Monday, December 06, 2004


It is a painful and inescapable fact that distorted and unhealthy ideas about God, of which there are very many, often dovetail with human attempts to legitimate violence and oppression. One does not have to subscribe to some over-simple notion that religion (peculiar among life-stances) is the root of all evil in order to see that this is so.

The difficulty is perhaps particularly acute among the 'revealed religions' - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - where attempts to point this out often fall against the rock of an unyielding interpretation of some Scriptural text or inherited doctrine.

What lies behind this is usually a naive, solepcistic, partial or ideological reading of the text, commonly justified on the basis that it it the 'only', 'true' or 'traditional' one. On further examination such claims usually turn out to be untrue, but the weight of a view that buttresses our sanctity and dams our enemies proves massively appealing and 'convincing'.

Such is the case in the current intra-evangelical argument about 'atonement theory', the question about how the death of Christ is linked to God's offer of freedom and forgiveness in the teaching and imagination of the church - and the life (and death) of the world.

The recent stir has been occasioned by a book called The Lost Message of Jesus, published by Zondervan, 2004, written by Steve Chalke, a gifted Baptist preacher and social activist.

By most standards its contents are theologically unremarkable, reflecting a broad swathe of development in what we might call 'liberatory Christianity', consistent with the work of people like Sharon Ringe, Walter Brueggemann and Walter Wink - and at the more conservative end of the spectrum, N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar who is now Anglican Bishop of Durham.

Chalke's message, essentially, is that Jesus was a social subversive, and that his call for radical transformation in the light of the coming realm of God embraces the political as well as the personal. Not much cause for complaint there, you might think - except that it challenges the complaisant and raises social justice as an inherent dimension of ekklesia and basilea.

The rub, however, is that Chalke has dared to criticise, inter-alia, the classical evangelical doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that God soehow required an innocent Jesus to 'pay the price' for human sin by violent death.

He was impolite enough to (accurately) describe the crude version of this doctrine as tantamount to 'cosmic child abuse', and to mention its links to the history of violence and domination sanctioned, tragically, in the name of Jesus Christ.

This is when the brown stuff hit the fan. On 7 October the Evangelical Alliance in the UK organised a 'debate' on Chalke's views: one which many felt was more like a heresy trial.

Subsequently the EA has publicly criticised Chalke and asked him to retract his comments, which sit clearly within the mainstream of Christian faith. A blow-by-blow account is available on Ekklesia, for the long-suffering.

None of the church's historic creeds have ever required a single view of atonement, and the biblical texts so often used in its favour can just as readily (and much more redeemingly) be understood in a strongly anti-sacrificial way, as Rene Girard and others have shown.

Still, the argument rumbles on. Its form, to those of us not part of the evangelical tribe, seems arcane and not a little unforgiving. But the issues are important.

At the moment I'm working with Jonathan Bartley on a collection of essays about atonement called Consuming Passion, which will be published in 2005 by Darton, Longman and Todd.

In the meantime, Stuart Murray-Williams gave a fine, succinct summary of the background to the debate in his contribution to the EA event, which can be found at the Anabaptist Network site. Important reading in its own right.

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