Why Matthew Parris’s week of research has, unsurprisingly, not dealt a killer blow to the doctrine of the atonement

I wrote, around Easter, about an article in The Times by Matthew Parris. You can read my post here and follow the link to the original article by Parris if you dare. In what can only be described as a bizarre melding together of Christianity, Socialism and cod-Sociology, he determined that Christianity and, a little bit apparently, Socialism was entirely to blame for victim-mentality. It was interesting that the blame for a victim-mentality was easily laid at the door of two other ideologies he abhors. So helpful when that happens. Apart from when it is total cobblers. It was theologically deeply confused, sociologically questionable and politically from the moon. Apparently, it is all too much to admit the form of liberalism he helped inculcate in the 80s, under his boss Mrs Thatcher, is in large part why we are where we are now.

Seemingly a bit miffed with Christians pushing back on his article – how dare they suggest his theology might be a bit wonky – Parris has followed up with this one. I mean, who do they think they are to answer back an Atheist who has posted a theological broadside against basic Christian doctrine on Easter Sunday of all days! The tone of the article is written with the undertone of ‘what did I say to deserve this?’ being said with a big, knowing grin on the face. What many Christians forget is that Atheists have their own holy days too, they just happen to coincide with all the Christian ones. If you follow this link, you may understand a little more about why. Nevertheless, it was good of Parris to admit that he had spent ‘the last week’ researching the doctrine of Redemption and was now in a position to explain why all the stupid Chrizzos who objected to his original article – who in cases like mine have spent a mere 36 years knocking these things around – are being absurd.

First, during his fulsome week-long search for answers (I really missed a trick with that Master’s degree in Theology – I obviously could have wrapped this up in a week!) Parris concludes that Jesus said absolutely nothing about the doctrine of atonement. Which is interesting because, in about 30 seconds, I was able to Google Mark 10:45, which seems to have something to say about it straight from the mouth of Jesus. Another quick Google and up pops Matthew 9, in which Jesus explicitly claims to have the authority to forgive sins. So, we have Jesus saying he is going to die for the sake of his people and we have Jesus insisting he has the authority to forgive sin. Indeed, pop another Google search for Luke 5:20 and we see Jesus specifically offering full forgiveness purely in response to faith. These are three quick google searches, all directly from the mouth of Jesus, offering forgiveness from sin and linking it to his death.

Parris claims ‘Where does the doctrine of atonement through Christ’s crucifixion find its roots? To my great surprise I find no anchorage for the teaching in anything we believe Jesus said. It just isn’t there!’ The most charitable view of this one can take is that maybe claiming that you have spent the last week doing “research” and can now adequately defend your position is, to say the least, a touch arrogant and not a bit flimsy. If I was able to find three verses that all point to Jesus giving his life as a ransom, that he has the authority in himself to forgive sin and that such forgiveness is based on faith by Googling those verses in less than 5 minutes, just imagine what sort of position I might end up with having done a degree in theology and everything.

Parris insists that it was the Apostle Paul who came up with all this stuff about being justified by faith alone as a result of Jesus’ death on the cross. But Parris seems to ignore the very words of the Apostles who were with Jesus. John 3:16-18 – one of the most famous verses in the Bible – says:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

So John is pretty clear that it is belief in Jesus that means we will not perish but have eternal life. One might pushback that this says nothing about Jesus’ death, but we only have to look at the immediate context of these verses to see it. Again – in the face of Parris’ claim Jesus said nothing about this – Jesus himself says, ‘just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’ (John 3:15). This is a reference to Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross and John – Jesus’ own disciple who spent three years with him – offers John 3:16-18 to expound this particular comment from Jesus. We have to work very hard indeed NOT to see that Jesus is linking eternal life and the forgiveness of sin to his death on the cross and belief in its efficacy for the believer.

