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One of England’s better known Christians, Steve Chalke, has written a book about Jesus that addresses the atonement in his final chapter: “One Act, Two Scenes.” The book is called The Lost Message of Jesus. Tom Wright endorses the book as getting us back to the challenging center of Jesus himself. But, D.A. Carson, in his Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, has said Chalke denies the gospel. Does he? What do you think of Chalke’s book?
Before I make a few remarks about Chalke’s statements about the atonement (and Carson’s critique), let me sweep through this book.
First, Chalke believes the evangelical world has “lost” central elements to Jesus’ message. That center is this: “The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom, of God is available to everyone through me” (28-29). He repeats this summary often in the book. He adds that no one can keep you from this kingdom except your own decision.
Second, a core to the whole book is Chalke’s emphasis on the love of God, the inclusiveness of loving others, and how love should shape everything about the gospel.
Third, this means there must be a focus on the word “good” in “good news.” In contrast, many think of God in negative terms: they think God “is a sadistic monster, a powerful and spiteful punisher of people are having a tough enough time on earth as it is. All this while he stays in heaven, out of harm’s reach. Most people today, if they believe in God at all, think that he is power and that power is about the domination of others” (47). God as a God of love is one of the world’s best kept secrets, and Chalke then quotes Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
Fourth, in other chapters he dwells on the themes of peace, inclusive work with sinners, the priority of grace, critique of the Temple and its fulfillment in Jesus, non-violence, conversion as a process (he calls it “conversations, not conversions”), and table fellowship.
This sets the stage for his comment about the death of Jesus. The Cross, Chalke emphasizes, is a demonstration of God’s love. And here are his words:

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse — a vengeful Father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love’. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to pay evil with evil (182-183).

He continues:

The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his Son are prepared to go to prove that love. The cross is a vivid statement of the powerlessness of love (183).

He also says this:

The cross is often portrayed as the bridge over the chasm that separates heaven and earth. It is our means of escape. But the reality is that it stands [here he is using ideas from Moltmann, probably] at the centre of our decaying world — thrust into the dirt to proclaim ‘God is here!’ (185).

Chalke then goes into the Tony Campolo sermon: It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!
Carson criticizes Chalke for focusing too narrowly on God’s love, for having an inadequate view of human sin, for broadening the inclusion principle too wide, for distorting what the Bible says about Temple, and for denying penal substitution. Carson says, and I agree, that no thoughtful evangelical can use the expression “cosmic child abuse” and by that responsibly describe what the Reformed/Lutheran traditions have taught in penal substitution (see my post yesterday on this).
Carson then concludes that both McLaren and Chalke “have largely abandoned the gospel” (186) or there is a “drift toward abandoning the gospel itself” (187). And Carson speaks here (unwisely, I think) of the “angry young man syndrome” (187) — which isn’t a syndrome in any of my wife’s psychology books. He defines this as correcting one error by swinging in the opposite direction, which has nothing necessarily to do with anger. Then he calls this “pendulum-swinging reductionism” (which is much more accurate than angry young man syndrome). I don’t know Chalke, though I sat near him at a dinner and he had nice smile, gentle eyes, and nice head of hair. I do know Brian, and I can say that I would not say Brian is angry; in fact, what I would say is that Brian is constitutionally generous. Maybe too soft, but not angry. Maybe I’m wrong about McLaren, and maybe Chalke is angry, I don’t know — but I call into question using such categories to explain someone’s theology. We have to avoid such uses of psychology, unless we are well-informed, for if we don’t we end up projecting onto others what is not accurate.
There’s a lot on the plate here but I would offer these remarks:
Above all, Chalke’s book needs to be seen for what it is and not for what it is not. It is a book about Jesus’ radical message of peace, love and the kingdom — which come to all through Jesus. It is not a study of either soteriology or atonement. His sweep through the teachings and ministry and vision of Jesus has lots of good points, and these should be taken into consideration in any review of the book. There is a lot of Tom Wright in Chalke, for what it’s worth, that raises the value of the book. The book is winsome, and witty, and full of style — good stories, some of them stunning. Most are illustrative rather than inherent to the content. But, I have some problems with this book.
First, Chalke’s description of the evangelicalism he is criticizing is genuine; I sincerely think he is describing perceived realities. Some do preach a form of wrath and penal substitution that deserves to be vilified. But, Chalke knows better than to reduce evangelicalism to weak caricatures and the theory of cross to such blatant, bad stereotypes. He uses rhetoric that misrepresents what penal substitution is and then wedges beyond that misrepresentation a weak and inadequate theory of atonement that sounds like a thin anabaptist theory of non-violence. There are plenty of evangelicals around in England who would stand aghast at how he has painted evangelicalism’s understanding of penal substitution.
Second, Chalke’s own life is in motion, and this book represents a spot where he is or was — I hope he comes to cleaner and clearer positions on atonement, for his theory as it is now is some kind of Abelardian theory, or maybe (though he doesn’t quite show this) something on the order of Hugo Grotius. And this has to be said: what Abelard believed in is true, but what he denied is also (at times) true. In other words, it won’t do for Chalke to reduce the cross to a demonstration of love — and however much I like the idea that the cross is God’s identification with our suffering and pain, that is also not enough if we wish to be faithful to what the Apostle Paul, Jesus himself (Mark 10:45; 14:24), and others say in the NT.
Third, Carson jumps too far in my estimation: to accuse Chalke of denying the gospel requires that Carson interact more seriously with how Chalke understands the in-breaking of God’s shalom through Jesus Christ (which is the gospel of the kingdom), and Chalke’s definition is responsible. Chalke explores the priority of grace and the unquestionable leading edge of love in God’s redemptive plan, and I can’t fault him for this. There are some issues in how these themes are understood. At times I think Carson has overcooked his critique of Chalke, but Chalke has lots of things to explain that flow from what he has said. Maybe he’ll come out with a second edition; I suggest that he do that.

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