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After SVS 2010: Steve Burnhope, Penal Substitutionary Atonement and 21st Century Mission

After SVS 2010 is an extended dialogue with presenters from the first annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, held Feb 11-13, 2010. Monday through Friday until March 26th we’ll profile an SVS presenter and dialogue with them around their paper. Click here for a brief intro and link directory of the series. Full text of papers are available to SVS members.

Steve Burnhope: “Culture, Worldview and the Cross: Penal Substitutionary Atonement and 21st Century Mission”

Evangelicals have customarily relied on the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement in gospel presentations.  However, questions have recently been raised from within Evangelicalism as to whether this explanation is saleable in today’s world. In the Reformers’ day, judicial punishment through the infliction of brutal physical violence – such as torture, bodily mutilation, burning alive and drowning – was the normal sentence in criminal justice.  In today’s culture, though, where the judicial system no longer endorses these sentencing practices, is the message of a Saviour who took the brutal physical violent punishment we deserve (for even the smallest of sins), so saving us from God inflicting eternal conscious torment in Hell, still ‘good news’? “If the only gospel we’ve got solves a problem that nobody feels, then it’s no wonder our churches are shrinking” (Stephen Holmes).  Meanwhile, the Christian gospel is widely parodied. But do we have a biblical mandate to explain the ‘problem’ (of ‘sin’) and the ‘solution’ (how Christ dying ‘for us’ is efficacious) in other than ‘crime-and-punishment’ terms. Actually, throughout history, the Church has never insisted on a particular view of Atonement for Christian orthodoxy. In fact, Scripture provides sundry theories of the Atonement in metaphors, models, images or stories of salvation, congregating around spheres of public life (such as the law courts, commerce, personal relationships, worship and the battleground), all drawing on the life worlds of the audiences.  The ‘penal’, juridical view is but one. The Bible reflects a far broader understanding of ‘sin’ than the legal model to which Evangelicalism’s individualized telling has reduced it in Modernity.  The justice of God has been ‘too closely tied to individual sin and forgiveness and too loosely tied to the cosmic and social dimensions’ (Colin Gunton).  Sin affects humanity – as both perpetrators and victims (we are both) – and also, human society and the entire created order. Although penal substitution can be found in scripture, it lacks the exegetical support that any claim to hegemony requires.  This being so, we are not only justified in revisiting its central role in gospel presentations, we are compelled to do so.  To be effective evangelistically, our stories need to answer the questions people actually have, not the ones they ought to have or used to have.  A broader understanding of Atonement more authentically reflects the full biblical picture and enables the gospel to speak more powerfully in the cultural environment facing 21st century mission.

Interview With Steven

Q: How did you become interested in your topic?

A: Before I began theological study, the question of how Christ saved us always bothered me.  In fact, I began theological studies to answer a host of such questions that, for me, were never adequately answered by the standard explanations kicking around in popular Christianity.  I had faith that there were answers out there, but the Church didn’t seem to have them (and nor did it seem much to be aware that it didn’t!).

Q: How do you think your paper is relevant to the Vineyard movement at large?

A: I wouldn’t claim it’s any more relevant to the Vineyard than to the Church-at-large, save insofar as Vineyard is at heart deeply missional.  And, at the heart of mission, is how we tell the gospel-story.  Jesus is the answer, but very often the presumed question, that evangelists are working to in the ‘telling’, is anachronistic. Penal substitution has claimed hegemony in Evangelical telling, but it’s not sufficiently supported scripturally for that, and nor is it culturally compelling any longer either.  For example, it requires a latent sense of guilt.  In the Western postmodern world, people don’t feel guilty that way any more, as we might wish them to, and as the penal explanation requires them to. It also requires an ancient world view of crime and punishment.

That said, atonement is not about inventing therapeutic soteriological ideas to order, to suit popular predilections.  That would be an assimilation of culture, not the critique of culture – all cultures, not just postmodern culture – that Newbigin says is inherent in the gospel. However, the Bible explains the mystery of Christ’s work in a whole ‘kaleidoscope’ of models, metaphors, theories or stories of salvation, each reflecting a different aspect of this very deep and far reaching problem of ‘sin’ in us and in this world.  The ‘legal’ view of problem and solution is but one aspect.  The Bible authorizes an expansive range of images for comprehending and articulating the Atonement.  Since each image also presumes a portrait of the human situation, some will be more attractive than others, some will feel more relevant than others, some will resonate better with people in one time, and others to different people in another time.  We need to tap into this biblical material for our gospel to touch people where they are at.

Q: What do you think might be the practical implications of what you’re exploring?

