Maverick Christian leader Steve Chalke is seen by some as the herald of a revolution in Christian theology – and by others as a dangerous false teacher.
Either way, the latest salvo he has fired into the world of Biblical scholarship has been delivered with his customary self-confidence and bravado.
Any claim that the Bible is "without error or contradiction – that it's 'infallible' or even 'inerrant'... is extremely misleading," he asserts. The Word of God is a person – Jesus – "not a manuscript", and Scripture is "a dynamic conversation which, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon of the Bible, continues beyond it".
The "result of all this is that... we may sometimes come to a developed, or even different, view from some of those contained in the canon of Scripture."
It's not possible to do justice to his ideas in a few sound-bites, of course. His views can be read fully on his Oasis website. But what is clear is that Chalke's assertions represent a breath-taking departure from two millennia of Christian belief. Here's why.
Firstly, all branches of the Christian faith have essentially said the same thing in their official teaching, namely that the Bible is the authoritative and trustworthy Word of God. As Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, says in his book 'Scripture And The Authority of God': "Whether Lutheran or Reformed, whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist, or whether we look at the newer Pentecostal churches, all officially accord Scripture the central place in their faith, life and theology… The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches… give a more complex and interwoven account of how scripture operates within the life of the church. But those older churches, too, have never shrunk from the insistence that scripture remains the written word of God."
Secondly, Chalke's views on Scripture are substantially different from those of Jesus himself. Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton and the originator of the Alpha course, sums it up when he writes in his book 'Questions Of Life': "For Jesus, what the Scriptures said, God said (Mark 7v5-13). If Jesus is our Lord, our attitude to the Scriptures should be the same as his."
Thirdly, Chalke's theology is self-contradictory. He wants to assert that through Jesus "we finally get to see and understand God exactly as he is" – and should therefore judge the rest of the Bible by Christ. But on what basis does he do this? On the basis of the New Testament, of course. However, if the Bible is not reliable, then how can Chalke be confident in what he asserts about Jesus?
Unsurprisingly there has been criticism of his views. Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship writes: "In saying that the Bible is not the Word of God Chalke is denying something that Jesus himself taught." And Dr Mike Ovey, principal of Oak Hill Theological College says: "Jesus seems to think that one can be a bit more dogmatic in biblical interpretation than Steve Chalke thinks tasteful."
Many of the questions Chalke raises are indeed good ones which do require thoughtful answers. However, he is not the first to ask them, and they have been considered many times by theologians over the centuries. For the general reader, Fee and Stuart's book 'How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth' or John Stott's 'Understanding the Bible' are good and straightforward places to start.
Is Steve Chalke falling for the oldest trick in the book? Sadly, the first question ever posed in the Bible was: "Did God say...?" And every reader of Genesis knows the trouble that this led on to...