Rev Canon Prof James Atkinson: Priest and theologian acclaimed as an authority on Luther and the Reformation

Friday 19 August 2011 00:00 BST

The Reverend Canon Professor James Atkinson was Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield, where he combined to a rare degree both academic precision and warm pastoral care, both nourished by a deep Christian faith.

James Atkinson was born in 1914 in Tynemouth, where his father was a civil engineer with the Tynemouth Improvement Commission. He was the eldest of three children; his brother, Sir Robert Atkinson, eventually became the chairman of British Shipbuilders and used to boast that his older brother saved him from drowning off the Tynemouth coast no less than four times when they were children.

Atkinson was educated at Tynemouth High School and St John's College, Durham, where he was captain of boats. Ordained to a Title in the Diocese of Newcastle before beginning his long association with the church in Sheffield, he quickly established his reputation as a preacher, teacher and visitor and his devoted following was the envy of his clerical contemporaries.

Working in the Diocese of Sheffield under Bishop Leslie Hunter, Atkinson found it difficult to warm to his new Bishop's social gospel and the liberal tendencies of such Sheffield rising stars as Alan Ecclestone and Ronald Preston. A Protestant to his finger tips, Atkinson lived in the Bible just like the third-century biblical scholar Origen, on whose feast day he was born, and Martin Luther, who he so revered.

Successfully completing a Doctorate in Theology in the University of Münster in 1955, under the supervision of the distinguished German church historian Professor Robert Stupperich, with a thesis on Luther and the Gospel of St John, Atkinson then began his distinguished career as a Reformation scholar and Luther expert. Whatever the topic of conversation Luther could be brought to the fore. The late Rt Revd Professor RPC Hanson once remarked – not altogether jokingly – that if James Atkinson was invited to the Mother's Union to talk about flower arranging, he would talk about Luther.

Working in the Department of Theology in the University of Hull, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 1997, and then later as Professor of Biblical Studies in Sheffield he produced several books, the best known being The Great Light: Luther and the Reformation (1968). In 1994 a Festschrift The Bible, the Reformation and the Church was published to mark his 80th birthday, with contributions not only from former colleagues but also emerging young Reformation scholars such as Alister McGrath. Despite his advancing years and growing frailty, his scholarly output and evangelical zeal did not diminish, and he published Faith Lost, Faith Regained when he was 90 and Understanding the Incarnation when 94. Characteristically, they are both swashbuckling attacks on liberal thought and post-modernist thinking from an evangelical angle in the light of the Reformation.

However, it is not as a writer but as a gifted speaker and lecturer that he will be best remembered. Although partisan and idiosyncratic, he not only inspired many students, lecturing in his black academic gown first thing on a Monday morning, as they warmed their hands against the theological fire but also enthused the interested amateur. The success of his Centre for Reformation Studies which he founded on his retirement from his Chair bears witness to that.

The then Department of Biblical History and Literature was under threat of closure when Atkinson came to it as Professor in 1967, but he carefully developed and built up the academic staff, revitalised the student body and gave a somewhat secular department a renewed Christian tone. It is in no small way due to Atkinson's endeavours that the Department of Biblical Studies is now one of the finest in the world. Well respected throughout the university, he was a popular Public Orator and Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

Atkinson was not always a comfortable member of the Church of England, but he served the Church loyally. He was Canon Theologian at Leicester Cathedral and Sheffield Cathedral. A representative of the Northern Universities on the General Synod of the Church of England, at a time when the General Synod still treasured the theologians in their midst, Atkinson was a member of and made important contributions to English ARC (a joint committee of Anglicans and Roman Catholics for England) and the Skelton Commission, which reported on "Marriage and the Church's Task".

A great lover of the Peak District, he enjoyed walking the hills inhis younger days. His wide circle of friends was always welcome at his roomy stone cottage in Hathersage whose acoustic added greatly to the tone of his violin playing.

Atkinson was not unacquainted with grief: his wife Laura was killed in a car accident in Mexico in 1966, just before their move to Sheffield. He is survived by a daughter, Mary, who is a lawyer in Chicago, and a son, Nicholas, who is an attorney in Florida.

The Venerable Peter Townley

James Atkinson, priest and theologian: born Tynemouth 27 April 1914; Founder Director, Centre for Reformation Studies, Sheffield 1983–2006; Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield 1967–79 (Emeritus); married 1939 Laura Nutley (died 1966; one son, one daughter); died Chicago 30 July 2011.

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