A: Getting me lynched, in some circles, is one of them! Stephen Sykes has made the point that in postmodernity, not all people live in, or are persuaded by, one overarching metanarrative.  This can seem like a major problem in telling the metanarrative of the gospel, if we think of it in those terms.  However, Sykes sees in Atonement one concession that can easily be made to Postmodernity’s ways of thinking, because of this biblical ‘kaleidoscope.’  I think this is right.  However, it’s not about choosing (and sticking to) your preferred model, granting that hegemony instead, because all of them have something to say to us, but let’s at least start scratching where our audience is itching. It does not – to anticipate one obvious criticism – mean going soft on sin as human wrongdoing, or on judgement as an ultimate accountability for our lives and our choices.  We can certainly find different language and concepts in this area, which may be more helpful to the unchurched than some of the ‘lazy’ ways we’re used to parroting, so I do think one implication is that we need to work harder in our gospel-telling, but these essential truths need not be left out.

I think the other implication is that we have to concede (and this is hard for Moderns) that at the heart of the cross is a mystery. We really don’t have a single, conclusive explanation for ‘how’ exactly Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection (not just his death, in my view) is efficacious for us.  To the Modern way of thinking, saying ‘we really don’t know, in any complete sense’, sounds like an apologetic weakness.  In postmodernity, though, we can live with mystery; our epistemology (way of knowing) doesn’t need a foundational understanding based on one most basic truth.  We can say, ‘it’s like this’, and ‘it’s like that’, and we frankly grasp it only partially, like looking at a dim reflection.  Of course, that we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything, but for some, this more humble and less assertive approach will be hard to accept.

There’s another implication here, too, in “What does it mean to be ‘saved’?”, but that’s for another time.

Stephen will be available for further questions and dialogue in the comments


Stephen Burnhope lives in Buckinghamshire in the U.K. and is part of North Thames Vineyard, High Wycombe. He was awarded the Master of Arts with Distinction by the London School of Theology and will begin PhD research in 2010. His MA dissertation was on the atonement and contemporary culture. Stephen is married to Lyn, a religious education teacher and fellow MA graduate of LST, with four children and one grandson.

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  1. I read ‘Recovering the Scandal of the Cross’ a few years back and loved their exploration, but what I love about your approach is that it breathes freedom for exploration into the depths of atonement for me again, much like Orion’s paper. I think you insightfully point to how the writers and thinkers of the NT and Church History use the cultural baggage of milieu…and this reminds me Newbigin and how the gospel must be incarnated to be understood, the same is very true of atonement, so again I personally feel freed to explore this again, after mostly avoiding the divisive and wooden conversations on the atonement…

    question: how would you understand your present context? would you agree with mann and mcknight that the generation coming of age is rather ‘pre-moral’ and thus the classic sense of penal substitution feel very manipulative because we have an answer for something they aren’t asking for, thus it feels to them like we are creating a problem to solve and they shake their heads and walk away because it doesn’t make sense…or would you say it differently?

    also: do you think because of the eastern orthodox’s acceptance of john cassian’s position over against that of augustine (a rejection of total depravity yet embrace of thoroughly fallenness and brokenness) explains some of the appeal of the eastern christianity for many young people (at least some that i know here in the States)? is there a similar phenomenon in the UK with regard eastern orthodoxy?

  2. Bill Kinnon says:

    An important topic, indeed. Some folk would just rather we not talk about the atonement at all.

    I’m intrigued by this line of yours, however; “…Vineyard is at heart deeply missional.” How do you see that?

    I write this as someone who became a Christian as a result of David Watson’s ministry in the early ’80′s, and after reading about Wimber in Watson’s books, heard John speak many times when he visited Ann Arbor, Michigan. I even managed to get into trouble with a Pentecostal pastor for sharing MC501 with our worship team in the mid-80′s – ending up at a Baptist Church that was pro-Vineyard, oddly enough.

    My experience of the Vineyard (and I say this with much love) is that you have been just as modern in planting churches as most Western denominations. (And yes, I know, the Vineyard really isn’t a denomination – I have a very big grin on my face as I write that.)

  3. Nice dialog here. I think if Emergence has done anything it is to bring the idea of mystery back in. But what would happen if we stopped fighting and defending long enough to ask what really is the Gospel. It’s the question of our generation.

  4. Jason Coker says:

    I’m really anxious to hear some American responses to Bill’s question, because it’s a well-warranted challenge in my opinion.

    However, Bill, I will add this: Steve Burnhope is British, and as such his perspective is very different. Vineyard churches in the U.K. are historically much more on the edges of culture than in North America, so I suspect there may be a sharp divide because of that difference.

    So having said that, I’d like to advance Bill’s question to my American Vineyard counterparts. Do you see the Vineyard as “missional” in the Newbiginian sense (which, knowing Bill, is how I think he means it)?

  5. brambonius says:

    Once more I wish I was a vineyard scholar…

  6. Bill Kinnon says:

    Newbiginian“, now there’s a word for you. Yes, missional in the Newbigin sense.

