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Leon Morris and Me

Posted: 12/08/14

Remember your leaders. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith

by Don McLellan

It was when I was doing my MA(Theol) in the Religion department of the University of Queensland that I came face to face with the rather bitter rejection of the atonement in liberal Christian thought. On one particular day the professor walked into the classroom and declaimed,

There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

A student sitting behind me cried out, “Aw YUK!” This was exactly the reaction the lecturer wanted, and he spent the rest of the lecture ripping to shreds everything I held dear about the purpose and achievement of Jesus Christ in going to the cross. His use of a hymn written by a 17th century madman, that takes and exaggerates the imagery of Rev 7:14 to the point of absurdity, was quite deliberate. He had us evangelicals firmly in his sights.

So when it came time to write a PhD dissertation, it was natural that I gravitated to the atonement as the broad area of study. And it was not long before I realised that the evangelical scholar who had written most about it was Leon Morris. I made a special trip to Melbourne to see him in his home in 1996, and spent a precious hour with him, discussing his work in this particular area.

At that time, very few theologians were writing about the atonement; it had gone out of fashion a little. But with the advent of a new millennium, suddenly there were new books and articles everywhere. What became disturbing to me was that many scholars who are putatively evangelical were finding fault with the notion, or the logic, of the biblical atonement message. One described it as ‘cosmic child abuse.’ Another pointed out that if a man were to send his son to an enemy in an effort to be reconciled, and the enemy murdered his son, reconciliation would be the least likely thing to happen. There were lots of arguments like that.

Leon Morris wrote five books on the atonement, with numerous articles published in theological and Bible dictionaries as well as journals. Along with John’s Gospel, it was one of his favourite areas of scholarship. But curiously, very few of the new writers on the atonement made any reference to his work. Even more curiously, if they had bothered to consult him, they would have found that their new ‘insights’ into and adjustments of the doctrine were largely not new at all, and had been answered broadly if not specifically in works like The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1956, revised and updated several times); The Story of the Cross (1957); The Cross in the New Testament (1965); Glory in the Cross: A Study in Atonement (revised 1979); The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (1983); and The Cross of Jesus (1988).

Denney Weaver should have read Morris before he wrote The Non-violent Atonement; Joel Green might not have made a straw man of evangelical atonement theology before knocking it down if he had read Morris; Anthony Bartlett and Hans Boersma (Cross Purposes and Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross) may have seen the violence of the act of atonement in a different light if they had read Morris, rather than blame it for making a virtue of violence in Christendom’s sad and convoluted past. But even if they had not read Morris, they should have read their Bibles a little more carefully. The idea that Christ died for our sins is expressed in at least 40 texts scattered throughout the New Testament. And, although substitutionary atonement is not the only way of looking at the cross, Morris made the point firmly that it is at the heart of anything else that can be written about it.

I personally am delighted that Ridley College, where Leon Morris served as Principal for so many years, is marking the occasion of his centennial. His legacy must be upheld. His contributions to both biblical scholarship and evangelical theology must be kept alive. This applies especially to his careful and consistent work in upholding what I consider to be the cornerstone of evangelical theology: the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which Paul sums up so succinctly in 1 Cor 15:3-4: “Christ died for our sins… He was buried and raised…”

Thank you, Dr Leon Morris. It was a pleasure to know you.

Don McLellan

Don McLellan is a Baptist pastor and Bible college lecturer. His PhD dissertation presented to the University of Queensland is entitled, Leon Morris, the Bible, and the Cross: The Use and Interpretation of Scripture in an Evangelical Theology of Atonement.

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Celebrate the centenary of the birthday of Leon Morris by donating to the Leon Morris Library Building Fund.  The library plays a vital role in the academic and community life of Ridley Melbourne, with excellent collections of print and online resources.  The current library building has served us well for 30 years but has now reached capacity. It is in urgent need of extension and modernization to provide a state of the art learning centre.  The projected cost is $3 million, of which $500,000 has been raised to date.

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