Sunday, October 10, 2004

Good Point Ruined by a Bad Argument

Steve Chalke in The Lost Message of Jesus makes a big deal of the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and rightly so. Anyone who claims to know God yet does not show love must be a liar. God is love, as demonstrated by the death of Christ on the cross. This was the supreme act of self-giving for those who were his enemies. We too must love.

Chalke’s view is that the church has lost this essential ingredient in gospel preaching. It places far too much emphasis on the wrath of God and so men and women, as sinners, are in danger of hell. For Chalke, this seems to explain why the average non-believing person thinks that the gospel message is bad news.

I can’t speak for Chalke’s experiences of gospel preaching (though it reads rather like this was the kind of environment in which his own faith was nurtured, and which he then generalises to churches everywhere). It doesn’t really gel with my own experience. However, the idea that the world takes a dim view of the gospel is no surprise. I would just put it down to a different reason, summarised in Romans 1:18:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
The truth is suppressed, even repressed in the heart of man. He has a deep sense of the existence of God, even of his holiness. Is it any surprise that people’s concept of God, if they care to give attention to it, is one dominated by wrath?

I think this is where I basically differ with Chalke. At all times in this book, ordinary people are only ever portrayed as innocent victims of a privileged elite. It is almost as though these poor individuals are otherwise perfect without spot or blemish. All they need is freedom from their oppressors. Now, there is some truth in this. But not all the truth is there. Chalke seems to go to great lengths to minimise or even ignore two great truths. The first is the wrath of God. Yes, God is love. Amen! But God is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) (just as he is light (1 John 1:5) and is spirit (John 4:24)). This statement is made in Hebrews lest we forget that God acts in judgement. (To be fair, Chalke does give a sideways glance at the wrath of God, but it is very much in the distance.) I therefore cannot accept his incredible explanation of why Moses was commanded to hide in the cleft of the rock as God passed by. Chalke suggest that Moses may have seen first-hand the suffering of God and thereby experience such a strong sense of desolation that he himself would want to die. This line of thinking was prompted by Chalke’s own sense of desolation as he saw the immense need in midst of an awful slum. But here is a classic case of experience rather than context determining the interpretation of text. The truth is: God is a consuming fire.

The second truth that Chalke seeks to minimise is the sinfulness of man. This is made absolutely clear in the awful muddle over the original sin and original goodness. Everyone who has read some theology knows what Chalke means by “original sin”. Also, everyone knows in the context of Chalke’s discussion what he means by “original goodness”. But no-one with an ounce of commonsense would understand that “original” is used in the same sense in these phrases. Yet Chalke seems to confuse the two and present them as mutually exclusive opposites. The conclusion that he comes to is that one of them must be jettisoned. Bye bye, “original sin”.

So we are left with picture of God (largely) without wrath and man without sin. All in order to correct a perceived imbalance in gospel preaching. Is this a good argument?

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