Monday, April 27, 2009

Unscriptural Anglicanism?

Giles Fraser is a very sharp, learned priest, blessed with an enviable skill of writing short, sharp, provocative columns (and, for all I know, much longer pieces, but I know him through columns such as this from The Church Times):

"THIS WEEK it is 900 years since the death of Anselm of Canterbury, arguably most noted for his invention of the ontological argument, and for putting up the scaffolding for the theory of penal substitution, only really finished off by Calvin in the 16th century.

Now, while I think the ontological argument is a pretty harmless parlour game for brainboxes with too much time on their hands, penal substitution is a very bad thing indeed.

Some Christians get very worked up by anyone’s having a go at penal substitution. This is largely, I think, because they confuse this medieval-cum-Reformation reading of salvation with the gospel itself, and just cannot see that penal substitution is one reading of the text among others.
The basic idea is that human beings owe God an unpayable debt on account of their sin, and that Jesus pays off this debt by being nailed up on a cross. To many of us, this account turns God into a merciless loan shark, deaf to our pleas for forgiveness. Whatever happened to “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6, Matthew 9.13)?

Another weakness is that it gives the resurrection nothing to do in the overall scheme of human salvation. If we are saved on the cross, then there is no saving work left for the resurrection to do. Thus it gets sidelined as a spectacular after-party to the main event, which gets wrapped up on Good Friday.

That just can’t be right. Those who insist otherwise might like to take a closer look at Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (“Why a God-Man?”), where he sets out his understanding of salvation. It is made up of 47 mini-chapters; all have titles, but not one of them refers to the resurrection. Indeed, the resurrection hardly merits a mention throughout the whole book — a book on human salvation. No wonder so many of us find penal substitution so unconvincing.

My views on all this are mild and moderate compared with some of the things said about penal substitution by members of the Orthodox Church. Take Dr Alexander Kalimoros’s celebrated essay on Eastern Orthodox soteriology, The River of Fire, where he insists that “The ‘God’ of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in his destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless he receives an infinite satisfaction for his offended pride.”

This theology, Dr Kalimoros asserts, is the work of the devil, leading Western Christians to atheism. That may be a little strong, but it might just wake some people up to reconsider Anselm’s dubious legacy.

Canon Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London."

Of course, if you set up a straw man, you can always burn him with little more than the flick of match. But agreeable though his argument is that an account of the meaning of Jesus' death should include the significance of the resurrection; salutary though it is to realise that Orthodox theology might play up a different perspective (and thus we have something to learn in the West), and important as it indeed is to realise that orthodox theology ascribes several meanings to the death of Jesus, and does not clearly identify one as supreme, the fact is that Anselm (like any good Anglican theologian) has Scripture behind and beneath his explanation. (That, please note, is not the same as saying that each and every detail of Anselm's explanation is consistent with and required by Scripture. Theologians have and will continue to argue the merits of Anselm's particular explanation).

According to Scripture God is wrathful; and Jesus did die in our place!

'In our natural condition we, like the rest, lay under the dreadful judgement of God. But God, rich in mercy, for the great love he bore us, brought us to life with Christ even when we dead in our sins; it is by grace you are saved.' (Ephesians 2:3b-5)

'For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith.' (Romans 3:25)

Both citations from the NEB. Even the second, unhappy for many evangelicals because 'expiation' rather than 'propitiation' is used, signifies the substitutionary action of Christ.

Kalimoros, cited by Fraser, correctly dispatches the offended God of Anselm's contemporary view that God was bound like a medieval monarch to a system of honour when evaluating the consequences of sin.

But so what? What we would be interested in hearing is Kalimoros on 'the dreadful judgement' of Ephesians 2:3b!

Anselm is important to Anglicanism (one of our greatest theologians and Archbishops of Canterbury), but more important is listening to Scripture!

Update: for a superb post on Giles Fraser's column, go to David Ould's post and to John Richardson's most recent post on Giles Fraser's column (his other posts on the matter also being excellent)!


Anonymous said...

Peter, unlike your good self, I don't find Giles Fraser 'very sharp and learned', except to say that his sharpness lies in his tongue rather than his mental acuity. As for his learning, I doubt he has much grasp of the Reformation understanding of grace and the Bible that gave birth to the reformed Church of England. He is by training a student of Nietzsche's philosophy, not Luther's theology. The gaps in his knowledge are not surprising for a parish clergyman, but are embarrassing only because of his relentless self-publicizing. Outside his own circle, nobody takes him seriously. He is a one-schtick pony in a crusade against evangelicals. His liberalism is of a similar stripe to Gene Robinson (whom he has loudly promoted in England) but not (yet) as far down the road as Scotland's answer to Lloyd Geering, Richard Holloway (or 'Hollow way', as I have learned to call him), who will grace your shores next month. (It is a sad thing that people used to take Holloway seriously, including the present Bishop of Oxford.)
As for Eastern Orthodoxy, it has never really articulated much of an understanding of the soteriology of the Cross because (a) the Great Schism of 1054 meant that there was very little communication between the East and West, as exactly the time when Anselm was developing his thinking;
(b) the focus of soteriology in mystical Orthodox thought lies in theosis, assuming the divine nature (2 Pet. 1.4). Some (maybe many) would critique this in being insufficiently biblical in character, or at least in presentation. Only recently have some Orthodox writers begun to redress this imbalance.
If you look in the early pages of 'Pierced For Our Transgressions', you'll find plenty of references to what can only be called penal substitution in numerous early Church Fathers.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous,
Well Giles Fraser does provide a learned Foreword to Andrew Shanks' book, Against Innocence: Gillian Rose's Reception and Gift of faith. Nevertheless I am not averse to criticism of him! You kind of dismiss him, yet he must have some kind of wider influence as he writes regularly for the Church Times!!
Thanks for the heads up re Richard Holloway, whom I once heard speak in Durham.
I have followed up a little on Eastern Orthodoxy and PSA, via 'The Orthodox Study Bible' which is mysteriously silent about PSA when one looks at the notes on the relevant texts!!

Anonymous said...

To express myself more clearly, I think his learning lies in philosophy rather than theology. Yes, he does write for the Church Times, which is the house journal of British liberal catholicism, though whether Fraser's 'catholicism' extends much beyond haberdashery I cannot tell. It's scarcely the liberal catholicism of a Charles Gore, much less a Michael Ramsey.
There's a piece on Holloway in the NZ Herald, and it's plain that what I suspected was happening some years ago (that Holloway was abandoning Christian faith - but not before he got his full pension) seems to have come to its bitter fruition. I think he just preceded the Scottish Episcopal Church into oblivion. And yet people like John Pritchard used to quote him with approval, perhaps because he too was 'provocative' - epater les bourgeois etc. It's the easiest thing in the world to be 'provocative' when the target is already hated by the secular liberal establishment. Try 'provocative' criticism of gays and Muslims and see where that gets you today! In prison.
The only kind of 'provocation' Christians should give each other, according to Hebrews 10, is toward godly faith and love.
Fraser (along with his Southwark colleague Colin Slee) doesn't seem to do much of this kind of provocation.

Peter Carrell said...

We have just had a good time with John Pritchard here in Nelson. All good and no Holloway!