Monday, January 16, 2006

Endorsement Controversy

There has been quite a scuffle over Rick Phillips’s critique of Bishop N.T. Wright endorsing an Emergent Church book. From there responses, defenses and refutations appeared. Of course this brought a response from Rick Phillips about the personal nature of the attacks and the avoidance of dealing with the issue. Of course this generated more responses, and the saga continues.

One fact remains after all of this. No one really ever answered the primary problem posed by Mr. Phillips. Is it wrong for Bishop Wright to endorse a book that rejects the atonement and original sin? Can those who hold to Wright still claim he sits on the side of Reformed Orthodoxy if he lends his name to a book that attacks it? I have not read the endorsement or the book, so whether or not the book actually denies these things I cannot say first hand. However, it is noteworthy that no one has denied Steve Chalke’s book denies these tenants of the Reformed Faith. The Joel Garver post deals wonderfully with the view of N.T. Wright on many subjects, but never really deals with the issue at hand. Only the comment that "I suspect endorsements on the backs of the books have much more to do with marketing than theology". In the Christian world, should book endorsements deal more with marketing than theology? I think not. I wish the critics of Mr. Phillips would in the responses at least answer this question before dissecting every inconsistency that can be found. It is a question that deserves an honest evaluation.


Alastair said...

I think that the primary problem has been addressed. No one claimed that it was a small issue. Wright was asked to respond to questions on the subject. I presume that a number wrote personal e-mails or letters to the bishop on the subject. I did.

Wright's recommendation is as follows:—

"Steve Chalke's new book is rooted in good scholarship, but its clear, punchy style makes it accessible to anyone and everyone. Its message is stark and exciting: Jesus of Nazareth was far more challenging in his own day, and remains far more relevant to ours, than the church has dared to believe, let alone preach."

Wright has also responded to criticisms of his recommendation:—

"QUESTION: "There has been some recent debate over a controversial book by Steve Chalke which you have endorsed. Chalke has warned that some versions of penal substitution can reduce God to a “cosmic child abuser.” Would you agree with his analysis and do you see that as a danger?

ANSWER: There are some ways of preaching and expounding penal substitution which do indeed reduce it to the crude terms of God demanding that someone suffer and not caring much who it is. This is an attempt to put the vast ocean of God’s saving love into the small bottle of one particular category. When you track penal substitution from its NT statements (Mark 10.45, Romans 8.3, etc etc) back to its roots in Isaiah 53, you discover that in its proper form it is part of a much larger theme, which is God’s vindication of his justice and saving love and his demolition of pagan power and authority. Sometimes evangelicals haven’t wanted to embrace or even notice the larger themes and so have falsely accentuated the sharp edge of penal substitution in isolation from them. I think Steve is reacting to that kind of skewed presentation. Think of it like this. In a musical chord, the ‘third’ (in a chord of C major, this would be the note E) is the critical one that tells you many things, e.g. whether the music is major or minor, happy or sad. That E is vital if the music is to make the sense it does. But if the player plays the E and nothing else, the E no longer means what it’s meant to mean. Likewise, substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel. Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be. But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether..."

What is there to disagree with this statement? I think that Wright is spot on. Wright clearly believes in penal substitution himself, something that can be demonstrated from his writings. I also have encountered people who have seriously distorted the gospel by the manner in which they portray penal substitution.

Many evangelicals (certainly here in Britain) teach a form of penal substitution that does not explain why it was just for the Father to punish the Son on our behalf. Chalke and others are attacking such a popular and dangerous perception. He goes too far in his criticisms and rejects penal substitution altogether, but perhaps if evangelicals were more open in rejecting such erroneous positions the need for Chalke's statements would never have arisen.

Evangelicals also tend to hold a false atonement theology by so stressing and absolutizing penal substitution that they lose sight of the fact that it is merely one of many aspects of the atonement, all equally important. If Chalke's doctrine of the atonement is dangerously unbalanced, it seems to me that the doctrine held by most evangelicals I encounter is unbalanced in another direction.

Steve Chalke, as Wright points out, is attacking what is generally a caricature. It is, however, a caricature that I have encountered in reality in certain cases. Chalke's criticisms of original sin are also attacking a caricature (I suggest that you read the book). Chalke's comments on original sin and penal substitution take up only a few sentences within the book.

Perhaps N.T Wright is working in a broader world than that of conservative evangelicals. Perhaps he recognizes that there is much good material out there that we do not have to entirely agree with (we may have occasional strong disagreements with it) for it to make worthwhile and helpful reading. Perhaps he expects people who read his recommendation to be grown up enough to critically appropriate the thought of Chalke and neither reject nor accept it in its entirety.

In my experience conservative evangelicals lack such critical faculties as they are continually nannied and spoonfed by people who control what information and thought they should be exposed to. Whilst such oversight is not unimportant, particularly for young Christians, there comes a time when we should be able to discern the good from the bad for ourselves.

If we had such a critical mindset we would recognize that such recommendations as Wright gives are not necessarily to be understood as blanket imprimaturs. Rather Wright's quote is designed to commend the book to our attention as something worth reading, even if we should be careful not to accept its message in full.

Lee said...

You make some good points about the critical mindset. Also, if the book is not as unorthodox as others have claimed then this debate is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I will try to read the book, but I just blew my book allowance on a hard to find book by Jonathon Dickenson, so it may be a while.