Dean stands by Radio 4 talk on cross

by
11 April 2007

by Pat Ashworth

Got hate mail: Dean Jeffrey John

Got hate mail: Dean Jeffrey John

THE Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, received “a deluge of hate-filled messages” after public condemnation in advance of his Lent talk broadcast on Holy Wednesday evening on BBC Radio 4. Many, he says in a letter to the Church Times published today, were “abusive and obscene”.

The Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Wallace Benn, and the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, responded before they had heard or read the full text of Dr John’s reflection on the crucifixion, but after previews by The Sunday Telegraph, and, on the Wednesday morning, by the BBC’s Today programme. The Dean describes the Sunday Telegraph report as “partial and inflammatory”, and accompanied by a “scandalously false” headline: “Easter message: Christ did not die for our sins”.

In the radio talk, Dr John described the “primitive theory” of the relationship between justice and suffering portrayed in the Old Testament as turned upside down in the New Testament. He went on to describe as “pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical” the explanation, given to him in his Calvinistic childhood, of the crucifixion as God’s ultimate punishment for sin.

“Why should God forgive us through punishing someone else? It was worse than illogical. It was insane. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we’d say they were a monster.”

The explanation “just doesn’t work, though sadly it’s one that’s still all too often preached”, he continued. “The most basic truth about God’s nature is that he is Love, not wrath and punishment.” Some Christians went all through their lives without grasping that, Dr John said.

“The cross is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it’s almost the opposite. . . On the cross, Jesus died for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God, but by God. . .”

Dr John writes in his letter that the teaching of his talk was exactly in line with the guidance given by the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission in its 1995 report The Mystery of Salvation. He quotes the report: “The notion of propitiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unchristian.”

A statement put out on behalf of Spring Harvest, where Bishops Benn and Broadbent were speaking at the Word Alive week, said that the two were “united in their dismay”.

Bishop Broadbent, team leader of Spring Harvest, insisted: “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.” He expressed his disappointment that the BBC were “using their schedules to undermine the message of Easter”.

Bishop Benn described “the truth that Jesus died as our sin-bearing substitute carrying the punishment for our sins on the cross” as “the glorious heart of the gospel. To deny or vilify that is a tragic denial of the power and heart of the gospel. I hope Jeffrey John will speedily reconsider and repent of his attack on apostolic Christianity.”

The Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, reportedly also criticised the BBC for allowing such a prominent slot to be given to such a “provocative argument”.

The Sunday Telegraph report quoted him as saying: “[Dr John] is denying the way in which we understand Christ’s sacrifice. It is right to stress that he is a God of love, but he is ignoring that this means he must also be angry at everything that distorts human life.”

Bishop Broadbent said on Tuesday that, after the piece on the Today programme, he had tried but failed to get a text from the BBC until after the talk had been broadcast. “We knew many of our guests would have heard the piece and would want to know what the Church of England thought; so we thought it would help if we said something. We banged out a statement and then we got challenged,” he said.

Dr John’s two sentences referring to Christ’s dying for sins had been part of the “fine-tuned version” that was broadcast, Bishop Broadbent said. “But, in the end, he doesn’t address the criticism that we are making, which is that of course there are many views of the atonement held within the Church of England, but you can’t avoid the way in which the Old Testament theology of Passover and sacrifice plays into New Testament understanding. Jeffrey John is particularly scathing about any sense of that continuity.

“We still stand by what we said. There’s been a very long discussion over the years about the meaning of the Hilasterion word group about propitiationary language. I’m not into punishment in an over-the-top way, but I don’t think you can avoid that language.

“If he’d said, ‘There are many views of the atonement, and I prefer a different one,’ that’s different; but to come out just before Easter Sunday and say ‘This is an appalling one’ — clearly we had to challenge him.”

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Text of Dr John's letter

See Radio

Text of Dr John's letter

Sir, — 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 (1995).

Sir, — 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 (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.”

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).

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

JEFFREY JOHN
The Deanery, Sumpter Yard
St Albans AL1 1BY

JEFFREY JOHN
The Deanery, Sumpter Yard
St Albans AL1 1BY

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