The blogosphere was set alight this month when Steve Chalke released his paper titled 'Restoring Confidence In The Bible'. The 13-page document which said the Bible was neither inerrant or infallible, led to a series debates on Premier TV and in Christianity Magazine. Steve Chalke defends his views in this interview with ChristianToday.
CT: What made you want to write the paper?
SC: I've been thinking about writing a paper like this since a year ago when I published an article around my view of sexuality and same-sex relationships.
People said to me, 'Steve we really like what you're saying about homosexual people because we empathise with that pastorally. We know the Church is making a mess of the way it deals with people of other sexualities.' Even my sternest evangelical critics said that. They said 'pastorally you're 100% right, theologically you're wrong'.
When you do a math question you've got to show your workings out, not just the answer. I realised what I'd not done is show my workings out. On what basis could I reach the conclusion that I'd reached about the particular biblical verses? How did I get there? Was that journey legitimate and was it consistent and honest? Was it a consistent way of approaching Scripture or had I chosen to tweak these verses to suit my own ends?
CT: In the paper you lay out 20 bullet points that begin with 'We' rather than 'I'. Who is the 'we' you're referring to?
SC: That's a very good question. I was trying to say that those who follow the same kind of thinking and hermeneutical approach that I'd adopted might want to say, 'We take the Bible very seriously, we believe it's the inspired, authoritative language of God, we believe it's a library, we believe that its very nature calls us to debate'. So I was suggesting that might happen.
One of the pleasing things is the Huffington Post in the States published an article and suggested for progressive evangelicals, the 20 statements I make in the article…might become some kind of charter or manifesto for progressive evangelicals to cluster around.
CT: Is 'progressive evangelical' a term you're happy with? In the past when you've made controversial statements some sections of the Church have criticised the way you continue to self describe as an "evangelical".
SC: The term evangelical is derived from the 'evangel' which is the good news of Jesus. I own that term 'evangel'. I want to bring the good news. The holistic integrated good news about Jesus to the community I live in. I want to embody that good news. I want to live out that good news. So I am an evangelical. I don't want to give up that.
CT: Some have said the conversation you're looking to create has already been going on ever since the Bible was written. How do you respond?
SC: Of course this debate has continued since the beginning of the church. And the debate has been around what constitutes the Bible, which books should be in, which books should be out. That conversation wasn't completed until relatively late on. Martin Luther was still arguing that James and Revelation, four books of the New Testament shouldn't be in the New Testament.
I know this argument has continued through history. But it hasn't been held by ordinary people. The thing I'd say, which I've not said anywhere, is in the 16th century according to Foxe's Book of Martyrs, William Tyndale says this famous thing. A priest comes to preach at his parish church in England and he says afterward, 'If God spares my life I will cause even a plowboy to know more of the scriptures than you do.'
He set out to translate the Bible into English. He achieved that and we celebrate that. My question is, although we put it into English, did people come to understand the Bible, or not?
Ordinary people in churches don't know how to handle the conversation. This is an academic debate that has been going on in academic circles.
It was staggering to me, I wrote this long article and sent it out to a whole number of scholars to review it and they were helpful in their input but the one thing they all said was, 'Do you need to publish this? Everybody knows this.' I made a little footnote because I was staggered between the understanding that the academic world thinks the average guy in the average church has of all this, and the reality.
I had a conversation with quite an intelligent person who said Genesis 1 says the world was created in six days and if we're not even going to believe the first chapter of the Bible where are we going to get to? So there's this level of ignorance across the church which I don't believe is anybody else's fault. The charge I lay back at the door of the academics is, so what's gone wrong guys? You've been having this conversation and nobody has thought about how the Church is educated around this.
CT: You've debated Andrew Wilson on Premier TV off the back of your paper. Has anything become clearer to you since those discussions?
SC: What became clearer to me is there's a group of people who do see the Bible in entirely different terms to me but I don't think they're representative of the Church at large. Nor do I think they're actually representative of most evangelicals because the overwhelming response to me has been comments saying, 'This is really helpful.'
I think the big thing I'd say - and I find people have a mental block about this - and I got this out of the debate, the Bible is a library, it's not a book. We've never translated the term 'Bible' on the front. If we'd translated it we would have translated it into 'library' and not into 'book'. Because it looks like a book, the medium becomes the message.
The problem with a book is when you approach a book you expect it to be at one with itself the whole way through. Any deviants from that you see as an error. So people go, 'The Bible is full of errors,' and people are worried about big inconsistencies.
But when you walk into a library on books about medicine you pick up one book and another and what hits you straight away isn't that they're different but they talk about the human body in the same terms and they all substantially agree with each other. They have different points of view at the peripherals. That's what you expect in a library.
If we regard the Bible as a library then the most amazing thing about this library written over 1,500 years is the incredible agreement that there is between different authors about who God is and what God is like.
CT: What have been some of the misunderstandings of your position?
SC: The thing that I've found upsetting is people have said Steve Chalke doesn't believe the Bible or that it's authoritative or inspired. My simple response to that is, 'If I didn't believe those things why on earth would I bother to write all of this?' People who don't care about the Bible don't write about it.
My whole life is inspired by this book! I feel passionate about this. We've got to take the Bible seriously. Taking it literally and seriously is not always the same thing.
CT: There's been a debate around using Jesus as the lens through which we read scripture. Can you explain more about that?
SC: Another misunderstanding of what I'm saying is I want to see Jesus as the lens and reject the rest of the Bible. I don't think you can understand Jesus without understanding the rest of the Bible. You need to know about the development of humanity and see the slow clawing away of pagan ideas and replacing them with new ideas about grace and God's universalism rather than his territorialism.
I don't think you can understand Jesus without understanding the Exile and the Exodus. I don't think you can understand Jesus without understanding the entirety of his context.
In the end the Bible itself says the Word of God - the whole communication of God - became flesh. It turns out the definitive understanding of God, the definitive image of God and the way we see God turns out to be a person. That person is Jesus.
On March 26th the conversation continues with a Twebate (Twitter Debate). Users of the social network will be able to put their questions direct to @stevechalke from 6.30pm