|The top Google image hit for "What is an evangelical?" Hmmmm.|
Being an evangelical is not, of course, the same as being a Christian. So suggesting that someone is not an evangelical is not the same as saying they are not a Christian (if you conclude that somebody is a false teacher that would be very different - what constitutes false teaching is for another post!). Nor would I ever wish to say that evangelicals have nothing to learn from other people. Indeed I think we have a lot to learn from Steve Chalke and Oasis, even though I find their theological positions on some important issues both profoundly wrong and deeply disturbing.
So, given that evangelical is not even itself a biblical word and that we're not pronouncing on people's salvation or even our ability to learn from them, you could be forgiven for wondering why this matters at all!
However whether or not somebody can be accurately described as an evangelical is about something more than merely labelling "my tribe." Evangelicalism is, in all the best definitions (see good examples from Bebbington and Hilborn, Carson and Warnock) essentially a theological word - it defines a set of people who hold certain beliefs in common. Most of all it describes people who share a basic approach to the issue of authority; that supreme authority lies not in reason, emotion or tradition but in the text of the sixty-six books of the Bible. This has been understood throughout the last centuries as meaning that the Bible is at least some of the following: "inspired" (the actual words of God), "fully trustworthy" (entirely reliable), "inerrant" (without any kind of mistake) or "infallible" (without any error as to matters of faith and practice).*
Whilst there are many things to learn from people who do not share this belief, whether because they emphasise tradition more (Pope Benedict XVI), reason more (George Washington) or emotion more (Rob Bell) it's important to see that at this point one is dealing with someone whose approach to the source of authority is basically different from yours. So you cannot ask them, for example, to come and address your church or conference from the Bible and expect to hear them explain God's word as finally authoritative. When reading their books you can't expect that the Bible will be approached as a book that must be understood, believed and obeyed in line with the author's intention even if its teaching feels wrong, appears to you irrational, or is out of keeping with your tradition.
Of course it the Bible does seem to you irrational, emotionally dissonant or out of keeping with how it has been understood in the past it's always sensible to ask in such cases whether you have perhaps misunderstood the Bible! Steve Chalke (and Rob Bell and many others) present themselves as doing nothing more than asking such questions - have we misunderstood the Bible and should we change what we think means?
This is always a good question! But that doesn't mean everybody who answers it is doing so in a biblical way. It isn't enough simply for a teacher or preacher to say they have an evangelical doctrine of Scripture - they may not have, perhaps because they are being deceitful or perhaps because they genuinely don't see that they have elevated a different authority to a controlling position.
So how can we decide whether someone's presentation of a "new" meaning of Scripture is a genuine attempt, within an evangelical framework of thinking about authority, to challenge our tendency to assume we know what the Bible means? Or whether it is the teaching of someone who has adopted an entirely different view of the Bible's authority?
Steve Chalke's recent article provides an excellent and current example of the kind of teaching we should ask these questions about, but the four principles below could be equally well applied to lots of others situations...
1. There's a big difference between:
a) the Bible teacher who shows you that a text doesn't mean what you thought it meant and does, in fact, mean something different when you understand it properly in its context and
b) the Bible teacher who says that a text does mean exactly what it appears to mean, but that we need to reject it because what it says is, in some way, out of keeping with the bigger picture of the Bible's teaching.
One of the key features of being an evangelical is a commitment to the internal consistency of the Bible's teaching. Steve Chalke in his article maintains a formally evangelical stance by saying that there are only "apparent" contradictions in the Bible.
Chalke also argues that although the NT texts on women's leadership/teaching mean exactly what they seem to mean (that there are normative restrictions on teaching ministry for women in the NT church - in his words: "In truth, the absolute and universal character of the Epistles’ instructions is not easy to escape") they don't reflect the intention of God for today's church (or even the NT church?), because the theological core of the NT message is freedom and the challenging of social norms.It's hard to see how this isn't a formal contradiction. It's even harder to see on what basis Chalke could say that the whole Bible can meaningfully be called "authoritative" for contemporary Christians (a stipulation of almost all evangelical bases of faith).
2. Evangelicals recognise that the whole story of Scripture is constantly reflected in each of its parts. One of the most bizarre parts of Steve Chalke's article is his consideration of Romans 1 where he says that homosexual couples today cannot be described in the terms of Romans 1:29-32 because they are not idolaters who have "exchanged the glory of the eternal God for images made to look like a moral human being."
In fact exchanging God's glory for images seems to be an excellent description of the world-view of most Western couples, gay or straight, and indeed C21st Brits in general. But in any case an integrated approach to reading Scripture recognises that Paul, at this point, is not reflecting on some sin specific to Roman paganism but is using the language of Genesis to reflect on the universal nature of idolatry and on sexual immorality as a particularly obvious rebellion against God's created order (as almost any commentary, evangelical or not, would tell him).
3. Evangelical approaches to Scripture recognise the important systematic theology insight that all of God's attributes include all his other attributes. So God's justice is holy justice, his love is just love, his compassion is omnipotent compassion etc. One of the features of Chalke's (and Rob Bell's) approach is to make some of God's attributes massively more prominent than others (without necessarily explicitly denying the others). So, for example, there is a lot of talk about compassion and love, but very little talk of holiness.
4. Evangelical understandings of the Bible reject a "red letter" approach which treats the words of Jesus as more important than all the other words. Unlike others Steve Chalke doesn't use the crassest example of this (which often boils down to "Jesus didn't talk about homosexual sex so it's OK"). But he does substitute an evangelical biblical theology, which says we learn more about the unchanging God through his progressive revelation in the Scriptures, for a different doctrine of Scripture. Passages such as:
"Through my hermeneutical lens, the Bible is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus."
hint, without ever actually stating, that the Old Testament is not merely an incomplete revelation of God but an erroneous or misleading one.
An even greater divergence from an evangelical view of Scripture occurs when Chalke seems to apply the same arguments to the New Testament telling us that the Bible is:
"also a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon, continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement."
It seems that for Chalke the high point of revelation in Christ is followed, not by apostolic writings that further illuminate that revelation, but by further failure to understand and grasp its full implications. Evangelicals have always recognised that this happen in places where the Scripture itself points to and corrects those apostolic misunderstandings (eg Acts 10, Galatians 1-2). But Chalke thinks such failure continues throughout the apostolic writings and that our job is not merely to interpret God differently to the way the apostles did (which leaves some pretty big questions about John 16:13 amongst other passages). It seems to me impossible to reconcile Chalke's view with the idea that Scripture is sufficient Scripture as a doctrinal and ethical authority.
* Inevitably the precise meanings of each of these terms is debated but readers will get the idea!