Rethinking the Atonement (with Powerful Decolonial and Missiological Ramifications!)

Despite the Cross being central to the Way of Jesus, it is also one of the most misunderstood parts of Christianity. We all know that Jesus of Nazareth died upon the Cross, was buried, and then was resurrected three days later. But why? What was the purpose of the Cross? How does Jesus’ death fit within the story of Israel and how does that death and resurrection affect us today? These are the questions Stephen Burnhope seeks to answer in his book Atonement and the New Perspective: The God of Israel, Covenant, and the Cross.

Starting with the doctrine of the atonement, Stephen shows how the various atonement theories normally tossed around (e.g. ransom, Christus Victor, penal substitutionary, etc.) within the Evangelicalism carry within them a thread of supersessionist in which the story of Israel is effectively removed from the Cross. In response to this trend, Stephen proposes a view of the atonement in which “Israel’s story is both the context in which God’s covenantal work in Christ is situated and the means by which it can best be understood” (pg xxx).

It is this framework that makes Stephen’s book worth buying as he helps us remember the story of Israel and the importance of the Torah – which, contrary to popular option, isn’t about ‘works’ or ‘earning one’s salvation.’ Rather the Torah helped guide Israel in their response to God’s saving race. As Stephen puts it, “Just as the covenant ‘in Torah’ brings about and maintains an atoned relationship, so too does the covenant ‘in Christ’” (pg 235). The Cross isn’t about a legal transaction in which we gain a relationship with God but rather the way in which we are to live within that relationship. Our relationship with the Creator has always been there, it was just fractured and damaged due to the death, sin, and pain present within the world.

To return to Stephen’s book, “Atonement ‘in Christ’ defined in this manner does not start at the cross, any more than ‘in Torah’ it starts with a sin offering. In each case, it begins with a decision in the heart of God to enter into a covenant with humanity…The covenant provides the framework and terms according to which an at-one relationship is firstly established and secondly maintained” (pg 235). Though this may strike many within Evangelicalism as being out there, this framework and conclusion is actually more Scriptural than most atonement theories – especially penal substitutionary atonement which relies on 16th century European culture more than Scriptures.

In addition to grounding the atonement in the story of Israel, Stephen’s view of the atonement opens a fairly powerful decolonial and missiological door. “By reconceiving the relationship of the gospel to Torah in this non-competitive way, accepting each way of relating to God – ‘in Torah’ and ‘in Christ’ – as valid, but different” (pg 226) allows us to think missiological about the ways in which God worked in and through other cultures and people. Consider the story of Jonah, for a moment.  You have a Israelite prophet who goes to a foreign country and preaches a message of repentance to a bunch of people who don’t know a thing about the Mosaic covenant. There are no priests, temple, altars, Levities, etc. Nothing. And yet, the Creator honors their heart and breathes his mercy and grace upon them without having them abandoned their culture (i.e. they repented in accordance with their customs and culture).  “Human life,” as Stephen notes, “has always been lived under the blessing of a covenant promise of God that offered relationship with him through a covenantal nomism” (pg 243).  

For those getting nervous, I must point out that accepting the legitimacy of the Torah (or the repentance of Nineveh within their culture) doesn’t lessen the work of Jesus. Isn’t about the “efficacy or permanence of one [Torah] versus the other [Jesus]” (pg 226). Rather it is about knowing the Creator directly through Jesus or indirectly through the Torah (pg 219). Though Stephen doesn’t go there, I would say that just like God showed himself indirectly through the Torah to the Israelites, we can look for echoes of the Creator within the culture, stories, and customs of people groups around the globe. In finding these echoes, we can use them to introduce people to Jesus of Nazareth, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15, NET).  Powerful ramifications to say the least!!!

One thought on “Rethinking the Atonement (with Powerful Decolonial and Missiological Ramifications!)”

  1. Josh, thank you very much for your article. It’s hard for anyone to summarize a book of that length in a short blog article (not least, when it’s a PhD thesis), so you have done well! One comment that might be helpful to readers, since it’s a question that I myself might have wondered from reading your article, is this: Does the argument of the book diminish Christ’s unique centrality? Answer: No. As a footnote to this early comment (on page 10): “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,” I add: “This is not, of course, to suggest that either the story of Israel or the nature and character of the God of Israel can fully and properly be understood in the absence of Christ. Nor is it to suggest that Christians should not learn to understand all these matters in the light of Christ as the center point of salvation history. These aspects are not, however, my primary focus in this work, which is to call attention to a far greater continuity than has traditionally been recognized between the ways and purposes of God in his relationship with Israel narrated in the Hebrew Scriptures and his ways and purposes revealed in Christ — a continuity that has, at best, been downplayed and at worst, denied. Thus our concern is the ways in which Christ and the New Testament can more helpfully be understood in the light of the story of Israel, the nature of the God of Israel and Israel’s relationship in Torah presented in the Hebrew Bible (in particular, insofar as they concern the atonement), rather than approaching these matters almost exclusively from the opposite direction, as is commonly the case. We propose that this re-contextualization offers a fresh perspective on the nature and significance of Christ as that could reasonably have been conceived by a faithful first-century Jew.” It’s also worth reminding ourselves that a properly trinitarian understanding of God’s actions in history (and for that matter, his actions today) recognizes that everything God does is a united effort. Whenever one Person is named, all of the Trinity is involved. Where the Father is, we find the Son and the Spirit (and so on). This enables us to see God’s historic relationship with Israel in a more fully trinitarian light, just as John 1:1-3 and Genesis 1:1-2 enable us to see God’s actions in creation in a trinitarian light.

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