    An aside, it’s interesting that Lesslie Newbigin spent a significant amount of time with the HTB folk at the end of his life. HTB having been profoundly impacted by the Vineyard over the years. (Holy Trinity Brompton.)

  7. Jason Coker says:

    Bram - It’s worth the price of the membership just to read Steve’s paper.

    Bill - You know you’ve arrived when your name becomes an adjective, like “Kinnonian.” : )

    Oh yes, HTB was practically a Vineyard from my understanding. Wimber actually placed a moratorium on UK church-planting because of the relationship with them. I think the Vineyard’s influence on Emerging churches in UK was rather strong, actually. Mike Breen’s ministry is a great example of that.

  8. “So having said that, I’d like to advance Bill’s question to my American Vineyard counterparts. Do you see the Vineyard as “missional” in the Newbiginian sense (which, knowing Bill, is how I think he means it)?”

    i love it…newbiginian…kinnonian…would it be: cokerian?

    well, if we are talking michael frost’s articulation of mission as the organizing principle of church: i think the answer is yes. Wimber was all about doin’ the stuff Jesus did, and get other to do the stuff. is that missional enough?

    i think it is a complicated issue. the grassroots nature of the Vineyard makes it difficult to assess in sweeping statements. certainly i would agree with some of ray anderson’s critique of wimber’s use of church-growth that limited some expressions of church.

    my hope, to use cathy zellmer’s phrase, is that the Vineyard will continue to “make room for” other orientation’s vis-a-vis ecclesiology and “doin church”: from church-growth orientation to missional-incarnational orientation from rural and urban and suburabn from high churchy to low churchy, i think the Vineyard can make room, although certainly the standard church planting models are very church-growth oriented. i think i see a burgeoning effort within the Vineyard to be more missional-incarnational…we’ll see how welcomed that truly is…the variety of the Vineyard appeals greatly to me…i have been to Vineyards that felt more like my old independent Baptist church of my youth, and others that were way-Pentecostal…and others that had a Catholic feel, and even one that was formerly an Anglican congregation and the communion was very high church. really loved them all…and they are all in the Vineyard.

    as derek morphew recently gave a talk toward an african narrative theology, i wonder how the Vineyard in a fuller international perspective might look like with regards to this question…?

  9. Bill Kinnon says:

    Steven H.,
    Not to push too hard back on St. Wimber of Yorba Linda, but my experience of the model for Vineyards was very much oriented around having a groovy worship band (a Righteous Brothers kinda thang, eh) in an attractional/church growth context, where prayer ministry and the functioning of charismatic gifts was modelled – sometimes successfully. :-)

  10. ha! i like push-back. it makes me clarify.

    yes, i totally agree with that assessment in terms eccesial model of being on the attractional-evangelistic end of the spectrum if we are talking frost-hirsch missional vs. attractional. but according to my sources (i have friends who were in the Vineyard pre-Wimber) they were always trying to get people to “do the stuff” out in the streets, and it became one of wimber’s phrases: the meat is on the street.

    again there was a curious bi-furcation of Sunday church and weekly ministry, but they tell me there was an undercurrent beyond the Sunday-centric model that was pushing outward. perhaps it got all mixed with the church-growth attractional model to be sure, and then of course there were other factors that came into the Vineyard (The Kansas City Prophetic and Toronto, etc.). so, again, like i said, sometime intention and praxis part ways for a while…and while i would not be one to say anything definitive for the Vineyard, as part of it, i do see hopeful signs of missional church within…

  11. ramon says:

    As a newbie to the Vineyard I will have to say that I considered the Vineyard very missional at the core. The whole centered set model of church is definitely a missional framework. As an African American the the local Vineyard church that I became a part of was the first church to accept that I performed hip hop???? That’s what drew me in. Now the forms the Vineyard took in the 80′s of a groovy worship band and sign and wonders were just that-forms. I think as a whole many of the pastors mistook that for the core but I do not think Wimber did. He was just pragmatic in terms of what forms were needed to reach the immediate culture. Now culture has changed and society has changed (more diverse, different competing worldviews) but unfortunately many are trapped in the forms. So that’s my take…..although I am a newbie (been a part since 2003)

    On a side note: Do we have a count of how many in the Vineyard are missional or at least not doing the standard church growth model?

  12. In one sense, that question (is the Vineyard missional) is the impetus behind my very participation in the Society of Vineyard Scholars.

    I don’t like the ‘Church Growth’ way of things, and as a new planter, I have been force fed much of it…

    I don’t know enough about what is going on in the Vineyard outside of the two areas I have been in. I don’t think I would describe those two areas as ‘missional’ in terms of church culture, but there was certainly an emphasis on mission in both areas. Especially in my current area. There are regular church plants, and a couple of video-venues being planted.

