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Steve Chalke’s ‘New Reformation’—or new defamation?

Influential Baptist minister is busy redefining Scripture to fit modern sensibilities.1

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Published: 30 May 2019 (GMT+10)
Wikipedia/ Howard Lake from Colchester, UKSteve-Chalke
The Reverend Canon Steve Chalke, MBE, Senior Minister of Oasis Church, London

Steve Chalke is a man on a mission: he wants a New Reformation, to replace the original one started by Martin Luther 500 years ago. Chalke is an influential British Baptist minister, international speaker, prolific author, entrepreneur and Oasis Trust founder2—and a highly controversial figure. Since the start of 2018 he has been presenting his new ‘95 Theses’, not by nailing them to the Wittenburg Cathedral door, but by posting 95 ‘Big Questions’ on another public forum, YouTube. At the time of writing, Steve has so far chalked up 65 variously titled videos, including: “Bad theology costs lives”; “The Church needs heretics”; “Take the Bible seriously, not literally”; “Calling the Bible infallible has stopped us taking it seriously”; “Juvenile Bible reading endangering LGBT mental health”; “Traditional view of the cross ‘cheapens God’s forgiveness’”, and so on, ad nauseam.

As supporters of CMI may be aware, and as the titles of Chalke’s talks suggest, he is not advocating a return to biblical authority, certainly not in any sense that Christians are familiar with, or that Martin Luther would have approved of. Ever since Chalke’s unbiblical diatribe in his (co-authored) anti-gospel The Lost Message of Jesus, discerning Christians have become aware of his shocking slide into liberalism and apostasy. It was in that book that he penned his now infamous phrase “cosmic child abuse”, caricaturing the traditional understanding of Jesus’ atonement; as is sadly true of many professing ‘evangelicals’ today, he views the idea of Jesus being punished in the place of sinners (penal substitution) as unpalatable.3

commons.wikimedia.org, Painting by Ferdinand PauwelsLuther95theses
“Luther’s 95 Theses”

Genesis up for grabs

Chalke has gone on record saying, “Creationism is a load of garbage,” never to be taught in his Oasis Trust academy schools,4 and that Genesis is simply poetry “based on Babylonian creation myth.”5 CMI has debunked that kind of thinking, Genesis is narrative, not poetry, and the Babylonian creation myth likely borrows from Genesis, not the other-way-around. But here is the crux of the matter: when Genesis history is jettisoned within academia, particularly to accommodate evolution with the Bible, a flood-gate opens wide that inevitably washes away the foundations of biblical authority, leading to the loss of faith of many. Vital truths are undermined:

The Atonement

Chalke’s reinterpretation of the Atonement is inextricably linked to his reinterpretation of Genesis—that there never was a Fall and death was always part of nature. Such thinking rips the heart from the gospel, separating the first Adam from the Last Adam, making the essential need for the Atonement redundant. Why then would Jesus the ‘Last Adam’ die for humanity if they are not fallen as a result of Adam’s sin and in need of saving? Mixing evolution and the Christian faith leads to the erosion of biblical authority, especially when we recognize that Jesus believed in Creation and a ‘young’ earth, upholding the writings of Moses as authoritative. Indeed, Steve Chalke doesn’t even believe in the inherited sin-nature of mankind; rather, he believes in “original goodness6 and that the cross was merely a display of Christ’s love.7

The authority of Scripture

So what of Chalke’s ‘New Reformation’? Actually, there’s nothing new in it as we shall see! For instance, in his talk “Take the Bible seriously but not literally” he says we must recognize the Bible as a “library” written by “multiple authors”.8 That’s ok so far as it goes. The problem comes when he falsely states that these authors had only a partial and gradually expanding understanding and that they spoke with “contradictory voices”. He reasons that viewing the Bible in this way is “intellectually honest” and offers his favourite example of a Bible contradiction: “in Genesis there are two different creation stories … [that] contradict one another … over the order of the creation … neither of them is written as a scientific text or a historical narrative”. However, no such contradiction exists if the text is understood in context. He argues that Genesis 1 and 2 were poems to be publically read in opposition to Babylonian creation myths. Knowing this, he says, adds “depth and meaning to the Genesis story, not to mention removing the unnecessary and misguided clash with science”. However, when we recognize world-view issues and the limitations of science, there is no clash with science, of the operational (experimental) kind.

