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Offputting theology of substitutionary atonement

by
28 August 2015

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From the Revd Dr Jeyan Anketell

Sir, — Both Bishop Tom Wright and the Revd Barry Morrison (Letters, 7 August) ignore Jesus’s own teaching on atonement in the parable of the prodigal son.

Jesus is there clearly talking about God’s overwhelmingly loving generosity towards us in forgiving us our sins. There the loving father has only to see the return of his sinful and now contrite son in order to rush out and take him into his warm embrace: no need for any sacrifice or penance there. Surely we cannot suggest that our loving Father is in reality less warmly forgiving towards us than the loving father is in the parable, when we ourselves show contrition for our sins. We forgive our children, don’t we, when they turn to us with contrition?

We have moved on from a first-century milieu. We find ourselves embracing a Christology based on untenable explanations of atonement; and we find ourselves trying now to explain atonement in ways that necessarily include this Christology in a meaningful way.

These attempts just do not make sense — neither to me, nor to the vast majority of our contemporaries. Jesus’s teaching made sense to his contemporaries; so our teaching must make sense to us and to our contemporaries. Hang on to the Christology, if you must; but, when considering atonement, let us take Jesus’s teaching about God’s love for what it is worth.


JEYAN ANKETELL
Trustee, Modern Church
7 Wissage Lane, Lichfield
Staffordshire WS13 6DQ

 

From the Very Revd Keith Jones

Sir, — The Revd Barry Morrison seeks to modify the strictures of Bishop Tom Wright on substitutionary atonement.

Many people are deterred from Christian faith because they suspect us of believing, deep down, that God is like an unjust and maybe demented headmaster (sic) whose pathological anger towards a class of recalcitrant schoolchildren can be assuaged only by flogging somebody, and preferably somebody who didn’t deserve it.

Some ways of describing the atonement do nothing to qualify this prejudice. Once the death of Jesus is associated with this travesty of Christian faith, it is hard to see the cross as a sign of hope.

As opening a narrative that dwells on God’s wish to come as close as possible to alienated human beings, even to the extent of being willing to take their plight on God’s own self, the idea of substitutionary atonement provides deep insights. But it requires skill and care to get it right. Unfortunately, it has long been used as a test of orthodoxy rather than a key to understanding.

This has encouraged vulgar distortions. The result is that too many people hear, in our Christian references to a Saviour who died for us, the worship of a god who is himself in serious need of therapy. That is a tragedy, because it prevents the Good News about the real God who was in Christ from getting through.

 

KEITH JONES
7 Broughton Road
Ipswich IP1 3QR

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