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David Robertson: Steve Chalke and I agree on a lot. But his errors about the Bible will have harmful consequences

David Robertson is keen to continue the dialogue between himself and Steve Chalke, pointing out the things they agree on before clarifying his position with regards to Steve's latest blog post asserting that the Bible isn't infallible

They say that jaw jaw, is better than war, war. They are right. We are too quick to demonise one another and we have forgotten the art of listening. Which is why it is important that the discussion that Steve Chalke has initiated about the Bible should continue and not just resort into the kind of polemic one sadly sees all too often on message boards and comments columns. For that reason I wish to respond to Steve’s latest defence of his position, which makes interesting reading.

Despite what may appear to be the case we do have areas of agreement:

1. We both agree that asking questions is important

What does God say? How do we know who Jesus is and what his will is?

2. We both agree that you are not a heretic if you ask questions of the Bible, or if you doubt and are troubled by some passages

We have to wrestle with very difficult questions. In my work I speak to many who have real and sometimes difficult questions. I don’t have a manual of clichéd answers “what to say when…” Like Steve I struggle with many issues. It’s what the Puritans used to call ‘wrestling’.

When I became a Christian many moons ago I was given a book with the title along the lines of “101 problems with the Bible answered”. As a young Christian I didn’t have any problems with the Bible. After reading that book I had 101! The problems mentioned were real; the answers were shallow and superficial. I had a mini-crisis of faith but then reasoned that, as I was a young Christian, I could not expect to know everything and that I should just trust God and his word, and over time I would begin to understand. Forty years later I think I’m down to about six! But Steve is right. We do have a God-given responsibility to think about these things.

3. We agree that Sunday schools, churches and theological seminaries should help people tackle these issues

I am sorry that Steve got no answers in Sunday school and even worse that, according to him, Spurgeon’s college, where he trained, were unable to help. Inadequate teaching in both church and college will always have consequences.

4. We agree that the culture, personalities and circumstances of the authors are to be taken into account when seeking to understand what the Bible says

Context is essential to understanding text.

5. We agree that the Old Testament scriptures point to Christ

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

6. We agree that it is wrong to take the poetical passages as historical narrative

There are different genres in scripture – history, law, poetry, gospel and prophetic – it doesn’t help our understanding to confuse them.

7. We agree that there should be open, honest discussion and debate.

But there are also major areas of disagreement between us: 

1. We disagree on the nature of inspiration

Steve too often sets up a strawman. For example in his treatment of 2 Timothy 3:16 he tells us that God breathed does not mean dictation. But who said it did? The ‘dictated’ parts of the scripture are few and far between – the most famous being the Ten Commandments. Moses, Paul, David, Peter, John et al were not ‘automatons’. They were human beings through whom God communicated (‘breathed’) his word. Their personalities, characters and cultures come through in their writings - but the Lord controlled the process so that he gave his word through them. They were not as human beings infallible, but the writings the Spirit inspired through them, are.

The choice is not between the Bible being dictated or being just a record of the prophet’s own interpretation and understanding of what God is doing in their life’s and culture – and often, according to Steve, like Moses, Luke and Paul getting it wrong. 2 Peter 1:20 tells us clearly “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.” According to Steve scripture is by the prophet’s own interpretation, which in reality is no more valid than ours.

Steve seems to believe in a progressive revelation that continues after Revelation. I believe in a progressive revelation of Christ through all the scriptures, which ended when the Spirit inspired John to write “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” (Revelation 22:18-19).

I believe there are no more books to be added to God’s infallible word. Steve believes that none were infallible in the first place!

2. We disagree that because Jesus is infallible, the Bible cannot be

Steve confuses the issue by setting up the one against the other. But if the Bible is not reliable then how do we know who the Jesus of the Bible is?

If the Bible is not reliable then how do we know who the Jesus of the Bible is?

Steve’s position seems to be that anything he doesn’t like in the Bible can be dismissed by describing it as not Christ-like. But how does he know what Christ is like?  

Without an infallible Bible an infallible Jesus is useless to us. Why? Because we could not know what that infallible Jesus is like, or wants us to do. It’s like being told there is treasure in a field but not being told which field, or where to find it! It may be there but if we can’t get it, it’s useless. We are left to the tyranny of feelings, traditions and ‘experts’ telling us what God really meant. Jesus told his incredulous disciples that it was better for them that he would go away because he would send another Comforter who would remind them of everything he had taught them. 

