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Leading religious authority who lived and breathed Luther

JAMES ATKINSON THEOLOGIAN 27-4-1914 30--7-2011

JAMES ATKINSON

THEOLOGIAN

27-4-1914 30--7-2011

THE Reverend Professor James Atkinson, who was one of the leading authorities on Martin Luther, has died aged 97.

It was said of him that "he lived Luther, thought Luther, and breathed Luther" and, like Luther, he was a preacher and a pastor as well as a theologian.

A meticulous scholar on the history and significance of the Reformation, Atkinson's work was informed by a deep religious faith and patient research expressed in many notable books.

He asserted that Luther, following St Paul, was an apostle of divine grace and that a renewed recognition of the centrality of grace in the Christian faith lay behind the 16th-century Reformation. Furthermore the church in every age should be tested, and if necessary reformed, by its openness to grace. He often quoted the Reformation maxim ecclesia reformata, ecclesia semper reformanda the reformed church must be a church which is always reforming itself.

His favourite biblical text, on which he often preached, was "Freely ye have received, freely give", and he exemplified this in the generous character of his own life.

He was also more than ready to put his specialist knowledge and insights at the disposal of the whole Church of England through membership of the General Synod and, most importantly, in the international preparatory commission that led to the beginning of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the 1960s.

The readiness of a new generation of Catholic scholars to re-examine the work of Luther and discern its points of contact with a reformed Catholicism gave him special satisfaction. Inevitably, he was drawn into Anglican-Lutheran consultations, too, and the consequent establishment of close relations between the Church of England and the Lutheran Churches of Scandinavia greatly moved him.

Atkinson was born at Tynemouth, Northumberland, and throughout his life displayed a typically Geordie combination of toughness and warmth. He attended the local high school and went on to St John's College, Durham, to read theology and prepare for Holy Orders and to become captain of boats. Later in life he was an assiduous member of the college's governing body.

From 1937 to 1941 he was a curate of Holy Cross Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he found time to teach himself Hebrew and German, then moved to be precentor of Sheffield Cathedral ministering in both cities during wartime bombing.

In 1944, he was appointed vicar of Shiregreen, in Sheffield, where he completed a postgraduate master of letters (MLitt) on St John's Gospel from Durham University, under the supervision of Professor (later Archbishop) Michael Ramsey.

Awarded a research fellowship at Sheffield University in 1951, he began his academic career and the development of his reputation as an authority on Luther. He spent some time in Germany engaged on research and in 1955 was awarded a doctorate in theology by Munster University.

In 1956, Atkinson became a lecturer in theology at Hull University, staying for 11 years and becoming reader in 1964. There he taught biblical studies and Reformation theology, and published three important books Luther's Early Theological Works (1962), Rome and Reformation (1966), and Luther's Works: The Christian in Society (1966). He was a visiting professor at Chicago University in 1966.

Between 1967 and 1979, he was professor of biblical studies at Sheffield University and put the department on the international map, not least with The Great Light: Luther and the Reformation (1968).

The Centre for Reformation Studies, which was sponsored by the university after his retirement and of which he became director, provided a base for an extensive range of conferences, courses, lectures and overseas tours, thus enabling many more to benefit from his great knowledge and deep faith. He continued to publish into old age, notably with Faith Lost, Faith Regained (2005) and Understanding the Incarnation (2008).

He became president of the Society for the Study of Theology in 1978, and in 1980 was elected to the Academie Internationale des Sciences Religieuses. In 1993, he was appointed special professor of theology at Nottingham University, and from 1970 to 1993 he was canon theologian of Sheffield Cathedral.

His wife, Laura, was killed in a car accident at the time he was taking up his Sheffield chair. Their son and daughter survive him.


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