So, on two counts, Parris is speaking complete nonsense. He insists that the idea of forgiveness for sin linked to the death of Jesus on the cross is an exclusively Pauline idea introduced after the fact and that nothing Jesus says directly offers any grounds for such a view. But as I have pointed out here, not only did Jesus say several things that linked his death on the cross, forgiveness and faith (and what I have quoted above is only a small sample, more could be said), but Jesus’ disciples – specifically Matthew and John who have been quoted above – also affirmed it. Which means anything Paul may have said about it (more on which in a minute) is not theology he cooked up years later off the top of his head, but is specifically based on the direct words of Jesus and the wider theology of the Apostles who were with him and eyewitnesses to his resurrection. All this can be found simply by reading any of the gospel accounts or even more easily by googling these things. I’m not entirely sure what Parris was doing during his week-long intensive research, but it doesn’t seem to have led him to actually look at any of the evidence.

Then, of course, we come onto Parris’ claims about Paul. Parris insists, ‘Paul never met Jesus’. Which is true if you discount the fact that the Bible says Paul did see Jesus supernaturally. I appreciate an Atheist is unlikely to admit that as evidence. Nevertheless, Paul never hid that fact and even called himself an Apostle ‘untimely born’. So, whatever we make of it, Paul never claimed to have hung around with Jesus during his ministry. Nevertheless, it bears saying there were specific qualifications for Apostleship that Paul met, which led the church to accept him as an Apostle of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 9; 2 Corinthians 12:12).

It is also worth noting, even if we take Parris’ line that Paul never met Jesus, he was friends with the other Apostles. Indeed, he was affirmed as an Apostle by them (Acts 9:27). They agreed Paul had met Jesus and believed Jesus himself had determined Paul to be an Apostle (Acts 9:15). In fact, Paul tells us in Galatians 2:1-10 that he specifically went to the other Apostles to ensure that they agreed with the message he was seeking to spread (which they did). What this means is that whatever Paul was going round teaching the other Apostles were in agreement with it and could have called him out if he was inventing new theology. If he was preaching bogus views of the atonement that were out of kilter with anything Jesus said, you’d imagine one of the other Apostles might have said something. But none of them did. After all, Paul called out Peter on one occasion for this (Galatians 2:11-21) and there was a meeting between the church of most the Apostles in Jerusalem and Paul’s in Antioch concerning some iffy teaching on salvation too (Acts 15). Interestingly, in both cases, it was Paul’s position that was affirmed by the Apostles to be correct. There is no evidence that Paul simply invented new theology. Rather the Apostles all affirmed his message about the cross and the atonement, a message in line with direct comments from Jesus.

Nor is this something that was invented by the Apostles. The idea of propitiation of sin and satisfaction through sacrifice was not dreamt up by Paul. What Parris seems to ignore in his hand-waving reference to Hebrews (if, indeed, Paul was the one who wrote it – a matter of some discussion) is that it is written to *checks notes* Hebrews! It is a letter specifically written to Jewish converts to Christianity who are being tempted back to Old Covenant Judaism. The writer of that letter simply points out in that letter what Jewish believers have long known: the idea of propitiation for sin is all over the sacrificial system.

Not only is this evident on a prima facie look at the sacrificial system, it is made explicit at various points in the Torah. However, it is made absolutely explicitly in Isaiah 53. You cannot possibly read Isaiah 53 and not come away with an understanding that God was going to send a servant who will suffer and die on behalf of his people for the sake of their sin. That is why Jesus himself said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (Luke 9:22). Again, words of Jesus alluding to Isaiah 53 which is explicitly about a suffering servant dying for the sins of God’s people. Indeed, what did Jesus mean in Matthew 28:28 and Mark 10:45 (two opportunities for Parris to have heard the direct words of Jesus on this same matter which he ignores) if not referring to this? What, other than Isaiah 53, might Jesus have been referring to by mentioning his servanthood and his death as a ransom in literally the same sentence?

