Is God a murderer?

Steve-ChalkeIn the March edition of Christianity magazine, Steve Chalke launched what he described as a new debate the authority and interpretation of the Bible, and called for a ‘global conversation’ to begin. He has included some resources around this on the Oasis site. Some people have given the whole enterprise pretty short shrift:

There will be no real and lasting impact here on the task at hand in making disciples of all nations. Keep calm and carry on…I’ve witnessed first-hand the problems and ultimate bankruptcy of any theological method that departs from a properly articulated, historical, evangelical doctrine of Scripture.

Others, like Steve Holmes, have pointed out very eloquently that the ‘global conversation’ Chalke is called for has been happening, well, quite a lot over the last few years—just that Chalke doesn’t appear to be aware of it. He goes on to resist Chalke’s idea that, if only we thought a bit more, these problems would disappear and we would all agree.

The difficulty I find in debating proposals about the Bible is that, as long as you are talking at the level of generalities and ideas, it is very hard to really see the difference between one position and another. So I was pleased to watch the two (so far, out of a planned four) video debates between Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson, who is the Bible and theology ‘guru’ for New Frontiers. The first video focusses on the ideas, but in the second it gets interesting, as they debate the interpretation of a specific ‘difficult’ text, the stoning, ordered by God, of a man who collects firewood on the Sabbath.

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.  Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Number 15.32–36)

To see what is at stake, it is worth setting out the two ends of a spectrum of possible responses to this incident.

1. God can do what he likes. If he kills someone, because God is just, it must by definition have been a just act. If we dislike it, then that means that either we have not read the text properly and not understood it, or our values are out of line with the Bible and need to change.

2. This cannot be God’s will. So whoever wrote this down made a mistake. God is just and loving, and if the OT shows God acting unjustly or in an unloving way, then either we have misunderstood the text, or more likely, the biblical writer misunderstood what was happening. They might have been at an earlier stage of God’s revelation of himself, or stuck in their more primitive culture, but now we know better.

There are serious problems with both ends of the spectrum here. The chief problem with the first approach is that it denies the pastoral and human reality that we do find these texts repugnant. It really allows no reasonable questions to be asked, and it means that this text cannot be a model for Christian ethical action—or, worse, it believes it is.

But the problems with the second view are just as significant, though located in a different place. Rather than sidelining the role of the reader, this approach puts the reader at centre stage. It assumes that I have a more complete knowledge of the situation, the reality behind the text, and God than the biblical writers. It also causes a serious conflict between my reading of the OT and Jesus’ approach.

(There is of course a third kind of reading, which agrees with parts of the other two. This episode does reflect the will of the God portrayed, but that God, whether real or imagined, is repugnant and should be rejected.) 

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 08.55.44The video debate got its teeth into conflicting approaches, but did not really focus on questions of method in reading—though Andrew Wilson came closest to this. (The one issue that did come up repeatedly was the idea of ‘progressive revelation’, that in the OT people were at an earlier stage in the revelation of God, so their understanding was incomplete. It is quite a popular idea, though I also think it is highly problematic—but that is the subject of another post!)

When trying to make sense of any text in relation to our knowledge of God, there are at least four levels of thinking we need to engage with:

1. The text itself—what it says, and what it means in its context. (This is usually called exegesis.)

2. The whole range of issues about the text’s interpretation, that is, how we as 21st-century readers might understand it from our very different social and historical context. (This is usually called hermeneutics.)

3. How, once we have understood the text and how we make sense of it, this text contributes to our understanding of who God is and what we might try to say about God. (This is called theology.)

4. What the implications of all this are for how we try and live our lives as disciples. (This is called ethics).

The real difficulty with Steve Chalke’s approach is that he appears to be unaware of the distinction between these different stages, and in the conversation he was constantly collapsing them down into one process—you read a text in your Bible, and this immediately tells you something about God, right or wrong. The key moment in video 2 came at about 13 mins 30 s:

Chalke: Did God say ‘You should kill him’?

