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Stephen Burnhope: Atonement and the New Perspective

One of the main arguments that I have been putting forward on this site is that modern evangelicalism needs to shift its weight from the rickety stool of theology or dogmatics, before it collapses, to the much more solid and reliable stool of history. What would this mean for how we understand things? First, we would read the New Testament as a narrative testimony to the historical experience and perspective of a messianic Jewish movement in the first century. Secondly, we would determine the present life and mission of the church not dogmatically—as though a fuzzy, grainy, blotchy and easily misinterpreted snapshot of the first century church could reasonably serve as a template throughout the rest of human history—but as an extension of that narrative.

But we might ask, nevertheless, whether the latter task of determining the present life and mission of the church amounts to a reconstruction of theology on better exegetical grounds. Even if we grant the narrative-historical method priority, surely there is still a need to organise our thoughts about various theological themes in a more or less systematic fashion?

Stephen Burnhope’s book Atonement and the New Perspective: The God of Israel, Covenant, and the Cross is an excellent example of how this might be done. What sort of doctrine of atonement, Burnhope asks, might emerge from a reading of the New Testament that presupposes a fundamental continuity between Jewish and Christian thought rather than a sharp disjunction between Law and grace? What would a reformed Reformed dogmatics look like?

…a “massive amount of literature aimed at destroying two millennia of clarity regarding the relationships of works, righteousness, faith, and salvation.”

In chapter 1 Burnhope sets out what he considers to be the shortcomings of the traditional Reformed doctrine of atonement as it has been appropriated by modern evangelicalism. 1) Penal substitution cannot be given an absolute foundational position in our understanding of the atonement, largely because it is logically incoherent. 2) The fallback position has been to argue for a variegated approach which gives more or less equal weight to a range of explanatory metaphors and models; but this is historically implausible. So “the present situation in the atonement debate reflects a stalemate between on the one hand the claims to hegemony by adherents of the penal substitutionary doctrine and on the other, those who affirm a multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic view”. 3) The standard account of atonement addresses sin as a “universal human problem” without reference to history; which means 4) that there is no “meaningful reference to the historic relationship between Israel and its God within which the atoning work of Christ took place”. This gets us to the heart of the New Perspective objection to traditional doctrine.

The second chapter is a lengthy survey of recent “new perspectives” on the relation of early Christianity to first-century Judaism. Burnhope reviews the old Lutheran perspective on Paul, the intensification of the denigration of theological Judaism in the nineteenth century, and the dawning of a new perspective through the work of Claude Montefiore, G.F. Moore, W.D. Davies, Krister Stendahl and, of course, E.P. Sanders.

The work of N.T. Wright and J.D.G. Dunn is considered in some detail and shown not to be as well disposed towards first-century Judaism than we might have thought. At this point Burnhope’s intense objection to supersessionist arguments becomes apparent. He states, for example: “ Wright’s soteriology still works perfectly well if Israel is taken out”; and thinks it “reasonable to conclude that Wright’s core position is supersessionist”. Nevertheless, the mainstream New Perspective thesis has put Reformed theology on the back foot.

No wonder, then, that the implications in these new perspectives are decidedly inconvenient for Reformed theology. One commentator has lambasted it as a “massive amount of literature aimed at destroying two millennia of clarity regarding the relationships of works, righteousness, faith, and salvation.”

A “Radical” New Perspective, however, has taken the argument a significant step further, claiming that Paul remained Jewish in his convictions and that his “negative rhetoric” about the Torah was intended for Gentiles, not for Jews. In this category Burnhope lists Gaston, Gager, Nanos, Fredriksen, Levine, Eisenbaum, Elliott, Runesson, Campbell, Ehrensperger, and Stowers.

The chapter also explores the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the first century and the eventual “parting of the ways”. The challenge that we are left with is to rehabilitate the Mosaic covenant in Christian thought without denying a “universal salvific significance for Christ”:

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.

Chapter 3 is an attempt to solve this conundrum—to develop a post-New Perspective account of the atonement. A quick review of Burnhope’s six-point summary gives a fair impression of the argument.

1. Both in Torah and in Christ atonement is situated in a covenantal context. This is a key emphasis: atonement is not primarily a means of dealing with sin; it is a means of establishing or maintaining a relationship.

2. Atonement begins with election—the decision of God to reach out ‘to offer an “at one” relationship with him’, first to Israel in Torah, then to the nations in Christ.

