Book Review: Atonement and the New Perspective

Atonement and the New Perspective Steven Burnhope Book Review

It was a joy to be given a copy of this book by the author – a fellow Vineyard scholar/theologian, with whom I’ve shared genuine friendship, robust disagreement, and serious dialogue. Atonement and the New Perspective: The God of Israel, Covenant, and the Cross (Stephen Burnhope, Pickwick Publications, 2018) is a revision of Steve’s Kings College PhD, in which he examines a central doctrine of Christianity, the atonement, and considers a number of questions. Firstly, and relevant to Steve and my disagreement over evangelicalism (And whether the Vineyard ‘is’, read my paper and his paper from SVS 2018), there is an examination of the fact that historically the Church has not insisted on one understanding of the Atonement. Second, Steve rightly brings the doctrine of the Atonement into conversation with the work of Pauline scholars in the ‘New Perspective’ group(s). Thirdly, Steve bravely and prophetically raises the uncomfortable question of the place of Israel and the Jews in discussions around the atonement, covenant, and the church today. These three are big areas of dissent and discussion, and so Atonement and the New Perspective reads more like a theological thriller than a dry thesis – even (and perhaps especially) where one disagrees.

Firstly, then, the place of the atonement and the metaphors Christians use to understand it. Steve examines the way in which (particularly conservative) evangelicalism has tended to crystallise around penal substitution as the key (and sometimes only) way of understanding the atonement. Driving Steve’s challenge to this is a missional concern – as well as being a systematic theologian, he and his wife Lynn lead a church – and the importance of being able to explain the gospel in the world today. He suggests that “penal substitution can be allowed a seat at the table, but it cannot be a table for one, nor can it be head of the table” (p. 51), which may come as a shock to those fully committed to penal substitution, but should also be heeded as an important insight given a) the witness of scripture  and b) the historic variety of Christian and church teaching. On this first area of interest, the place of the atonement and what metaphors best allow us to explain it, Steve is robust and forthright in saying:

no current conception of the atonement in Christian thought appears to invoke any positive salvific correspondence to or dependence upon the story of Israel of God’s relationship with the God of Israel. All of the theories are ahistorical and ‘Israel-forgetful’. It is as if the salvation history of Israel recounted in the Hebrew scriptures never happened or need never have happened…. To the extent that Israel appears at all… it is almost entirely by way of its usefulness as a negative foil… to provide the dark background against which the light of Christ is enabled to shine all the more brightly” (p. 51-52)

You don’t have to agree with Steve’s style, argument or positions to recognise that there is a problem variously identified as ‘supersessionism,’ ‘theological anti-Judaism’ and ‘Israel-forgetful’. This is in view throughout the next chapter, in which we are treated to an informed overview of the New Perspective on Paul, which shows that there are in fact multiple ‘new perspectives’, rather than just one (as some more simplistic treatments suggest). A key aspect of this is how the Judaism contemporary to Jesus and the early Church is understood. Steve notes that “the scholarship of the NPP has been contemporaneous to the atonement debate, but without the insights of the one having yet been meaningfully applied to the other” (p. 55). Regardless of it’s success, Steve’s book does a great service in pointing this out, and suggesting ways to bring the two conversations into conversation. Steve has done his homework, with a number of popular myths being busted, “Sanders was building on the largely unrecognised groundwork of a number of others: in particular, Claude Montefiore, George Foot Moore, and in the post-War years, W. D. Davies and Krister Stendahl” (p. 65). This is a book that invites readers into deeper thought, and this makes it valuable in its own right. After a sweeping and, as aforementioned, well written, introduction to the problem, Steve states:

Thus, we remain in search of a soteriological account drawing from this new research that achieves the twin objectives of reaffirming a divinely-granted efficacy in the God of Israel’s antecedent relationship with the Israel of God in Torah but that at the same time gives full assent to the traditional Evangelical understanding of Christ having a unique indispensable and pivotal role in enabling relationship with God – for both Jews and gentiles – without resorting to the supersessionism and theological anti-Judaism which have so often been part of the package” (p. 156-157)