Wilson: Yes he did

Chalke: I think that is an appalling misrepresentation of who God is.

Chalke seems to think that Wilson, in answering his question, is dealing with level 3: what can we say about God? In fact, Wilson was answering a level 1 question: what can we say about this text? Wilson does go on quite quickly, perhaps too quickly, to do the level 3 stuff, in commenting ‘When God does things, no-one has the right to shake their fist at him…’ (at which point he is interrupted by Chalke). But he certainly does not express the extreme end of the spectrum in view 1, as Chalke appears to accuse him of.

Now this raises some key questions about ‘ordinary’ and ‘expert’ reading of Scripture. Chalke is no academic, as is made clear by his constant mispronunciation of ‘Hammurabi’, ‘cuneiform’ and ‘Codex Sinaiticus.’ (This is, perhaps, a reminder that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.) But does that mean he does not have something to say? Are academics and scholars the only ones allowed to comment on these issues? Surely not—but those who do get involved in the debate need to be aware (as Steve Holmes highlights) that there has been a long discussion happening for many years.

If reading the Bible is like driving a car, then the academics are like the mechanics who have been doing maintenance work understanding how the thing is running. Anyone who is concerned that the car is not running well has the right to pull over and open the bonnet—but if you ignore the manual or the mechanic, then don’t be surprised if the process is a bit confusing or frustrating. For me, the problem with Steve Chalke’s approach is that he is asking Sunday School questions—and expecting them to be resolved by Sunday School-type answers. A classic case was when he mentioned the contradiction in the account of David’s taking a census in 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24. ‘You see? It just shows that the Bible writers are inconsistent!’ as if that proved his case. At this point Wilson looked like he was about to explode!

The end of this discussion was the most revealing. If the writer of Numbers was mistaken, asked Wilson, then what about the other writers of the Bible? What about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? If God does not strike people down, what was going on there? Yes, said Chalke, the author of Acts was also mistaken. As of course was Paul (or whoever) in 1 Timothy 2. So it is not just a case of ‘progressive revelation’; any and all of the Bible authors can be mistaken. On what basis? On the basis of the revelation of Jesus as the personification of the love of God. The big question, then (which was not asked in these terms) is: If any of the New Testament writers could also be mistaken, on what basis can we know anything about this Jesus?

Several times near the end, Wilson characterised Chalke’s approach as being ‘postmodern’, on the basis that he was picking and choosing what he wanted. But I think Wilson is completely mistaken here. Chalke was very definite about what was true and what wasn’t—he was quite modernist in assuming that his truth claims had authority over Wilson’s position. He was also (curiously) quite clear that the historical events in the OT did in fact happen—just that they has been wrongly interpreted at the time.

380px-Adolf_HarnackChalke is sceptical about the inherited position, and sees misuse of it as an obstacle to people outside the community coming to faith. He wants the affective to take its place alongside what he sees as the slightly arid rationalism of evangelical approaches. This was exactly the agenda of the fathers of what became known as Liberal Protestantism. Friedrich Schleiermacher wanted to make Christian faith credible to its Cultured Despisers; David Strauss wanted to get away from dogma by exploring Jesus’ life Critically Examined; Adolf Harnack wanted to see the soul encounter God in a pure form, free from misleading biblical texts. The motivations here were all laudable; the results catastrophic.

I am not here attempting to offer a value judgement about what Steve is doing, just locating him on the map. When he says ‘The Bible is mistaken in attributing the actions to God that it does’, he really is saying that the Bible is an unreliable witness to the truth about God’s will, actions and intentions, much in the same way that Strauss, Schleiermacher and Harnack did. To that extent, he represents a position that most evangelicals have been working against for the last 200 years.

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36 thoughts on “Is God a murderer?”

  1. “If any of the New Testament writers could also be mistaken, on what basis can we know anything about this Jesus?”

