted to distinguish between my attempt to summarise Chalke’s views and my own response by putting the latter in italics.
Chalke has one eye on criticisms of the Bible from people like Richard Dawkins, and another on what he sees as the indequate response of the Church. He wants ‘to create space for a deeper discussion and debate around the way in which we work with the biblical texts and, as a corollary, who we understand God to be.’
I shall begin with one point of agreement. When Chalke rejects ‘inerrancy’ as a useful term for describing the nature of Scripture, I am inclined to agree, for reasons I have set out elsewhere.
What does it mean, asks Chalke, to say that the Bible is ‘inspired by God’, in the light of all the punitive legislation and violent conduct we find in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the ‘oppressive and discriminatory teaching’ that occurs from time to time in the New Testament?
Are we really supposed to believe that the world came into being in six literal days, as Genesis 1 seems to teach? In a footnote, Chalke says that in his ‘research’ for ‘it was nothing short of shocking to confront again the chasm in understanding around this issue between the scholars and the vast majority of ordinary church goers.’ Unfortunately, he does not provide any evidence to support this aspect of his ‘research’. In the interview, he says: ‘I had a conversation with quite an intelligent person who said Genesis 1 says the world was created in six days and if we’re not even going to believe the first chapter of the Bible where are we going to get to?’ This is, of course anecdotal evidence, based on a ‘sample of one’. Not very encouraging from someone who wants to bring the voice of scholarship to bear on the thinking of ordinary Christians. Some relevant data relating to beliefs about origins can be found here.
What are we to make of teaching that insists on disabled people being excluded from the priesthood (Leviticus 21:16-23)? Chalke suggests that the traditional method of dividing the Old Testament law into three parts – civil, ceremonial, and moral, with only the moral part being of abiding applicability – does not really work. He may well be correct. But the whole topic has been examined extensively and in depth by evangelical scholars, and they have not come to the conclusion that he has come to, which seems to be that the law was simply wrong at various points. See, for example, this paper by J. Daniel Hays.
Did God really order Moses to kill a man who was found gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32;36)?
Was it the Lord (2 Samuel 24:1) or Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1) who incited David to take a census of Israel? Is there not an obvious and unresolvable contradiction here? I shall return to this example later.
Does the author of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (whom Chalke thinks was probably not Paul) faithfully reflect the mind of God regarding the role of women in the church and in society?
There can be no doubt, says Chalke, that the Bible has exercised an immense impact for good over the centuries. But its teachings have also been used to sanction oppression of those of other faiths, rejection of scientific thinking, witch-hunts, slavery, apartheid and anti-Semitism. ‘And still today, [the Bible is used] to condone the death penalty, to keep women subservient to men, to incite Islamophobia, to insist on a ‘young earth’ – anti-scientific – six day understanding of creation, to oppress gay people and to abuse the environment.’
All of this, says Chalke, raises questions about the inspiration and authority of the Bible, about the picture of God that it paints, about its reliability as a moral guide, and about how it should be interpreted.
In order to ‘encourage a global discussion’, Chalke sets out a number of principles that he thinks we should be able to accept and agree.
It is the Bible as a whole which is the inspired Christian sacred text and we are to deal with it as honestly as we can in its entirety, not merely focusing on our favourite texts. Of course. Who would argue with that? However, in a footnote Chalke sets out his own understanding of ‘inspiration’ as taught in 2 Timothy 3:16. He asks if ‘theopneustos’ (God-breathed) necessarily implied ‘dictation’. Really? Even those older authors (such as Calvin) who refer to ‘dictation’ use it as a metaphor. Show me one evangelical Christian in a hundred who seriously believes in a dictation theory of Scripture, such that ‘God controlled the tip of each writer’s pen’ and I would be most surprised. Chalke himself is ‘convinced’ that it is the authors of Scripture who were ‘inspired’: ‘the stories in the Bible are told because each represents something profound for those who first recorded them. Each author clearly had a very real experience of and encounter with the divine and – through the lens, or filter, of their consciousness, culture, worldview, language and personal history – sought to capture that understanding and insight in words.’ But is it the authors of Scripture, or the words, that are inspired? Chalke needs to pay much more careful attention to the latter possibility, rather than blithely dismissing it as bound up with some ‘dictation’ theory. In a further footnote Chalke reminds us that we need to grapple with the entire text of Scripture, including those passage that we find difficult. Precisely: but Chalke’s repeated strategy for dealing with difficult passages is to deny their God-given truthfulness. Evangelical scholarship has tended to adopt the alternative strategy of really grappling with difficult texts in order to discover their God-given truthfulness. See below for some specific examples. In yet another footnote, Chalke expresses regret that Christians of all stripes have tended to gravitate towards Bible passages that seem to confirm their own pre-determined positions. My regret here is that Chalke himself has chosen to ignore vast swathes of Scripture teaching (including much of the teaching of and about our Lord) that would call his own approach into question.
