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Friday, April 27, 2007

Penal substitution - Wright or wrong?

If you want some spiritual and intellectual stimulation I suggest you go here, here and here for articles and blog posts on the mystery of penal substitution. There's also a response from Steve Chalke on the criticism he's faced on the last weblink.

I'm not going to launch into a deep theological discussion of what penal substitution is and why people are wrong or right about it. What I will do is note down how I have been personally affected by this debate.

Upon reading N.T. Wright's article, I was pleasantly surprised by how good so much of it was, and how much spiritual inspiration it gave me. He is a very gifted writer and uses this ability to unwrap spiritual realities with great personal resonance.

But hang on a minute - this is N.T. Wright we're talking about! The bad guy! The one who endorsed THAT book. He can't be good - I must be mistaken.

Oh, but... what's this N. T. Wright is saying here? The following:

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.

Now, regardless of whether Steve Chalke was right or wrong about what he wrote, the fact is that this is true of many, many evangelicals today.

Including myself.

It was at this point that the penny dropped.

I have a great tendency to think things are good based on the theological brownie points of the author or speaker. Dick Lucas good. Steve Chalke bad. John Stott good. Rick Warren bad. John Piper good. And so on...

And N.T. Wright made me realise - what a load of rubbish.

The Bible should be our first and only port of call of validity. If something is biblical, it is good. If something is not, it is bad. We shouldn't measure it on how "Reformed" it is on a scale of 1 to 10. On what church it's from. On who the author knows. (On whether the author knows my dad?!)

I think it is very easy for evangelicals to feel cosy in this theologically perfected world - we know we have our Ts crossed and our Is dotted. But really we don't, if we're not gracious, truly discerning and never complacent and arrogant.

We are all sinful and no man is going to write the perfect book. Only God has done that. So what this debate has made me realise is that I need to get rid of my spiritual arrogance and start reading things with my brain, not my ego. Let no one condemn Steve Chalke's book without having even read it. And certainly, let no one condemn Steve Chalke. That isn't our job. Do we care about The Lost Message of Jesus just because it demolishes the evangelical tradition or because we care about the Gospel, God's glory and we care about Steve Chalke's own spiritual state? Are we treating him as a brother in trouble, knowing that any one of us would fall in this way were it not for God's merciful grace? I have to say that many of us are not.

If we are to uphold the truth of the Gospel, we must do it graciously, and discerningly. It's not easy but it's essential. It is what Christ would have us do.


  • Indeed.

    By Blogger Paul (probably - maybe Liz), at 12:10 am  

  • 'The Bible should be our first and only port of call of validity.' Really? So 2000 years of church history - and particularly the vast amount of literature that grew up around the Reformation and the Puritans - isn't worth snuff? Are commentaries pointless?

    'Theological brownie points' exist in evangelical circles because of the different amounts of Bible in those men's ministries. Dick Lucas, John Stott, John Piper - they handle the Bible with honour and respect. Of course they aren't perfect, and it sickens me to see the quasi-shrines that have been built up around certain of those men. But Steve Chalke is a man who has written a book which flagrantly denies the Bible's clear teaching on almost every major facet of theology and doctrine.

    Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Wright is persuasive, sometimes very persuasive, but his brilliant writing can't hide the fact that he has a flawed view of the Bible and of Paul's writing in particular. He also seems to have agenda which have blinkered him with regard to Chalke and, similarly, in his reading of the new book, which to my mind is a superb treatise on penal substitution, combining excellent exegesis with nuanced arguments from church history.

    The fact is that yes, we do need to be extremely gentle, careful and loving in the way we treat our fellow believers. But another fact is that if you endorse Chalke's book, you endorse a false gospel. Wright should admit his error and withdraw his endorsement.

    By Blogger Tom, at 2:41 am  

  • I think Tom misses the point. Bec isn't saying that we should no longer discern good from bad writing, or good theological standpoints from bad theological standpoints. Of course it is important to be aware of the historical church context against which these writers lie. But she is saying that ultimately it is the bad standpoint we should fight, not the bad person - because, ultimately, none of us has a theological viewpoint that is not defective in some way.

    It is extremely dangerous to assume that because somebody has a good reputation, their writing must also always be good. It may well be that Dick Lucas and John Piper have a great deal of Bible in what they write at the present time, and we have good reason to expect them to continue to do so (and incidently, if the fact that they have a great deal of Bible in their writings is what marks them out, how does this point contradict Bec's that the Bible is the only measuring rod?). But we cannot assume so. Even the best of us can fall, and take many unsuspecting people with them if we do not learn to separate the writing from the person. The only writing that we can trust, because of who wrote it, is the Bible. This is why it is the plumbline that everything else should be measured against.

    It is true that in practice, using the Bible as a plumbline will mean that writers become categorised - "this one's dodgy"/"this one is Biblical". But it should still be the Bible, not the writer, that the focus should be upon.

    Interesting that Tom uses the phrase "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater". We could also use this phrase to refer to the occasions (perhaps only a few occasions) when a writer with a bad reputation manages to write something decent. Condoning one particular passage does not condone the writer per se.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:14 pm  

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