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Canon Fraser applied ‘Dawkins method’ to a theory of the atonement

29 April 2009


From Canon Colin Craston

Sir, — I wish to voice a protest at the distortion of the nature of the atone­ment in Christ by Canon Giles Fraser. In an article in The Guardian, in a Thought for the Day, and now in his column (Comment, 24 April), he has used crude, simplistic presenta­tions of the Cross to make his point. Richard Dawkins uses crude, fundamentalist understandings to attack religion. It is the same technique.

I, too, regret what Canon Fraser objects to. But there is a well-grounded, theologically convincing understanding of the atonement, which is that God, in his Trinity, judges sin at total cost to himself, but in humanity in Christ, God incarnate.

Let Canon Fraser read P. T. Forsyth, described by Emil Brunner and others as the great theologian in Britain in modern times. His works The Person and Peace of Jesus Christ, The Centrality of the Cross, The Work of Christ, and The Principle of Authority will answer Canon Fraser’s objections. There is also The Death of Christ by James Denney, and The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann, to give a convincing understanding of our salvation.

12 Lever Park Avenue
Horwich, Bolton BL6 7LE

From Mr Richard Wilkins

Sir, — Canon Giles Fraser often writes as if consumed by visceral rage, and his words fall like the plague of hail. So his assurance on 24 April that God is not like that is comforting. But when his gross caricature of the penal-substitution theory of the atonement suggests that gross caricatures are all he reads, I wonder whether he knows what he is talking about.

The penal theory is one way of saying that, when humans, who have fouled up creation — particularly themselves — meet the perfect God unveiled, there is an incompatibility that is moral and legal as well as affectional. That incompatibility was endured and atoned for by the God-Man Jesus’s obedient life and sacrificial death on our behalf.

Our recognition of this, and our personal experienced inclusion in the risen life of Jesus (Ephesians 1.19, 20), is the core of Christian redemption.

Canon Fraser rejects this with his recycled (The Guardian, 11 April) “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, which Jesus himself recycled from Hosea. Any proof-text of that sort which was used to offend Canon Fraser’s liberal sense of decency would be held up to criticism as an example of iffy Old Testament citation in the New, and additional doubts of its authenticity would arise from post-AD70 composition of Luke’s Gospel.

No such qualms, however, prevent Canon Fraser’s rapping out of a text that suits his purpose, decontextual­ised, and with judgemental finality. It trumps everything in the New Testament about Jesus’s death which savours of sacrificial language.

Similarly, the absence from the oldest manuscripts of the story of the woman taken in adultery need not qualify its use as Jesus’s authentic and final word of contempt for strict sexual morality.

The principle of criticism is: Jesus definitely said it if a liberal Anglican could say it today.

27 Spring Gardens
Garston, Watford
Hertfordshire WD25 9JJ

From Dr Peter Lumsden

Sir, — A big thank-you for exploring the subject of Christ’s saving work. I found the article by the Revd Dr An­drew Davison (Features, 9 April) on how we are “saved” by Christ extremely useful and encouraging.

The characteristically robust arti­cle by Giles Fraser in last week’s issue was similarly welcome, and raises the wider, important questions: where we generate our beliefs from, and why we hold on to them so strongly.

On a Christian discussion forum, I am in dialogue with several who hold a Young Earth Creationist view. It seems to me that the doctrine of penal substitution lies not far below the surface of their literal interpretation of Genesis.

64 St Andrew’s Avenues
Ashton, Preston PR2 1JN

From the Revd Jonathan Clatworthy

Sir, — Even if Alexander Kalimoros has overstated his case, as Canon Giles Fraser suggests (Comment, 24 April), there is good reason to believe that the doctrine of hell has persuaded many to become atheists.

The rise of modern atheism is often attributed to Hobbes’s materialism. As Frederick Beiser points out, however, in his The Sovereignty of Reason, even before Hobbes’s challenge, large quantities of Puritan literature were warning believers of the dangers of unbelief.

Satan, according to these Puritans, was constantly leading the worried to despair of salvation, telling them that they could not meet the demands of true faith and tormenting them with visions of hell’s terrors. Burdened with all this, the worried believer would succumb to temptation and deny God, thus giving Satan another soul.

The fact that there is so much of this literature suggests not only that there must have been unbelievers, but that they must have abandoned belief because of their anxieties about hell.

This makes good sense. In a culture that believed in a sharp distinction between the saved and the damned, some — like their successors today — complacently assumed that they would be among God’s elect; but others, more aware of their own failings, were anxious about their eternal prospects. A few appear to have dreamed of pacts with the devil, who, after all, would appear the only hope; for others, the best hope was that God did not exist.

Today, there are still many atheists whose rejection of Christianity stems from childhood fears of hell. There will no doubt continue to be such people as long as there remain church leaders who believe in it, teach it, and leave their hearers anxious about their own prospects. A more destructive doctrine has never been devised by the human mind. Better to believe in a God of love.

General Secretary
Modern Churchpeople’s Union
9 Westward View
Liverpool L17 7EE

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