We need to develop a sound methodology for interpreting the Bible. Of course. But there is nothing new here: generations of scholars have been doing precisely that.
It is a mistake to think of the Bible as a single ‘book’. It is, rather, a library of books, consisting of different kinds of texts written by different people at different times and in different places. We must therefore pay close attention to issues of genre and context. Of course. Lots of people have been saying this for a long time. But Chalke now slips in a very different kind of idea: the documents that make up the Bible form ‘an ancient, sacred dialogue – a giant conversation – initiated, inspired and guided by God, with and among humanity about God, his creation and our role in it as his partners.’ What Chalke has done here is following up three truisms with a much more disputable proposition, about which he will have more to say in his next ‘principle’. As an example of the ‘contradictory’ perspectives that can be found in the Bible, Chalke asks: was it the Lord (2 Samuel 24:1) or Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1) who incited David to take a census of Israel? Is there not an obvious and unresolvable contradiction here? This is in fact a notable example of Chalke’s failure to follow his own advice to read the Bible ‘holistically’. By accepting that these two passages might, despite appearances, actually be compatible rather than contradictory, we are we are led into a rich, if mysterious, aspect of the biblical revelation, as exemplified in the lives of Joseph and Paul, and supremely in the death of Christ.
The Bible is not ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ (‘in any popular understanding of these terms’). Well, as readers of this blog know, I have my own reservations about the appropriateness of the concept of ‘inerrancy’. But just look where Chalke now goes with this: ‘The biblical texts are not a ‘divine monologue’, where the solitary voice of God dictates a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to their writers.’ But whoever takes such a view of the Bible? This is a straw man. Neither, adds Chalke, are the biblical texts ‘simply a human presentation of and testimony to God.’ No: the Bible is ‘a collection of books written by fallible human beings whose work, at one and the same time, bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and the cultures they live in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.’ So we see the locus of inspiration shifting from the text of Scripture to its human authors and subjects. It is a fallible record of fallible people’s experience and understanding of God; sometimes they got it right, and at other times they got it wrong.
We can ‘celebrate’ the fact that God has inspired the Bible as ‘dialogue’, rather than as ‘monologue’. Unfortunately, Chalke does not clarify the participants in this ‘dialogue’ Is it between God and people, or between different people? The latter is implied when he immediately goes on to say that ‘as such we recognise that it contains various, sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant, sometimes even contradictory voices, each of which contributes to the developing story of humanity’s moral and spiritual imagination which, through this conversation is challenged, stretched and constantly enlarged.’ Well, there is nothing new here; this summarises quite nicely the critical/liberal of the Bible as it has been propounded over the last century or so.
If the Bible is to be read as ‘dialogue’ rather than as ‘monologue’, then it follows that those who read and study it will also seek deepen their understanding of it by ‘humble and honest discussion and debate in community’. At a surface level, who would argue with ‘humble discussion and debate in community’? But there is (or should be) a converse principle here, which Chalke does not articulate, which has to do with us finding and committing ourselves to the ‘thus says the Lord’ in the Bible. As someone once said, it’s good to have an open mind. But the purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth: to close it on something solid.
There is (or should be), according to Chalke, an on-going process of ‘conversation’ about God’s character and will as expressed in the Bible. Of course.
This ongoing conversation should continue to wrestle with new and complex ethical challenges that did not arise in the cultures of the biblical writers. Of course.
The Bible should be understood as ‘the unfolding story of humanity’s growing comprehension of who God is, who we are and what our role is in creation.’ That’s a half-truth. The Bible is equally God’s revelation of who he is, who we are, and what our role is in creation. Chalke goes on to imply that the same kind of ‘growing comprehension’ continues today, although, to be honest, he has not expressed himself very clearly at this point. But he does seem to deny any meaningful finality or completeness to Scripture, and in doing so discloses another significant departure point from an evangelical doctrine of the Bible.
It follows (for Chalke) that on various issues (such as human rights concerns) we may come to a different view than those expressed in the Bible. We must listen to the various voices we hear in the Bible and ask what God’s Spirit is teaching by their inclusion there. Yes, but this leaves unexplored and unresolved questions about how then we treat the Bible’s authority in such cases.
We honour and respect the contribution of those who have gone before us and brought their own understanding to ‘this sacred dialogue’. Yes, of course. But we do not do so in an uncritical or unchecked way. And we still have not be told why we are, in Chalke’s view, in the realm of ‘dialogue’ rather than ‘revelation’; or, rather, why we should not accept Scripture as divine ‘revelation’, and our own interpretation of it as necessary ‘dialogue’.