Chalke advocates teaching his ideas to Sunday school children, encouraging them to “write their own creation poems and stories” which according to him would “save the faith of many … as they reach their teenage years”. However, this is absurd advice to give for it saps confidence in the authority of the Bible. Frequently, origins is the issue when it comes to evangelism and young people leaving the church—when these issues are not engaged with in the pulpit. This sad fact is backed up by the ‘fallout’ statistics.

Human origins and our moral failure

For Chalke, the account of the Creation and Fall of Adam and Eve is “not history, it’s a myth, a kind of profound fable rather than an historical narrative.”9 It is not about the origin of sin, he says, but “about the birthplace of true morality. The Adam and Eve story is not about the fall of humanity, or our total depravity, instead it’s about the journey of humanity, as well as that of every individual human, away from innocence to moral responsibility.” Clearly, he feels free to reinterpret the foundations of Scripture without any regard to what the text is actually saying, or how Jesus or the New Testament writers interpreted the account, or indeed how the Church Fathers saw it.

The Flood judgment

wikipedia.orgfig-1
Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic (BM ME K3375).

Chalke reckons that taking the Flood as an historical account is a massive stumbling block to faith, sceptically asking how Noah could “collect all those animals from around the world? How did he get them all on board? How did he feed them once they were there? How did he stop them killing each other?” CMI has answered all such questions, typically asked by atheists, on numerous occasions; e.g. showing that animals could fit on the Ark, that animal care was feasible, and that the Ark was a seaworthy stable design. Chalke thinks it would also be impossible for the human race to be re-established after the Flood, asking, “was the whole of humanity … rebuilt from Mr. and Mrs. Noah and their three sons and wives? The questions just keep on coming!” However, CMI has also answered such cynical questions with good science, showing that humanity could have repopulated to today’s level in the available time, from just Noah’s three sons and their wives (Genesis 10). Moreover, DNA evidence is consistent with this.

Unfortunately, Chalke is either unaware of, or ignores all such evidence answering his objections, leading him to proclaim that the Flood of Noah’s day never really happened! According to him, real “hard-history” only happens “with Abraham” onwards. Chalke’s solution is that the story of Noah was borrowed from the Gilgamesh Epic and that Genesis was written to “subvert” Gilgamesh, which, according to him, brought “meaning, hope and purpose” to the first hearers. But if the Genesis Flood account is merely re-interpreted myth, how could it bring hope and meaning? And any hope it did give would certainly be a vain one. Chalke asks if the Genesis accounts of Creation and Flood are historical narratives? He answers with a categorical “no!” but then proceeds to divorce theology from history by asking if any of these “stories are true?” His answer is “all of them! … What they have to teach us is far more important than mere history … !” But how can the theology arising from these accounts be true if they are historically false? However, the evidence points to the fact that it is the mythical Gilgamesh version which borrows its source material from Genesis—the true and inspired account of history.

A full-frontal attack on New Testament authority

Chalke jettisons God’s Word in favour of personal subjectivity, extending his questioning of biblical inerrancy to the New Testament. One talk is titled “Is the Bible the Word of God, or does it point to the Word of God?”10 Here Chalke pulls no punches in saying the Scripture contains error, or contains accounts of violence which cannot be accepted in modern culture. He defines his biblical hermeneutics (method of interpretation) like this: “if it looks like Jesus it’s God, if it doesn’t it’s not.”10 In other words, if a passage is read in the Bible that is deemed awkward or embarrassing, because of its violent or distasteful content, it should be rejected because it doesn’t sound like Chalke’s idea of a ‘nice, loving Jesus’. However, this novel approach to hermeneutics is subjective and self-refuting, as Chalke only forms his ideas of what Jesus was like from his watered-down version of the Bible. His method of ‘pick and choose’ from the Bible is one which atheists like Richard Dawkins rightfully scorn. How can he be sure the bits he reads about a ‘nice loving Jesus’ are any more trustworthy than the bits he rejects because they are deemed offensive?

