Comments: newspaper reports on BBC talk

It's interesting that both the gentleman from The Times and The Telegraph present Dr Johannes Calvinus's mid 16th century Penal Substitution theory on the Atonement as the one and only, instead of saying that it is but the latest of a number of different theories, not even shared by all Evangelicals.

I wonder why?

(or do I :-(

Posted by Göran Koch-Swahne at Thursday, 5 April 2007 at 4:22pm BST

As far back as 1963, J S Bezzant, then Dean of St John's College, Cambridge, after summarising the traditional doctrine of penal substitution, remarked, 'This outline has been so shattered that the bare recital of it has the aspect of a malicious travesty'. Why is this discredited doctrine being resurrected now to attack Jeffrey John, when he was only saying what serious theologians have believed for more than half a century? (See Objections to Christian Belief, 82-4).

Posted by Eamonn Rodgers at Thursday, 5 April 2007 at 4:39pm BST

Once again the bishops of the Church of England demonstrate their talent for shooting from the hip. The peremptory denunciation of the good Dean's comments - without having read the text - by Wallace Benn and Pete Broadbent, and the pompous comment from Tom Wright are just further proof that the bishops of our church occupy an increasingly strange place. What are bishops for? Surely more than all of this.

Change will inevitably come, but in the meantime thank God for Jeffrey John. He speaks words that people can understand, that resonate with their experience and speak of the love of God. No wonder he is not a bishop!

Posted by Fr G London at Thursday, 5 April 2007 at 5:09pm BST

Ok, John could have been a bit more tactful, perhaps. But nothing he says is undoctrinal, and of course many Anglicans would agree with him. It is just unfortunate that this should emerge at this particular moment to remind us of the many, many theological disagreements among Anglicans which we have been able to live with (relatively) happily for 450 years.

Posted by Caliban at Thursday, 5 April 2007 at 5:11pm BST

"Insisting that their attack had nothing to do with renewing their assault on Dr John." Back to the old mantra - "it's not their lying to me that I object to, it's their assuming that I'm stupid enough to believe them".

Posted by Lapinbizarre at Thursday, 5 April 2007 at 6:55pm BST

This may be a good time to remember too often forgotten last stanza of John Godfery Saxe's "The Blind Man and the Elephant"...

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Posted by David Bieler at Thursday, 5 April 2007 at 8:26pm BST

In the marvelous Victorian Lenten cantata "The Crucifixion," Stainer's librettist, the Rev. J. Sparrow-Simpson, entitles a hymn "The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation." It seems to me that is what Dr. John is asking us to recapture, to abandon our foolish need to try to explain everything and to throw ourselves into the mysterious grace through which God acts on and in us. If the task of theology is to talk about the unknowable, we at least need to accept that our theology must be done with humility. If pride is the worst sin, the worst pride is asserting that we know just what God did and how he did it. (Whence my earlier reference to Saxe and the bishops who talk without reading.)

Posted by David Bieler at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 3:18am BST

The cultural context, as always, plays a key role here.

Jeffrey and I grew up in a Wales where many around us had been through a “Moore College” experience a generation or two before. It had gripped our nation in an extraordinary Revival. Calvinism in its various guises had left a deep mark on the soul of Welsh people even though the fervour had quickly given way to repulsion for the consequences of this type of theology.

Reading his piece I understood exactly where he was coming from. This was a very personal story, yet one to which a large number of Welsh Christians from our era could utter a resounding Amen.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 8:15am BST

Damian's article made me smile. He understood the nihilistic parallels with other absolutist theologies.

Posted by Cheryl Clough at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 10:38am BST

Martin - I take your point and yet I am left with the impression that not only J. John's *rejection* but also his *understanding* of the doctrine of penal substitution has not risen beyond that of a ten year old listening to some bad preaching in a Welsh chapel. J. John may well have legitimate issues with people in his past but can we not expect the dean of a cathedral to have studied some of the best of penal substitution theology before rising to condemn it as a whole? By all means, condemn the caricature (Jesus all passive instrument, helplessly beaten up by his dad who needs to vent his anger on someone), if you think it's all that widespread, but don't ignore the fact that penal substitution has been exposited carefully many times and deserves reasoned discussion rather than shrill polemic.