3. The unifying factor in the Bible is not redemption from sin through the death of Jesus but the consummation of creation or “the God of Israel’s coming reign of shalom“. Soulen is quoted: “redemption is for the sake of consummation, not consummation for the sake of redemption”.

4. The death of Jesus is not so much a sacrifice for sin as a sacrifice for covenant: ‘the divine initiative becomes a reality through its sealing or “cutting” in the death of Christ the ultimate covenantal sacrifice of the ultimate covenant’.

5. The appropriate response of the nations to God’s “covenantal initiative” is a “nomism which involves living in accordance with the terms of the covenant-maker”—that is, a comprehensive way of obedience analogous to life according to Torah.

6. People “in Christ” will continue to sin. Atonement for such failure is “divinely foreseen and hence pre-provided within the covenants’ terms”. This is a reference to the eucharist as a celebration of the making of the new covenant:

The new covenant conceived in the heart of God is capacious enough to have anticipated the need for covenant restoration and renewal. Participation in the repetition of the Eucharist is the appropriate nomistic response provided for in the covenant, by which continuing, renewed atonement for sin is mediated within the bigger story.

In the final chapter Burnhope attempts to show how traditional ideas about atonement find their place in a narrative that foregrounds the covenant relationship of the nations with the God of Israel. What the traditional metaphors do is describe “the benefits of living in an atoned relationship within the covenant”.

The book is a candid acknowledgment of the basic inability of Reformed-evangelical theology to accommodate readings of the New Testament that situate Jesus and the teaching of the apostles in a Jewish narrative context. I particularly like Burnhope’s summary of R. Kendall Soulen’s critique of the narrative reductionism of evangelical theological, a point that I have made often on this site:

The church’s standard canonical narrative… embodies structural supersessionism in the way that it construes (or, “structures”) this narrative unity. In the foreground, says Soulen, are the perceived key events of creation, fall, Christ’s incarnation, the inauguration of the church, and final consummation—what he calls the “four key episodes.” What is noticeable here, though, is that God’s engagement with the human story is being told in cosmic, universal terms: the Hebrew scriptures are almost completely omitted, save for Genesis 1-3. The God of Israel’s history with the Israel of God recedes into the background of the story and “God’s history with Israel plays a role that is ultimately indecisive for shaping the canonical narrative’s overarching plot.

I was so pleased with this that I have got hold of a second hand copy of Soulen’s book The God of Israel and Christian Theology. I look forward to reading it.

The lengthy chapter outlining the new perspective on Paul and its implications is very helpful, and I agree that a more “radically” first-century Jewish perspective than the offerings of Wright and Dunn is required.

The main problem with the book, as a reconstruction of the New Testament narrative, to my mind, is that insufficient consideration is given to the “apocalyptic” dimension to the interpretation of Jesus’ death. Burnhope recognises the inadequacy of the standard evangelical model, which fails to connect Jesus with the preceding story about Israel, but he does not take into account how the story was expected to unfold in the future. He has very little to say, for example, about the kingdom of God. I think this must have a bearing both on significance of Jesus’ death for Judaism and on the vexed issue of supersessionism.

If Jesus’ death on a Roman cross, having been betrayed by his own people, anticipated the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple which he had prophesied, then it can’t be too wide of the mark to think that he suffered in advance the punishment that would come on an evil, adulterous, and crooked generation of Jews. If the temple of his body was destroyed so that at least part of Israel might survive the shocking collapse of second temple Judaism, I think we may also suppose that he died in the place of at least part of Israel.

It is precisely in this thoroughly Jewish-apocalyptic context that the idea of penal substitution makes best sense. Whether or not this is precisely an “atonement” is another matter, but it makes it difficult to follow Burnhope (if I’ve understood him correctly) in assigning Torah to the Jews and Jesus to the Gentiles.

The literature of Judaism in the Hellenistic-Roman period suggests that the death of a righteous Jew at a time of “eschatological” crisis could be viewed as an “propitiation” for the sins of Israel and the ground for deliverance. 4 Maccabees may be a late text, but it reflects an understanding of the redemptive power of righteous suffering that goes all the way back to Daniel 7-12:

And these who have been divinely sanctified are honored not only with this honor, but also in that, thanks to them, our enemies did not prevail over our nation; the tyrant was punished, and the homeland was purified, since they became, as it were, a ransom for the sin of the nation. And through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted. (4 Macc. 17:20–22)

I could find no discussion in Burnhope’s book of Paul’s statement in Romans 3:25 that God put Jesus forward likewise “as a propitiation (hilastērion) by his blood”. This is part of an argument with respect to the Jews; there is no thought here of the shedding of Jesus’ blood to confirm the new covenant with the nations. Also the Lord’s Supper was a celebration of the inauguration of a new covenant not with the Gentiles but with his Jewish disciples.

