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Keeping calm and carrying on

Initial reflections on Steve Chalke’s ‘Restoring Confidence in the Bible’

Many of us will be familiar with words of CH Spurgeon famously paraphrased as: ‘Defend the Bible? I’d sooner defend a lion! Turn it loose, and it will defend itself.’

In reflecting on the wisdom of whether or not to respond to Steve Chalke’s proposals on Scripture, let alone his summons for a global discussion, there is a large part of me which has been thinking whether there is really any need to yet again defend an historical, orthodox, evangelical doctrine of Scripture, enshrined in so many of our Christian church creeds, councils, synods and statements of faith which act for us as foundations, flags and fences.

Although I serve on the Evangelical Alliance’s Theological Advisory Council, the part of the evangelical Venn diagram which I inhabit day to day has no real overlap with Steve’s ministry and influence. Eyebrows may be raised, eyeballs will be rolled, blog after blog post like this will be scribed (no doubt with word-plays on ‘confidence’ abounding), but there will be little surprise over this latest development in Steve’s thinking which continues apace on its predictable and seemingly inexorable journey over the hills and faraway.

Whether it’s a polite, ‘thanks for the proposals Steve, but no thanks’, or a more forceful, ‘Nein!’ there will be no real and lasting impact here on the task at hand in making disciples of all nations. Keep calm and carry on. And yet, here I am blogging something, and I’m not really a blogger. Here are at least five reasons I feel I need to write something.

First, given Steve’s profile and following within certain evangelical tribes, it is important that those who are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by his statement are warned clearly and concisely the implications of Steve’s proposal. For many young Christians (and no doubt some older ones) this article and the edited version in Christianity are likely to create even more doubt and lack of confidence in the Bible. This is sadly ironic given the title of Steve’s paper. I hope there will be lots of people doing this and in far more persuasive ways than I can, but sometimes you’ve just got to say something.

Second, as a pastor, leader and public figure, the New Testament indicates that there is a special responsibility and accounting to which Steve – and indeed anyone in this role – should be held and scrutinised. Given the absolutely fundamental nature of the topic at hand, and in terms of theological method it doesn’t get bigger than the doctrine of Scripture, the stakes are very high and so again something needs to be said.

Third, and as Steve himself points out, it has always been the case that unwise contributions to a discussion can and do serve to challenge other participants to articulate better understandings with more vigour and clarity. Here is such an opportunity for which we must be thankful.

Fourth, it would be naive if we were not to register the more sociological and ‘political’ intra-evangelical agenda that I contend lies behind Steve’s latest pronouncement. To my mind, one of Steve’s aims in this article, as it has been with his other infamous pronouncements in recent years, is to poke and prod us as to the nature of evangelicalism: what it is, who it is, who is in, who is out, bounded sets, centred sets, etc.

While some of my friends have virtually given up on the name ‘evangelical’, I still think it’s a description worth defending, even if it is on the ropes with the referee getting ready to stop the fight. To mix horribly animal turns of phrase, the elephant in the room that I’m quite happy to name, is that if it looks theologically and sociologically like a bone fide theological liberal duck and quacks like a bone fide theological liberal duck… So yes, I admit it, I’ve been provoked.

Finally, I’m happy to admit a personal motivation in responding here. I was converted in the mid-80s into an Oasis supporting church in Essex. Steve took one of our Baptist Association house-parties. In the late 80s I spent two formative and inspiring summers doing sketch-board and street preaching on Oasis summer teams in London.

However, over the subsequent years, both as an undergrad and postgrad theological student in a mainstream university, a theological student worker, a theological tutor, and now a vice principal of a theological college in contact with a number of evangelical churches and para-church groups, I’ve witnessed first-hand the problems and ultimate bankruptcy of any theological method that departs from a properly articulated, historical, evangelical doctrine of Scripture.

The shape of my response (maybe in a number of posts), is going to resemble one of my short runs at the weekend. It’s going to start with a fairly weary and tired countenance (‘not this again!’), before being gradually replaced with a more determined disposition, as I focus on the subject matter in question, before finishing in a joyful and I hope doxological sprint finish. By that time, I think Steve’s proposal, will have been left behind in the distance – out of sight, if not out of mind.

