Taking Scripture seriously: Why Steve Chalke gets the Bible wrong

Steve Chalke has been posting a series of 95 short film clips to mark the Reformation. His aim is to encourage a conversation and in effect a new reformation in our approach to Scripture.

In video 10 he talks about the Bible being a library of books that reflect the faulty cultural views of the authors.  This means that:

“These books chart the long discussion between God who inspired, initiated and pushed the conversation forward and men and women created in his image.”

“These books reveal the all too often partial but at the same time gradually expanding human understanding of the character of God and what it means to be human.”

David Robertson has written a typically punchy response to Chalke here.

It is worth noting that Chalke’s views are not new – either to him – see Ian Paul’s engagement with him here or to others, see my review of Peter Enns’ book “The bible Tells me So” here.

In fact, the approach Chalke takes reflects quite a long liberal tradition, an approach which at times some people who identify with the Evangelical tradition have adopted. It’s an attempt to make sense of some of the challenges and harder readings in Scripture.

–          What do you do when Scripture seems to offend the values and morality of the culture in which we find ourselves?

–          What do you do when Scripture even seems to go against our values and morals as Christians?

–          What do you do when at an intellectual level, Scripture seems to contradict itself.

Now, my response would be that a thorough, complete and careful reading of Scripture will show that there are no genuine contradictions.  There are different perspectives on the same thing and there is a Hebraic, proverbial thought process which sets out the boundaries to a debate to allow wise, contextual thinking within the lines.  This means that if I find my morals out of step with the whole counsel of Scripture, then I need to allow God to disagree with me.

I also want to note that Chalke sets up a strawman in the same video when he says that to take Scripture seriously we must not always take it literally going on to refer to the different genres of legal code, poetry, prophecy, epistle etc. The thing is, a sensitivity to genre has been the consistent Evangelical approach to Scripture since the off.

However, I want to primarily focus on the problem with the central premise here that Scripture is a human attempt to record a conversation with, and a growing understand of God.

I want to identify key problems with this

  1. It disagrees with how Scripture self identifies.

Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God breathed…” The sense of inspiration here is not that God inspires a discussion by motivating people to engage in conversation.  Rather, Scripture is inspired by God because he speaks through the human authors. David in the Psalms is very clear that Scripture is God’s Word, something which is a light to his path and a lamp to his feet, something which he meditates on day and night.

The Biblical understanding of revelation then is not that God simply dictates, bypassing the character and context of the human authors but nor is it that God simply leaves humans to try and understand something about him and themselves, no matter how adequately. Scripture is both a divine and human work because God speaks through humans to reveal his character and purpose accurately, clearly and sufficiently.

  1. It raises questions about God’s character.

Isn’t God able to cut through culture and human failings to reveal exactly who he is? If Scripture is God’s Word then it can be trusted to be true and reliable because God is true and reliable. If Scripture is God’s Word then it can be trusted to be understandable because God is sovereign and a able to make himself known through revelation.

This comes back to the point that we can know truthfully even if not exhaustively.  This is important because there are two ways of describing revelation and knowledge as “partial”. I can know something partially because I do not know it exhaustively but what I do know may well be accurate because it is in tune with the rest of the knowledge that I do not have access to yet. Or I can know something partially in a way that distorts the true picture. My knowledge is not only partial but it is inadequate. A little knowledge then does a lot of damage.

Now, I would suggest that whilst Old Testament writers have only partial knowledge, it is not inadequate knowledge. We see this in the way that the Gospels point the finger at those who had the Law and the Prophets but failed to believe in Christ and the way that Hebrews points to those who believed in the promise.

  1. Steve Chalke’s approach fails to meet its own aims.

If Scripture is an imperfect attempt to record a conversation between us and God then I cannot rely on it because it does not actually record the conversation faithfully. God’s voice gets distorted by humans mishearing it.  Furthermore, if they are mishearing God, then even their own responses make little sense because they are responding to something that has not been heard. The Bible begins to look like one of those shouty twitter feeds with everyone talking past each other.  This means that the conversation makes little sense.

The Bible has no more value than any other person’s thoughts and musings on their perception of God.

It also means that because we know Christ and his words through Scripture that we cannot simply say that the bits which talk about him are different. Indeed, Luke who writes one of the Gospels also has Ananias and Saphira killed by God’s judgement, something that doesn’t fit into Chalke’s accepted morality. Furthermore, all of the Synoptic Gospels have Jesus talking about coming judgement and all of them have Jesus giving an even tougher rule on divorce and re-marriage than the Old Testament.

Once we treat Genesis, Numbers and 1 Samuel as mere human attempts to record a partial understanding of who God is and what it means to be human then we don’t have much choice but to treat Matthew, Luke, Romans and Revelation in the same way. In fact, that is the consistent liberal position.

Conclusion – Why does this matter?

David Robertson wrote an evaluation of Chalke’s approach for Premier Christianity magazine which provoked some response on twitter. One person took issue with Robertson’s claim that Chalke was denying that Scripture was God’s Word.

Chalke has responded on twitter to say:

“Of course I believe the Bible is the Word of God. The question is, of course, what does that mean?”[1]

We can answer that question very simply. To say that the Bible is God’s Word is to say that it is where he speaks. This means not simply that it contains his word but that it is his word, all of it.

God’s speech will reflect his character. God speaks truthfully, he does not lie. God speaks accurately, he does not make mistakes and God speaks clearly, he is able to make himself known. Because we have a great and good God who is not inadequate, we do not have an inadequate word from him.[2]

[1] https://twitter.com/SteveChalke/status/950267411885887488

[2] I have written more fully on what it means to say that Scripture is God’s word in our-book “How do you know?” This is available from our Publications page.