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Spring Harvest: more than just the Big Top

This year we as a family went to Spring Harvest but I spent very little time in the Big Top.

Spring Harvest is something we’ve only been to once before. In the past we’ve been to many Bible weeks and feel we’ve had our fill of these and our circle of churches no longer runs them anyway.  More recently we’ve been a few times to Greenbelt Festival and enjoyed the great choice of acts and activities on offer there.

For a lot of people Spring Harvest means big meetings of thousands in a big top with guitar driven songs, big name preachers and appeals to go forward at the end for prayer. So you may be surprised to hear that I went to the Big Top once in the whole six days and that was for the Big Start – a family friendly half hour at the beginning of the day. But Spring Harvest offers plenty of choice of activities and I found lots more to keep me occupied.

As the programmes weren’t available beforehand and there was only the Big Top meeting on the first evening, we spent time reading the programmes and planning our week, after settling in and getting our daughter off to her first session.

In the zones

In the morning there was a choice of going to the Big Top for a Bible reading or a number of different learning zones. This was repeated in the second half of the morning though the Bible reading was moved to a smaller venue then and one of the zones was in the Big Top. I think they expected people to go to one of the Bible readings and one of the zones which my wife did. I understand the Bible readings were actually expository preaching illustrated with plenty of photos of classical art. I’m sure they were excellent but I thought I’d prefer the zones. I wasn’t disappointed.

Create zone

During the four full days I got to a couple of the Create Zones with Sam Hargreaves of Engage Worship – where we responded to the day’s theme both by discussing and sketching ideas and making something creative such as a collage, painting or poem.

Think zone

I went to a couple of the Think Zones with Graham Cray of Fresh Expressions and Ruth Valerio of A Rocha where we got some teaching on the themes. It was good to hear theologians quoted unapologetically and doctrines discussed without any dumbing down. I also got to one afternoon seminar on Fresh Expressions with Graham Cray.

Lead zone

I went to a couple of the Lead Zones with Juliet Kilpin of Urban Expression and Viv Thomas of Formation who had some refreshing teaching that was both very practical and culturally aware. I was glad that I was confident enough to go these as I have been invited to leaders weekends with my church and am very involved even though I’m never sure of my role title!

Other zones

It was also good to hear Mark Greene of London Institute for Contemporary Christianity in the Watch Zone on one day. His talk was engaging emotionally as he exhorted us to live out our faith in all that we do and he did use a couple of film clips to illustrate it. However, I had thought there would have been more as this was the mode of the zone. My wife had a similar comment on the talk zone ‘I thought it’d be more of us talking and less of him!’ However these are minor quibbles as overall the zones were great!

Alternative worship and prayer


Another great place to spend some time was the PrayerHouse run by Bless. It was great to pray there at the first session instead of going to my first zone and at other times during the week. There was plenty of space for silent meditation and plenty of prayer stations to engage with each day. Though there wasn’t as much of this as there is at Greenbelt it was great to have this here. I also went one afternoon to the little worship time that they had there called Be Still that had some liturgy and a more led time of quite prayer.


In the evening there was a choice of ‘celebrations’. Most people went to the Big Top but I preferred the more laid back worship in GODSpace run by Bless. What was most encouraging is that it was fairly like the worship in our own church although perhaps a little more restrained. The main difference was that there were some little creative activities and it began and ended with contemporary liturgy on the screen. It was encouraging to see how in a few simple steps we could do something like this. Each night there was a guest interviewed and some group discussion with feedback.

Encounter Café

I also popped in the Encounter Café one evening which was a café church style service with guests too and also quizzes, film clips and a short talk.

Making the most of Butlins

Being at Butlins meant there was also chance to take part in some of the sports of activities there. On three of the mornings I went for an early morning jog with the sports team despite having been out late on a couple of the nights watching comedians Andy Kind and Tony Vino.

I had a go at fencing and swimming. My little daughter Callie did the fencing too and some archery with my wife.

I took Callie on the dodgems, adventure golf and to a gig by Ishmael and we all went to the Saltmine Theatre production.

On the last day when Callie was in her meeting we finished packing and went to play some table tennis instead of the final Big Top meeting before our long drive home.

Spring Harvest was brilliant and I didn’t feel I missed out by not going to the big meetings at all.

April 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm Comment (1)

Understanding Atonement

At Easter we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. On Good Friday especially we remember the story of the cross and that Jesus died for us. But what does Jesus death actually mean for us?

