Saturday, 24 May 2014

Oak Hill College and religious experiences

A little while ago I shared a few thoughts about Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance.

Round about that time I also read a post entitled “Steve Chalke or the repentant Rosaria? Whose religious experience?” by Mike Ovey at Oak Hill College.

The blog post reads like this:

Who’s the most unlikely convert you have ever met? Of course, given the ravages of sin in our hearts and minds any convert is nothing short of a miracle, a new creation that only the original creator can bring about. All the same, there are some whose place in life seems to make it especially hard to hear the gospel, and when someone in that position does become a Christian, one stands amazed at the power of God’s grace in encountering them and bringing them home to himself. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield comes into this category. Engaged, as far as one can see, in a stable, long-term, same-sex relationship, and with a glittering academic career premised on a radically feminist approach to Women’s Studies, her life was turned around as she encountered the gospel explained patiently, and faithfully, over a comparatively long period. Her lifestyle, beliefs and relationships changed (and one can only guess at both the huge emotional and the professional cost here) and she came to a living faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which she recounts in her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. Now why should that present Steve Chalke (hereafter ‘SC’) with any difficulty? I imagine in one sense it does not, because no doubt like any other Christian he rejoices at a sinner coming to repentance, as Christ enjoins in Luke 15. It does, though, present a very severe difficulty in view of his recent writings on the Bible. In fact, it indicates a fundamental incoherence. Let me explain why. The Bible, SC comments, is ‘written by fallible human beings whose work… bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and cultures they live in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.’ Quite consistently with this, SC does not have a closed canon of Scripture, because human beings outside the canonical authors have transformational experiences of God. The implication that SC draws is that the canonical Scriptures can be displaced in what they teach and say by the transformational experience of other human beings. Now consider that in the case of Rosaria. Changing the patterns of your sex life and your professional success is about as radical a transformation as you can manifest in Western culture. Does one think that Rosaria has had a transforming encounter with God? On this evidence, yes. And how has she been transformed? She has been transformed in terms of what she thinks about issues of gender and sexuality and how a human being may enjoy a saving relationship with God, through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ in which, among other things, he brings forgiveness through the cross and delivers us from God’s judgment. And here the problems start for SC. He has written in favour of same-sex relationships and has denied that Jesus bears the penalty for our sins as our substitute through the cross, reacting particularly strongly against the notion of God’s wrath towards sinners. Both of these positions – what SC accepts about same-sex and what he denies about penal substitution concerning God’s wrath – are of course extremely popular in modern Western culture. In submitting to the Bible over same-sex relationships, and over what it teaches on God’s wrath at our sin, Rosaria has accepted countercultural positions and lived them out. She has emerged from her cultural surrounds to embrace a countercultural position: this looks like transformation. Now clearly SC thinks she is wrong on these issues. In particular, on penal substitution, he thinks those who teach it and who believe it are saying the wrong thing about God by teaching about his anger, ‘telling the wrong story about God’, as he once put it. Naturally, this entails a negative evaluation of the transformational experience of someone like Rosaria. One possibility, naturally, is that SC thinks she has not had a transformational experience of God at all. Another possibility is that she has genuinely met God but simply got him disastrously wrong in her own encounter with him, so that she is ‘telling the wrong story about God’. Either way, the obvious question that springs to mind is, ‘How does SC know?’ How does he know either that she has not had any genuine encounter with God, or that she has vastly and tragically misunderstood her encounter with God? Now it is absolutely right that we should not take any claim that someone has had an encounter with God simply at face value. Apart from anything else, 1 John 4:1-3 tells us to test spiritual experience. The issue is on what basis one does that testing. The classic answer is that one tests these claims against the canonical Bible, on the basis that God does not contradict himself. But clearly, SC cannot use that benchmark because he thinks the Bible is contradictory and quite possibly that it is wrong in places. So how does he know that the transformational experience of Rosaria on these issues (who is not alone in being transformed to these positions) is wrong? Presumably SC thinks his own transformational experiences of God support his position on same sex relations and the wrath of God. But when SC’s argument is that believers like Rosaria are wrong on those issues, it does seem to require that his own transformational experience is better than theirs or that his personal understanding of God is better. It sounds very egalitarian to talk about people retelling their transformational experiences of encounter with God with no closed canon of Scripture. But rather like the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it seems that some people’s transformational experiences are more equal than others. But which ones? And how do you know?

I left the following comment:

Dear Mike,

I read your post with some interest, but I’m not at all convinced that you are being fair to SCs position.

It would have been helpful if you had included some links to the things that you say SC has written.

I believe that the argument that you attempting to present is based upon the experiences of people that have had experiences that agree with the beliefs that you have.

I get the feeling that you’re ignoring the experiences of almost everyone else in the world.

I believe that the vast majority of people that have ever lived have not experienced “a living faith in our Lord Jesus”. In fact I believe that they haven’t been given the opportunity to do so.

I’ve heard arguments that are used to explain this. But they haven’t convinced me.

I believe that almost everyone alive today would find it difficult to understand how anyone could believe that a book such as the Bible wasn’t written by fallible human beings. That it doesn’t contain inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

Since these vast numbers of people don’t have any influence upon how you view the Bible, I’m not so sure why the transformed lives of a small number of people (small when compared with the vastness of human history) should necessarily affect anyone else’s opinion.

I’m convinced that the way people look at the Bible and how they interpret it … the way that hermeneutics works when it comes to the Bible … depends overwhelmingly on what they choose to believe about God. Or is it what God choses to reveal about Himself to them?

Perhaps it’s all about faith.

I’m fairly certain it isn’t all about rationality, logic or science.

Everyone picks and chooses how they interpret the Bible.

I suspect that SC wouldn’t agree with a lot of the things that I believe. But I believe that he would likely listen to my thoughts and be willing to be swayed by them.

I’ve come across Christians who are not at all willing to listen to alternative viewpoints and be in any way influenced by them. They seem to have the answers and have closed their minds to alternative possibilities.

And, I’ve come across Christians who believe that almost every human being that has ever lived will end up spending eternity in hell. And some of these Christians seem to spend more time explaining why this is the truth than they do in attempting to rescue these millions of lost souls.

Ultimately, I think that for you to suggest that there is some kind of an error in SC’s thinking without accepting the possibility that your own thinking is equally likely to be errant is … well … unreasonable.

Of course, I may be misinterpreting what you are saying, in which case please let me know.


Andrea Wright

And it said:

Thanks! Thank you for posting a comment on the Oak Hill blog. All comments are read and approved before they're posted, but that usually happens pretty quickly.

Since nothing has appeared there it looks like my comment was disapproved.

I left an email address but didn’t get any kind of message saying why it wasn’t approved.

Ah well …

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