The Lost Message of Paul

The Lost Message of Paul

There should be no question that cannot be asked, that’s too dangerous to discuss…

… so says Steve Chalke in his new book.

He claims: “the core of the New Testament message has been mis-identified”. That is a serious claim. He continues:

 “Over the centuries the words of Paul have become weaponized. His words have been used to justify cruelty towards and exclusion of black people, people of colour, women, people of other religions, the wrong sort of Christians ….. non-believers, and LGBT people”.

What does Steve Chalke mean? (try this at home)

For the past fifty years, and unknown to most church-goers there has been a debate raging among New Testament scholars. Some of these, including Chalke, claim that Christians have badly mis-understood Paul. The arguments are not always easy to understand, but here is one of those arguments that is understandable and also rather important:

Grab your Bible and look up Galatians 2.16, second sentence. Or just click an online Bible. As long as it’s a recent edition with notes it will say something like this:

… So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[d] Christ and not by the works of the law…” (NIV)

Seems straightforward right? We are made right (justified or saved) by our faith in Jesus. But now look up the footnote, denoted above by the letter “d”. It says… “or through the faithfulness of Christ”. So suddenly this reads as though we are made right (justified) NOT “by faith in Christ”, but “by the faithfulness of Christ”. That’s different. In other words, it’s Christ’s faithfulness to the will of the Father, to obedience to a cross, that saves me, not the fact that I may have said the sinner’s prayer years ago or turned up at church every week since.

But that’s just one verse”, you say. “Anyone can take a verse out of context and use it badly”.

True, but It’s not one verse, Turn the page to Galatians 3.23 and you will see the same. And there are similar verses in Romans 3, Philippians 1 and 3, Colossians, 2, Ephesians 3 … that can all be translated this way. These notes have been added in recent years. We don’t normally bother reading footnotes, but they can shed light on the interpretations of a passage based on authentic scholarship.

This is one of several ideas that builds upon what is called “The New Perspectives on Paul” (NPP). NPP attempts to return to the original First Century Jewish culture in which Paul lived and wrote and comes up with fresh interpretations on some established Christian understandings.  The main debate within NPP has focused on what Paul meant when he talks about “works of the law”. NPP is backed by such luminaries as Tom Wright – but is not without its critics.

Paul's writings
Have we badly misunderstood Paul?

And, building on NPP, Chalke argues that salvation is more about the faithfulness of Christ than the ability to have faith.

Why does it matter?

It matters because, if he is right, we are not “saved by faith alone” as the evangelical saying goes.

Chalke says that we are not saved by faith in Christ. In fact even the phrase “faith in Christ” is something we inherited from Luther and Calvin’s reaction to the abuses they saw in the 16th Century Church rather than an authentic understanding of Paul in the first century church. Instead, he says, we are saved by …the faithfulness of Christ.

Is this the old Faith versus Works argument?

It’s a different take on that argument. Chalke argues that having “faith in Christ” is actually hard. Many of us experience times when it’s hard to believe without doubting. So what we call “faith” ends up becoming “a work” ie something we must try hard to do. Chalke says this leads to “salvation anxiety” among Christians, ie do I really have enough faith? …. How much doubt will stop me getting into heaven? It can cause church-goers to become riddled with guilt.

But “faithfulness” is different — whether it’s faithfulness from us or from Christ. Faithfulness, says Chalke, is more about loyalty to a story, a bit like husband and wife hanging in there even when they don’t believe they are in love. Faithfulness can embrace doubts. Faithfulness is commitment, perspiration rather than inspiration, he says.

Doubting can lead to salvation anxiety among church-goers

In fact, says Chalke, a problem in Western Christianity is that we have become obsessed with personal faith and personal salvation. It has all become about how I as an individual can get into heaven. I would agree. Many Christians today seem infatuated with a “personal salvation project”, and the Christian gospel gets reduced to pie in the sky when you die, rather than a radical life-transforming commitment to a kingdom lifestyle starting here and now.

reformation
Does our understanding of Paul have more to do with Calvin and Luther’s objections than anything Paul intended?

Where is Steve Chalke going with this argument?

It’s not just “faith in Christ” that this book disagrees with. From the standpoint of immersing oneself in Paul’s culture, Chalke argues there is no original sin, our view of the cross is incorrect, and common views of hell are completely wrong.

To be fair, some of this is not new. Eg many of us long ago gave up, (or never really believed) in the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment for people who don’t believe in Jesus. That idea is more medieval than biblical. But Chalke takes these arguments a lot further. He takes the “saved by faithfulness of Christ” line and uses it to develop the idea of ultimate inclusivity, that everyone is included in the Kingdom of God.