Posted by Thomas Renz at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 2:51pm BST

Thomas Renz wrote: "I am left with the impression that not only J. John's *rejection* but also his *understanding* of the doctrine of penal substitution has not risen beyond that of a ten year old listening to some bad preaching in a Welsh chapel."

Sorry, but you have a problem, Thomas.

There are 10ths of thousands of us who have the same experience of listening to bad people preaching bad theology in both Cathedrals and chapels.

Penal Substitution is but a mid 2nd Millennium heresy. I shall not give it a second chance.

Posted by Göran Koch-Swahne at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 7:42pm BST

There are all sorts of approaches to this topic, but they are all in the realm of working and reworking of myth (that is, repeating truths). Sometimes you have to demythologise, sometimes what you have is remythologised. In a recent service I took I demythologised one part of the Stations of the Cross of Jesus falling with Simon still helping to a couple tackling the crisis of debt, caused even by worthwhile burdens. At other times, I remythologised, by (for example) talking about the weight of the cross as the weight of sin, or changing time and location. I made a contrast in one place between Parsuram, a non-violent priest and nicely the first fully human manifestation of God Vishnu in the trimurti understanding of Hinduism, who I cast as Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus. Parsuram changes tack to save the human race and takes up an axe, whereas in my painting I used he helps Jesus who has another approach.

Set against the mythic possibilities, this penal substitution theory is like a piece of soulless mechanics.

If you are interested in the service (I wrote and presented) and the paintings I produced, it is here (direct links and either way in):

Posted by Pluralist at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 9:18pm BST

No, Thomas - you give it a respectability it does not deserve. You may think it deserves 'consideration' - but I wouldn't agree.

Different religious world-views, again - no blood sacrifices as punishment, thank you.

Posted by Merseymike at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 9:53pm BST

I tire of those who attempt to defend the PS theory on the grounds that 'you (=I)clearly don't understand it properly'. SO far as I can see, a doctrine so easily corrupted, so difficult to express without falling into gross immorality is not worth the paper it's written on.

I think Calvin the Lawyer, living in a chaotic Europe, did the usual thing of finding in the Cross a sign of hope and an answer to his longings: he longed for Law And Order, for an absolute monarch who'd bang heads together as necessary, and for a bit of necessary Punishment to take place pour encourager les autres. (Yes, an horrendous overstatement, but I cannot see that the highly abnormal state of Reformation Europe gives a solid cultural foundation for doctrine in the present.)

Why on earth we're expected to genuflect unquestioningly to that I cannot begin to imagine - no-one feels the need to do that to (say) C8 atonement theology. Astonishingly, the Calvinist disease even infects one translation of the 'Dream of the Rood' poem, where the AS 'þa he wolde mancyn lysan' 'there he would loose mankind' is rendered 'for mankind's past he would amend'. Is there no limit tot the hubris of the neo-Calvinists, infecting even the hallowed and innocent days pre-William the Illegitimate????

Posted by mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) at Friday, 6 April 2007 at 11:26pm BST

I see on Titus 1:9 that the Pope has given us his views in a new Primer:

I am not quite sure just where the real caricature is here Thomas. Is it Jeffrey of PS through the eyes of a Welsh childhood or yours of his personal testimony?

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 1:34am BST

The polemic against "penal substitution" is very confusing. What is meant by it? If it is an attack on some gloomy theology held by a minority of Christians why give it the prominence it has latterly received? Christ in the New Testament is certainly substituted for us -- as the paschal lamb that bears our sins, a scapegoat in fact. That has always been a source of peace, strength and joy to Christians.