If we connect Jesus’ death with the coming wrath of God against the Jews, however, as a direct outworking of the Law (“the Law brings wrath”: Rom. 4:15), it seems to me much harder to avoid some sort of supersessionist outcome. Again, history as a bearing on this. Paul was writing before the war against Rome. He was beginning to doubt that his people would repent and confess Jesus as Lord before the catastrophe of divine judgment, but he still hoped, I think, that Israel would repent after the event.

If in the wake of the war the Jews as a nation (“all Israel”) had admitted their mistake and had confessed that YHWH had indeed raised his Son from the dead and given him all authority and power, then they would have survived as the olive tree rooted in the promises made to the patriarchs (Rom. 11:17-27). The people of God would have remained at its core Jewish, with Gentiles grafted into the commonwealth of Israel on the basis of their faith in the risen Lord.

But the outcome was conditional on a change of mind (“if they do not continue in their unbelief”: Rom. 11:23). The Jews did not change their mind. They did not repent. They did not en masse confess Jesus as Lord. Paul’s hope that all Israel would be saved was not fulfilled, though he did not live to know it. So in practice, if not in theory, the overwhelmingly Gentile church superseded the originally Torah-observant Jesus movement.

So if we factor in the historical aspect, interpreted apocalyptically, and the uncertainty that went with it, I think we have the proper narrative frame for explaining both the significance of Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel and the tensions introduced by the influx of Gentiles.

The New Perspective has recovered the Jewishness of the New Testament because it first recovered a historical methodology. History teaches us that the mission of Jesus and his followers must be understood as a continuation of the story of Israel. But history does not guarantee a non-supersessionist outcome. My sense is that Burnhope is more concerned to maintain the continuing relevance of the old covenant within a conventional evangelical theological framework than to describe the historical perspective of the early Jesus movement.

The book remains compelling in many ways, and it should be read by anyone wrestling with the shape of post-New Perspective belief. It’s also a dense book and should be given more time than I have been able to give to it. I may well have missed the point in places.

Stephen Burnhope is a systematic theologian with a Reformed background, and this affords his work a distinctive voice and credibility. But it also probably accounts for the disagreement.

It seems to me that a doctrinaire hostility towards supersessionism, a stronger interest in Judaism as religion than in the Jewish interpretation of history, and a reluctance to stray too far outside the boundaries of modern evangelicalism have tilted the argument away from a full appreciation of the significance of Jesus’ death for the historical transformation that was underway in the first century.

Image of Atonement and the New Perspective: The God of Israel, Covenant, and the Cross

On Amazon (US):

Stephen Burnhope
Pickwick Publications (2018), Paperback, 290 pages, $35.00


It seems to me supersessionism results from taking the historical outcome–Christianity became a Gentile religion–and forcing scripture to align with this outcome. I don’t think Jesus or any of his disciples forsaw this. Therefore, I think we should view this historical fact as an extra-biblical develpment.

How does this extra-biblical develpment affect the story? Should Gentiles assume this was Yahweh’s plan? What is the status of God’s covenant with Israel? Should Jews abandon the idea of a Messianic kingdom here on earth?

Because things went off script in the first century, I don’t think we can answer these questions with any degree of certainty.

Again, very helpful; thank you.

Re: “If the temple of his body was destroyed so that at least part of Israel might survive the shocking collapse of second temple Judaism, I think we may also suppose that he died in the place of at least part of Israel.”

The thought has occurred to me (stimulated by Wright’s work) that in the famous “the Son of Man has come … to offer His life a ransom for many” saying, that begs the difficult to answer question “ransomed from whom?”, a good answer, that is rather shocking from traditional perspectives that see the “ransom” as related to post-mortem punishments is that Jesus intended to “ransom” His (Jewish) followers from … the Romans.

That is just what happened; the church in Jerusalem remembered Jesus’ warnings and left the city before it was fully invested, and so escaped the agonies of the siege. More broadly, it seems unlikely that many Jewish Jesus-followers voluntarily participated in the rebellion, and so they escaped death by sword or by crucifixion.

Thank you, Samuel. I think that that is an excellent suggestion. Worth exploring further.