A Response to Matthew Parris on Atonement

To slip on a banana skin once is funny.  To slip on a banana skin twice is tragic.  Mathew Parris opens his Spectator article by reminding people that the post he wrote for the Times on Easter Saturday was met with “hundreds of comments from Christians protesting that I’d misunderstood the Crucifixion’s meaning…”  Well, right from the start, methinks Mr Parris doth protest too much, and opens the door of critique once again. I never read that article but I did read this one several times to my incredulity.

The Spectator article from April 22, takes aim at the Atonement in Christian thought.  And I can’t say it any kinder than that because Mr Parris has slipped on the proverbial banana skin again, but this time, it is second rate banana skin because what he has written is not a theologically nuanced account of anything in Christian thought regarding the Atonement, but rather a fudge that wouldn’t look out of place if I’d asked a tipsy monkey to tell me what he supposes about things.

Parris refers to several key terms that all together shape the doctrine of the Atonement, such as redemption, ransomed, forgiven, pardoned, paid for, healed, washed away, and of course, atonement.  After stating he has “been thinking and reading around the subject” (umm), he asks, what do these words actually mean, referring to them as “arcane.”  

He’s playing the “Christianity-is-out-of-date and I’m here to rescue it” card like a gnostic teacher of old, coming to the rescue with his secret knowledge.  Well, let’s think about those big Bible words above:  No-one seemed confused when Keira Knightley’s 2007 film ‘Atonement’ hit the big screen.  No one seemed perplexed when ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ came out in 1994.  Not one person said, “We all know what Shawshank means, but what the heck does Redemption mean?”  In 1996 Mel Gibson starred in a film called ‘Ransom’.  Again nobody seemed befuddled by this arcane sounding title.  The Pardon’ came out in 2013 exploring the conviction for murder and subsequent execution of a woman who was later….guess what?  Pardoned!  Confused?  No of course not, it’s all rather straightforward, despite Parris’s protestations that Christianity has “developed a private language that’s almost impossible for non-believers to understand.”  In little over three hundred words of my own (so far) I’ve already exposed this as utter rubbish.

What we see with these examples, is how popular culture in fact relies on the biblical language and categories of Atonement, and actually gets a plain sense of what they mean, even if culture may not fully understand the sheer weight of the theological depths.

Parris makes several fallacious statements, one highlighted in the article saying (rather confidently), “Christians should face up to this:  the whole atonement thing is a terrible muddle.”  Au contraire, Mr Parris, your thoughts about it are in a terrible muddle.  Your failure to grasp this before using your considerable platform beggars belief.  

In a move designed to display a scholar’s integrity, Parris goes to the “roots” of the doctrine, stating that Jesus never said anything about it.  Did he skip Mark 10:45?  Did he tippex out “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”?  Did he forget the conversation on the road to Emmaus that the Scriptures testify to this crucified and rising Messiah?  Did he get brain fog on the symbolism of the crown of thorns and the Cross as throne, the Kingly donkey on Palm Sunday and the priestly and sacrificial aspects of Christ’s Atonement?  And when Parris finally settles on a text from Hebrews, he really helps the reader understand, writing, “the self-sacrifice of the Crucifixion was the ultimate act of expiation.”  Excuse me?  There are actually two films called Expiation, one from 1922 and the other 2012.  Even so, Parris is doing what he accuses Christians of doing only this time, his word choice is far more obscure in the popular mind than the others we’ve looked at.

That said, Parris makes no reference to the technicalities involved here.  Why would he?  I’m sure he is not aware of them.  Expiation and propitiation are part of the atonement category and are translated from the Greek word hilasterion, the translation of either expiation or propitiation being dependent upon the context. Expiation places the problem of sin and its barrier to God outside God and within humanity.  Propitiation places the barrier within God himself, such as wrath being satisfied.