Chalke gives an example of a New Testament passage that should be rejected as an historical account, due to its unpalatable content: specifically, in Acts 5, where Ananias and Sapphira are judged by God for their lying to the Holy Spirit. He recounts a radio interview where he rejected the idea that God could have killed them, and his surprise at the response: “was I really saying that the text of the New Testament could be questioned, that it might be less than entirely accurate; how heretical could I get? Everyone knows it’s infallible! But of course anyone who really reads the New Testament knows that this is far from the truth—it’s more complicated than that … ” However, the New Testament writers knew that they were writing inspired Scripture and moral objections to God’s judgment of Ananias and Saphira fall flat; see Is the Bible ‘evil’?

Chalke then proceeds to give a further example of why he questions the New Testament as a reliable historical witness. Citing the two gospel accounts of the violent death of Judas (Matthew 27:3–10; Acts 1:17–19) as evidence of inconsistent story-telling,11 he concludes that the Bible is “far from being infallible, it’s flawed … Although the texts that make up the Bible point to the Word of God they are not the Word of God.”10 These are stunning admissions from a Christian minister who used to be known as an evangelical.12

Clearly, Chalke disagrees with a lot of the Bible and feels free to disregard or re-interpret bits he finds unacceptable. That is why he redefines marriage and regularly marries same-sex couples.13 He even calls ‘conversion therapy’ (including prayer offered for those who want to deal with unwanted same-sex attraction) a “barbaric practice” which “undermine[s] the mental health and well-being of LGBT people, … an individual’s identity … [their] God-given humanity”.14 However, it is Chalke who is clearly undermining the straightforward teaching of Scripture on such fundamental issues as gender identity, equality, marriage, or human sexuality.

Christians must engage!

Steve Chalke challenges his viewers to “take the Bible seriously enough to teach it well”.15 My answer to him is that he neither takes the Bible seriously nor teaches it well! He has abandoned biblical authority and inerrancy in favour of personal preference and subjectivity. More than ever we need to return to the authority of Scripture, starting from the foundational truths as taught in Genesis. That is why CMI exists, to issue a clarion call to the Church, to return to the Truth of the Bible, to help defend the faith of the young, build robust, biblical world-views and answer the questions of a sceptical, unbelieving age. The challenge for all true Christians is to counter the ‘New Defamation’ proposed by Steve Chalke and his ilk.

References and notes

  1. This is a much expanded (updated) version of a CMIExtra article, CMI-UK/Europe, September 2018. Return to text.
  2. A potted history of Rev Steve Chalke, oasiswaterloo.org; accessed 3 April 2019. Return to text.
  3. Chalke, S. & Mann, A., The Lost Message of Jesus, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, p. 182, 2003. Return to text.
  4. Chalke’s words were reported in: Anon, Leap of faith,theguardian.com, 31 January 2007. There are now 52 of his Oasis Trust Academies across England; seeoasiscommunitylearning.org/our-academies; accessed 3 April 2019.Return to text.
  5. Bunting, M., Leap of faith, theguardian.com, 31 January 2007; accessed 3 April 2019. Return to text.
  6. Chalke, S., Talk 26, ‘original goodness’ at 4:40, youtube.com/watch?v=N01otxyauVY. Return to text.
  7. Chalke, S., Talk 33 (this is a disturbing talk), youtube.com/watch?v=JbuswTodUyw. Return to text.
  8. Chalke, S., Talk 10, youtube.com/watch?v=Y-KecgKQZJM. Return to text.
  9. Chalke, S., Talk 43, youtube.com/watch?v=jEJwSTx55oQ. Return to text.
  10. Chalke, S., Talk 52, youtube.com/watch?v=6-520SIcnk0. Return to text.
  11. For a well-reasoned discussion of this event and its supposed inconsistencies see: Holding, J.P., The death of Judas Iscariot, tektonics.org; accessed 2 April 2019. Return to text.
  12. By any sensible definition, Chalke is no longer an evangelical Christian. In fact, his Oasis charity was jettisoned from the UK’s Evangelical Alliance in 2014, see: Borkett-Jones, L., Oasis removed from Evangelical Alliance over homosexuality stance, premierchristianity.com, 2 May 2014. Return to text.
  13. Chalke, S., Why I’ve created a church charter for gay marriage, premierchristianity.com, 9 May 2016; accessed 2 April 2019. Return to text.
  14. Chalke, S., Talk 36, youtube.com/watch?v=BQEmA7ayrL4. Return to text.
  15. Chalke, S., Talk 10, youtube.com/watch?v=Y-KecgKQZJM. Return to text.

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