Calvin is the one supposed to have invented the gloomy PS theory. But Calvin was a very sober and biblical theologian -- I doubt if he was guilty of a crude distortion of the New Testament. Looking up Reinhold Seeberg's history of dogma on this matter, I find that Christ makes satisfaction for sin and thus saves humankind from the wrath of God: "he shed his sacred blood as the price of redemption, whereby the anger of God, inflamed against us, is extinguished and our iniquity is purged" (Corpus Reformatorum 33, 339). The obedience of Christ's whole life is part of this atonement. This is much the same as what Paul, Augustine and Karl Barth teach. Of course this language has to be spiritually interpreted, so that the entire work of redemption is grasped as an expression of divine grace and love towards humankind.

Posted by Fr Joseph O'Leary at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 2:18am BST

Fr Joe, there are special Anglican problems with regard to certain aspects of PS, as you may be aware.

In some parts of the Anglican Communion a certain form of PS has become the mark of "orthodox" belief. So much so that if you are not willing to subscribe to their singular understanding of the theory you may not be employed in any ministerial capacity.

Your post presumes this possibility - it is in fact correct.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 9:53am BST

So Göran is not the only one who persuaded himself that Calvin invented penal substitution. Would anyone care to explain how Calvin differs from, say, Aquinas? The major works of both are readily available on the internet so it should not be too difficult to demonstrate the difference.

Are those who so violently oppose the notion of penal substitution, claiming it to be a late invention, in happy agreement with the exposition of Christ's death in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho; Eusebius of Caesarea, Proof of the Gospel; Hilary of Poitiers, Homily on Psalm 53 (54); etc. see

If so, how is Calvin's view supposed to differ from that of these church fathers? If not, why pretend that your disagreement is merely with "Calvinists"?

Posted by Thomas Renz at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 10:21am BST

I am sorry if I caricatured J. John - it was not my intention to do so. I was seeking to explain his ridicule of any idea of divine wrath and retribution. Thank you, Martin, for the link to the Pope. His is a critique of mechanistic notions of the atonement with which I agree.

Posted by Thomas Renz at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 10:34am BST

By the way, and only because he has been mentioned, T1-9 also has a link to a quote from Karl Barth:

Posted by Thomas Renz at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 10:38am BST

I prefer to think of metaphors of atonement rather than models of atonement - maybe it is just semantics - but in geometry I was taught 'never have a single model of something you don't understand, because the model will mislead you'.

This thread is missing reflection on physical metaphors - the gates of hell shall not prevail, Christ has broken down the dividing wall etc

The curtain of the temple was a symbol of God's holiness, created out of human understanding of who God is. The danger of an unbalanced understanding of holiness and justice is that we put it back again, rather than proclaiming, as the Gospel has it, that the curtain has been torn in two.

So one of the things I am preaching this Easter is that Jesus has broken down the barriers which we erect to protect ourselves against God's love - even the strongest barriers created by the greatest evil - even the barrier of death.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 11:51am BST

Can we please stop confusing the Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, and the person whose views are under discussion here, with J.John, the evangelist and most recently leader of the 'Just 10' initiative (whose views on this, I suspect, though I do not know, may be rather different from the Dean's)? At least one person, either on this thread or a related one, has conflated them into one person.

Posted by JBE at Saturday, 7 April 2007 at 5:56pm BST

JBE - my use of "J. John" on this and a related thread was meant as an abbreviation for "the Very Rev Dr. Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans". In my own mind, the Dean is clearly distinct from the evangelist who goes by the name of "J. John" but I apologise for any confusion caused.

Posted by Thomas Renz at Monday, 9 April 2007 at 9:59am BST

Don't you think that we should just be very grateful to Jeffrey for causing so much attention to be focused on the Atonement? People who perhaps wouldn't have thought too much about the subject are now drawn into debate, are thinking seriously about one of the most important aspects of our faith. Thank God (in every possible way) for Jeffrey John, say I, and may he continue to provoke discussion and stimulate faith.

Posted by Lorna Brook at Tuesday, 10 April 2007 at 10:01pm BST
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