In 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.)
The 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.
Chalke 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.
I work freelance. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?