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Away with the theories!

03 February 2017

John Inge sheds a burden at the foot of the cross

© NATIONAL GALLERY COMPANY LTD 2016

Risen Lord: “Noli me Tangere”, c.1514, by Titian (active c.1506-76) (NG 270), from the new revised and expanded edition of Erika Langmuir’s The National Gallery Companion Guide (National Gallery Company, £12.95 (£11.65); 978-1-85709-596-8), where the author provides commentaries on this and five other paintings by the artist, including recent acquisitions

Risen Lord: “Noli me Tangere”, c.1514, by Titian (active c.1506-76) (NG 270), from the new revised and expanded edition of Erika Langmuir’s The National Gallery Companion Guide (National Gallery Company, £12.95 (£11.65); 978-1-85709-596-8), where the author provides commentaries on this and five other paintings by the artist, including recent acquisitions

The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion
Tom Wright
SPCK £19.99
(978-0-281-06145-7)
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

 

YET another magisterial book from Bishop Tom Wright. How does he do it? Again and again, he manages to bring his colossal intelligence and immense scholarship together in an extraordinarily accessible manner to produce books which are a joy and an inspiration to read. The title of this one, with the word “REVOLUTION” printed in mirror image on the cover, is difficult to write, which is intentional, but the book is not at all difficult to read. Its 400 or so pages, spelling out clearly the manner in which many Christians have tended to diminish, distort, and domesticate what God was doing in Christ, elucidate how truly revolutionary it was.

I grew tired of theories of the atonement years ago and have generally preferred to stick to the reticence of the creeds: it has always struck me as significant that, whereas the church Fathers went to great lengths to define the incarnation in the creeds, when it came to the atonement they said only that Jesus died and was raised from the dead “according to the scriptures”.

This book brought the question of the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection alive for me anew in a compelling manner. It will not please those who tend to treat the scriptures as a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Rather, it begins with the Hebrew Scriptures, moves on to the Gospels, and then shows how the letters of St Paul and the entire New Testament combine to speak of a glorious vision of “the kingdom of God coming ‘on earth as in heaven’”.

I can’t do justice to its arguments here, and, in any case, I want people to read it. Suffice it to say that the author suggests that, in reducing the faith to promising “heaven when you die if you are good”, we have “Platonized our eschatology — our vision of the ultimate end — and, to match, have “moralised” our anthropology, our sense of what humans are and what they are meant to be”. By contrast, the early Christians believed themselves called to “live in the long promised new world in which God was sovereign in a new way, in which Jesus had already been enthroned as Lord”.

This means that the Christian movement is not a “religion” in the modern sense at all, but “a completely new way of being human in the world and for the world”. Jesus’s followers are to go out into the world “equipped with the power of his own Spirit to announce that a new reality has come to birth, that its name is forgiveness”, and that it is to be had by turning away from idolatry (“repentance”).

This book is an exhilarating read. It is impossible, if you’re anything like me, not to be inspired by it, and motivated by it to take your place with renewed vigour among “worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his Kingdom effective in the world”. In bidding us throw away “theories of the atonement”, it calls us to “celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.” Who could not be excited by that?

 

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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