N. T. Wright on Steve Chalke

Note: This post deals with some rather isolated points in Wright’s document. I think it vindicates him on substitutionary atonement, but I don’t think it vindicates him on some other issues. See this by Doug Wilson for further thought. [Update: see also an author response.]


And a lot of other things!Here is a lengthy snip dealing with Chalke:

One of the most lively and effective Christian leaders in the UK in recent years is Steve Chalke of Oasis Trust and Faithworks. When I was myself working in London Steve came to see me a couple of times, with an assistant. They had been reading my books on Jesus and wanted to be sure they had understood what I was getting at; clearly they were excited by the way I was reading the gospels and by the portrait of Jesus and his kingdom-bringing work that I was advancing. Steve then (together with Alan Mann) produced a short, sharp, clear and challenging little book called The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan 2003). He sent me an advance copy. Since – almost embarrassingly at times – the book follows quite closely several of the lines of thought I have myself advanced, though giving them a good deal more energy through shrewd use of anecdote and illustration, I could do no other than write a strong commendation. What I said was this:

Steve Chalke’s new book is rooted on good scholarship, but its clear, punchy style makes it accessible to anyone and everyone. Its message is stark and exciting: Jesus of Nazareth was far more challenging in his own day, and remains far more relevant to ours, than the church has dared to believe, let alone preach.

Part of that was quoted prominently on the front cover. I stand by every word I wrote.

Imagine my puzzlement, then, when I heard that a great storm had broken out because ‘Steve Chalke has denied substitutionary atonement’. After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God, upon which Steve had relied to quite a considerable extent, is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find. I shall return to this below, and to the puzzle that many of the new right-wing (so-called ‘conservative’) evangelicals have turned their back on the deepest and richest statement of the doctrine they claim to cherish, namely the one lived and announced by Jesus himself. But back to Steve Chalke. I was puzzled, as I say, when I heard about the fuss, because I hadn’t remembered Steve denying at that point something I had been affirming, and since I had been strongly and deeply affirming the substitutionary (and, yes, penal) nature of Jesus’ death I wasn’t sure whether I had missed something. I was prepared to say, in effect, ‘Well, I obviously missed that bit when I read the book, and if he said that I disagree with him,’ and to write it off as a warning to read a book extremely carefully before commending it. And so it might have rested, at least for me; I have been far too busy in the last three years to take any part in what I gather have been ongoing and at times acrimonious inter-evangelical discussions.

But, faced with the Oak Hill book, and its angry denunciation of Steve Chalke (pp 25f., 327f.), I thought I ought to take another look. (The show now runs and runs: on the day that I am writing this (April 20), the Church of England Newspaper has a letter from someone saying, casually, that Steve Chalke, like Jeffrey John, ‘denies penal substitution’ and thus undermines more or less everything else in the Bible.) I have just re-read Steve’s short chapter on the meaning of the cross within the mission of Jesus. He says many things I agree with, and, though he doesn’t actually make the main point that I made in Jesus and the Victory of God ch. 12, drawing on Isaiah 53 in particular, he does say,

Just as a lightning-conductor soaks up powerful and destructive bolts of electricity, so Jesus, as he hung on that cross, soaked up all the forces of hate, rejection, pain and alienation all around him. (The Lost Message of Jesus p. 179).

Earlier on in the chapter he had expressed puzzlement at how ‘basic statements of the gospel’ in ordinary churches would focus mainly on sin and judgment rather than with the love of God, and at the way in which the cross, seen as the answer to the punishment due for our sin, was becoming the sum and substance of the gospel to the exclusion even of the resurrection (except in the sense of a ‘happy ending’). Steve is not alone in this puzzlement, and with good reason. As we shall see, the Bible and the gospel are more many-sided than that. It is in that context that Steve makes his now notorious statement:

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is Love”. If the cross is a personal act of vioence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. (p. 182f.)

Now, to be frank, I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God’s love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

Clearly, Steve’s critics have taken him to mean (b), as I think it is clear Jeffrey John and several others intend. I cannot now remember what I thought when I read the book four years ago and wrote my commendation, but I think, since I had been following the argument through in the light of the arguments I myself have advanced, frequently and at length, about Jesus’ death and his own understanding of it, that I must have assumed he meant (a). I have now had a good conversation with Steve about the whole subject and clarified that my initial understanding was correct: he does indeed mean (a). The book, after all, wasn’t about atonement as such, so he didn’t spell out his view of the cross in detail; and it is his experience that the word ‘penal’ has put off so many people, with its image of a violent, angry and malevolent God, that he has decided not to use it. But the reality that I and others refer to when we use the phrase ‘penal substitution’ is not in doubt, for Steve any more than for me. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation’ in Romans 8.1 is explained by the fact, as in Romans 8.3, that God condemned sin in the flesh� of his Son: he bore sin’s condemnation in his body, so we don’t bear it. That, I take it, is the heart of what the best sort of ‘penal substitution’ theory is trying to say, and Steve is fully happy with it.� And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. What has happened since the initial flurry of debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.

Thanks to Alastair for the link. Indeed, I must cut and paste something else from the article because it applies to so much of what is going on in the Evangelical subculture today, not only in how we theologize from the Bible, but in how we understand (or don’t!) each other.

When a child is faced with a follow-the-dots puzzle, she may grasp the first general idea – that the point is to draw a pencil line joining the dots together and so making a picture – without grasping the second – that the point is to draw the lines according to the sequence of the numbers that go with each dot. If you ignore the actual order of the numbers, you can still join up all the dots, but you may well end up drawing, shall we say, a donkey instead of an elephant. Or you may get part of the elephant, but you may get the trunk muddled up with the front legs. Or whatever. Even so, it is possible to join up all the dots of biblical doctrines, to go down a list of key dogmas and tick all the boxes, but still to join them up with a narrative which may well overlap with the one the Bible tells in some ways but which emphatically does not in other ways.

One final caveat. While I find Wright plausible, I can’t be positive. I have not read any of the publications mentioned myself.

Additional Postscript (11 am): I don’t want to be upsetting about this, but since my name has been dragged certain places (with direct and negative consequences for myself and my family) by the anti-Wright Reformed guardians of the gates, I am going to mention this post. There is a lot at stake in certain people, who have been pushing charges for a long time (perhaps before they possibly had or allowed time for anything like an impartial investigation) who have a lot to lose if the Presbyterian public sees the Bishop of Durham as the gift that he is to the Evangelical world. Wright’s got his problems, of course, but the response to him in some circles has been quite–let us be mild here–less than right.

I mention this in the hope that at some point we can begin with a clean slate. No one needs to like Wright or to hate him. What we need to do is work think the system of doctrine that we are bound by and treat one another as brothers. The machine first made its appearance, remember, with an anti-wright tract that came complete with a guide for presbyteries to rid themselves of anyone who liked Wright (FWIW: one response and another). That was a beginning that has set the tone for everything that has followed. We need to get past it back to Christian civilization (I mean civil discourse within our denomination that actually honors our vows for both the peace and purity of the church).

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