The Holy Spirit guides the Church in its understanding of Scripture through a dialogue in which ‘even unwise contributions to this conversation serve to challenge other participants to articulate better understandings with more vigour and clarity.’ Well yes, that’s pretty obvious. But Chalke seems to have forgotten that Paul, for example, seemed to think that there is also a place for forthright rejection of ‘unwise contributions’ (see his letter to the Galatians).
Ultimately, Christianity is not about a book, but about a person – Jesus Christ. As the full revelation of God, he is the ‘lens’ through which we seek to read and understand the Bible. Here is an unfortunate false dichotomy: ‘not this, but that’; ‘not the Bible, but Jesus’. But what if almost all of our knowledge about Jesus comes from the Bible? And what if he himself put his seal of approval on the Bible (including the Old Testament in its entirety?).
We should seek to continually grapple with the life, character, and teaching of Jesus as the centre of our biblical framework for our personal and communal decision-making. Yes, of course.
Our understanding of the Bible will develop over time, and our thinking is therefore provisional. Always provisional? What does Chalke make, for example, of the ‘We know’ statements that reverberate through the First Epistle of John? Chalke goes on: ‘Rather than placing our primary emphasis on immoveable statements of faith and defending doctrinal positions, we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the continuous task of honouring and grappling with scripture in community and with God.’ Notice here another false dichotomy: ‘not this…but that.’ What not a ‘both…and’ approach? – both a settled grounding in the essential truths of our faith and a critical re-examination of these and all those other truths and applications that flow from them. It is ironic that Chalke thinks that his avoidance of ‘statements of faith’ and ‘doctrinal positions’ will provide a ‘strong foundation’ as we face the various tasks and issues that contront us today. Putting that thought through the ‘Jesus-lens’, we recall the wisdom of building on a rock, and the folly of building on the sand.
Christian s will sometimes disagree over the meaning of Scripture and what it means to live as God’s people in our own place and time. But we will nevertheless continue to extend grace and patience to one another. Once again, this is a truism. The challenging bit comes when Christians try to work out the relative importance of their various disagreements, and at what point ‘agreeing to disagree’ is simply not good enough.
Our inclusion, and that of others, into the family of God’s people does not depend on us getting our understanding of Scripture ‘all right’. We are accepted not on account of our correct opinions but on account of God’s grace. Whoever thought otherwise? Even if we concede, as we must, that some Christians (and not just evangelicals) are over-dogmatic and ungracious in expressing their views, how can Chalke leave us thinking that, in his opinion, orthodoxy does not matter? For example, is it the case after all that if (as some think) there is no resurrection of the dead, we are not the ‘most miserable’ of men?
To understand the Bible as ‘sacred dialogue’ provides a more authentic and gracious approach that other, more dogmatic methods. Again, this inserts the unargued assumption that the Bible should be understood as ‘sacred dialogue’. What other, ‘more dogmatic’ methods are we talking about? And what do we do with all the ‘dogmatic’ teaching of the Bible itself, including that of Jesus himself?
Nearly there: Chalke says that ‘We [he never defines who he means by ‘we’] consider that the Bible should be accessible to all. It is the record of God’s desire for a dynamic conversation with the whole of humanity rather than a tool of exclusion. Notice once again the unargued assumption (‘the Bible is the record of God’s desire for a dynamic conversation’) and the false dichotomy (‘rather than a tool of exclusion’).
Finally: ‘We believe that the biblical text is holistic in its approach and, as such, is concerned with whole life formation rather than simply spirituality. Jesus came to demonstrate life lived well rather than to teach spiritual development or religion, disconnected from the rest of life and society.’ Again, if you put it like that, who is going to argue with you? ‘Jesus came to demonstrate life lived well’ – OK, but why the complete silence, not just here but throughout Chalke’s paper, on Jesus’ cross-work, which is given such prominence in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible?
Chalke thinks that there is a vast gap between the world of scholarship and the world of ordinary Christians, in their view of the Bible. He implies that it is only the ignorant who hold to a doctrine of ‘inerrancy’, whereas scholars know much better. This is simply not the case. IVP, which has been publishing high-quality academic works of biblcial and theological scholarship for many years now, is the publishing arm of UCCF, whose doctrinal basis includes commitment to biblical infallibility. The Evangelical Theological Society, founded with biblical inerrancy as its central tenet, has over 4,000 full members, each of which has at least a Master’s Degree in Theology. A quick survey of commentaries and special studies on Genesis, for example, lists 34 publications, of which 13 are identified as written by evangelicals who would be likely to affirm ‘the idea that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.’ (Glynn, Commentary and Reference Survey, 2007). So, ‘inerrancy’ (although I am myself cautious about affirming it) is alive and well in the scholarly community. Therefore, it makes my jaw drop to read (in the transcript of an interview) that Chalke says he had sent his article to a large number of scholars to review but ‘the one thing they all said was, “Do you need to publish this? Everybody knows this.”’