All of this, at any rate, is answering Parris on his own terms. Whilst we might want to have a go at Proverbs 26:5, Proverbs 26:4 also exists. So, let me make one further point. Parris recognises that Paul argues for justification by faith alone and links forgiveness to trust in the death of Christ. But for Parris, this is moot because we don’t have a direct quote from Jesus to that effect. This is a common argument employed by anyone seeking to avoid clear statements of scripture. If Jesus himself didn’t directly say it, we don’t need to listen. Parris even says, ‘the Church does not teach (does it?) that this all too human figure could never have been wrong’. What we have here is a basic misunderstanding of the doctrine of scripture.

Let’s just address the view that Paul could be wrong first. Of course, Paul could be wrong. He was a fallen, sinful human being. All the Apostles and Prophets could be wrong. We have specific examples in scripture of when they were wrong. So, if we are looking to make a case for the infallibility of the biblical writers as men, the bible specifically records examples of them acting wrongly and, in some cases, being rebuked for teaching wrongly. So, yes, we all accept they could be wrong.

What we deny is that God could be wrong. We deny that Jesus might have misspoken. We reject the idea that the Holy Spirit has failed to inspire the words of scripture properly.

So, the question is now, how can fallible people write infallible scripture? The Muslims get around this issue by denying the fallibility of their prophets. It is not the line Christians take because even the infallible biblical record shows us it isn’t so! But the claim scripture makes for itself is not that it is merely Peter’s words, or John’s words or Paul’s words (even though it is). Scripture claims specifically to be God’s Word.

There are lots of instances and inferences to this effect, but none quite so clear as 2 Timothy 3:16-17. All scripture is inspired by God. Similarly, Hebrews 1:1-2 puts it this way: ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’. Jesus himself is God’s final word and revelation. All that we read in the New Testament – according to these verses – has been inspired by God himself and is passing on the teaching received from Jesus. 2 Peter 1:21 tells us, ‘no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ By the same token, Jesus told his Apostles, ‘the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (John 14:26) and later in fulfilment of this, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:18). Taken in the round, the New Testament writers were inspired by God’s Holy Spirit to write the very words of God. They wrote in their own voice and style, but nevertheless, wrote down God’s infallible and inerrant Word.

Does that mean Paul (or Peter or any of the Apostles) couldn’t ever be wrong? No. They were fallible. But it does mean that when they were writing scripture, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they were writing the infallible Word of God that could not be wrong. Parris tries to drive a wedge between the words of Jesus and the words of Paul in scripture. But the doctrine of scripture tells us that it is all Jesus’ words. The Holy Spirit inspired these men to write down the words God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – wanted them to write. Which means, when Paul wrote down that Jesus ‘was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Romans 4:25) those are the very words of Christ himself.

Of course, you might reject the doctrine of scripture. You might reject the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture. That is your prerogative. But then we’re still faced with the fact that Jesus said he was going to suffer and die for the sins of his people. We’re still left with Old Testament prophets prophesying many hundreds of years before Christ that God was going to send someone to suffer and die for the sins of his people. We’ve still got the Old Testament sacrificial system – along with both its sacrificial animal and scape goat carrying the sins of the people – giving a fairly vivid picture of what God was going to do with sin. We still have New Testament writers writing to Jewish believers who knew this system well, and were even tempted back to it, pointing such things out. We still have Paul – who was friends with the Apostles after his conversion – at no point pulled up for teaching false doctrine and actively affirmed by them in what he is teaching. But we also have church history which has consistently affirmed the doctrine of scripture outlined above and insisted that the whole of the Bible is God’s Word, not just the bits that Jesus said and some bibles print in red ink. Faced with all that, is it really credible to argue that Paul just made up the doctrine of the atonement and dismiss it as never having really come from Jesus?

Yet, that is what Matthew Parris has chosen to do following a week of study. I can only hope we all bear this in mind next time he writes any other article claiming to outline the facts or having claimed to do some intensive research into whatever matter he is discussing. Based on this effort, it doesn’t engender much confidence.