Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Still More on Atonement: Dr. Jeffrey Johns Answers His Critics

I previously wrote about the controversy that arose over Dean Jeffrey Johns' BBC4 radion commentary on atonement. Dr. Johns recently wrote a very interesting letter to the Church Times in response:


The most recent statement by the Church of England on the meaning of the Cross is the Doctrine Commission’s report The Mystery of Salvation (Church House Publishing, 1995). It restates the view of the 1938 Commission that “the notion of propitiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unchristian” (p. 213).


It also observes that “the traditional vocabulary of atonement with its central themes of law, wrath, guilt, punishment and acquittal, leave many Christians cold and signally fail to move many people, young and old, who wish to take steps towards faith. These images do not correspond to the spiritual search of many people today and therefore hamper the Church’s mission.”


Instead, it recommends that the Cross should be presented “as revealing the heart of a fellow-suffering God” (p. 113).


On Wednesday of Holy Week, I broadcast a Radio 4 talk that was exactly in line with this guidance. The talk, however, was publicly condemned beforehand by the Bishops of Durham, Lewes, and Willesden — none of whom had heard or read the full text — on the basis of a partial and inflammatory preview supplied by The Sunday Telegraph, which published an article with the scandalously false headline: “Easter message: Christ did not die for our sins”.


As a result, before the talk was even broadcast, I received a deluge of hate-filled messages. Most of them referred to my sexuality, and many were abusive and obscene.


I have now received another deluge of messages from people who actually heard the broadcast, overwhelmingly of thanks, including many from people who, like me, were held back from faith by crude presentations of the theory of penal substitution.
These messages confirm the Doctrine Commission’s diagnosis. Ugly, illogical explanations of the Cross hamper mission, and need to be counteracted with explanations that concentrate on God’s identification with human suffering.

The crucifixion did not placate an angry God and change his mind. The Trinity is not divided. Of course Christ died for our sins; but the price is paid not to God, but by God. God in Christ took all the consequences of our fallenness on himself, and, in the supreme demonstration of his love for us, made the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice of himself which unites us eternally to him.


That is the doctrine the Church has urged us to preach, and we must not be intimidated from preaching it.

I found this letter thanks to the Mad Priest , who points out that one of the authors of "The Mystery of Salvation" mentioned by Dean Johns in his letter was N.T.Wright, now Bishop of Durham, who was one of those who criticized Johns before the commentary was even broadcast.

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