Getting a Clear View

I have been thinking about a couple of the references I have made over the last few days (see my posts here and here) about the reaction to the EA meeting on 7th October to discuss Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus. It’s funny how people when they went to the meeting have seen it in very different ways, according to their initial view point. Of course, this really should be no surprise to anyone. We all come to circumstances with convictions, prejudices and past experiences which colour how we accept what we see or hear, whether it is, say, hearing a debate, meeting someone for the first time, or reading the Bible.

This last one is interesting. I have noticed that the people who write or blog about the Christian faith, and who support Chalke’s views, have their own prejudices. Like Chalke, they are real ‘love of Jesus’ people. In other words, their view of Jesus is of a man who was loving in a nice way, a pacifist who would not hurt a fly, had no interest in people’s continuing sin, against ‘religion’ of any sort, a ‘people’ sort of guy. For them, this is the true view of Jesus.

Contrast this with a non-Christian like Bertrand Russell. In his famous lecture entitled, Why I am not a Christian he makes some startling statements about Jesus. For example, he says,



There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance, find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of this sort into the world.

Here we find a man who looks at the gospel record and sees a completely different Jesus, a man lacking in the right moral character, a man who does not deserve to be followed. He talks about hell. He is not ‘nice’ at all!

Now, my point is not to try to highlight that fact that non-Christians like Russell misread the Bible but that Christians have their eyes opened and can see clearly. The paradox seems to be that Russell saw something in the Gospel records that many Christians don’t. That is, he saw Jesus’ teaching about hell and punishment in a way that many Christians choose to ignore or diminish. Russell may have been wrong in coming to a conclusion from the biblical data that results in him questioning Jesus’ moral character – he clearly has some other standard of perfection up his sleeve. But he is seeing biblical data that Lost Message Christians are not.

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Getting a Clear View

Evangelical Drift

Both the Evangelical Times and Evangelicals Now have articles on the current controversy over Steve Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Jesus. Neither article appears on their respective searchable databases yet. But they are worth a read.

In the former, Nick Needham (author of 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, a three-volume work on the history of the church) challenges Chalke’s view that penal substitution is a relatively recent theological innovation, and that the early church Fathers spoke nothing of it. After quoting a few of the early church Fathers, and showing that penal substitution was widely taught (thus showing only the tip of the iceberg, says Needham), he says,

Of course, if we could ask the early Fathers why they believed in penal substitution, they would have said, ‘Because it is in the Bible’.

Then there flows some key scriptural references. Pretty devastating.

The second article is a report on the recent public debate, hosted by the Evangelical Alliance in front of 700 people, on the Chalke’s book. Apparently, Chalke did nothing but confirm our worst fears. It seems that calls that he was ‘misrepresented’ were untrue. Everyone understands exactly what he is saying.

Not surprisingly, the issue goes wider than Chalke’s personal views. The question has opened up a fault line in evangelicalism in the UK. With the equivocation of the Evangelical Alliance over the issue, not only is the value of Mr Chalke’s writings in question, but also anything that the EA does (some would question the general stance of the EA anyway!). What used to be a marker of evangelical respectability (i.e. ‘We are a EA-affiliated church!’) will soon become a sign of liberal drift.

The EN article closes, saying

The Evangelical Alliance, and the wider evangelical community, must think seriously about his impact upon its unity, its theology, and most importantly, its view of the message of Jesus. We stand at a crossroads.

Quite.

Evangelical Drift

Losing the Message

Having trashed a couple of essential biblical truths, namely the reality of the human sinful condition, and the prospect of the wrath of God being poured out against sinners, Chalke (in The Lost Message of Jesus) seems to revert back to the historical background to the incarnation.

But how frustrating! Next he makes some excellent points about how the coming of a baby, the Messiah, and the announcement of the message completely ignores the diplomatic niceties of the day. No approach to Herod. No confrontation with the Romans. Just a baby, given to a young girl. The announcement is made to “sinful” shepherds, not the great and the good. It is truly a startling entrance. It is a great leveller. There is no privilege in the kingdom of God. All good stuff.

