Restoring our confidence in the Bible? (A matter of integrity)

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We can use the Bible as a reliable moral and spiritual guide in our 21st century globalised world.

It happens often. Over coffee, in bars, trains, planes, automobiles, during conferences and after church services; People of all ages and backgrounds across the world are engaging in conversations whilst being faced with the same dilemma: The Bible.

Fact and/or fiction? Moral or immoral? Literal and/or allegorical? Genuine, accurate revelatory account of the truth about who God is, or not? The question burning in so many hearts and minds is: can we trust the Bible?

The issue is not confined to scenarios involving Christians and non-Christians. On the contrary, any church with even a vague connection to western culture and mass media influence is forced to wrestle with seemingly conflicting perspectives on what constitutes scripture, how to read and interpret it, and what (if any) relevance it has with regards to engaging popular culture in a scientific, information rich age. For many Christians, the strain is too much and they have capitulated to the seemingly relentless, spiritual and cultural pressures seeking to replace their diet of biblical truth with outright lies and compromise.

Sadly, the uncertainty of the world is sweeping people away with a mixture of ignorance and information overload. It is impossible to avoid the coming storm already facing the church. The only fitting question then, is how will she respond?

Steve Chalke has recently presented a position paper which (as I’m sure any savvy reader will have already noticed) I have attempted to slavishly paraphrase in my response to his thoughts at the start of this post. I have read both abridged and full versions of his demands for every church to adopt his “open Bible principles”, in order to be considered as having “an authentic approach to contemporary biblical literacy”. You can find both original articles here.

On the basis of my (admittedly limited) understanding of his argument, he has appealed to a broad range of ideas to justify his position. This is how I initially interpreted a selection of them which stood out to me (I realise that I may have unfairly caricatured his reasoning, and these points are in no particular order):

1. Due to difficulties and tensions in the biblical text (particularly the Old testament), and various historic misuses of it we should question the trustworthiness of the Bible and assert our superior, collective modern intellect(s) and perspective(s) over it. In other words we should blame the Bible for our lack of understanding and project the mistakes made by our ancestors onto the biblical text.

2. Locating the ultimate authority of whether or not to accept, and how to define biblical truth within individual church communities (rather than within the text itself).

3. Giving preference to human reasoning (even if it is at odds with the Bible) and prevailing cultural forces over and above scriptural truth.

4. Questioning the authenticity of the biblical canon (and therefore the authority of the Bible) based upon differences (which are not overly significant doctrinally) between the biblical canon recognised by Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

5. Asserting that biblical revelation is ongoing and that the canon is effectively not closed.

6. The Bible is a giant conversation, and therefore its authority and witness is subjective and relativized.

7. Doctrine bears no relevance towards salvation, and defending doctrinal positions is divisive, ultimately leaving an unhelpful legacy.

Presumably, the stance he takes (and demands that any “serious” reader of Scripture must take) is under girded by his affirmation that “we do not believe that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallible’ in any popular understanding of these terms”.

Due to this statement, amongst others, it is with a heavy heart that I must respectfully, and wholeheartedly disagree with the majority of Steve Chalke’s “open Bible principles”, his definition of scripture, and the implication he makes that to anyone who “wants to take the Bible seriously” must align with his perspective. I reject that assertion, the presuppositions which underpin it, and the authority it attempts to take over my perception of Scripture.

Whilst I acknowledge and respect Steve Chalke’s ongoing humanitarian work, particularly with regards to fighting against trafficking and ministering to the poor, I cannot with good conscience accept his conclusions with regards to Scripture. I wish him no ill will, or animosity. I have no desire to disparage or demonise him. I also do not entirely disagree with every point he has made in this article, particularly with regards to pursuing a Christo-centric approach towards discipleship, and showing grace and patience towards those whom we disagree with in theological matters.

Needless to say that this article, and the general thrust of Steve Chalke’s push away from a biblical model of sexuality (see his recent article called “a matter of integrity” here.) has left me feeling profoundly troubled. Where he is calling for dialogue, I fear that what is needed instead is genuine, loving, Christlike correction.

I am afraid to say that I believe Steve Chalke, and others who uncritically endorse these open Bible principles and are attempting to push them on the wider body of Christ as a necessary pretext for dialogue, are in danger of sowing more seeds of division than they realise. I fear that they are pushing in a direction which presents a very real danger of leading them (and others) away from the historic centre of Christian orthodoxy. I am concerned that unless they prayerfully, humbly repent of the direction that they are heading in, that they will end up in a state described by the apostle Paul, whereby they have “made shipwreck” of their faith (1 Tim 1:19).

