Having just been to Spring Harvest (for those who don't know, its a Christian gathering over the Easter holidays at Butlins in Minehead and Skegness, pulls in around 55,000 people, and offers a great combination of worship, teaching, fun and laminated mattresses), the following story has been on my mind....
A few years ago, Spring Harvest joined up with another Christian festival, the Keswick Convention, to do a 'Word Alive' week as part of their Easter programme. It was directed more at students, and had greater input from folk you would normally find speaking at the Keswick event. In the last couple of weeks, Spring Harvest and Word Alive have parted company, over whether a particular speaker, Steve Chalke, should be allowed to speak.
Why is Rev Chalke such a bone of contention? Last year he published a book 'the lost message of Jesus', in which he spoke, in passing, of what happened on the Cross. Chalke takes issue with a certain understanding of the Cross, usually labelled 'penal substitution', and very bluntly calls is 'cosmic child abuse'. Why? The model in question understands that because of our sin, God, who is holy, must punish us. Jesus' death on the cross is deliberate, he is sent by God to bear the punishment we deserve, so that justice is satisfied (someone pays the penalty) but mercy triumphs (because Jesus pays the penalty for us). Hence penal (penalty) substitution (Jesus dies in our place).
There are parts of Scripture which point towards this - Isaiah 53 speaks of the punishment which all of us deserved falling on Jesus. However the good news of Jesus is far more multi-layered than this. In fact, the 'gospel' which was declared by the early church was more to do with the resurrection of Jesus as God's installation of Jesus as king of creation, and the need to declare whether you would follow God's king or keep going your own way. The problem with penal substitution is not whether it's biblical - I think it's there in scripture - but whether it is the whole story. Most heresies happen when someone picks up part of the truth and assumes it's the whole truth. There are plenty of other images which the Bible uses about the Cross, and of course if it weren't for the Resurrection, the Cross would just be another miserable death of a good man in a bad world.
I must admit that I'm far more of a pragmatist than a theorist. That means that if things work, they will appeal to me, and I have to remember to engage the part of my head that asks 'but is it true?' As the church wrestles with many practical questions about mission, it's important not just to ask 'does it work' but 'is it true', because Satan himself presented Jesus with several practical and workable courses of action during the tempatations. It's just that none of them had integrity, or were consistent with God, his word and his character.
Most of what we call 'theology' is reflection on experience. Christian thinking normally finds itself catching up with what God is doing. We focused on the Holy Spirit in church this morning - it took the early church 300 years to work out what it thought the Holy Spirit was, 300 years during which the Spirit carried on filling people, giving them spiritual gifts, filling them with power for mission, and building up the church. Our understanding normally follows God's activity.
Sorry, no neat conclusion to this blog entry, maybe I should just be praying for unity among my Christian brothers and sisters.