Steve Chalke and The Bible
Part 1 of 2
One of the cardinal insights of hermeneutics is that we tend to read our own prejudices into the scriptures.
In short, we like to find ourselves in the bible.
Or to put it slightly differently: when we read the bible we expect our beliefs, ideas, convictions, doctrinal positions and so forth to be reflected back to us.
This is why some people think that God is a Pentecostal or High Anglican.
Scholars have long warned about the dangers of projecting our self-interests into the scriptures.
While some Christians have yet to grasp the basic principles of good bible interpretation, the wider Christian community is becoming more aware of ‘hermeneutical issues’—of the ways in which our reading of scripture is shaped by multiple influences that may include our denomination, race, gender, politics, philosophy, moral views, education or theology.
This means that there is no such thing as a detached, unbiased reading of scripture. We always come to the Word of God from some position of self-interest or other—even if we are not fully aware of it.
Hermeneutics is about making our self-interests explicit—bringing them out into the open so that we might see them for what they are.
Given this it is surprising to read the Rev. Steve Chalke’s hermeneutical strategy outlined on the website of Oasis Church, Waterloo (oasiswaterloo.org):
At Oasis, we believe that theology isn’t just a subject to study; it’s a conversation to explore. As a movement, rather than adopting immovable statements of faith and defending doctrinal positions, we commit ourselves to the continuous task of honouring and grappling with the Bible in community and with God. We seek to explore our beliefs through conversation, debate and dialogue.
At first sight this looks a generous, almost self-effacing ‘manifesto,’ but it is deceptive because it purports to be ‘neutral,’ and thus dispenses with the hermeneutical warnings outlined above.
Oasis’ strategy, we are told, is to conduct an open-ended discussion about God apparently without the kind of presuppositions that bedevil timeless, ‘immovable statements of faith’ or ‘doctrinal positions,’ presumably held by other churches.
But ‘statements of faith’ or ‘doctrinal positions’ are simply our beliefs about God. We cannot do without them.
Given that Steve has beliefs about the Almighty it is difficult to see how he can avoid having ‘doctrinal positions’ of his own.
His belief that God did not punish Jesus for our sins is a doctrinal position, as is his conviction that scripture does not condemn loving same sex relationships.
For Oasis to suggest that it does not adopt ‘immoveable statements of faith’ is merely to set its own theology in stone. For nothing is as immutable as the belief that everything is open to change.
Therefore a statement such as ‘There is a God’ would not only form the basis of a ‘doctrine’ but would also constitute an ‘immoveable statement of faith’ insofar as its denial would commit one to atheism.
The same applies in the case of statements such as ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ or
‘Christ died for our sins.’
To deny these facts would negate Christian faith. They constitute ‘immoveable statements of faith’—constant, necessary, unchangeable elements of Christian belief that make it possible for us to say something constructive and definitive about who God is and what he is like.
‘Immovable statements of faith’ (whether these are referred to as ‘beliefs,’ ‘doctrines’ or ‘theology,’ etc.,) are central to Christianity. Without them Christianity can neither be defined nor explained.
Another way of describing them would be to call such statements or articles of faith ‘revelation.’
So, for instance, apart from scripture we could never know that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19). This had to be revealed to us.
Doctrine or creeds open up the possibility of knowing and experiencing God because they orientate us towards truth.
A statement like ‘Christ will come again,’ invites us to believe that God has not abandoned the world. The reality of Christ’s humanity is similarly conveyed to us in the creedal expression ‘he suffered under Pontius Pilate.’
For Christians these ‘articles of faith’ are ‘immoveable’ because they say something true and concrete about God’s activity in the world.
Thus the idea that Jesus is the ‘Logos’ or the ‘Lamb of God’ will always feature in Christian theology because it is the case that Jesus is both God’s self-expression and sin bearer.
There will never come a time when this will not be the case. Just as there will never be a time when Jesus will cease to be the Son of God.
The reason Steve Chalke does not adopt or defend historic creeds or articles of faith however is because culture and society are ever changing—hence Oasis describes itself as a ‘movement’ in recognition of the limit and contingency of all human knowledge—including our knowledge and understanding of God.
Steve would thus views ‘doctrines’ or ‘statements of faith’ as data that might outgrow their usefulness—become obsolete over time, or at least need to change or develop in accordance with the prevailing Zeitgeist.
Theological pronouncements, therefore, cannot be eternal as creeds and doctrinal statements might suggest, he would argue. Everything is up for grabs because our understanding of God and the bible is a product of the age in which we live (as was the case for the authors of the Old and New Testaments—and for believers in every successive generation).
Oasis then doesn’t want to get caught out by nailing its colours to the mast as regards doctrine; rather it seeks to respond creatively to new trends or developments in church and society—hence its coyness about fixed theological positions that might be a liability in the fast changing twenty first century.
This however is a serious departure from historic Christianity where creeds, articles of faith and doctrinal positions were the means by which the truth of the gospel was preserved for future generations.
Doctrine is the warp and weft of Christianity.