Rather than restoring our confidence in the Bible, I also fear that this article and the implications it has going forward for the wider body of Christ, will actually lead to increased confusion regarding the biblical text. I would humbly submit that many of these open Bible principles have the potential to cause further erosion of our confidence in Scripture. I cannot see how this will be a positive step forward in the ongoing conversation surrounding the nature and veracity of the Bible.

A friend kindly pointed out to me that Steve is arguing for a consistent, patient and gracious strategy with regard to our hermeneutics (what the Bible means for us today) as we interpret Scripture in community. Whilst I would agree with this in principle, I am not persuaded that the ‘open Bible principles’ which Steve has outlined in his paper will lead us toward this laudable goal.

If anything it seems to me that the thrust of this paper is attempting to override sound exegesis (what the Bible was likely to mean for its original audience) with Steve Chalke’s particular understanding of hermeneutics. In other words if something seems not to make sense to us now, from a postmodern, Western cultural perspective (such as the coherent sexual ethic communicated by the Bible, to believers in their original contexts) then Scripture must be wrong and we should redefine or disregard its teaching on that topic. I fear that the logical end result of this trajectory is that ultimately, Scripture will no longer be our final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

A further aspect of Steve’s argument which my friend graciously pointed out to me, was that Scripture is not “the word of God”, Jesus is. Whilst this sounds compelling, in reality, it is a false dichotomy. True, Jesus is described in John’s gospel as being “the Word of God”. The original Greek word in this context is ‘logos’. One of the various meanings we can infer from ‘logos’ is “a word which, uttered by the living voice, embodies a conception or idea” (Strongs Greek). If this is what is meant when Scripture defines Jesus as the word of God, then he embodies a conception or idea spoken by God. I don’t think many Christians would disagree with this.

Unfortunately for Steve’s argument, Scripture is also defined as being “the Word of God”, by Jesus himself (Luke 8:11, 21, 11:28, Mark 7:13, Matt 15:6). In fact, we find that the same Greek word being used in John’s Gospel to define Jesus is also used in each of these examples to define Scripture. Thus, both Jesus and Scripture are defined as the word of God. I would tend to side with the apostle Paul when he the uses the phrase “the whole counsel of God” as a definition of the complete, unabridged gospel message running through all of Scripture, which points to and finds its fulfilment in Jesus (Acts 20:27).

Therefore, to pit Jesus against Scripture is not consistent with Jesus’ own teaching (Matt 5:17-20). Whilst there is undoubtedly a distinction between Scripture as the revealed word of God, bearing witness to Jesus as “the word of God”, it’s simply not true to say that Scripture is not the word of God, because Jesus is also described as the word of God.

If we’re being intellectually honest, this area of study and tension is a massive one, which cannot be easily dismissed or resolved by Steve’s short point defining Jesus as the word of God, and Scripture as a historical collection of texts which have been deemed sacred purely on the basis of their acceptance by specific communities. The implication that we can redefine Scripture in this way, thus voiding the authority of passages we find difficult or uncomfortable, provided that we love Jesus, seems to be at odds with Jesus’ own words and definition of Scripture. I would tentatively lean towards a ‘both/and’, rather than an ‘either/or’ scenario when it comes to defining Scripture or Jesus as the word of God.

As a fledging theology student I feel under qualified, preoccupied, and too inexperienced in ministry to write in any greater depth on this specific matter. Those whom God has called to do so can answer Steve Chalke’s paper more directly and thoroughly. Instead, I shall end this post with some thoughts which sprung to mind when I read his paper recently. In true dialogical, discursive fashion, I thought I would simply let the Bible itself, as it were, answer some of Chalke’s statements. So, without further ado:

Steve Chalke:

“Honouring scripture is never to insist on unanimity in understanding it.”

1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

Romans 16:17 ESV:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

Steve Chalke:

“.. The result of all this is that – just like Wilberforce – we may sometimes come to a developed, or even different, view from some of those contained in the canon of scripture.”

2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. [Emphasis added).

Steve Chalke:

“The biblical texts are not a ‘divine monologue’; where the solitary voice of God dictates a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to their writers, whose only role is to copy-type. But nor are they simply a human presentation of and testimony to God. Rather, in my view, they are most faithfully engaged with as a collection of books written by fallible human beings whose work bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and the cultures they lived in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.” [Emphasis added].

“It is through an acceptance of the humanness of our sacred text, rather than a denial of it, that we discover God’s inspiration.”

2 Peter 1:21 ESV

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Steve Chalke:

Rather than placing our primary emphasis on immoveable statements of faith and defending doctrinal positions, we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the continuous task of honouring and grappling with scripture in community and with God.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 ESV

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Steve Chalke:

“Biblical interpretation is not finished, rather it is the ongoing, open-ended task of all those who take its text seriously and authoritatively.”

Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Those are my current thoughts. Comments are welcome.

M.