He says, all people everywhere will be reconciled with God through this faithfulness of Christ. Again, many of us believe that Christ has more ways of revealing himself to people than we can understand but Chalke’s arguments for universal reconciliation are unconvincing. Chalke says he is not a universalist but he believes in reconciliation of all people through the faithfulness of Christ.  Most people will struggle to see the difference.

The good and the bad of this book

 “We all know the stories of the pain caused by the misreading of Paul through the centuries … to justify some of the most brutal and repressive episodes in human history  … including apartheid, subservience of women, abuse of the environment and oppression of gay people”.

Steve Chalke is right about that and at the very least this book might soften some of the hard edges of the church. And he is right about the church at times being preoccupied with personal salvation: “go to church and get into heaven” is a cheap gospel as he makes clear.

On the other hand, Chalke’s “everything you know about Paul is wrong” proposal is built on selected scriptures and will be upsetting to ordinary church-goers. So, to conclude, this book is a helpful contribution, it takes some of the recent technical discussions on Paul (including NPP) and makes them more understandable to the ordinary church-goer, but I would not recommend it widely.

lost message of paul

The Lost Message of Paul — was published in late June 2019

One final note. It is disappointing to see more articles and blogs condemning Steve Chalke’s view as heresy. I believe our theology must be impacted by personal stories – and Chalke is someone who has grappled with some of life’s most difficult stories. He brings decades of hard experience with violent young offenders, the homeless, and victims of people trafficking. It is from this experience that Chalke’s understanding of inclusivity has emerged, rather than a comfortable study or ivory tower. That doesn’t make him a scholar, and it doesn’t make him right either. But it does make him worth listening to.

This book review was commissioned by Premier Christianity 
Enjoyed reading this? Try reading:The Reformation broke as many things as it fixed 

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JaneChris GoswamiMartMel MenziesCathy Recent comment authors

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Jane
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Jane

Without getting into the ins and outs of Chalke’s interpretation here, I’m intrigued to know why there is so much negative reaction amongst Christians to the idea that the faithfulness OF Jesus might be inclusive of all without the necessity of faith IN him? i.e. why the reaction against universalism? I’m interested in views without appealing to the passages that have already been noted in other comments and interpreted with the ‘faith IN Christ’ filter.

Mart
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Mart

Again brilliant and close to my own opinion/belief
Many thanks

Mel Menzies
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Thanks, Chris. Might suggest we read this for Book Club (we’re currently reading What’s Wrong with Human Rights by David Cross). I certainly agree that there are those who go to church for mere status and an ‘entrance to heaven’ when, surely, we are called to be disciples — i.e. following Christ’s way of life here on earth. But is Steve Chalke (who once interviewed me before 1,500 people) suggesting that the Hitler’s of this world (whom I’ve often said may have repented at the 11th hour like the thief on the cross) will be accepted into heaven *unrepentant*? I’m… Read more »

Cathy Buntin
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Cathy Buntin

Whilst agreeing with Chalke on Christs faithfulness I totally disagree with his theology on hell and also that heaven is inclusive for everyone. Yes heaven is inclusive to all who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and John 14 says Jesus is the only way the only truth and the only life. The Bible clearly talks about hell a place of separation from Christ. The Bible clearly states that the sheep will be separated from the goats, (Matthew 25). Revelation 21 gives a clear description of where the unbelieving will spend eternity. Matthew 25:46 talks about eternal… Read more »

M Holt
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M Holt

Steve Chalke has muddied the waters when it comes to believing in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation . This should not be so . The bible is very clear . There is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided . John 3. 16 is very clear . Don’t try and lead people astray Mr Chalke , leave it to the Preacher , Teachers and evangelists to reach out to the lost because they need to hear a clear gospel message and this is unhelpful teaching .

Cathy
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Cathy

Well put

APK
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APK

Quite complicated but it is interesting. I do find the different interpretation of saved by faith/Christ’s faithfulness unsettling, as it is quite fundamental to our faith. It will be an interesting longer read for people, many of whom I imagine will wish Premier still had a comments section!

Will
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Will

Chris — I checked several different translations and only found the footnote in NRSV and NIV (2011). NIV (1984) didn’t have the footnote.

Simon
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Simon

Hi Chris — my thoughts: 1) My bibles (NIV and Message) do not have the footnote given in the Bible Gateway edition. So presumably the footnote interpretation is not widely recognised as authoritative. It seems a bit strange to write a controversial book based on such a weak foundation. 2) You say its “Kind of” the old Faith/Works argument. I don’t think it is at all. Rather, the logical conclusion of his argument appears to be universalism — ie everyone is justified. (Or no one needs to do anything). You say that Chalke says he is not a universalist. And… Read more »

Jane
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Jane

… or the trend towards particular interpretations during the latter half of the last century ensured that translators translated through the filter of evangelical expectation and worldview … ? absence is not evidence …