    This, for me, is the whole problem with attempts to resolve such debates by appealing the Barthian view that the Incarnate Word is God’s ultimate self-revelation. In all fairness, Barth himself is obviously far more subtle in the way he connects the Incarnate, Written and Proclaimed Word.

    I’d love to see you post on “progressive revelation” and how this works out in our reading of the Bible…….

    • I will have to think carefully about it. My first concern is that it is inherently anti-Semitic, in that it portrays Jewish faith as primitive and uninformed…there is too an issue about the integrity of God…

      • If you do ever write about it, please carefully consider whether your use of “anti-Semitic” in this context is correct.

        “Antisemitism (also spelled anti-semitism or anti-Semitism) is prejudice, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews for reasons connected to their Jewish religion or heritage.” (Wikipedia)

        In other words, it’s a prejudice against _people_, not ideas. Thinking that the Jewish faith is primitive or uninformed is _not_ in itself an anti-Semitic position. (It may be a wrong position, but it’s not anti-Semitic.) To claim it is merely shuts down debate via the fallacy of poisoning the well.

      • Hi ian. in my research I have been wrestling with a related issue – the use of the Old Testament in the New. My particular focus is Matthew. Matthew’s Gospel is chock full of quotations, allusion, echoes of the OT. But almost never does he use them with the sense and meaning they were intended to have in the OT. Did he think the OT was not the authoritative word of God? Did he think its meaning could change and develop. how could his interpretations be accepted in Jewish community? Take the suffering servant, for example. Before Christ the suffering servant was understood to be Isael with all her tribulations. it wasn’t even considered to be messianic since the messiah was a victor- warrior. then I began to ask more questions about who wrote the texts of scripture. Fascinating. Scripture was not divinely dictated, it was handed down by scribes. These scribes were Levites, they did no manual work, but lived off tithes from the people. (Hence Matthew collecting taxes – there is overwhelming evidence from his Gospel Matthew was a scribe.. Scribes responsible for writing scripture worked in the Temple with the priestly aristocracy, advising them on all matters of religion, culture and the Law. They were the only people in Israel who had the leisure to study. They learned the Torah, the scriptures and the culture of Israel by heart, and they could write them down. They were the people who were the custodians of the Word of God for Israel and interpreted it according to the divine revelation which bore on the historical situation they were in. The Essenes were a community of priestly scribes in revolt against the secular domination of the Temple and priesthood. Scribes developed scriptural commentaries and interpretation and, significantly, apocalyptic which was a cryptic revolt against secular oppression – a way of conveying divine truths and opposition to pagan forces secretly. Matthew was a scribe – a scribe who brought out things both old and new from his treasure house. The Old was the scriptures. The new was divine revelation in Christ. Matthew’s sermon on the mount shows how Jesus’ teaching superseded and went further than the teaching of the OT. Paul describes it as a veil which has been removed and we can now see clearly. This whole area is fascinating. I can recommend Horsley ‘Revolt of the Scribes’, Orton, ‘Matthew the Understanding Scribe’. Going to BNTS Hawarden March 16 –
        topic use of OT in NT – should be fascinating.

  2. Ian, this is a really helpful piece, so thanks for representing it so well. I agree with you on modernism, actually, but use postmodernism both as a temporal marker (as in, “we are part of a postmodern culture”), but also because I think Steve’s view involves both a rejection of one source of authority and an overemphasis on the various perspectives and accounts within Scripture, both of which are broadly pomo emphases. But a fair challenge, and one that others have made too. Thanks for a good post!

    • Andrew, thanks very much for commenting. I am glad you recognise yourself in it!

      Yes, I can see that, and Steve’s certainties about the text are certainly an odd mixture. When he says ‘I believe it happened’ I don’t think he really means that. He is saying that the bare, visible events happened, but in both Numbers 15 and Acts 5 clearly strips other elements of the interpreted event out—and does not appear to be aware that there are no such things as ‘bare facts.’