The answer lies in the doctrine of the atonement. Somehow through Jesus death we can now be reconciled to God and made at one. One way to remember it is that atonement is at-one-ment. But have you ever stopped to think how exactly that works?

Penal Substitution

The dominant understanding of the atonement in evangelical circles has been penal substitution. This basically says that God punished Jesus for our sins on the cross.

Looking back at Church history this interpretation of the Bible can be traced back to Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who developed an idea that the atonement involved God’s honour being satisfied by Christ’s obedience where before God had been dishonoured by human disobedience. This was refined further by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who saw the atonement as Christ making a substitution for us – suffering for us. John Calvin (1509-1564) went even further with penal substitution – Christ was legally punished by God instead of us and so it is God’s wrath that was satisfied. This has been largely accepted as orthodox evangelical belief but recently as questioning of this really come to the fore.

In recent years a number of evangelicals, most notably for us in the UK, Steve Chalke have spoken out against the implications of penal substitution. Steve Chalke raised the hackles of many evangelicals by referring to this idea as “cosmic child abuse” in The Lost Message of Jesus (2004).

Christus Victor

An alternative view of the biblical teaching of atonement that is being embraced by an increasing number of evangelicals is called Christus Victor. This view emphasises Christ’s victory over the devil (e.g. Col 2:15).

In his 1931 book Christus Victor Gustaf Aulen argues for a theory of the atonement which he sees as the classic view held by the early church for a thousand years until superseded by satisfaction. Although held by Martin Luther (1483-1586) it did not make its way into Lutheran orthodoxy and was not systematically put together until Aulen did so in his book.

The basic idea of Christus Victor is that Jesus death on the cross defeated the devil liberating the world from the devil’s rule by paying the ransom due to Satan (e.g. Matt 20:28). You see, according to this theory, the Bible teaches that devil ruled mankind and the earth because of Adam’s fall but Christ’s payment set humanity and the world free from the curse but the devil was tricked as he could not keep Christ in the grave so he ended up with nothing.

David Matthew has some quotes and comments about Christus Victor on his website here.

Christus Victor has been held by a few evangelicals since the book was published most notably C.S Lewis. You may recognise the imagery from Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This appears to be a very powerful view however some have found the idea of God deceiving Satan to be an unpalatable idea and penal substitution remained the prevailing view.

More Than One Explanation

Despite their misgivings not many evangelicals are willing to throw out substitutionary atonement altogether. But a growing number, such as Scot McKnight in 2007 in A Community Called Atonement and subsequent Christianity Today article, are now admitting that there can be a number of legitimate approaches.

Some are beginning to say that penal substitution is only part of the explanation, Christus Victor another part and even the moral example view can be seen as a third part and so on. The moral example view is that Jesus died as an example for us. He sought to influence us morally in showing us how to live a life of sacrifice culminating in his death on the cross. However this doesn’t really explain how sin is dealt with and may not really take sin seriously enough.

Nevertheless appealing to a number of stories of atonement, rather than just one, is an answer that I like i.e. ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. It is well illustrated here by one church in 2006 when one writer Mark Dever was arguing for penal substitution alone.

The Debate Continues

In this 2011 Christianity Today article Mark Galli looks at and critiques the rise of the Christus Victor view over substitutionary atonement. For instance, he points out this model emphasises that we are victims that need rescuing from the powers evil whereas substitutionary atonement emphasises that we are guilty and need forgiveness that liberates us from our sin. Also rather than just individual forgiveness it emphasises the redemption of the cosmos. He comes to the conclusion that though Christus Victor language is there in the Bible the overwhelming emphasis is on substitution. Perhaps the emphasis on Christus Victor can be understood in a society where we are acutely aware of being victims but becoming less aware of our own failings.

A good response to this can be found on Bramboniusin’s blog here where he questions the dichotomy that Galli draws between Christus Victor and substitutionary atonement without mentioning penal substitution. Doesn’t Christus Victor include the original idea of substitutionary atonement as it is all about Christ dying for us? Perhaps it would be more precise to see Christus Victor as a rival to penal substitution.

And anyway I still wonder if there may be a good case for embracing more than one of these explanations in order to fully understand what it means that Christ died for us. In a post from 2009 blogger Mike Morrell having analysed and critiqued the models of the atonement had a go at putting it all back together again here.

I can see that this is far from as simple as I once thought. Nevertheless even if I haven’t got all the detailed sussed this Easter, this I do know: Jesus died for me!


I originally posted this article last year on my blogger blog here where it attracted two or three comments.
Related post: What is the Gospel

April 6, 2012 at 8:19 am Comments (0)