Chalke demonstrates an alarming lack of self-criticism. He is asked, in the interview, about his series of debates with Andrew Wilson: ‘has anything become clearer to you since those discussions?’ He replies by saying that it has become clearer to him that there is a ‘group’ of people who see the Bible very differently to himself, but he doesn’t think they are representative of the church at large, or of evangelicals in particular. Why does he think that? – ‘because the overwhelming response to me has been comments saying, ‘This is really helpful.”’ Jaw-dropping time again. We do not judge truth by a head-count, but it is incredible if he thinks that his views place him within the evangelical majority. Whose heads, I wonder, were being counted?
Chalke seems confused about the scale of his proposals. On the one hand, he seems worried that the Bible has been seriously misunderstood and misapplied by large sections of the evangelical community. On the other hand, he suggests (in an interview) that the ‘inconsistencies’ in the Bible are only ‘at the peripherals’. He says that the diverse teachings found in the different biblical texts are similar to those found amongst different medical text-books: they put things differently but ‘they all substantially agree with each other.’ Well, if that is the case, what’s the big fuss? What’s the point of this ‘global conversation’ that you want to stimulate?
Chalke provides no evidence or argumentation for his repeated contention that the Bible should be understood as ‘dialogue’. He places such stress on this idea that he really should have at least tried to explain and justify it. (I guess his thinking is influenced by Karl Allen Kuhn, Having Words With God: The Bible As Conversation, which Chalke includes in an accompanying reading list. I have found this by Michael Spencer that describes a ‘conversational’ approach to Scripture that Chalke would probably identify with).
Chalke provides no elaboration of his proposal that the Bible should be interpreted ‘through the lens’ of Jesus. At one level, I cannot see any Christian disagreeing with this. Of course Jesus is absolutely central. But of the various questions that could be raised about how this might work out, I have mentioned two: (a) what we know about Jesus is derived almost entirely from the Bible; and (b) what are we to do with Jesus’ own attitude towards Scripture, which he evidently accepted in its entirety as divine revelation?
Chalke’s strategy actually avoids thoughtful grappling with the biblical text by smoothing out or side-stepping the difficulties posed by various passages. For example, in debate with Andrew Wilson Chalke blithely states that when Jesus uttered the ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross he was not forsaken by God. But this is too easy. Much better to accept that there is deep mystery in this text: on the one hand, is true that Jesus continues to address God (who on all other recorded occasions he addresses as ‘Abba’, ‘Father’) as ‘my God’, and a short while later will say, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. But, on the other hand, there are clear indications that at this moment the Father did indeed ‘turn his face away’ (to quote from a recent hymn that Chalke criticises); note, amongst other things, the supernatural darkness that fell over the land. To take another example, Chalke tends to accept the historicity of events such that involving Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), yet refuses, despite the clear teaching of Scripture itself, to belief that God might have had anything to do with the dreadful punishments that were sometimes meted out. (In a footnote, he does entertain the idea that some of the more difficult events recorded in the Old Testament did not actually occur).
Chalke’s presentation of his views about the Bible is astonishingly negative. Although he claims to have a high view of the Bible, his paper is full of the problems with it. Despite it stated aim, the overall effect is to undermine, rather than to restore, confidence in the Bible.
It not really my place to judge who is a ‘evangelical’. I am alarmed by the ‘Bible wars’ that have raged, particular in the US, over the past 40 years. I am dismayed that ‘inerrancy’ has become, for many respected Christian teachers and leaders, the touchstone of orthodoxy. I would much prefer to see evangelicals focusing on the centre of their faith (that is, as Chalke rightly says, on Jesus Christ) than in constantly patrolling their boundaries in order to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But I think that Steve Chalke has placed himself at a very considerable distance from the ‘centre’ by ignoring too much of what the Bible teaches about Jesus, and too much of what Jesus teaches about the Bible. He still regards himself, and wishes to be regarded, as an ‘evangelical’. But there is very little ‘good news’ in his approach to the Bible.
Whatever we make of Chalke’s proposals, there is nothing here that is very new. Most of it is common-place – not among evangelical scholars, as he would have us think, but amongst emergent gurus such as Brian MacLaren. A broadly similar approach had already been taken, nearly 20 years ago, by Dave Tomlinson, in chapter 8 of The Post Evangelical. And liberals have been saying much the same thing for much longer.
See also: this article by Colin Adams.