More on the 'penal substitution' row

More on the 'penal substitution' row

Here's the story that didn't quite make it into The Guardian last Thursday.

It was a follow-up by Stephen Bates (their religious affairs correspondent) to the argument effectively instigated by the Telegraph. He subsequently re-wrote it for CIF, but here is the original text, courtesy of the fine people on Thinking Anglicans.

Steve had spoken to Ekklesia's Jonathan Bartley earlier that day, since we had been in touch with the Bishop of Willesden's office to verify that he hadn't actually read Jeffrey John's piece, which most would regard as perfectly orthodox theology - albeit not in line with the predilections of some (by no means all) in the evangelical camp. See our 4 April story (Evangelical Bishops attack Jeffrey John talk without reading it) and the blog Forgiveness is divine, recrimination less so.

Evangelical Anglican bishops yesterday expressed their dismay that the BBC had allowed Dr Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans who four years ago was hounded out of a bishopric because of his homosexuality, to give a “tragic” Lenten talk criticising their view of the Good Friday crucifixion by claiming it made God out to be a psychopath.

Insisting that their attack had nothing to do with renewing their assault on Dr John, the two suffragan bishops, the Rt Revs Pete Broadbent of Willesden and Wallace Benn of Lewes, claimed their criticism was theological not personal. They admitted, however, that they had not read the talk before launching their attack.

In the broadcast last night, Dr John said that the evangelical belief that Christ atoned for the sins of the world through his execution, made God out to be a monster: “What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people He created and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of His own son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing someone else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we’d say they were a monster.”

Dr John was forced to stand down as the newly-appointed Bishop of Reading in 2003 by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, his old friend, who had previously endorsed the appointment, following protests by evangelicals. The dean has admitted being gay and in a long-term relationship which he insists is chaste but has in the past spoken in favour of a more accepting attitude to gays in the church.

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement or penal substitution as it is called, remains highly controversial even among evangelicals. Critics say it makes no sense of Christ’s frequent talk of forgiveness in the Gospels and also devalues the importance of the Resurrection story on Easter Sunday. Dr John said: “God shows He knows what it is like to be the loser; God hurts and weeps and bleeds and dies…he bears our griefs and shares our sorrow.”

Bishop Broadbent said: “I think he is not being true to Scripture. He denies that there is a need for atonement… and wants us to see the death of Jesus as only expressing self-giving love and entering into ultimate suffering. It is of course - thank God - but it is also so much more. He is caricaturing the doctrine in order to criticise it. I am not being homophobic. It’s not a war on Jeffrey John. I’ve got nothing against him at all.”

In an entry on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, the Rev. Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and a friend of Dr John’s, wrote: “Easter is a time for stringing up the innocent and this year once again the sacrificial victim is the dean of St Albans. We all know the reason why he’s hated by conservatives…not because he’s gay but because he’s honest…he has been saying nothing but the truth known by most people in the pews: that the idea of God murdering His son for the salvation of the world is barbaric and morally indefensible.”

Dr John himself last night insisted his remarks were in line with the Church of England’s doctrinal commission on the subject, drawn up among others by Dr Williams and the evangelical bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, who said at the weekend he was “fed up” with the BBC for allowing such “unfortunate views” to be broadcast.

Dr John said: “One of the reasons I wanted to give the talk was that the doctrine of the cross I was taught as a child kept me from faith for a long time and I have met very many others who have reacted in the same way.”

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