UPDATE November 2008– Steve Chalke has expressed his views more fully in a chapter in The Atonement Debate, and I have posted a response to this.
Full statements have now been issued by UCCF and Keswick, as well as Pete Broadbent of Spring Harvest, who also made a further statment. N.T. Wright has weighed into the atonement debate offering clear support to Steve Chalke. Also, Dave Bish is doing a great job of collecting blog posts about this into one place.
This Easter a clear line was drawn in the sand in British Evangelicalism. For years, whenever the word “evangelical” was mentioned, people in the UK would think almost immediately of Spring Harvest — easily the UK’s largest Christian conference. Part of that package has been Word Alive, a distinct all-age event run by UCCF (who are the UK equivalent of the Intervaristy Fellowship) and the Keswick Convention in partnership with Spring Harvest. At the heart of Word Alive has been a separate student track with up to 2,000 students. Beginning in 2008, there will be no more Word Alive at Spring Harvest.
I have seen and heard lots of speculation about the detailed reasons for this parting of the ways, and I do not want to add to that here, but a quick look at what happened during the event this year, and the plans for next year from both halves of the partnership, surely makes the overall reasons behind this abundantly clear to any observer.
Firstly, Richard Cunningham (who incidentally reasserted the UCCF’s absolute commitment to Penal Substitutionary Atonement when I interviewed him eighteen months or so ago) preached very passionately about the cross during the event. The audio of this talk is available to order online, and was well reported by blogger Cat who said the following:
“I noticed that night there was a very strange atmosphere. On one hand there was a striking on our hearts showing us how Holy God is and how unworthy we are; it brought us to worship God and fall to our knees at His majesty. Yet there were some that looked bewildered or looked angry. This was the first time ever that I saw [that] the Cross truly does offend.”
The very next morning came the Radio Four Program by Jeffrey John (NOT to be confused with J. John!) in which he stated that he believed Penal Substitutionary Atonement made God into a psychopath. Bishop Broadbent, the leader of Spring Harvest, quickly issued a statement disagreeing with this.
To most observers, however, there seems to be little difference between being a psychopath and being a cosmic child abuser, as previously stated by Steve Chalke, who Broadbent works very closely with. Whilst Broadbent doesn’t seem to share the views of Chalke, he is obviously willing to work with a broad range of people. Perhaps this was the reason for the way in which Broadbent seemed, to me, to be treading a fine line in his words:“You cannot read the Old Testament and New Testament . . . and blank out an entirety of language and concept and understanding that means that we are guilty sinners, we need our sins to be paid for, and we need Jesus Christ to die for us. That is what the Creeds say, it is what the Bible says, and you cannot rewrite them. You cannot understand Jesus Christ without understanding Old Testament atonement material . . . Of course, there are some very raw discussions amongst Christians about quite how Jesus died in our place and what that meant and how He suffered for our sins — but to ignore the entirety of the language about atonement and sacrifice and the cross is to nullify the message of what Good Friday and Jesus dying for us is all about. Jesus Christ is sacrificed and He washes away the sins of the whole world and He completes the understanding of Scripture and fulfils it in a completely new way.”
Towards the end of the whole event, in an open meeting for group organizers, Richard Cunningham was asked a direct question about why the partnership is coming to an end. He stated in his reply that Spring Harvest had been the one to take the initiative, and asked UCCF and Keswick to no longer be a part of Spring Harvest. This was because UCCF and Keswick were not willing for Steve Chalke to speak on either the student or all-age platforms at Word Alive. I was not at this event, but since it was an open meeting, what was said is clearly in the public domain — I am obviously more than willing to correct this account if I have been misinformed.
Spring Harvest is understood to be planning a student track, and at least according to an unofficial posting I ran into on Facebook, this could be run in conjunction with Fusion. This link-up would certainly be a likely option for them since Steve Chalke is a member of the Fusion Council of Reference, and both the council of management and leadership team of Spring Harvest. Perhaps not surprisingly, that is one name that does not appear on similar lists for either the UCCF or Keswick.
Meanwhile, next year UCCF and Keswick will launch New Word Alive, a conference at a venue which I am told will have the potential capacity for over 5,000 people in North Wales. This event will be for both families and students, and looks very interesting.
New Word Alive has managed to confirm a fantastic line-up of main preachers: John Piper, Terry Virgo, and Don Carson will all be speaking at the event. Not much wonder that the New Word Alive Facebook group has jumped to almost 900 members already! If they will have me, I may just have to try and go along with my whole family and live-blog, like I did at Together On A Mission 06.
No official statement about this has been released on the websites of either Spr
ing Harvest, UCCF, or Keswick, and all these organizations declined to issue any formal statement when I gave them the opportunity to comment on the contents of this post prior to publication.
Somehow I think we have not heard the end of this.
The UCCF has responded to this article as follows:
“Steve Chalke has made his dislike of penal substitution very clear by likening God’s act of punishing Jesus in our place to a cosmic child abuser. In good conscience, we simply could not allow Steve to teach during the Word Alive week. We’re very sad that after 14 years of fruitful ministry, Spring Harvest has decided to end the Word Alive partnership because we feel unable to shift on this position.”