  3. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’…..

    is not much of the problem that some views seem to have no place for any idea of God’s judgement and the fact that, according to traditional Christianity our own death is part of that?

    • Well, I found it interesting that Gordon Wenham, in his Tyndale commentary, links the passage with the comment in Hebrews about wilful sin. I just think we have to be really careful about linking such things with a too easy acceptance of death and judgement…

  4. Thanks Ian for the post. While I didn’t really disagree with what you have said, and found your post helpful in terms of laying out a general framework for approaching the debate, I was disappointed that you did not seem to attempt to present an account of how we should interpret the Bible.

    You outlined two ends of a spectrum, which both apparently have serious problems. What then is the synthesis or alternative position that avoids these serious problems? The advantage of not presenting a position is that no one can criticise it, but the downside is that we are no better off.

  5. Thank you for a most helpful post. I think it is very sad that Steve Chalke has got to this point (and I suspect Rob bell may be heading this way). My original memory of Steve in articles and Spring harvest (I think) was of someone emphasising the Love of God over against a somewhat Calvinist conservative evangelical view of the cross. At the time I found his views challenging and enlightening. I wonder what it is that seems to then lead to what many would see as increasing error. Is it the condemnation from one viewpoint that pushes you further or the lack of rigour in his theological training?

    I often feel that both ‘sides’ present Christianity in simplistic terms which denies the possibility of creative or extensive thinking, a form of Christianity lite. For me one of the most important reasons that I am a Christian is that it does not make life easy. A simple set of rules with a single interpretation is the complete opposite of the universe our God has created which is nuanced, complex and interrelated.

    Thank you again for your blogging.

  6. Interesting question about where to place Chalke theologically. I disagree that liberal protestantism is a good fit. That position wouldn’t put such weight on the concept of the Bible’s authority, or its historical reliability.

    Open Evangelicalism is a better fit. I suspect that the hostility Chalke draws arises from a fear among OE’s that they’ll “go too far” and tip over into theological liberalism. Put bluntly, OE’s use a hermeneutic that ignores parts of the Bible for the sake of its overall message, as with women in ministry, or the abolition of slavery. That hermeneutic tends to emphasize development in the canon. Chalke’s just run with it, and stated his views too bluntly.

    • James, as what most people would call an ‘open evangelical’ (though I just use the term ‘evangelical’) I can assure you that you have completely misunderstood my approach.

      As I comment in the post, and in my reply to Andrew Wilson above, I do think that Chalke has differences from Liberal Protestantism, but what he shares is actually an epistemic scepticism about what the Bible claims is true. It is just that Chalke claims he doesn’t!

  7. Oh man, I gave up on the debate halfway through. They are talking at cross purposes and neither seems to be very coherent. A poor show. (Unless the second half was better?)

    I really like your post on the whole, with the following caveats.

    First, no progressive revelation? And yet we see (eg) a developing understanding of the afterlife diachronically through the OT?

    Second, some category errors? Namely, in the “spectrum” and in the “four levels”. Both nice visual schemas, but perhaps both a little simplistic?

    The spectrum would be cute as powerpoint slide but no more and the two extemes are odd – as if at one end is the text pure and simple (the “objective”) and at the other end the reader’s perception or understanding of the text (the “subjective”). Really? You sure about that? Umm . . . .

    The the four levels. Can we really separate exegesis, hermeneutics and theology? Aren’t they rather in a sort of inter-relationship? I couldn’t say that one begets another in any strict sequence, but that they all form and inform each other.

    The issue seems to be one of a (or the) doctrine of Scripture. I’ve been told many times by evangelicals that it’s the word of God (indeed, that therefore it’s “living and active” – think about that, the Bible is independently alive and able to act? Really?) Equally, liberals see it as a human document that reflects the times and places it was written and is full of errors, contradictions etc.