After complimenting Paul for being merely human (we do love Paul for this), Parris raises the question of the possibility that Paul could’ve been wrong.  After falsely stating that Paul invented the doctrine of Atonement, Parris then proceeds to build his straw-man argument by a brief treatise of Paul’s life and character.  He concludes that Paul offered “through [Christ’s] self-sacrifice, a universal pardon; not sin by sin, person by person, calculating each individual balance sheet, but a complete wiping clean of the slate, no questions asked.  We are all saved.”

There is much that is wrong here, mingled as it is, with what is right.  The Cross of Jesus is universal and open to all based on repentance of sins, which brings about the apprehending of our forgiveness of sins, and God imputing His righteousness to us.  The trouble is, Parris misunderstands what is going on here, because he does not see Christ as God and Man; neither does he see Christ as Lion and Lamb; nor Priest and King.  Therefore, as a result of not understanding the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, Parris once again fallaciously claims that “the Crucifixion offered not justice, but rescue from justice.”  No, Paul did not offer that, and neither does the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is Parris’s failure to understand the densely textured content of the Atonement as well as the intricately woven aspects of biblical history from the beginning to the end.  Moreover, Parris does not seem to factor in or even understand what grace means, which is a theological truth that transcends transactional metaphors of Atonement whilst being embedded within them.  Justice is a characteristic of God Himself.  It is one of the most repeated ideas in the whole Bible, and yet he thinks the pinnacle of the entire narrative is a rescue from justice without recourse to justice.  This is cringe beyond belief.  

In citing a 20th theologian Austin Farrar, Parris shows that he has stumbled across someone who helps him along his own merry path.  “Farrar rejects the metaphor most of the laity embrace: payment.”  This too is wrong-headed.  Payment comes from the theory of Atonement called ‘the Ransom Theory.  This is  a marketplace metaphor and a thoroughgoing metaphor from the earliest days.  Parris gleefully reports that Farrar says this is what Redemption does not mean.  What he should say of course, is that Ransom is a part of what Redemption means, but not everything.  

Parris’s secular mind cannot seem to abide the biblical idea of how the biblical sacrificial system even functions.  Relating as he does, self-abasement, kowtowing, the blushing apology, ritual humiliation – I mean, What is he talking about?  He has no sense of what God has actually said; How the Scriptures function; Man’s need to be right and how to get right with a holy God.  It’s all rather opinionated childishness.  

Much like the hilarious point of this Stuart Lee sketch which makes the point perfectly:

Anyway, Parris then boldly asserts as only a non-believer could:  “The God we’ve fashioned over the millenia is not like that.  And are we all redeemed forever, or only if we don’t run up further debt.”  Here he claims, we’ve fashioned God over human history.  The Bible calls that idolatry, so this point is self-defeating.  He claims this God we’ve fashioned, if I may paraphrase, “is not like the one I’ve been describing.”  Indeed not.  This is the truest thing he’s said.  The “God” you’ve been describing Mr Parris, is a million miles away from your precognitive attempt to understand complex theological concepts.  Furthermore, if “God is not like that” – then pray tell me what He is like.  I suspect he’s the God of your own imagination, which is to say, an idol.  Have you read what the God of the Bible says about idols?  “Repent of your sins and be saved!”  Freud and Nietzsche were wrong in their different ways:  The actual God of the Bible is not a projection of the human mind – that is what the Bible calls idolatry.  The God of the Bible is not an item within the created order of things. We can’t imagine Him unless he reveals Himself to us, thus anything we imagine, isn’t God!  And He has made Himself known, across human history and fully and finally in Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead for our justification.

And the second part of the comment above, asking if we are redeemed forever as a petulant teenager would ask, “Like, wot, yeah, so, like, if we’re redeemed, what? Is that forever then lol?”  Yes!  As I said above, Parris doesn’t understand the relationship between biblical faith, God’s grace and forgiveness.  Christ has paid it all, and His atoning sacrifice is all sufficient, so if we do “run up further debt” then it is to our shame and His glory because the Cross has done it all:  we are indeed Ransomend, Healed, Restored, Forgiven.  

Even you Mr Parris, if only you will turn to Christ and repent of your sins and then taste and see that the Lord is Good.  

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