Prominent UK Evangelical leader Steve Chalke has released a position paper entitled Restoring Confidence in the Bible that may become for progressive Evangelicals what the Chicago Statement was to their conservative counterparts nearly four decades ago. Supporters include prominent post-conservative Evangelical leaders such as Tony Campolo, Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren.
These leaders represent a sea-change in the Evangelical landscape which has long been associated with being anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-science. Chalke, along with these other leaders, represents a growing shift, especially among younger Evangelicals, towards a more affirming, compassionate and thoughtful face of Evangelicalism, and this flows into how Scripture is interpreted and applied. In contrast to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Chalke's paper firmly denies the idea of inerrancy and instead calls for a way of interpreting Scripture characterized by debate and questioning,
"We do not believe that the Bible is 'inerrant' or 'infallible' in any popular understanding of these terms. In truth, there is nothing in the biblical texts that is beyond debate and questioning, and healthy churches are ones that create an environment which welcomes just that. The biblical texts are not a 'divine monologue', where the solitary voice of God dictates a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to their writers."
Chalke's motivation is not to undermine the Bible however, but rather to "restore confidence in it" in the face of growing concerns over the morality of the Bible which is increasingly seen -- both by those inside and outside of the church -- as promoting intolerance and violence.
"It has to be acknowledged that the problems we have outlined are not confined to a few isolated verses. We know that through the centuries various biblical texts have been read to justify some of the most inhumane, brutal and repressive episodes in human history."
As examples of this, Chalke cites not only such things from the past as the Inquisition and slavery, but also examples of how the Bible is used today to "condone the death penalty, to keep women subservient to men, to incite Islamophobia, to insist on a 'young earth' -anti-scientific-six day understanding of creation, to oppress gay people and to abuse the environment."
Rather than rejecting the Bible on the one hand (as critics like Richard Dawkins do), or seeking to defend and justify it on the other hand (as many conservative Christian apologists do), Chalke instead steps out of this tired and deadlocked debate altogether and calls for a sophisticated and thoughtful way of reading the Bible that acknowledges its contradictions.
"We recognize that it contains various, sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant, sometimes even contradictory voices, each of which contributes to the developing story of humanity's moral and spiritual imagination which, through this conversation is challenged, stretched and constantly enlarged ... To read the Bible as a static record is, therefore, a serious error."
In other words, the Bible is -- quite literally -- a collection of texts, a library of books, rather than a single unified voice from heaven. Its various authors therefore often disagree and express divergent and even contradictory views. The fact that the canon of Scripture contains these divergent voices, this record of questioning and dispute, invites us to join in that questioning and debate ourselves.
"Rather than ending with the finalization of the canon, this dynamic conversation continues beyond it and involves all of those who give themselves to Christ's on-going redemptive movement. As part of this, our task is to wrestle with the challenge of new and often complex contemporary ethical issues which confront us, but which never arose in the cultures of the biblical writers."
Embracing that the Bible is, in the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann "characterized by dispute" and entering into that dispute ourselves as moral adults means that we need to acknowledge and embrace diversity and dialog. In doing this, there will be those who do not agree with us, who have very different ideas of what is "right" than we do. Rather than mirroring the polarized name-calling that so often dominates public discourse in our country (whether this is between political pundits or here on the comments section) Chalke calls for us to engage one another with a spirit of grace,
"Our inclusion and the inclusion of others into the family of God's people is not dependent on them or us getting our reading of scripture all right. We are included not because of how right we are but because God graciously and mercifully accepts us, sometimes despite the positions we adopt."
You can watch Chalke's introduction here below, and read the full paper here.