Illogical condemnation of Steve Chalke

In a comment philosopher Jeremy Pierce challenges my claim about people who condemn Steve Chalke, that

they show their confusion when, in blog comment after blog comment, they simultaneously accuse Chalke of describing a straw man caricature of PSA and condemn him for rejecting PSA.

Jeremy writes:

Your dilemma seems to me to be a false one: …

I haven’t read the blog posts you’re talking about, but here’s what I suspect they’re saying (because it’s what I’d say). They’re saying is the following. He has described a caricature of penal substitution to tear down, and then he has ascribed that view to all who accept penal substitution by simply calling that view penal substitution …

Therefore, he has set up a straw man and torn it down.

Here I want to defend my claim and demonstrate that it is rational and correct.
First I will cut down to the bare essentials what I understand Steve Chalke to be saying:

I define PSA as doctrine X. Doctrine X is repulsive. I do not believe doctrine X.

Then here is a summary of what the people who condemn Chalke are saying, as I understand it:

PSA is not doctrine X but doctrine Y. We do not believe doctrine X, but doctrine Y. Indeed no one believes doctrine X, which is a caricature of what we believe. Chalke says that PSA is repulsive. Therefore Chalke is a bad man.

Well, let’s deal with this claim. First, the claim “no one believes doctrine X” is irrelevant to the argument; it cannot in principle be confirmed because no one knows what everyone believes; and it is in fact demonstrably false because Chalke and others have found and quoted people who believe it. Second, this anti-Chalke group agree with Chalke in rejecting doctrine X, indeed considering it bad teaching. Third, Chalke has not said whether he accepts or denies doctrine Y so cannot be condemned for rejecting doctrine Y. Actually what Chalke has called repulsive is not PSA but doctrine X. The others also consider doctrine X to be bad. Therefore they cannot logically say that Chalke is bad for rejecting doctrine X.

The only remaining issue relates to terminology and definitions. Chalke defines PSA as doctrine X. The others define it as doctrine Y. Well, theologians often differ over definitions. But that does not make them bad people.

I note, contra Jeremy’s claim, that Chalke has not claimed that everyone who holds to any form of doctrine which they call PSA believes doctrine X. His conversation with Bishop NT Wright, as reported by Wright, makes it clear that he does not consider that Wright believes doctrine X, although he must know that Wright holds to a doctrine which he calls PSA. Chalke may believe that doctrine X is more widespread than it actually is; I am sure he and others would be happy to see proof that it is in fact quite rare.

The most astonishing claim I have seen related to this is that made by John Piper, that Chalke’s claim is blasphemy. As I see it, Chalke’s words can be considered blasphemous only if the doctrine of PSA, or the words “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”, is considered to be a god and so anything said against it, such as redefining these words, is blasphemous.

So, what should Chalke’s detractors have said? They could reasonably have said this:

We define PSA as not doctrine X but doctrine Y. We do not believe doctrine X, but doctrine Y. We consider Chalke’s use of a definition of PSA different from ours to be unhelpful and confusing. As we do not know anyone who believes doctrine X, we do not agree with him that it is necessary to warn against doctrine X.

In other words, polite disagreement rather than condemning a brother in Christ as a heretic and blasphemer. Why didn’t they do this? Apparently because they have elevated their own teachings to a divine status such that even apparently speaking against them is considered to be blasphemy.

0 thoughts on “Illogical condemnation of Steve Chalke

  1. seems to me that Chalke has denied X as well… and also signalled that whether the rest of us hold X or Y we’re believing horrible things. he’s entitled to his views – but i’m not sure he’s then right to say he wants to stay evangelical…

    its right to expect us to be frustrated… Y is so important for us that it shapes our doctrine of salvation, of God, of humanity, of sin… and because of this if you cut it out then the repute of God and the souls of his people are affected (just as you’d presumably argue both benefit from removing Y)

  2. Suppose I defined egalitarianism as the view that men and women equal in every respect. Then I claimed that egalitarianism is unbiblical. Suppose you even became convinced that the view I hold is a moderate version of egalitarianism, and yet I am consistently calling egalitarianism evil.

