Dickens and the Atonement

My hopes have been dashed, I was looking forward to reading the works of Charles Dickens and finding his hidden Christian themes but alas, I must report that Dickens was at best an Arminian but more likely a Pelagian.

In the book God and Charles Dickens Gary Colledge repeats that Dickens disliked “distorted Calvinism.” It quickly becomes clear that what is being called “distorted” Calvinism is really just orthodox Calvinism with his own distortions added in for good measure. Dickens rejected all Reformed theology outright and the author, to soften Dickens enmity toward it, calls it “distorted.” The characters that we find in Dickens works, introduced by Colledge, are nothing more then caricatures of Reformed Christians created and used as punching bags.

Dickens denied the biblical idea of original sin and particular redemption, he hated dogmatic theology and his hatred of it was a dogma of his own. Dickens held to many orthodox beliefs but his understanding of the atonement is very foggy leaving me with the impression that he denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. This is important considering Colledge writes about “salvation by faith and works,” then suggests that it was a common teaching in the Anglican church at the time and Dickens probably fell instep with it. I’m not sure exactly what is meant but I don’t like the sound of it. If he believed that good works always accompany salvation yah, sure, I agree. But if he means you work for salvation, yikes! True, Dickens believed in Jesus Christ as the second person in the Trinity who is to be worshiped. He was Trinitarian. True, Dickens believed in Heaven, spoke almost nothing on hell but did believe in the judgement of God on sinners. But is it enough to say he was a Christian? The overall impression I have of Dickens religious beliefs is not good, he seemed to believed we can work for salvation by following Christ’s example and that our sins are forgiven without the need of the atoning blood of Christ.

Is it enough to say he was a Christian?



3 thoughts on “Dickens and the Atonement

  1. JM –

    When you wrote that Dickens modeled virtueous heros of his novels with Christian character, I wondered whether he might be a liberal. By liberal, I mean one of those well meaning non-believers who love the tradition of the church, and believe Christianity to be a well-suited context for teaching morals, kindness, and love. These folks are usually kind moralistic people who use the Scriptures to teach people how to live better lives, but sadly, they do not believe it – to their own peril.

    • That’s exactly it. For example Little Dorrit is about selfless service without the knowledge of Christ, the imitation of Christ yes, but works done without the Gospel. I still think he is worth reading and his themes would resonate with modern Christians but he was not a Christian author.

  2. Andrew, I wanted to add that I believe Dickens jumps into works without having an understanding of justification. In Protestantism we begin with justification, move to sanctification and glorification. Dickens jumbles it all up…like the churches in the East. In Eastern Orthodoxy the focus is on sanctification with little or no understanding of justification. IMO, this lead Dostoevsky and the heterodox Tolstoy to claim Dickens to be a great Christian writer because they recognize his emphasis on works in the Christian life. I believe Dickens could be read with this mind, that he never deals with justification in his works, only the fruit thereof. I don’t know if he was a believer but his works are written from a Christian perspective and worldview.

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