Jesus being the word does not mean that the Bible cannot be the word of God. In fact it almost demands that it is. Jesus has not left us with a mistaken, uncertain and unsure record about himself. The word has given us his word.

3. We disagree that Jesus was opposed to the Old Testament

Jesus was not “famous for his numerous challenges to its actual text and attitudes”, as Steve asserts. Instead he challenged the Pharisees’ misunderstanding, additions and distortion.

Ironically it seems as though the Pharisees too believed that the Bible was not enough and that we needed to have further revelation and interpretation in the light of the times!

In that sense Steve’s 21st-Century modernism is the same as that of the 1st-Century Pharisees. Jesus challenges both when he says “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35, NKJV). His attitude was to revere the inspired scriptures and to castigate those who perverted, distorted and misused it. 

4. We disagree about what 2 Timothy 3:16 is saying about the infallibility of scripture

It is technically true that the word ‘infallible’ is not used, but then the word ‘Trinity’ is never used in the Bible, but that does not mean that the Bible does not teach the Trinity. Likewise the term ‘God-breathed’ is clear. Just ask yourself– did Paul mean to teach that God breathes error?

Steve’s claim that the use of the term ‘all scripture’ to mean the whole Bible is ‘eisegesis’ (reading into the text a meaning that isn’t there) is itself eisegesis. It is true that Paul’s comment is about the Old Testament scriptures, but it is not solely about that. Paul probably wrote 2 Timothy towards the end of his life. He would have known much of the New Testament (not least because he wrote a considerable part!) and there is no doubt that both he and the other apostles regarded their writing as scripture. In 2 Peter 3:16 Peter describes Paul’s letters as ‘scripture’.

The truth is that Steve does not want parts of the Old Testament (and indeed even some parts of the New) to be the word of God and so he reads into scripture what he thinks it should mean!

5. We disagree about our view of Jesus and the Trinity

Steve’s Christology is all over the place. For example when he states “It is through Jesus, for the first and only time in history, we get to see and hear God exactly as he is”, that’s biblical illiteracy. Much of God is revealed in the Old Testament. Christ is revealed in the Old Testament. Of course in the New we see much more, but it is just wrong to say that it is for the first and only time we get to see God as he is. 

6. We disagree about the claim that saying the Bible is wrong is not saying that the Bible is wrong

Steve is being disingenuous. It’s true to say that the Bible is not wrong, we are. The trouble is Steve thinks that we are wrong because we think the Bible is not wrong.

I’ve noticed that Steve, in seeking to deal with a simplistic view of the Bible, often counters with a simplistic view of history. For example is it really the case that Wilberforce was accused of ‘liberalism’ by many in the Church for being anti-slavery? Steve is reading back into the 19th-Century, 21st-Century presuppositions and cultural norms. 

Final thoughts

These errors have tremendously harmful consequences. It allows Steve to pick and mix the bits of the Bible he does not like and enables him to have a Jesus who conveniently just happens to share his cultural views.

My concern in all of this is straightforward. I return to the quote I gave from Erasmus in my first article commenting on Steve’s views: “the Bible will give Christ to you, in an intimacy so close that he would be less visible to you if he stood before your eyes”.

Steve’s attack on the Bible as the word of God ultimately takes the word of God away from us and ends up presenting us with a false Christ, one made in our own image, one made in the likeness of our culture and society. The Jesus for our times is not a Jesus we just make up to suit the times; he is the Jesus of the Bible. You take away from the Bible; you are taking him away from us.

The Jesus for our times is not a Jesus we just make up to suit the times; he is the Jesus of the Bible.

In the discussion on 2 Timothy 3:16, and the definition of all scripture as being ‘God-breathed’, it is important to note the context. Paul warns about those teachers who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (v7) . He tells us that we are to continue in what we have learned from the scriptures that are suitable for all that we need to grow as Christians. 

Paul tells Timothy “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:2-5).

That’s a word from the Lord that both Steve and I would do well to heed! Proclaim the word, through his word. 

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Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.

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