    You might respond that egalitarians don’t believe that men and women are equal in every respect, e.g. women have different reproductive organs and thus play a different role in bearing children. You might also indicate that I am smearing all egalitarians by calling egalitarianism evil.

    What you would be doing is both (1) saying that I have presented a caricature of egalitarianism and (2) saying that I shouldn’t have called egalitarianism evil. In fact that’s what I think you should say in such a case. I don’t think it would be contradictory at all. You are criticizing two things I said that you disagree with. One is the claim that egalitarianism says what I say it says. The other is the claim that egalitarianism is evil.

    My suspicion (without reading the blog comments you’re referring to) is that these critics of Chalke are doing something parallel to that. There are two claims Chalke has made that they disagree with. One is his claim that penal substitution says what he says it does (or at least that that’s only one version of it, one they don’t prefer). The other is his claim that penal substitution is evil. They disagree with both claims, and they happily point out that they disagree with both, without worrying that pointing out both errors is consistent (because it is consistent).

  3. Dave, Chalke has certainly denied X. But has he denied Y? Of course that depends on exactly what X and Y are. Let me clarify that I intended to define Y as doctrines which Chalke has not denied, and X as doctrines which he has denied and considered repulsive. So we can then say that by definition he has not denied Y.

    Now maybe in fact some of his critics, including you yourself, are saying that they hold a version of doctrine X, a doctrine which Chalke rejects. But in that case they are contradicting themselves if they also say that X is a “caricature” doctrine which no one holds. At least you not making such a claim in this comment, not agreeing with the person who wrote of Wright and Chalke “They claim to be the true evangelicals (assenting at times to something they want to call ‘penal substitution’) but they look like more like new liberals – rejecting caricatures and calling for more careful study without ever positively affirming the doctrine under consideration.”

    But I think you will also find that your version of doctrine X is not PSA as taught at least by Wright and Packer, not sure now about Stott. So to be consistent you should make the same charges against Wright and Packer as you do against Chalke.

    By the way, I prefer my commenters to leave real website addresses if they leave them at all. If the point is to hide their identities from the blog owner, they need to use different e-mail addresses as well.

  4. Thanks, Dave. Well, by your link you admit to being the very same Bluefish Dave who wrote that what Wright and Chalke are condemning is a caricature. Now you claim what Chalke condemns is what you believe. So, do you believe a caricature? Or are you trying to have your cake and eat it?

  5. Jeremy put the following words in my mouth:

    You might respond that egalitarians don’t believe that men and women are equal in every respect, e.g. women have different reproductive organs and thus play a different role in bearing children. You might also indicate that I am smearing all egalitarians by calling egalitarianism evil.

    But I don’t think I would respond like this, especially not the second sentence. I would respond that I find your definitions unhelpful and confusing, and your condemnation illogical.

    As for what Chalke things PSA is, he has quoted a definition by Hodge who is a hero of the more fundamentalist kind of PSA supporter, but whose view is clearly different from Packer’s and probably Stott’s, and certainly from Wright’s. So the view which Chalke condemns is by no means a caricature or straw man, as your notional version of egalitarianism might be.

    For a better parallel, consider someone (and this is by no means a straw man argument – think well known atheists and advocates of some other religions) who describes a caricature of Christianity, of a kind which all evangelical Christians reject as unbiblical and seriously distorted, and then claims on this basis that Christianity is evil. I would react against that. But the difference is that “Christianity” is not a theoretical theological abstraction but the name of the faith I hold. I would not accept that an outsider has the right to redefine it.

    Perhaps the point here is that for some PSA has become not just a theological abstraction but a badge of self-definition comparable in importance to “Christian”.

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