April 22, 2014
It is one of the many wonderful and remarkable things about our God that he speaks to us. If he did not, there is precious little we could know about him (see Romans 1), and we should have no hope of understanding our lives, our purpose or our future hope. Indeed, we would have none.
Small wonder, then, that one of the key strategies of our adversary, Satan, is to corrupt, conceal or cast doubt on God’s words to us. He is called, in scripture, ‘the deceiver’ (Revelation 12:9), and Jesus calls him the father of lies (John 8:44). And his primary concern, in lying, is to deceive us about God.
His first recorded words to humanity (Genesis 3:1) are an attempt to misrepresent God, and an invitation to doubt his word. Satan does two things; he misquotes God, in such a way as to make him seem much less glorious and good. Then he tells Eve that God has flat-out lied.
He does the same thing now, every time the world tells us that the bible is an unreliable, unhistorical and antiquated joke, consisting of myths, fables and fairy-tales. But he doesn’t always come in the obvious garb of a serpent; he also spreads his lies, more subtly and more craftily, within the church. This ought not to surprise us – he loves to masquerade as an ‘angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14), and his purpose in doing so is to try to deceive God’s own people (Matthew 24:24). When apparently good men who have been used by God start to raise doubts about God’s word, we ought, then, to be alarmed. We ought to listen carefully, since we may be hearing, even in the words of a once-faithful servant of God, the voice of Satan. Peter unwittingly spoke for the adversary when he thought he was showing greatest love and concern for his Lord (Matthew 16:23).
And this, I think, is precisely the position Steve Chalke is now in – in particular in the light of his recent interviews on Premier with Andrew Wilson: Bible Debate #1 // Steve Chalke & Andrew Wilson. The latter interviews I will return to in later posts; for now, let’s look at what Chalke says about the bible.
He is clearly wary of calling it the Word of God; he thinks this language can confuse people. What he seems to mean is that it makes people think God was in some sense the author of the bible, with the necessary consequence that is entirely accurate, trustworthy, and true. (This is what evangelicals have always believed.) Steve Chalke thinks that is a confusion. He is at pains not to explain his view, or even to make it clear what he does or doesn’t mean, preferring to tell stories rather than reason. He doesn’t try and win heads with persuasive argument; he seeks to win hearts with sappy and sentimental parables. He reveals that his interpretation of scripture doesn’t come fundamentally from other scripture, but from life experiences which functioned as ‘eureka’ moments for him.
He claims to have a high view of the bible; but what that seems to amount to is just a) it is about God and b) when it says something happened, it happened. That is not what evangelicals have always meant by a high view of scripture; and indeed, it isn’t much of a claim. I wrote a spiritual journal when I was a teenager which was certainly about God, and didn’t lie about historical events. Is that journal on a par with the bible as a source of knowledge about God?
Orthodox Christians have always believed each part of the bible was written by both a human author and God – a mystery, for sure, but clearly taught in the bible itself. (Just like the incarnation, or the trinity.) That means that the (imperfect) human authors, under the guidance of God, did not unwittingly speak error or mislead us about God. It means that the bible is God’s own words to us, revealing himself to us. And since God is entirely truthful, so is the bible. Just 36 years ago, a huge conference representing the wide spectrum of evangelical Christians was held which spelled out this view with great clarity (see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy for their full, detailed statement).
But Chalke says that, while the historical reliability of the bible is perfect – if it says ‘such-and-such happened’ then it happened – it is not reliable when it talks about God. Moses wrote that God had told him to do something (Numbers 15:35), but Chalke says God didn’t say that. Moses was wrong. What Moses wrote was wrong. The bible is wrong. God’s word tells us a lie, at that point, about God; it says, God said something which, in fact, God didn’t (according to Chalke) say. In what possible sense, then, is it God’s word? No wonder Chalke is uncomfortable describing the bible that way.
And how does Chalke know this? Well, he says, you have to read the whole bible through the lens of Jesus. Sounds fine, doesn’t it? But the question must be asked, how do you know Jesus, except through the bible? What do you know of his words, and his deeds, and his life, except from the scriptures? Jesus makes it clear that he sees himself – his mission, his life’s work, the reason for his coming – in the light of scripture. He teaches that it all points to him – and that means, for him, that it is all as true and trustworthy as he is (Matthew 5:17-19). He says that when he goes away, he will send the Holy Spirit to make sure that the apostles can write truth about him (John 16:13). And he never, ever, suggests for a moment that anything in the scriptures of his day (the Old Testament) misleads or misrepresents God, or that it is untrustworthy or untrue. Quite the opposite.
Chalke, however, says that not only is the Old Testament riddled with such errors – written by people who didn’t really know God, who claimed to speak for God when they didn’t, claimed to hear from God when they hadn’t, and who painted a picture of God’s character for God’s people in God’s name which was wrong – but that the New Testament includes such errors, too. Peter, for example, in Acts 5:1-11, profoundly misunderstands God; and he is just lucky that Sapphira does, indeed, die. So Peter didn’t ‘get’ Jesus, and couldn’t read the bible through the lens of Jesus. Also, the author of Acts, Luke, didn’t ‘get’ Jesus, and couldn’t read the bible correctly (just as he couldn’t write it correctly.) So how on earth can we? Well, as it turns out, there is someone who does get Jesus, and can read the bible correctly. There is someone who does know God, and knows when God is speaking, better than Abraham, or Moses, or Elijah. There is someone who has rightly understood the character and work of Jesus far better that his own apostles clearly ever did. That person is Steve Chalke.
So, his argument goes, he knows Jesus (and thus God) through the bible, but the bible misrepresents God (and thus Jesus); so in order to understand what is actually true about God (and Jesus), you have to read the bible through the lens of Jesus (and thus God.) But obviously he can’t mean the Jesus of the bible, because the bible misrepresents Jesus (and thus God.) So which version of Jesus do you use as your bible-lens? As it turns out, you use Steve Chalke’s version of Jesus.
And Steve Chalke’s version of Jesus is not at all the Jesus that evangelicals have known, worshipped and obeyed for centuries – the Jesus Christians have always proclaimed. But that’s for another post.