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Jesus Christ or Steve Chalke: What is the Bible like?

Being consistent in what you think is really hard. But being consistent in what you think also really matters: it helps you avoid the kind of hypocrisy where you say one thing and do the opposite. It helps you make sense of the world. It helps you keep the most important things as the most important things. And if you think Jesus Christ is the most important thing in the world, it helps you think and live that out.

All this comes up because of a couple of recent articles by Steve Chalke about the Bible. I’m not concerned here by whether Steve Chalke is asking new questions (he isn’t – for instance, the morality of the Old Testament was criticised back in the second century AD), nor whether this is simply a modern cover version of 19th century liberal protestantism on the model of Friedrich Schleiermacher (although the resemblance is striking). Rather, the issue here is consistency, and consistency around Jesus in particular.

Steve Chalke calls for a global engagement over the Bible and provides two major streams of argument. One is a description of the Bible and the other is a comment on its place in wider Christian belief.

He describes the Bible along these lines: it is a library of inspired sacred texts. It contains a dialogue, not a monologue, ‘initiated, inspired and guided by God, with and among humanity about God, his creation and our role in it as partners.’ The Bible is not always right, nor inerrant nor infallible. It contradicts itself. The dialogue is not closed in the sense that there is a closed canon of Scripture. The Bible is ‘written by fallible human beings whose work… bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and cultures they live in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.’

On the place of the Bible in wider Christian belief, Steve Chalke comments that Christianity is not in the end simply about a book but about a person who is ‘the only authentic, true and complete reflection of God. Therefore we are called to live with the example, character and teaching of Christ – the full revelation of God – as our guide and our primary lens for biblical interpretation.’

Steve Chalke is profoundly right that Jesus is the revelation of God (see John 1:18) and that Jesus must provide the ‘primary lens’ for faithful reading of the Bible by Christians. My question is whether what he says about the Bible fits with what he says about Jesus. My answer is that what he says about the Bible does not at all fit with what he says about Jesus. This is because he does not see the Bible in the same way Jesus does, and to this extent he does not follow through on Jesus as the focal point of our faith.

Let me explain why. To begin with, there is Jesus’s understanding of the Bible with reference to himself. Thus in John 5:39 Jesus tells us that the Old Testament scriptures testify to him. It is therefore no surprise that he quotes from the scriptures, refers them to himself and sees himself as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. There is a unity to the Old Testament – the unity is provided by Jesus himself, who is the focal point of its testimony. The Old Testament writings cohere and given this coherence and unity around Jesus, it is difficult to say that they are theologically contradictory.

Steve Chalke’s account of the Bible does not deal with how it finds its unity around Jesus, who was the fulfilment of all God’s promises in the scriptures. At its sharpest, does he think the Old Testament prophesies the coming of Jesus? Nothing here shows that he does. At best, it is a point that he does not mention. But Jesus thinks this is absolutely central to understanding the Old Testament.

Further, there is Jesus’s teaching in Mark 7:8. Here Jesus sharply distinguishes between the words of God and the words of humanity. There is a difference between the word of God and the word of human beings. Jesus is addressing the Corban rule by which the Pharisees of his day suspended the commandment to honour one’s father and mother.

Now of course in the Corban rule, the Pharisees did think they were talking about God, and they were no doubt reflecting their experience. Their rule was precisely an outcome of their piety, as they would think. But this sincerity is not enough for Jesus. The point is, no matter how sincere they are in speaking of God, they have substituted purely human words for God’s words. This means that for Jesus, talk of God is not all equal. Some talk of God can be genuinely described as God’s word and other talk, no matter the intention, cannot be.

This in turn highlights a shortcoming of Steve Chalke’s descriptions of inspired literature. He speaks of it as the product of human beings in their particular settings and experiences, as well as bearing the hallmarks of ‘the transformational experience of their encounters with God.’ The trouble is, as Steve Chalke puts it, this would apply all too plausibly to the words of the Pharisees and their Corban rule. Their words, born out of their experiences of God (at least as they would see it), ought, according to his argument, to be on a level with the words of Moses, which Jesus does think of as the word of God. But obviously Jesus does not think they are on the same level.

I don’t doubt that Steve Chalke would want to say that the words of the Pharisees don’t really count as the word of God. No doubt somewhere he has a criterion by which the words of the Pharisees would not count as the word of God. The trouble is he has not said what the criterion is, nor where it comes from, and what he actually has said does not leave us with good grounds for distinguishing between what is the word of God and what is a purely human word, a word that humans sincerely utter about God, but which is not actually part of his self-revelation.

Lastly, there is the passage dealing with Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees, who deny the physical resurrection in Mark 12:18-27. Part of Steve Chalke’s case is the need not to be dogmatic or inflexible when interpreting scripture. But intriguingly in this case concerning the resurrection, Jesus is emphatic that the Sadducees have misunderstood scripture and that they are quite wrong. For Jesus, interpretations are not all equal, even when undertaken in good faith.

What is more, given the centrality of the resurrection in New Testament teaching, this is no trivial mistake. It matters. And Jesus is concerned to ensure that the Sadducees are refuted in their interpretation. Jesus seems to think that one can be a bit more dogmatic in biblical interpretation than Steve Chalke thinks tasteful.

All in all, then, Jesus’s attitude to scripture seems quite like the conservative approaches that Steve Chalke so evidently despises. At its sharpest, the problem here is not so much his attitude to scripture, but rather his attitude to Jesus in the failure to follow through his perfectly right initial point that Jesus is the norm for us.

Of course, the obvious ripostes to this run along the lines that all this does not allow Jesus to be a man of his time and that it all depends on accepting the biblical testimony about what Jesus said.

Naturally, we do want to affirm that Jesus was a man of his time, but given his claim to make the Father known to us, we do well to remember that he is not just a man of his time. If he was, he could not bring the kind of revelation of God that he claims to.

With regard to the objection that we are simply relying on what the Bible says about Jesus, we need to pose a question in reply: if we refuse the New Testament material even as only a historical indication of what Jesus said and thought, then in what sense, when we say we meet Jesus, are we talking about a real person in history? The risk is if we decouple Jesus from what the Bible says about him, then when we talk about ‘Jesus’, really all we are talking about is our own personal abstraction and ideal of what ‘Jesus’ should have been and should have said: in fact we risk making an idol out of Jesus. The exact opposite of what Jesus should be.

Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
21 February 2014

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