    A good question might be: what does the Bible say about itself? Maybe 1 Tim 3:16 would be a good text? But, oh the irony, “God-breathed and useful” is a long way short of the evangelicals’ claims that it is the Word of God (capital W, capital G) “living and active” (the irony being that evangelicals are the sola scriptura people and yet have an unbiblical doctrine of the Bible.)

    Or we could look at the Bible’s use of itself – the way it references, quotes and interprets previous, earlier, texts. Authoritative, yes, but not always with due regard to original context or meaning.

    Myself? I like what Jesus says to the Sadducees: “You’re badly mistaken because you don’t know either the Scriptures or the power of God.” We need to know both. I believe the Bible is inspired and inspiring – uniquely so – but the Word of God? Hmm. I’ll give that title to Jesus, the divine Logos.

    • Oliver, thanks for engaging.

      I am not sure I would see changes in the understanding of afterlife as part of progressive revelation, but more related to changing social contexts.

      I do think that there is a move from a text-centred to a reader-centred hermeneutic; this is a reasonably well-known way of categorising approaches to reading.

      No, we cannot separate the four levels–but it is worth identifying what is actually going on in the process of reading.

      I don’t think I go with identifying the extent to which we see the text as ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3.16) as inversely proportional to the recognition of the humanity of the text. A good example of this is John’s gospel, which has far more contextual detail in it than the other three, and yet has more theological development.

      On your last comment, the problem is that Jesus, God’s word, appeared to think that the Bible was God’s word, at least from what he says.

  8. Ian, I accept that I may have misunderstood your own approach, but the “development” hermeneutic is commonplace among open evangelicals.

    As Malcolm Duncan put it in a ‘Thin Places’ blog post of January 21, 2013, in which his opposed Chalke’s approach to gay relationships: “The biblical story sets a direction of travel for women, for slaves, for divorce, for re-marriage, for Gentiles, for Jews and for a whole plethora of other things. It sets no such direction of travel for active same sex partnerships.”

    If Chalke puts weight in the Bible’s historical reliability, isn’t it less epistemic skepticism than interpretation? If so, that’s a thoroughly evangelical position!

    • The idea of a redemptive hermeneutic is not the same as progressive revelation. I do think it is quite common amongst evangelicals, but I am not convinced by it.

  9. This

    ‘Chalke is no academic, as is made clear by his constant mispronunciation of ‘Hammurabi’, ‘cuneiform’ and ‘Codex Sinaiticus.’

    Says it all.

    Elitist behaviour from someone who doesn’t actually answer the question.

    Dealing with Steve’s pronunciation of words is like saying that Pavarotti cannot sing because he cannot speak with an English accent.

    Answer the question or keep your thoughts to yourself.

    • Not so. If I said I had carefully studied the country of “Wah-lezz”[0] and had carefully thought-through views about it that were worth taking into consideration, you might reasonably conclude from my inability to pronounce the word the way everyone else pronounces it that I’d not actually discussed the topic with any real human beings.

      It is reasonable to draw some conclusions here.


      [0] More normally spelt “Wales”

  10. I agree with Alan Molineaux: your criticism of Steve for not knowing how to pronounce a few technical terms sounded snobbish and desperate. And then you wrote ‘hear’ when you meant ‘here’! Does that invalidate your opinions?! 🙂

    • Ah, so a typo means I haven’t done my homework and don’t know my subject…? I’m interested that both of you pick up on the observation, but not on the point I make from it.

      Anyone is entitled to work with young people, and anyone can make observations about young people and evangelism. But this is an area where Steve Chalke has experience and expertise. If I was going to criticise his approach, but without having looked at what he has done and made an attempt to understand it, and engage with him intelligently on his own terms, I think he would be justly aggrieved.

      Anyone can read the Bible, and anyone can raise questions about Bible reading. But what Steve Chalke is doing here is stepping into an arena where many people have wrestled at length with the questions, and he does not appear to have had the courtesy to ask about this before rendering judgement.

