Thursday, 20 March 2014

CHALKE & RED LETTERS



I’ve been away for a couple of days at our Staff Conference.

In my room was a copy of Christianity magazine containing the now-infamous article by Steve Chalke on inerrancy. I had glanced at this online when it first came out but have never had time to properly digest it until now.

 There’s a myriad of challengeable assertions in the article and I intend to touch on only a few here. The now de rigueur attack on the Bible’s attitude to slavery I have dealt with elsewhere. In fact everything Chalke says (most notably his historically dubious approach to the recognition of the canon) has already been hit out of the park a hundred times over.

 In this article we find a man who whilst once having been highly respected amongst bible-believing Christians is now slipping further and further away from evangelical orthodoxy. Without question he is someone for whom we ought to be praying.

 But if there is to be no reversal in his slide then the best we can hope for is that in years to come his sad demise into biblical apostasy will be used by God as a lesson and a warning to all.

Let us look at some of his assertions:

“It is very common, but hugely misleading, to think of the Bible as ‘a book’. The word ‘Bible’ literally means ‘the books’. The Bible is, in reality, a complex collection of historical documents, written over the course of at least 1,500 years”

But who in our camp actually believes that the Bible is only “one book?”

 The simplest saint in my congregation could tell Steve Chalke that his Bible contains sixty-six books. And in reality (allowing for the multiple contributors to the psalms and proverbs etc) we know that, in terms of original documents there had to have been many more than sixty-six. Since evangelical scholarship would never dispute this, why raise the issue as though he were teaching us something very profound & unsettling?
 "Why does the Old Testament contain so much material which, on the face of it, depicts God as fierce, wrathful, violent, and vengeful? Why does it so often report him as supportive of a justice system filled with oppressive and discriminatory measures?"

 But the job of an exegete is not to look "on the face of it" but rather to ignore superficial appearances & dig deep for the truth. Surely Chalke must know that this is not a rounded picture of the Old Testament presentation of God. Moreover we might also ask him: does the New Testament also not reveal to us a God of wrath and vengeance (2 Thess 1:6-10)? Has Steve Chalke read the Book of Revelation lately? 

Then the attack upon inerrancy begins in earnest,  

 “The idea that the whole thing was dictated, word-for-word, to its human authors, by God, without error or contradiction – that it’s ‘infallible’ or even ‘inerrant’ – in any popular understanding of these words – is extremely misleading. Both terms, unfortunately, send the world the message that this text must be blindly accepted without challenge. In truth, there is nothing in the biblical texts that is beyond debate and questioning, and healthy churches should welcome it. 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, whose only role is to copy-type…” 

 This is a classic straw-man approach.

 Inerrantists simply do not believe in a “copy-type” enscripturation methodology with a divine message that was merely “dictated word-for word.”

 The process of inspiration must inevitably be mysterious to us. The interaction between the human and the divine that produced our Bible is not a process to which we were privy, nor do the scriptures disclose much of it except to affirm that,

  men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21)

Chalke says that the Bible is the product of,

“the personalities, politics, prejudices, social understandings and cultural settings of its writers”

Aside from the reference to “prejudices” – I would maintain that the inspiration process would filter out those – I think that we should actually all be able to agree with that statement.  The books of the Bible are human documents which were produced in their distinctive cultural settings. No one disputes this.

 But the inerrantist affirms that in addition to the human element we must also see the overruling hand of the Spirit of God in their production, resulting in an infallible “God-breathed” Word. Whatever else this may have involved it was most emphatically not mere mindless dictation.  

Chalke’s central thesis is that
 “…it is Christ – his life, example, character and teaching – who is our guide and our primary lens, not only for biblical interpretation but for doing life.”
The implication apparently being that the Scriptures- especially it seems the Old Testament- are not able to fulfil this role due to the flaws in the men who wrote them & the primitive times in which they lived.

 I do not know where Steve Chalke stands on the so-called Red Letter Christianity that is espoused by Tony Campolo, but this does sound dangerously close to it. Revealingly Campolo does recommend Chalke’s article.  

 The thrust of both men’s approach seems to be that we can not fully trust anything in the Bible until we reach the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Everything before then was simply too "cultural." Only once we reach the “red letters” are we on safe ground. We must therefore build our lives upon these words only and not the scriptures in toto.

 In truth I find this form of methodology far more frustrating even than that of the out-and-out liberal who is at least honest and consistent enough to doubt the Bible in its entirety!

 There are obvious questions to be asked of it

 If the Bible is so unreliable then how are we actually to know anything about “the life, example, character and teaching” of Jesus since we get virtually all of our information about Him from the pages of the Bible itself? If the Bible contains so many errors then how can Chalke & co be certain that, "turn the other cheek" is not one of them?

 Is the assertion that in some way the Gospels are more reliable and trustworthy than the preceding scriptures? If so then Chalke is effectively declaring himself to be an  inerrantist after all. It is just that he allows for a much smaller canon of inerrant books than the rest of us. I can see no consistency to this approach.

 Secondly if it is Jesus rather than the scriptures that is to be the “guide and primary lens” for our lives then it is certainly legitimate for us to ask the question: what did Jesus actually say about those same scriptures?

 A cursory glance at the Gospels quickly answers the question.For what we find there is that Jesus time and time again pointed to the Old Testament as being His guide and primary lens!

It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4)

the scriptures cannot be broken” (Jn 10:35)

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female (Mt 19:4)

 Here then is the Red Letter Christian’s central problem.

 He insinuates to us that it is only the words of Jesus that are to form the foundation for Christian living. That only these can be fully and implicitly trusted. But when we read the words of Jesus we discover that He pointed us back to the scriptures as a whole to be our guidebook. By doing so He affirmed their trustworthiness.  

The Red Letter approach is thereby shown to be a hopeless contradiction.

 Lastly, we must say that this whole “Jesus only” approach of Chalke and others is predicated upon the perceived contradiction between the mean & vengeful God of the Old Testament and the gracious and loving Christ revealed in the Gospels- you know the one they mean- the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” figure who waltzes through Galilee with a fluffy lamb under his arm!

The problem, of course, is that it is only a very selective use of biblical data which can produce this supposed contradiction. Any fair evaluation of the God of the Old Testament would reveal Him to be a God of grace and love just as much as a God of wrath.  

And what of that fluffy-lamb style “Jesus?”  

How conveniently it ignores the smoking trail of roasted Pharisees, decimated pig herds, and blasted fig trees which runs through the four gospels!

 Where in Chalke's worldview is there room for the Jesus who spoke about eternal damnation more than all of those grumpy Old Testament prophets put together?

In short where is there room for the Jesus of the Gospels?