The difference between Steve’s views and that of the wider Church is that the latter has always sought to codify its teaching. It is only by distinguishing true from false beliefs that we can confidently speak on God’s behalf.
This process began in the New Testament.
Jude v3 says: ‘I found it necessary to appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.’ Unlike Steve the early church attached great significance to ‘defending doctrinal positions.’
The theme of the epistle to Jude is about the judgment that will fall on false teachers who distort God’s truth by propagating error.
Similarly in Galatians Paul warns about ‘Judaizers.’ These were people who sought to entice gentile converts to submit to Mosaic Law in order to ratify their salvation.
Paul says: ‘to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.’ (2:5).
For Paul doctrine was something that needed to be articulated, fought for and upheld, because people’s spiritual well being depended upon it.
‘Creeds,’ ‘articles of faith’ and ‘doctrinal positions’ are littered throughout the New Testament—it is hard therefore to understand why Steve should have such a problem with them.
Take for example Philippians 2:5-11 – the most densely packed compendium of Christian theology in the bible
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
One of the earliest (and shortest) creeds however is preserved in 1 Timothy 3:16
He [Christ] was manifested in the flesh
Vindicated by the Spirit
Seen by angels
Proclaimed among the nations
Believed on in the world
Taken up in glory.
1 Corinthians 15:3-11 likewise emphasizes the importance of sound doctrine, in this case regarding the resurrection of Christ
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me… Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
This concern with doctrinal purity can be traced back to Jesus himself.
In the great commission he ordered his disciples to baptize all nations, ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matt 28:20).
Note here the emphasis on ‘teaching’ and the need for would be disciples to ‘observe’ Christ’s commands. This would be impossible unless there was a body of doctrine or set of beliefs to which they might submit.
Elsewhere Jesus refers to ‘the truth’ that sets people free (John 8:32).
The very concept of truth in this instance presupposes beliefs or teaching about Christ that stand over against false or distorted ideas about God (1 John 4:6).
Contending for the faith, therefore, is at the heart of the apostolic gospel and is one of the reasons why we have access to divine revelation today.
Through the witness and martyrdom of the first apostles millions throughout the world have found Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
Thus over the centuries Christians have come to speak of ‘orthodoxy.’ This is a Greek word that roughly translated means ‘correct’ or ‘right opinion.’
Because God has revealed the truth about himself to humankind in the person of his Son there are now right and wrong, correct and incorrect, ways of speaking about God (1 John 4:1-6).
This was especially the case in the early centuries of the church when it had to contend with various people who taught that Jesus wasn’t really human (Docetism), or that he was an inferior being to God (Arianism).
Christians believe biblical doctrine to be ‘divine revelation’ because it discloses truths about God that are verifiable in human experience.
Christian understanding of doctrine may of course deepen and evolve as new insights about it are gained through study, prayer, reflection and debate.
Thus a statement like ‘God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ has rich layers of meaning and nuance that Christians will always be pondering.
However the doctrine of the trinity is non-negotiable—or ‘immovable’—in the sense that we cannot change, alter or deny it without telling lies about God.
Doctrines guide us into right thinking about the divine. They give us parameters in which we might explore God’s nature, character and self-revelation.
Should we move outside these parameters we immediately fall into the trap of creating a god in our own image and likeness.
In I John 4:1-5:12 the author goes to great pains to explain what is acceptable and unacceptable as regards doctrine about Jesus: anyone who denies that Jesus is God’s Messiah-Son, come in the flesh has the spirit of anti-Christ.
Divine revelation (which Christians believe is given to us in the bible) is meant to put us in touch with reality.
The alternative is to peddle ideas about God that are purely human in origin.
Because Christians believe in divine revelation they vigorously defend the idea of ‘doctrine,’ as it gives them something concrete to say about God—something that won’t go out of fashion even as they come to understand God in ever deeper and richer ways.
Even so there should always be continuity between revelation and theology.
If Jesus, for instance, is revealed to us in scripture as the only way to the Father then our theology cannot admit of multiple redeemers.
Without ‘articles of faith’ it is difficult to imagine how one could even begin the kind of theological ‘conversation’ that Steve Chalke is seeking to initiate.
The question here is one of ‘foundations.’
On what do we base our understanding of God? If doctrines, articles of faith—or even scripture—is not our ultimate bedrock then what is?
Steve’s foundations would appear to be the community in ‘conversation, debate and dialogue.’
In short, humans construct religious truth.
This is a classic ‘postmodern’ stance, which I shall return to anon.
However, the ‘manifesto’ cited above is but an introduction to a much wider discussion about the bible that Steve has invited Christians to engage in, especially in the light of our rapidly changing world.
I would like to take up Steve’s offer of joining in this conversation—or continuing it—in part 2 of this article, coming soon.
Here I will respond to Steve’s controversial piece: ‘Restoring Confidence in the Bible: Can we use the Bible as a reliable moral and spiritual guide in our twenty-first century globalised world?
If you would like to look at Steve’s article in advance of my response head to www.oasiswaterloo.org/church/theology.