      The point he makes in video 1 24 m 25 s in is not trivial. He is asserting that Sinaiticus is ‘our best guest at what the Bible said, and it is different from the Bibles we have.’ That is, we don’t really know what was originally said and can never be certain. This is a very specific claim on the basis of technical knowledge–which Steve clearly does not have. And in fact he is quite mistaken here.

      So my comment was not a cheap jibe; it was making the point that the postmodern conviction that anyone’s view is just as good as anyone else’s, regardless of whether it is well informed or borne of ignorance, is a real disaster for the church, for discipleship and for our reading of the Bible. It is particularly disastrous for young people who live and breath the internet.

    • To demonstrate how wrong SC is on the question of texts, I have listed every major textual variant in the gospels here

      and comment on every single one. The net impact on our understanding of who Jesus is and what he claimed is virtually nil. All Steve needs to do is take 10 minutes out to look through this and he would be a lot better informed. My observation was not borne out of desperation.

  11. Of course a typo doesn’t invalidate your argument! But nor does Steve mispronouncing words. That’s the point I was trying to make (light-heartedly). Your fuller explanation of him getting out of his depth when talking about codices was both reasonable and helpful. But I do feel uncomfortable with the idea that only scholars can have valid theological views. For a start you and [insert name of distinguished liberal counterpart of yours] would disagree on lots of things so scholarship can’t settle a debate. Plus there are 1000s of people less theologically-educated than Steve Chalke leading churches and preaching and teaching every week.

    • Sure, but I don’t say that ‘only scholars can have valid theological views’. What we need to be doing is addressing the problem together—not having Steve offer only half-formed and half-informed solutions to quite complex problems.

      If he really wants to ‘build confidence in the Bible’ he ought to stop making the misleading claims that he does in these two videos…!

  12. A debate I’ve being having with a friend recently, which I think is pertinent to this article and the question “Is God a murderer”, is which is predominant: God’s holiness or God’s love?

    I think that both the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath and Ananias and Sapphira point to a Holy God who must judge sin; whereas, to (perhaps) over simplify Steve Chalkes position, these punishments are not consistent with a God of Love. To me Christ death on the cross being is the means by which God’s Love reconciles us to His holiness (you can probably gather which side of the fence I’m sitting on). Any thoughts?

  13. While listening to the second video discussion, which is where the three men are debating the passage, I’m curious as to why none of them considered the priestly practice of using the urim and thummim (casting lots) in decision making (see Exo. 28:30 and Psa. 16:33). This was a practice of many ancient Near Eastern religions, and, most notably for this discussion, it was by the Egyptians when seeking answers from Shai, the Egyptian god of destiny.

    It is probable that the ancient Hebrews brought this Egyptian form of decision making with them. Later on in Jewish and Gentile Christian practices, wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit replaced the use of casting lots in most situations, but it was still being used (see Acts 1:21-26).

    Perhaps casting lots was a crude and archaic form of “hearing God’s answers,” but it was what they trusted, and likely what they used to decide what to do with the man who was caught carrying wood on the Sabbath. I would even say in the days of Moses, just as in the days of Jesus, the spirit of the law was much more in tune with the decisions of God than the letter of the law, but early in Israel’s history, Hebrew leaders were much more willing to go with the letter or allowing “chance” to speak for God rather than trust in their own God-given compassion.

  14. what is “good” “just” and “evil” ? Murder, we consider in this world to be “evil”
    we will never understand God, but suffice to say He is the Fundmaental of Good .. that is, if we have any doubt about whether an action is “right” or “wrong” and we will all have this doubt because we are human, then we look to God, who is always right because he is God

  15. ”For me, the problem with Steve Chalke’s approach is that he is asking Sunday School questions—and expecting them to be resolved by Sunday School-type answers.”

    Hammer, nail, head comes to mind here.

    The above quote neatly encapsulates Chalke’s misunderstanding of the Bible and it’s inerrant truth. Chalke appears to be misled, that is if we hold to classical/orthodox Christianity. sad.


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