Having located the atonement as central (and recognising the beautiful complexity of the mystery, which we can begin to understand) and examining both the context of Christ and one of the challenges to thinking about atonement, Steve then seeks to bring the two conversations together. Atonement in New perspective takes covenant as the key motif to consider what might be a useful way forward, not least because both Torah and Christ make much of this. Indeed, noting that “if the history of Israel and its God is to be taken seriously in the formulation of Christian doctrine… then so too must the efficacy and validity of Israel’s covenant relationship in Torah both pre- and post-Christ” (p.192), Steve rightly seeks to engage us in the whole story of the whole Bible. With reference to Soulen, he writes “God’s work as consummator is the great central theme of the scriptures… while his work as redeemer and deliverer is a subordinate theme” (p. 208); helpfully suggesting that while the atonement is vital (crucial, pun not intended) it is not the whole story. Whilst a clear analysis of Steve’s thesis is arguably beyond this reviewer, there is much to celebrate in his careful threading of the tensions between universal (in the biblical sense) and individual understandings of the Gospel, and the way in which an understanding of covenant opens up and illuminates the atonement. Interestingly, what Steve is proposing is refreshingly evangelical (p. 226-7).

In my reading of this and other books on the atonement, I’ve started to crystallise my own thoughts on the Cross: that it is best understood as a diamond, in which a range of metaphors are fused together so unbreakably as to reflect the goodness of God. My personal view is that a key element of that is the penal substitutionary understanding, but that in order to appreciate it we need the different facets and angles provided by other metaphors and models, which are also fundamental to the mystery of the atonement. Steve writes”

Once the traditional models and metaphors are thus situated, we no longer need to see them as “competing” to establish a single winning idea that “causes” atonement to happen or best reflects what it entails. The complexities of the human situation due to sin will unsurprisingly lead to a range of concurrent divine actions. Multi-faceted problems – and the different ways that humans experience and perceive them – require more than one action in response and more than one way of apprehending that action. All such actions, however, are in fulfilment of an overarching covenantal commitment. Each metaphor illustrates, within concepts to which human understanding can relate, an aspect of what it means to be in an atoned relationship” (p. 237)

Amen! This is where the importance of not isolating doctrines from one another is so key. If the atonement is a diamond, it is surely set on a ring of covenant commitment, between God and his people, between Christ and his church. In terms of the task of challenging Christian anti-semitism and the charge of supersessionism or replacement, Steve suggests that “Christ is Torah personified rather than Torah’s antithesis” (p. 240). His closing words are humble but helpful: “Our hope is that, notwithstanding the undoubted shortcomings in its articulation, this perspective on atonement entered in covenant – a ‘re-Judaizing’ of the doctrine – can make some small contribution to the continuing rehabilitation of Israel in Christian thought and to a higher regard for the entire canon” (p. 245)

In closing, then, Atonement in New Perspective is an exciting and challenging book. It is certainly not for a general reader – and not to be read in isolation, but instead as an overarching narrative as the argument builds. I do have some concerns – not least the occasional caricature of Reformed theology, which is then compounded by a lack of engagement with scholars like Oliver Crisp and Michael Horton (or even Michael Bird), as just a couple of small examples. Similarly, there is an occasional vagueness or looseness of language around evangelicalism, and it isn’t always obvious who is being discussed. These minor quibbles aside, Atonement in New Perspective is a helpful and fresh technical book, drawing together two vital theological conversations and forcing those of us with long-held views to both ponder and praise the God who saves. I would not recommend this book to everyone – it is a technical monograph – but for those interested in the three areas Steve is engaging with, this is a refreshing and thought-provoking book. It is worth mentioning that, whilst Steve gave me a copy, I didn’t have to like it, and often disagree with him. Regardless, this is a well written book that was genuinely enjoyable to read, even as it walked through some huge theological questions. I can’t wait for his next book!

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