But having got rid of the spiritual peril, Chalke has to interpret this message in socio-political terms. The bad elite oppressing the ordinary man. This is man’s big problem, so it seems. Two quotes jumped out at me. First this one:

The divine scandal is that God is on the side of the ordinary people. He believes in them and includes them. (p.82) )

It attracted my attention because of the idea that God “believes in them” i.e. the ordinary man. But in this, the wrath of God towards them is brushed under the carpet.

The second quote:

The ordinary people of Galilee are not the evil, depraved and sinful failures as painted by the religious leaders. (p. 82)

Ah, sorry. My mistake. I’m sure the Bible talks of all being sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, but I must have misread that.

You can probably tell, I’m losing patience Chalke’s line of thought. I simply cannot see how he cannot see the biblical witness to the real problem of mankind. Yes, the story of the Gospels takes place in a historical context which serves to bring into sharp relief the contrast between the common conception of how the Messiah would come and the reality. But, that context alone cannot define the problem that makes the Messiah necessary.

Losing the Message

Good Point Ruined by a Bad Argument

Steve Chalke in The Lost Message of Jesus makes a big deal of the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and rightly so. Anyone who claims to know God yet does not show love must be a liar. God is love, as demonstrated by the death of Christ on the cross. This was the supreme act of self-giving for those who were his enemies. We too must love.

Chalke’s view is that the church has lost this essential ingredient in gospel preaching. It places far too much emphasis on the wrath of God and so men and women, as sinners, are in danger of hell. For Chalke, this seems to explain why the average non-believing person thinks that the gospel message is bad news.

I can’t speak for Chalke’s experiences of gospel preaching (though it reads rather like this was the kind of environment in which his own faith was nurtured, and which he then generalises to churches everywhere). It doesn’t really gel with my own experience. However, the idea that the world takes a dim view of the gospel is no surprise. I would just put it down to a different reason, summarised in Romans 1:18:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

The truth is suppressed, even repressed in the heart of man. He has a deep sense of the existence of God, even of his holiness. Is it any surprise that people’s concept of God, if they care to give attention to it, is one dominated by wrath?

I think this is where I basically differ with Chalke. At all times in this book, ordinary people are only ever portrayed as innocent victims of a privileged elite. It is almost as though these poor individuals are otherwise perfect without spot or blemish. All they need is freedom from their oppressors. Now, there is some truth in this. But not all the truth is there. Chalke seems to go to great lengths to minimise or even ignore two great truths. The first is the wrath of God. Yes, God is love. Amen! But God is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) (just as he is light (1 John 1:5) and is spirit (John 4:24)). This statement is made in Hebrews lest we forget that God acts in judgement. (To be fair, Chalke does give a sideways glance at the wrath of God, but it is very much in the distance.) I therefore cannot accept his incredible explanation of why Moses was commanded to hide in the cleft of the rock as God passed by. Chalke suggest that Moses may have seen first-hand the suffering of God and thereby experience such a strong sense of desolation that he himself would want to die. This line of thinking was prompted by Chalke’s own sense of desolation as he saw the immense need in midst of an awful slum. But here is a classic case of experience rather than context determining the interpretation of text. The truth is: God is a consuming fire.

The second truth that Chalke seeks to minimise is the sinfulness of man. This is made absolutely clear in the awful muddle over the original sin and original goodness. Everyone who has read some theology knows what Chalke means by “original sin”. Also, everyone knows in the context of Chalke’s discussion what he means by “original goodness”. But no-one with an ounce of commonsense would understand that “original” is used in the same sense in these phrases. Yet Chalke seems to confuse the two and present them as mutually exclusive opposites. The conclusion that he comes to is that one of them must be jettisoned. Bye bye, “original sin”.

So we are left with picture of God (largely) without wrath and man without sin. All in order to correct a perceived imbalance in gospel preaching. Is this a good argument?

Good Point Ruined by a Bad Argument