Steve Chalke Continues the Conversation

Steve Chalke has done a follow up video to his recent article and responses to it. Within it he makes a number of appeals for people to move to an “open evangelicalism”.

From what he says it is clear that the view of “open evangelicalism” he is advocating is similar in most ways to what has been labelled “progressive evangelicalism” or “progressive Christianity” within the United States  (See the Progressive Christianity channel on Patheos for examples). In the US some such as Tony Campollo have eschewed this “progressive” label and have preferred to use Red Letter Christians - Chalke’s “open evangelicalism” is of this strand.

Looking at what he says it is clear that what he is talking about is a form of theology which blends mainstream evangelical thought with radical theology and wider source criticism of the biblical material.

This is not a new approach and in many ways it was exactly what Wesley was using with the Methodist Quadrilateral which blended tradition, scripture, reason and experience and others have used before and since. It is this type of approach which allows a pastoral response to be juxtaposed with theological response. It is not the easy approach which some of his critics claim. As Chalke says it involves wrestling with the bible to make sense of it as well as looking at experience and what wider culture and scholarship is saying.

In terms of there being one clear response in the bible he says if you study the critiques of his article without needing to explore widely you can see this is not true. He says there is a spectrum of understanding which is why we need to wrestle.

This approach to faith is not easy, it can lead to feelings of dissonance and even doubt that is why, as he says, it is painful for church leaders. It leads to disagreement and the possibility of being wrong which is painful, however as Chalke says it isn’t as painful as the rejection gay people have felt who have often had to deal with the same questions and issues but without support and without the ability to discuss the issues with detachment.

He then deals with criticism that his hermeneutic is wrong. Says that often this has been levelled at him by those who have seen soundbite but not looked at detail. He says his hermeneutic is not trajectory but centred. He takes a Jesus centred approach saying we should look through Jesus and his responses. This illustrates how the foundation of Chalke’s approach is using radical theology and where the problem lies. Radical theology lies beyond the boundaries which people seek to put up between evangelical, liberal, catholic and orthodox religion. Rather it overlays all of these whilst sitting comfortably in none.

Chalke’s video gives plenty of examples of where radical theology has been in conflict and influenced on specific issues. He does this whilst answering the allegation that he is trying to change tradition. He counters criticism by first pointing out nothing he is saying is new. Then he looks at variety of voices there have been throughout history, identifying that the dominant view has been the majority one but not the only one. In showing how paradigms do change he talks about Copernicus and Galileo  and how the view the world is not flat or centre of universe stood for 1500 years and then moves onto slavery and women in leadership. What he says is there has always been a minority view giving the alternative. He goes on further to say how views of divorce and remarriage have also changed.

He says we need to look at what are biblical views and what are cultural positions. I would argue  what we need, as much as a discussion on homosexuality, is an honest and open discussion about the nature and place of radical theology and the challenges and opportunities it poses for us. Often it is sidelined or characterised in an extreme form, but in practice it is a rich strand of theological thought which has sometimes influenced and sometimes been in direct conflict with other stands of thought.

With regards to the place of source criticism he makes the point the bible is not a private book. He makes the point that the church does not have a monopoly of ownership on it and so the church cannot say this is our private book and we have the right interpretation of it and everybody else looking at it is wrong. Within this he is talking about meaning of specific greek words.

With regards to gay people who have chosen to be celibate and those who have entered into heterosexual marriage he says they have made painful sacrifice with difficult consequences in many cases. In looking at this he looks at attitudes towards divorce in the past and how victims of domestic violence in the past suffered because they didn’t think they could leave unless adultery had been committed. He says it is good this has changed and he believes that thinking on gay faithful relationships needs to change too.

He says evangelicals always think God must agree with them and we have the truth but our views due change as we develop and get older. What we do is shift the truth in line with our thinking. Nobody has the whole truth. Like Brian McLaren and others it is clear that the academic deconstructionism of late (post) modernism and the related approach of critical realism have influenced his thought.

Within the content talking about previous evangelical approaches to the subject he makes a really important differentiation between toleration and inclusion. He makes clear one is positive whilst the other is more negative. One allows full participation whilst the other puts in barriers to participation which say “this person is viewed as less”.

In looking at where this view of the person having less value can lead he reminds us that homosexuality was something people got killed for in the holocaust. He uses this to explain homosexuality is not a choice.

A final question levelled against him and often against those who seek to follow a theological approach which seeks to blend radical theology with evangelicalism is that if you’re not condemning homosexuality (and various other activities) then what is church for? He says he finds that view confusing. Christians are defined by what they are for not what they are against he says.

What he says is he wants to call people to live faithfully and live well.

In this last point we have the other key difference between Chalke’s approach and that of more traditional or conservative evangelicals. It is some time now since Chalke was embroiled in another controversy when he said he didn’t agree with the idea of penal substitution. He does not require to see us all as bad people in need of punishment rather he comes from the perspective of seeing us all as people who need to be better connected to God so we might live more fully.