An Interview with Steve Burnhope

You might have seen my review of Steve Burnhope’s new book, Atonement and the New Perspective. As it is quite a technical, academic book, I asked Steve a few questions to help explain and explore what he’s written. I hope it is helpful. 

Could you just say a little bit about yourself?

Along with my wife Lyn, I’m Senior Pastor of the Vineyard Church in Aylesbury. Before taking on that role, six years ago, I had a business background in the City of London. I began theology studies later in life, completing an MA in hermeneutics in 2009 (The London School of Theology) and then a PhD in systematic theology in 2017 (King’s College London).   

So, you’ve written a book. What’s the elevator pitch?

The book is essentially my PhD thesis. It started where my Masters’ dissertation ended (see Evangelical Quarterly Oct 2012, Vol. 84 Issue 4, 345-368). I had always found the atonement intriguing and felt there had to be ‘something more.’ The ‘atonement war’ options seemed to oscillate between (a) claiming hegemony for one central, indispensable or preferred way of understanding atonement (whether one uses language of metaphor, model, theory or whatever to describe it) — in most cases, penal substitution being assumed to have that role — and (b) a miscellany of ways, such that atonement ends up ‘a bit like this and a bit like that’ with nothing really to draw them together, no common nexus. At the same time, new historical and theological research about the true nature of first-century Judaism opened the door to asking the question, “If the New Perspective is broadly right, might we need to re-think some of our accustomed Christian doctrine?” — which is what I have done here in relation to the atonement. 

You are bringing two important conversations (atonement and New Perspective[s] on Paul) together. Why was it important to you to do that?

To the best of my knowledge, no-one had explored that. The two fields tended to be quite separate. It seemed very clear that a presumed (often implicit, but nonetheless evident) theological anti-Judaism pervaded both popular and scholarly thinking within evangelicalism and hence, no-one had thought to ask whether first-century Judaism could and should offer us anything positive in framing our understanding of what the God of Israel had now done in Christ. Classically, Christians go from the Fall to the Cross in one giant leap, as universal solution to universal problem, without finding anything of theological merit grounded in Israel’s longstanding prior relationship with its God pre-Christ (just mining the OT for Sunday School stories and the occasional proof-text).      

You suggest a fresh way of looking at the Cross, through covenant, that is really exciting. Could you summarise it?

I’m suggesting that all of the evidence points to atonement being centred not in a particular (traditional) model, but in a decision in the heart of God from the foundation of the world to covenant with (initially) a nation and (latterly) the nations. That a particular atonement model dealing with sin is not at the forefront is evidenced, for example, by Jesus electing to die at Passover rather than (more naturally, if that were the case) the Day of Atonement. The sacrificial imagery is of a covenant-making sacrifice, not of a sin-offering (which of course the Passover lamb was not). The imagery of Passover is of a divine initiative of liberation from hostile tyrannical forces that enslave and oppress God’s people. The Eucharist is a covenantal meal, with significant familial imagery central to the NT portrayal of adoption (as I explain). Accordingly, rather than the traditional atonement models being seen as one or more answers to the ‘how?’ question, they should be repositioned as the various benefits of being in a covenantal relationship ‘in Christ’ with the God who acts towards us in all those ways – fulfilling the obligations that he gladly assumed towards us as the divine covenant maker. NB it is by no means essential to buy-into all aspects of the New Perspective(s) to share this covenant-centred view of the atonement, but if one does grasp that, at least in general terms, it will make all the more sense.   

Why do you think holding different metaphors for the atonement is so important?

Firstly, because the problem of sin that the atonement addresses is so deep, broad and diverse. For example, to limit sin to individualistic ‘acts personally committed’ (sins, plural), with the individualistic solution presented primarily in a legal, judicial framework, fails to recognise that the problem and power of sin affects us (and damages us and our world) as both perpetrators and victims (at times we are one, at times the other) and it does so in a multiplicity of ways. Hence, our call to mission requires depth, breadth and diversity in our biblically-rooted explanations of what Christ achieved for us at the Cross — which are most effectively conceived as the variety of benefits of being in a covenantal relationship ‘in Christ,’ with Almighty God who acts to protect and defend us as the suzerain. Secondly, we need different metaphors because in different eras and  different cultures, human perceptions of the nature of the human problem (that we might simplistically label ‘sin’) will vary; for example, whether we are in a guilt culture or an honour-shame culture. Penal substitution made far more sense to people 200 years ago when in England over 200 offences (many of which we would now call trivial) were punishable by a brutal and bloody execution or other physical violence. It makes less sense to people today, where even the greatest transgression of law results only in a loss of liberty. But if covenant — and the benefits of covenant — are the common nexus, these cultural and time-bounded difficulties do not matter; we can use a variety of alternative, biblically-sourced imagery by which people will more easily ‘get it.’ Christ is the answer, but we must explain how he is the answer to questions people are actually asking — the solution to problems that people actually feel — not just those that they ought to, or used to.

Thanks! Do have a read of my review, and if it piques your interest, grab a copy and join the discussion!

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