A few weeks ago I commented on the brewing row over the meaning of Easter caused by an upcoming talk by the controversial Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John. Subsequently John has responded to the criticism through the Church Times, and Bishop Tom Wright has produced an extensive article expressing why his original criticisms were valid.
Included in the prominent critics were Bishops Wallace Benn and Pete Broadbent who followed along from Bishop Tom Wright and released a statement from Spring Harvest condemning the talk – without having read it. However this takes on a more interesting twist with the news that the UCCF are withdrawing from Spring Harvest because of the involvement of Steve Chalke as a result of his beliefs first mentioned in his book The Lost Message of Jesus and which Chalke himself summarises online. Whilst the UCCF believe that Chalke has diverged from orthodox Christian teaching – the same accusation that has been levelled at Jeffrey John – Bishops Benn and Broadbent are happy to work with Chalke, but are releasing press statements criticising John.
Needless to say, this can lead pretty easily to the conclusion that John is being attacked because of who he is, rather than what he is saying – so Tom Wright talks about Chalke in the article too. However, having read the relevant passage:
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.
where option (a) is the acceptable interpretation of the Chalke statements, whereas (b) is the interpretation that UCCF and most other people have taken. Tom Wright and I assume Bishops Benn and Broadbent take the view that Chalke meant (a).
From my point of view, looking at what Chalke himself says he says the following:
In my view however, the real problem with penal substitution (a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice) is its incompatibility, at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God or genuinely Christocentric worldview…
which strikes me that Chalke is saying that he has the same issue with the traditional understanding of penal substitution as John, but that Tom Wright is doing some fairly subtle theological hoop jumping to argue why what Chalke says is acceptable and John isn’t.
Tom Wright doesn’t help with drawing conclusions that this is personal either. During the course of the nearly half the article where he picks the John talk apart, he at one point uses an example that focuses on Jeffrey John’s sexuality, and alludes to the title of his well known booklet on the subject. Jeffrey John’s letter to the Church Times mentions that much of the hate mail related to the talk focused on his sexuality – when Tom Wright mentions John’s letter he brushes it aside with a ‘we all get hate mail’ type comment, totally ignoring the sexuality aspect, before going on to make comments that could be considered in the same vein. When he starts talking about Chalke he notes that he knows him personally, indeed he got a pre-release copy of the book. He also highlights that the book may be unclear over what Chalke believes, but then says that he has had a chat with Chalke and is happy that he does believe in penal substitution but under another name. He finishes the section on Chalke with this statement:
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.
Unfortunately, as with anything with such subtle differences for those of us without doctorates of Theology it really isn’t that clear what the difference is, between what Chalke believes and what John has said. In the book, Chalke states this:
If the cross is a personal act of violence 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. The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love.
He then uses Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point.
Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.
As with Chalke, he then goes on to use Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point. Both Chalke and John are disagreeing with penal substitution and saying that it is about love, not vengeance, yes there are differences in what they are saying, and how they say it, but they are largely coming at it from the same direction. The difference between the two is that Chalke has a quote from a certain Tom Wright on the cover of his book commending the scholarship, whilst Jeffery John gets Tom Wright criticising him in the Sunday Telegraph, he then gets Wright producing an epic critique of the talk on Fulcrum.
Ultimately it stinks of being theological sleight of hand buried in pages and pages of exposition to try and avoid accusations of hypocrisy that can be levelled at those involved, Tom Wright especially. Finally, what about the UCCF and their Spring Harvest walkout? Much as I don’t agree with the beliefs of the UCCF, and probably would object to what they are teaching, at least they’re actually being consistent between what they believe and their behaviour, which is more than can be said for certain bishops.
(Thanks to Dave Walker for keeping track of the debate.)