Jeffrey John only does half the story

So Dr John’s BBC Lent Talk has been broadcast. You can listen to it and read it here. Where do I begin? The immediate thing that stood out for me was that Dr John’s quoting of Scripture stopped when he started dealing with the Atonement. His exegesis from this point onwards was human experience, not the Bible. Now there might be a way that seems right for people, but we know the end of that… The key paragraph is this one:

The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it’s almost the opposite. It’s about a totally loving God, incarnate in Christ, reconciling us to him. On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God. As St Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.

Now no-one’s saying that Christ doesn’t reconcile the saved to himself on the cross, but this paragraph begs a number of question (even before we start examining the straw man of a vengeful God “venting” punishment on his Son). Here we go:

  • One is left asking “If Jesus did ‘bring us through death to life in him’, what the economy of that is? How does that happen? What are the spiritual dynamics?
  • Does God simply say “They’re forgiven”. If so, when the creed says “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven”, what bit of the incarnation was actually necessary for our salvation if God can simply forgive?
  • How does Christ’s “sharing our death” in any way deal with our sin? Jeffrey hasn’t even vaguely begun to explain that in his piece.

This is key you see. Dr John finishes with the statement

On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship.

but one wants to scream at him “How?” Dr John claims it’s a mystery. I disagree. If he opened his Bible he might read Romans 3:25 which clearly teaches that Christ was a propitiation. He would have to deal with where the Bible talks about Christ as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) where the Greek lutron is clearly a price paid. He needs to deal with why Jesus cries tetelestai from the cross, “It is finished” but also “It is paid”. What is paid? Who to? Perhaps a cursory reading of Morris‘ brilliant The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross would help him with the subtlety of the language used? There is SO much of what the Bible says to talk about, but Dr John doesn’t seem to want to do that. Instead, he rests his theology in human experience.

Perhaps he needs to understand Substitutionary Atonement better, as he clearly doesn’t have a proper grip on it. Yes, those who preached to him in the Welsh valleys might have over-egged the judgement of sin side, but most of us who believe in Substitution don’t believe in a “If you’re good I’ll be nice, otherwise get worried” God. And clearly one of the oldest books of the Bible, Job, didn’t teach that either. That kind of God is “repulsive” but that’s not the God of classical Substitutionary Atonement. Perhaps a reading of Stott‘s The Cross of Christ might be worth a day of Dr John’s time?

I’m afraid that what Dr John has presented isn’t good theology. He hasn’t engaged with the numerous Biblical texts that suggest substitution. He doesn’t explain HOW Christ deals with a sinful world despite the fact that Scripture plainly does. His criticism is of a strawman deity that most serious Evangelicals don’t believe in. And what was the BBC thinking in asking Dr John to do the Holy Week broadcast? Why him? Were they just trying to wind us all up? And if so, why did Dr John play their game?

I’ve also got a packet of strawmen lying around here somewhere that I could mail to the Abbey in case they run out….