Adrian Warnock seems to have scooped the interesting news that Spring Harvest is breaking its partnership with UCCF (the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) and the Keswick Convention because they cannot agree about Steve Chalke and what he wrote about the atonement. Dave Warnock, no relation, seems to consider this totally bad news. But in my first comment on Adrian’s post, I actually welcomed this split. So, what is happening here?
It is now more than 30 years since I became a committed evangelical Christian (from a rather vaguely Christian background) through the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), which is an affiliated group of UCCF. For four years (1974-1978) I grew as a Christian with the help of the excellent Bible teaching at CICCU. My only real complaint is that CICCU neglected teaching about the Holy Spirit. It was after I left Cambridge that I experienced for myself the power and the gifts of the Spirit. So, I have always respected UCCF for its good teaching but regretted that, because this was not fully balanced, for years I missed out on any real experience or understanding of the Holy Spirit.
I am amazed to realise that it is now more than 20 years since 1986 when I first attended Spring Harvest, then in rather primitive accommodation at Prestatyn. That year Clive Calver personally signed me up for the Evangelical Alliance, of which I have remained a personal member. And I remember a then rather young Steve Chalke taking a prominent role. By this time I appreciated, as I would not have done during my Cambridge years, the restrained charismatic teaching of Spring Harvest. I attended several more times over the next ten years or so. During this time Spring Harvest became established as one of the main driving forces of the evangelical church in the UK, especially among charismatics. Among the speakers I heard there was John Wimber. But by the last time I attended, 1997 I think, I felt that Spring Harvest was running out of steam, becoming a tradition rather than a driving force.
It was always rather a surprise to me that Spring Harvest chose to partner with UCCF and the Keswick Convention to put on the Word Alive week especially for students. My image of UCCF was still of the CICCU of the 1970’s, strong on doctrine but weak on the Holy Spirit. From what Adrian’s commenters have said, that is no longer a fair assessment, as there is more openness now to charismatic teachers like Terry Virgo. If so, I welcome it. But I don’t think Virgo, as a complementarian, would have felt at home at Spring Harvest in the late 1980’s, where there were many women speakers, including Faith Forster who took a strongly egalitarian line.
So it is no surprise to me that these rather unlikely partners have decided to go their separate ways. This will allow them to concentrate on their respective core teachings and practices, hopefully not as rivals but recognising one another’s distinctive contributions to the body of Christ. It is sad, but perhaps inevitable, that what prompted this parting of the ways was a doctrinal dispute.
Meanwhile there is continuing confusion about what Steve Chalke actually said. This is reflected in the comments on this post at the influential American evangelical blog Between Two Worlds. Here is what I wrote there to explain the situation:
The teaching which Chalke has rejected, in somewhat immoderate language, is not the general idea of substitutionary atonement but the specific teaching that God punished and killed Jesus. See this summary of his teaching, where he explains Hodge’s view, which he rejects, as that God was “bringing about the violent death of his Son“.
I note that Stott, as quoted by Adrian Warnock, has also rejected this idea: “We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment“, i.e. God did not punish Jesus.
So it is quite clear to me that the concept of the atonement about which Chalke was so negative is not the one which is held by Packer or Stott.
Now I might argue that Steve Chalke was unwise to write what he did. If he didn’t foresee the storm which he has stirred up, then he was rather naive. If he did foresee it, why did he go ahead and write this? That is of course between him and God. It would certainly be unwise of me to judge him for it, for no doubt the only thing which has stopped a similar storm about some things I have written, on this blog and elsewhere, is that I am by no means as well known as Chalke.
What I can say is that sometimes Christians hold that the teaching of some other Christians is so wrong that they must speak out against it even at the cost of dividing the church. Many of those who we now count as great Christian leaders, such as Martin Luther and other Reformers, have done this. St Paul did this, when he opposed the circumcision party and even wished they would castrate themselves (Galatians 2:11-14, 5:12), language which I am sure they would have considered blasphemous. And of course we know that when Jesus opposed the wrong teachings of the religious leaders of his day he was condemned for blasphemy. Chalke may be in good company! I don’t know if he sees what he has done in this light, but it may well be that history will.
I do believe that using a single model of atonement to divide the church is unscriptural and wrong.
But it is not Chalke who is doing this, but the ones who are rejecting him because of his misunderstood teaching about the atonement. Just as the Roman Catholics rejected Luther because he challenged their teaching, and so precipitated a split in the church, so it is UCCF and friends who are rejecting Chalke because he is challenging their teaching. We can hope and pray that this will not cause a lasting split. But if there is one, it is not Chalke’s fault.
Meanwhile PamBG has written an interesting post on the atonement which I would like to recommend to you. I don’t endorse everything she says. But she makes a good point about how penal substitutionary atonement is based on the popular but not truly Christian idea that
God rewards good behaviour with good things and bad behaviour with bad things. On the contrary, Christians believe that there is nothing that we can do that is ‘good enough’ to gain our salvation or other rewards from God and therefore we have to rely on the grace of God. … I think we get into trouble when we start saying that God’s ‘justice’ means that he is not capable of being gracious until he has received some kind of payment. In the event of God receiving a payment, grace is not grace but is rather a quid pro quo reward for good behaviour. … The whole point of Christianity is that the love of God is a free gift.