Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Atonement and all that

Having got back into the office, I'm just catching up on church news and matters theological, as well as clearing my paperwork and emails. One thing that caught my eye was the row over the Easter period relating to the piece Jeffrey John wrote for the BBC about the meaning of the cross. You can read Dr John's actual text here. A lot of what he says doesn't particularly surprise me, and certainly doesn't shock me. I have discussed before some of the moral and philosophical problems thrown up by penal substitutionary atonement theories, and his critique shares much with many others.

What was interesting was the way his contribution was handled in the media. Newspaper previews tried to make him into a radical heretic - portraying him as trashing dearly held doctrines. Bishops (unwisely) responded without having read the full text first - always a mistake. I was pleased to see that Peter Broadbent clarified his own response with a much more thoughtful and moderate quote in the Church Times.

Dr John himself received tirades of abuse which not only related to his talk, but also to his sexual orientation, which hardly does the Christian community any credit. On the whole a complete mess.

I think there are things I would like to discuss calmly over a drink with him about what he wrote, but I'd want to re-read his text in full first. I'd like to tease out the distinction between penal substitution and sacrifice as theories of the atonement, which I think get a bit blurred together in his text. I'd like to discuss the whole issue of the relationship between justice, restitution and love in his framework of understanding. I'd also like to discuss how he deals with the New Testament texts which point to substitutionary models of understanding the cross.

My hunch is that he and I would agree on much, differ on some, and some questions would be left hanging in the air. Even if we disagreed profoundly, I'd want to talk and I can see no justification for much of what he has been through in the last few weeks.

1 comment:

Matthew McMurray said...

I have to say (and again I doubt that you would be surprised) that I agreed with what he said.

It took me a long time to come to the point where I could say that I believed that the cross was much more about love than wrath. I don't think that believing that belittles the impact of sin or the importance of confession.

I have just started reading Rowan Williams' new book TOKENS OF TRUST. The second chapter explains a lot more about this whole idea: that God is outside of systems or laws; that God can do exactly what he wants because he is God and is God almighty (explained as meaning "holding everything"). Or maybe I have misread the whole thing.

I will look forward to chatting about this in the office some time!