Dean John Shepherd: “The Author of Hebrews is Grasping at Straws”

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Since publishing a few days ago on the invitation by the Diocese of Melbourne to have Dean John Shepherd of Perth speak at their annual ministry conference a good number of corresponants have asked me whether Shepherd still holds to the views we originally reported back in 2008.

True, Shepherd has been a little quieter of late (some have suggested to me that his Archbishop has told him to tone it down a bit) but he’s still exactly where he was more than 5 years ago. To be fair, you wouldn’t expect anyone who holds their views with integrity to change radically.

In the latest magazine of the Province of West Australia the Dean writes his regular column, this month focussing on repentance (it’s Lent, after all).

Here’s a choice quote:

Anciently it was believed that sin could be removed by the sacrifice of animals. Sinners could enter into communion with God though the offering of sacrifices prescribed in the Law, particularly the sacrifice on the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). This is the backgroun from which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ death: ‘If sprinkling the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer consecrated those who have been defiled and restores their ritual purity, how much greater is the power of the blood of Christ; through the eternal spirit he offered himslef without blemish to God. His blood will cleanse our conscience from the deadness of our former ways to serve the living God’ (9:13-14)

Like bishop Sarah Macneil, Shepherd describes the Biblical doctrine accurately. He just doesn’t like it:

Trouble is, it’s difficult to see precisely how the sprinkling of defiled people with blood and ashes could effect ritual purification, and even more difficult to see how this practice could ever have been thought of as a prototype of Christ’s death. Most of all, it’s an unnecessarily complicated way of trying to explain how God, who promised to destroy sinners, finally found a way for them to become reconciled to him. The author of Hebrews is grasping at straws.

No further comment needed. Actually, that’s not true:

Hear also what Saint John saith.

If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. 1 St. John 2.1

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; …

Let’s be abundantly clear. We have a senior clergyman who is directly repudiating the official Anglican position on the most important doctrine there is – the atonement.

Why is he being invited to speak at a Ministry Conference? Why does he hold a senior Anglican position? Why does he take a nice stipend every month?

Who thought it would be a good idea to invite him? Who appointed him and licensed him? Who signs his paycheque every month?

Why do we tolerate this in the church of God?

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Benjamin Ho

    I know you’re probably asking the final barrage of questions rhetorically, but do you have any answers to your questions? I would be genuinely very interested to know what processes/principles are in place that allows him to be paid, appointed, licensed, invited, etc.

  2. Terry Gallagher

    Fortunately there have been many Christian leaders through the centuries who have been able to understand and teach the point that the Letter to the Hebrews is making in that passage and elsewhere.

    Here for example is Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria from 412 to 444, who brings that part of the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 9
    together with several other Bible passages in his Commentary on John’s Gospel:

    John 6:51 “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

    I die, he says, for all that I may give life to all through myself, and I made my flesh a ransom for the flesh of all.
    Death will die in my death, and fallen human nature will rise with me, he says.
    For this reason I have become like you, a human being, that is,
    and of the seed of Abraham, that I may be made like all my brothers. [Heb 2:17]

    Understanding well what Christ just said to us, the blessed Paul himself says,
    “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same,
    so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” [Heb 2:14]

    In no other way could the one who has the power of death ever be destroyed (and death itself),
    if Christ had not given himself for us, one in place of all, as a ransom. For he was in the stead of all.

    That is why he says in the Psalms somewhere too, offering himself to God the Father as a spotless sacrifice for all,
    “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.
    In whole burnt offerings and sin offerings you took no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come. It is written about me in the roll of the book. To do your will is my desire.'” [Ps 40:6-8 (Ps 39:7-9 LXX)]

    Since “the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer” were not sufficient to purge sin, [Heb9:13] nor would the slaughter of irrational animals ever have destroyed the power of death, Christ himself comes to undergo in some way punishment for all.

    “By his stripes we were healed,” as the prophet says, [Is 53:5] and “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” [1 Pet 2:24]
    He was crucified in the place of all and for all, so that since one has died for all, we all may live in him. [2 Cor 5:15]
    (Translated by David R. Maxwell)

  3. Greg Colby

    Are you serious? Well of course you are, you don;t strike me as one who would write something on a whim. Have you not encountered the idea that not all Christians hold to the same understanding of the atonement? There has been argument since the Early Church Fathers about the place of The Letter to the Hebrews in the canon, and so your horror at someones doubting the author of it is correct could be viewed as somewhat disingenious

    1. David Ould

      Totally serious. The Anglican Church has long decided that the letter to the Hebrews is entirely correctly placed in the canon and, further, that it’s view of the atonement is central to our understanding since it cites it almost verbatim in the Prayer of Consecration.

    2. AJ

      Slight correction Greg – Not all “people” hold to the same understanding of the atonement – “Christians” hold to the substitutionary view

  4. David Ould

    Totally serious. The Anglican Church has long decided that the letter to the Hebrews is entirely correctly placed in the canon and, further, that it’s view of the atonement is central to our understanding since it cites it almost verbatim in the Prayer of Consecration.

    But, of course, the piece I wrote was about the fact that Shepherd rejects what is an Anglican position. You may think it's acceptable for someone in his position to repudiate the official position of the Anglican Church. Others will differ.

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