Atonement and the New Perspective | Stephen Burnhope

Atonement and the New Perspective

The following is an excerpt from Atonement and the New Perspective by Stephen Burnhope. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Salvation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ lies at the very heart of Christian faith. The classic content of the Gospel is that we are somehow made ‘at one’ with God through Christ. However, the word ‘somehow’ is indicative of a profound underlying question: yes, Jesus saves … but how, exactly? Given the significance of the answer to this simple and sensible enquiry, one would expect it to have been comprehensively addressed in the historic formulation of doctrine. Yet here we encounter one of the most puzzling features of Christian orthodoxy: we search in vain through the early Creeds of the Church for definitive statements on how salvation in Christ was actually brought about.

Why might that have been? Was it simply so ‘obvious’ to Christians in the first few centuries that no-one felt the need to record it for posterity? And if so, what was so obvious about it?

In discussing the atonement it has been customary to refer to a wide range of images, metaphors and models drawn from the New Testament to express the efficacy of Christ’s work. Less clear has been how, if at all, this variety of imagery should be drawn together. Can they happily be left as stand-alone ideas? Ought one theory to be understood to be central or dominant? Or does the real answer lie outside all of the past and present theories?

In recent years, debate about the atonement at both popular and scholarly levels has been particularly rife (and impassioned) within Evangelical circles — specifically, whether primacy ought to be granted to the doctrine of penal substitution. Discussion of atonement has somewhat run aground on this single question, which has attracted as much heat as light. Any proposal to revisit the doctrine of atonement must necessarily touch upon this critical Evangelical debating point.

Beyond that, however, we perceive there to be something that ought to be more fundamental still to any discussion of the atonement and that might even provide some of those answers. Namely, the remarkable failure of all of the traditional explanations to situate the question in the context in which atonement doctrine — and arguably, all Christian doctrine — ought firstly to be considered: the story of Israel narrated in the Hebrew Scriptures that comprise the major part of the Christian canon. Simply put, Christian doctrinal consideration of atonement has been at best ambivalent towards, and at worst has entirely ignored, the primal context of the relationship between the God of Israel and the Israel of God. It would surely be reasonable to assume that a truly canonical view of Christ’s atoning work should be understood within — and informed by— divine-human relations in the story of the people of Israel. And yet, discussion of Christian doctrine has almost universally displayed what R. Kendall Soulen calls an ‘Israel forgetfulness’.

This memory lapse has been brought into sharp relief by the recent literature of the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul,’ a body of research that questions traditional Christian readings of Paul and the circumstances of first-century Judaism. This new literature has radical implications for Christian doctrinal understanding.

The burden of this book is therefore to enquire how our understanding of the doctrine of atonement might be reconfigured if one were to apply its insights and, specifically, to allow a positive significance to Israel’s relationship to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures in framing atonement thought. It concludes that there is an overarching continuity in God’s redemptive ways that provides a framework for the atonement which is both non-supersessionist and christological — the ‘missing link’ for understanding Christ’s atoning work.

Praise for Atonement and the New Perspective

“In his compelling ‘new perspective’ on the atonement, Burnhope confronts and repairs a pervasive Israel forgetfulness in atonement theology, and at the same time draws out important theological ramifications of ‘the New Perspective on Paul.’ Speaking into a lacuna between two significant literatures, his groundbreaking book is at once scripturally resonant and theologically generative.”
— Susannah Ticciati, King’s College London

About the Author

Stephen BurnhopeStephen Burnhope received his PhD from King’s College London having previously completed an MA in Hermeneutics with Distinction at The London School of Theology. He and his wife Lyn are Senior Pastors of the Vineyard Church in Aylesbury, UK. The book is the product of his PhD research.

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