Ten Reflections on the Steve Chalke Debates
1. Steve Chalke is an extremely nice guy, who really loves Jesus, and really cares about people. I say this because there are a lot of people out there who, faced with a good person saying bad things, tend to assume either that they must be a good person saying good things, or a bad person saying bad things. Steve, in my view, is neither.
2. For the record, I wasn’t that worried by all the interruptions either. They’ve been commented on a lot, but to my mind interruptions go with the territory when you’re debating passionate people who are extraverts. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a whole bunch of people out there who thought I gave as good as I got anyway.
3. The uniform/cuneiform thing was a cheap shot, and I apologise to Steve, Justin and anyone listening. One of my elders picked me up on it, saying that it looked like point-scoring rather than serious debate, and he was right. I shouldn’t have said it.
4. Throughout the four discussions, the doctrine of Scripture was the key issue at stake. Even when we weren’t talking about it, we were talking about it. Theologically, we would both reject various popular-level representations of penal substitution, but I’d submit that our reasons for doing so are completely different: Steve thinks they fail because God simply isn’t angry with sinful people, and I think they fail because they don’t do justice either to the way the Trinity works or to the biblical material (particularly Isaiah 53). Pastorally, we both want gay people to feel loved and accepted by the church, but our ways of going about that are entirely different because of our views of the Bible; Steve affirms gay sex as possible for a Christian who wants to honour God, and I don’t. Our understandings of what the scriptures are, and how they exercise authority over us, are always bubbling away under the surface.
5. Methodologically, Steve’s argumentative approach – tell a story of an egregious failure, then leap from the awful-thing-we-must-avoid-over-here to the novel-view-we-must-embrace-over-there without acknowledging the number of alternative views we are jumping over – is a classic example of what Alasdair Roberts was talking about in his outstanding article last year, “Rob Bell and Don Draper: The Ad Man’s Gospel.” If you haven’t read it yet, and you’re at all engaged in theological debate in the culture, stop reading this and go read that, and then come back. Along with Carl Trueman’s piece “Is Hurt the New Hate Mail?”, I consider it the most important analysis of what’s wrong with much contemporary theologising, and what to do about it.
6. A number of readers, both here and elsewhere online, were cross with me for creating a straw-man in my subsequent description of Steve’s “Jesus tea-strainer” (Rachel Held Evans was the most well-known of these, but a number of others said similarly). Anyone who has read Steve’s comments since the debates, however, including his claim that for God to strike down anyone at any time would make him a “murderer”, would presumably now admit that in his case at least, I was not attacking a straw-man, but a very real (although in my view very silly) representation of the biblical God. In a similar vein, I stand by my choice to name Tony Campolo, Rob Bell and Brian McLaren as examples of those who would support Steve’s view of the scriptures, for the simple reason that they do (as these endorsements indicate).
7. With regards to the British conversation at least, I find myself wondering what to make of the statement on the Christianity magazine website (where the debates are hosted), that Steve is “a leading and sometimes controversial voice in the evangelical Church.” I don’t know who gets to define what “evangelical” means, nor who should be regarded as “leading voices” within it, but surely these statements are, at the very least, begging the question. Most American Christians who have a view of scripture that works at all like Steve’s – and most of those who have endorsed it – would acknowledge that the label “progressive” is a better fit for their view than “evangelical”, bearing in mind the way the latter word has typically been used. (For some very clarifying work on this topic, Roger Olson’s blog is a good place to start).
8. On a related note, it seems to me that Christian journalists need to tread carefully when it comes to stirring up, or merely facilitating, debates about core Christian convictions. In our very egalitarian and anti-authoritarian society, it seems obvious that anyone with a controversial view should be entitled to their day in the sun, and that Christian media should make the discussion as widespread as possible (especially since there are a limited number of things that will make ordinary Christians buy magazines or books, or watch online videos, as I know only too well). But without becoming a draconian evangelical thought police, there must be a way to also honour the spirit of (say) the Pastoral epistles, with their continual insistence that we not give airtime or platform to those who are undermining the apostolic faith. I don’t know where the line is, exactly, but I suspect that, when gay sex is celebrated, the Bible is pronounced full of mistakes and any reference to God striking people down is branded murder, all in the guise of “restoring confidence in the Bible”, you’ve probably crossed it, at least when you’re an evangelical institution. I doubt you’d find similar views promoted in Christianity Today (the outstanding American magazine which, interestingly, calls itself “a magazine of evangelical conviction”).
9. I’ve been taken to task by a couple of thoughtful readers and listeners for referring to Steve’s view as “postmodern”. I accept much of this: it is actually very modernist in a bunch of ways, and as it happens (perhaps confusingly) I use that word of him as well. I continue to use the word, however, for two reasons: firstly, it is central to his approach to stress plurality over singularity (it’s a library, it’s got diverse voices in it, etc), which is a very postmodern impulse; and secondly, “postmodern” is a temporal marker that simply refers to the generation we live in (much as Luther could be said to be “early modern” even though he was, in many ways, a medievalist). So that’s the story there.
10. Finally, conversations like this increase my conviction that training in biblical theology is a must for those who are called to preach, teach and lead God’s people. Not everyone needs a degree; not everyone will learn best by going on a course, even; but it is my observation that when nobody does degrees and few go on courses, the capacity to handle this sort of thing – to make critical appraisals of charismatic presentations, to draw clear doctrinal lines and define what is in and out, to spot where things are historically anomalous and understand why, to articulate biblical responses to challenging cultural issues, and so on – diminishes almost to the point of disappearance. (I also think that training in which biblical theology plays the leading role does a far better job at equipping people for these sorts of issues than training in which systematic theology does, but then perhaps I would say that, given that I run such a course). Anyway: it has reignited my passion for training, and I guess that can only be a good thing.
As ever, I’d be interested to hear your reflections on the debates as well. It’s good to be back!