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God so loved the world

27 March 2015

Douglas Dales reads about the Father and the crucified Son

My Father's Tears: The cross and the father's love
Mark Stibbe
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

THIS is a thoughtful and interesting book, wrought out of long personal experience and pastoral ministry. It is a sustained reflection on the meaning of the cross, which reveals the deep love of God as Father for all his human children. The author relates this to his own experience of being happily adopted as a child, addressing very directly some of the feelings of shame, unease, and loss that being adopted can entail. He also discusses the ambivalence that many will feel about God as "Father" if their own experience of parenting has been defective or damaging.

This book is an exercise in applied theology, inasmuch as it takes seriously the often overlooked theme of "adoption" in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St Paul. The writer's formative experience was in an Evangelical milieu where the emphasis was narrowly on justification by faith. In the process, he discovered anew the significance of the Holy Spirit in making the renewed relationship with God in Christ a personal reality, and the foundation for life and ministry.

The book is also a measured reaction to certain rather lop-sided presentations of the atoning work of Christ on the cross, notably that of "penal substitution". This seems to have become something of a shibboleth in certain Evangelical quarters, and it provokes in the hearts of many a sharp reaction, even revulsion. The writer gives a very fair review of the classic approaches to the atonement, indicating that no one of them is complete in itself, or adequate to the mystery of faith in Christ crucified. Instead, he explores the way in which Christ's death rescues humanity from its alienation from God, setting people free to relate to God as God's adopted children.

The writer is concerned to correct many misapprehensions of God as Father, drawing his readers into a sensitive and empathetic understanding of how Christian belief can correct and heal much of the hurt that lies in the hearts and memories of many people, especially today, with the widespread break-up of marriages, and the insecurity in many relationships. The strength of this book is its pastoral approach and wisdom, and its careful communication of Christian belief.

At times the book is almost too personal for comfort; but since it distils a lifetime's reflection and pastoral ministry, as well as a wrestling with personal identity and meaning, this is perhaps inevitable. It is certainly prophetic in many ways, and will do much to make accessible the insights of leading theologians such as Moltmann, the author of The Crucified God.

At the end of chapter seven, the author highlights Eastern Orthodox teaching: "the purpose of the atonement is loving communion with God through a recapitulation of human nature." Its purpose is thus relational and reconciling rather than judicial. He encourages his readers to look to the wisdom of the Eastern Church. This critique of certain Western presentations of the atonement, originating from the high Middle Ages, is not new. It can be found within Anglicanism in the writings of Gore, Temple, and Ramsey; and the best introduction in English to the Orthodox approach is in the writings of the late Father Sophrony, founder of the Orthodox monastery in Essex, notably his book We Shall See Him As He Is.

Stibbe's book is a fine companion for Holy Week, and it is to be warmly commended. The author showed great courage in writing it in the way that he did, and it will bless many lives.

The Revd Douglas Dales is a parish priest in Oxford diocese.

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