So, the tired and weary section. First, before we can get to any substantive point Steve’s paper might be making, one has to be able to cut through a number of stark misrepresentations of historic positions, over-simplifications, non-sequiturs, false dichotomies, rhetorical flourishes, straw-men, examples of self-referential incoherence, and for want of a better term what I’m going to call ‘statements of the flipping obvious’.

However popular and ‘accessible’ the style of the writing (and we need popular and accessible scholarship), given the gravity of the topic, the above characteristics really are unacceptable and need taking to vigorously with the teacher’s red pen.

Second, the article demonstrates an astonishing historical myopia and lack of theological literacy, frankly bordering on the solipsistic. I don’t think I mean this sarcastically but just who does Steve think he is? Where has he been? Who exactly does he think he’s representing in all his ‘We’s?

Are we to take seriously the idea that the alleged ‘problems’ with our doctrine of Scripture that Steve reveals, with the corresponding implications for apologetics and discipleship, are new problems that have only now emerged in our cultural moment, thus needing new discussions, new proposals and yes, a new and ‘open’ doctrine of Scripture? To which I immediately say: Steve, I don’t know where you’ve been, but nice of you to join us. The storms we have supposedly been avoiding and the heads we have been burying – over the nature of Scriptural authority, over the nature of biblical hermeneutics, over the relationship between the Bible and culture, over how we give a faithful and persuasive apologetic to the Bible’s cultured despisers – are 2,000 years old and show the depth, complexity and refinement of such maturation.

Steve’s own pencil sketch of where he might be heading in his own doctrine of Scripture has long been inked in and painstakingly coloured in by others who have departed from an evangelically orthodox view of Scripture. There really is nothing original in Steve’s paper and in his proposals. It’s all been said before and said better (or worse if you see what I mean!) before. Steve’s proposal is not new, it’s not clever and it’s not all that humble.

What’s more, in the last few years there has been renewed vigour on these issues and at a very sophisticated level. Off the top of my head I mention the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, probably the largest gathering of evangelical scholars in the world, whose conference last November was on the very topic of inerrancy.

Or the very recent publications: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy and Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. And in terms of a faithful and yet contemporary and sophisticated orthodox evangelical doctrine of Scripture, where is mention of Don Carson’s tireless work in this area over decades, of Kevin Vanhoozer’s creative erudition, or closer to home someone like Tim Ward, whose brilliant book Words of Life is one of the best recent and accessible articulations of a doctrine of Scripture?

Any one of these blow Steve’s superficial caricatures high out of the water. Such recent debates or discussions cannot be written off as the obscurantism of ivory tower academics who are disengaged with real life. These are godly scholars, teaching and training and pastoring, and who are seeking to build up the body. Perhaps Steve knows all of this, but it’s hard to take his proposal seriously when it seems to be coming out of a vacuum with little recourse to the rest of the evangelical community and the work that has gone on for so long. It seems all so uninformed, and it’s so exasperating.

Of course, Steve is absolutely right that the Bible is a defeater belief in the mind of many in our culture, and that many people both without and within the church struggle with various metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions when it comes to Scripture. We need to be working apologetically very hard and in ways which are clear, persuasive and winsome. But many have been and continue to work hard, not once seeing the need, indeed recognising the futility of, undermining the foundations on which their apologetic rests.

I can mention Tim Keller’s apologetic approach regarding Scripture in The Reason for God, or again closer to home the world-class biblical scholarship of Tyndale House, Cambridge under the leadership of Pete Williams, part of whose work has included in recent years a Bible and Culture project which has been helping Christians in the areas of biblical reliability. In fact, as I write this piece, there are first year Oak Hill students recovering from an Old Testament essay deadline, the subject of which has been concerned with the theme of conquest and holy war.

To reiterate, is there a lot of work to be done apologetically here? Yes, there sure is. Let’s be more vigorous, clearer, winsome, more prayerful. However, capitulation to the latest zeitgeist has never been the answer. Not capitulating is what makes an evangelical theological method an evangelical theological method.

Is this dogmatic? Most certainly. Keep calm, carry on and continue to have confidence:

Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
When looking in, I saw upon the floor,
Old hammers worn with beating years of time.

‘How many anvils have you had,’ said I,
‘To wear and batter these hammers so?’
‘Just one,’ said he; then with a twinkling eye,
‘The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.’

And so, I thought, the anvil of God’s Word,
For ages, skeptics blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The anvil is unharmed—the hammers gone.

John Clifford

Dan Strange

Dan Strange
18 February 2014

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