Monday, April 23, 2007

Does Steve Chalke Really deny penal substitution?

After a partnership of 14 years Spring Harvest has finally ejected Word Alive.

Adrian Warnock has been blogging about this here

what is the crime that Word Alive has committed to receive such discipline from the authorities of Spring Harvest?

Spring Harvest has not disciplined Word alive for false teaching, or promotion of immorality. It appears that the reason for the rift is that Spring Harvest perceives Word Alive to be divisive. UCCF refuses to allow one of the board of Spring Harvest, Steve Chalke, to speak at Word Alive, because he has clearly denied penal Substitution.

This whole issue requires careful attention, as there are many different issues to deal with, all of which seem to be up for debate on the internet. If penal substitution is denied, is the gospel itself denied? Should different opinions be welcomed at an event like Word Alive? What will be the fall out from this split? Can't Christians just stop fighting with one another and all just get along?

Before answering any of these questions, there are some facts of the whole case that have been disputed. Some people are saying that Steve Chalke hasn't denied penal substitution at all.

NT Wright (defending his endorsement of Chalke's book) quotes Chalke, and then asks what Chalke acutally means:

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is Love”. If the cross is a personal act of vioence 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. (p. 182f.)

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.

Clearly, Steve’s critics have taken him to mean (b), as I think it is clear Jeffrey John and several others intend. I cannot now remember what I thought when I read the book four years ago and wrote my commendation, but I think, since I had been following the argument through in the light of the arguments I myself have advanced, frequently and at length, about Jesus’ death and his own understanding of it, that I must have assumed he meant (a). I have now had a good conversation with Steve about the whole subject and clarified that my initial understanding was correct: he does indeed mean (a).

Well, whatever Chalke said in a private conversation to NT Wright, he certainly makes clearer statements in Redeeming the Cross an essay posted on the web, showing very clearly that he in fact means (b).

In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume (it’s not even as old as the pews in many of our church buildings), it is actually built on pre-Christian thought...
The theological problem with penal substitution is that it presents us with a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution flowing from his wrath against sinners. The only way for his anger to be placated is in receiving recompense from those who have wronged him; and although his great love motivates him to send his Son, his wrath remains the driving force behind the need for the cross.
Given the chance to clarify whether he is talking about a particular presentation of penal substitution, or penal substitution at all, Chalke is very clear, that it is the whole idea of penal substitution that he rejects as making God a child abuser.
In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark ‘unmasking’ of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology. And the simple truth is that if God does not relate to his only Son as a perfect father, neither can we relate to him as such.
Steve Chalke does in fact clearly deny penal substitution. There is some irony in the NT Wright article. In comments he makes about the recent book Pierced for Our Transgressions
he says,

Sadly, the debate I have reviewed – with the honourable and brief exception of Robert Jenson’s article which began this whole train of thought – shows every sign of the postmodern malaise of a failure to think, to read texts, to do business with what people actually write and say rather than (as is so much easier!) with the political labelling and dismissal of people on the basis of either flimsy evidence or ‘guilt by association’.
I fear that it is Wright's criticisms of Pierced for Our Transgressions, not the book's statements that Chalke denies penal substitution, that result from a failure to read the relevant texts.

Steve Chalke clearly denies penal substition. He hates the idea. In His mind, it undermines the loving character of God. I hope that NT Wright will withdraw his accusations of carelessness on the part of the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions, and humbly admit that it is he who has been careless.

To read more on Chalke's book, see my review of it here.


John said...

It seems that we have the choice here between Tom Wright not understanding Steve Chalke or Steve Chalke not understanding Tom Wright. The simplest, most charitable way to look at this dilemma is surely to consider that when Tom Wright excuses Steve Chalke by implying that he doesn't understand what a mess he's making, he's speaking the simple truth.

However, We can expect to see more and more of this sort of thing with Tom Wright having to say that he assumed someone knew what he meant when, it turns out, he didn't. And we will be tempted to say that those who destroy themselves on this (like Steve Chalke?) have understood him all too well.

I wonder.

Mike Gilbart-Smith said...


I'm not sure I understand Tom Wright! So, one of the more positive things about Wright's piece is that he explicitly affirms penal substitution. Yet he doesn't like the line "The wrath of God was satisfied" in "In Christ alone." I'm hoping to go and read Ch 12 of "Jesus and the victory of God" to see exactly what Wright does affirm about penal substitution.

Matt said...

Just stumbled across this.

I had a conversation with Steve Chalke last week about penal substitution and he most definitely rejects it saying that the doctrine of penal substitution did not originate in Scripture but rather 1st century paganism.

One of the problems with Chalke's premise is that he sees the cross as having nothing to do with God's righteousness. His righteousness and His love are both inseparable attributes of God. Jesus willingly bearing the penalty of our sin underscores that God is both all just (righteous) and all loving.

Unknown said...

I worry that Steve Chalke's popularity and people skills is now the driving force behind his side of the penal substitution debate.

His arguement that penal substitution originates not in the Scriptures but in 1st century paganism contradicts his statement that penal substitution is no older than some of the pews in our churches. The reality is (as Pierced for our Transgressions demonstrates clearly) penal substitution is Biblically justified in the teaching of who God is and the work of Christ on the cross, where we see that God is just, holy and loving. Penal Substitution has also been upheld by the church Fathers and constantly throughout history, it is not a modern concept.

I worry that Steve Chalke's name is what sells his books, and sometimes those convinced by his arguements are in reality convinced not by what is being said but by the fact that it is coming from his mouth?

Any thoughts are welcome...

Anonymous said...

Jesus was/is God. It is not a father punishing a son it is almighty God taking our problems and sins upon himself. Penal Substitution in that context is the ultimate act of love.