    So, in my limited experience, it seems as though there is a real push towards gathering people into new churches, but the rubric for determining the success of the mission has more to do with how many people show up than with the invasion of the Kingdom into our culture.

  13. But more to the point, Steve, your paper was one of the high points of the conference for me! Thank you for it!

    I would love to hear you comment on some of the places in our culture you might see as lending to obvious correlation to specific theories of atonement. You answered this question at the conference QnA by referring to relational bankruptcy and the reconciliation that is offered through Jesus. Any other thoughts on the practical application of your paper?

  14. So much to engage with already (thanks for all the comments to date, folks). Steven, to take yours first:

    The short answer to question one is both a ‘yes’ ( I would agree with Alan Mann and Scot McKnight ) and a ‘yes’ (I would say it differently). The first observation is that this generation – if I may generalise – lacks the ‘christian educational foundation’ of ‘truth’ about God, the Bible and the historical Jesus, which much evangelistic effort over the years has sought to ‘revive’ in its preaching (indeed, the very term ‘revival’ tells us this). But what if, in this generation, there’s nothing there – or rather, what we require to be there, for our message to ‘work’, is missing? Or what if what is there is a distorted, caricatured version?

    Much preaching takes for granted that the hearer knows certain things. How often do preachers allude to, or drop in snippets from, Bible stories, or characters, or beliefs, without further explaining them? And, more worryingly for the gospel, presupposes that its hearers were originally inculcated in a Christian worldview to which evangelistic preaching can ‘bring them back’.

    In other words, we assume that a basic understanding is already there, and that the hearers feel inwardly, secretly, guilty for not walking with God, because they ‘know what the truth is’ (about Jesus, sin and so on) and that this latent knowledge can be revived by Spirit-anointed preaching.

    So what’s the relevance of this for atonement? Simply that, if we rely on there being a latent frame of reference in our hearers that knows and accepts certain things, but those are not there, the gospel will flounder. I would suggest that unless you already know (and unquestioningly accept, because ‘that is the way that it is’) that Jesus died to take the punishment that you deserve for your sins, because you have fallen short of God’s expectations and therefore unchangeable divine universal principles of justice rightfully require that you pay that price, you will look at the preacher as if he’s from Mars.

    So, the question is, in order to evangelise effectively, do we first have to convince people that they need to understand and accept these foundational truths … or not? Or perhaps a better way of putting it is, are we required to start there? ‘No’, would be my view, for the reasons I explain in the paper. I would agree with ‘Recovering the Scandal’ (Mark Baker and Joel Green) as a great read for someone wanting to engage more deeply with the Bible’s kaleidoscopic understanding of atonement.

    I see the different atonement models as each telling us something, perhaps like different gates in the city walls, or doors to the building, through which we can enter into life with Christ. Over time, we will want to explore all of them, and consider how viewing from each side adds to the depth of our understanding of the multifaceted way in which Christ’s atoning work touches human need and alienation: frees us, heals us, reconciles us, transforms us, restores us and forgives us (inevitably, some models will feel more relevant and helpful than others, to different people, different crisis-events, different eras and different cultures). Evangelists need to consider which gates, or doors, are initially the most accessible for their audience. Whichever we start with, I do think the approach needs to embrace our relation to ‘sin’ as both perpetrators and victims.

    Re question two, I’m afraid I don’t feel qualified to comment, save that I do identify with that broader and more ‘holistic’ understanding of what ‘sin’ is, and its effects (and hence, what the gospel addresses) that this eastern orthodox view implies. The Reformed and conservative Evangelical view of sin is heavy on sin as legal transgression and weak on almost everything else to do with sin (in particular, its cosmic effects, its social effects and its effect on the created order beyond just human beings). But the gospel is about saving the whole created order. If that salvation applies only to disembodied human spirits being snatched away while the rest is left to rot and burn, then we’re talking of salvation as Dunkirk, not as D-Day (or VE Day). Christ’s victory over sin is then only partial. Sin has won, in its effects upon all other spheres of creation.

    (In passing, it’s also a peculiarly male way of looking at sin).

  15. Bill,

    You write: “I’m intrigued by this line of yours, however; “…Vineyard is at heart deeply missional.” How do you see that?”

    I didn’t really think much about it, to be honest. It was just an introductory phrase! It seemed to me to be a shared value of the audience, that of reaching people for Christ. I was thinking of missional in an ‘impulse to evangelism’ sense rather than a ‘church planting’ sense (if one can distinguish the two).

  16. Steven (Schenk) – thanks so much for your kind words.

    I am loathe to develop my atonement thinking (at least publicly) in terms of alternative preferred model(s), for fear of appearing to offer another prescriptive approach, that could lay claim to the very hegemony I want to deny to penal substitution (for exegetical, theological and cultural reasons).

    You correctly recalled that I have a preference for a relational modelling of atonement (you put it well: relational bankruptcy and the reconciliation that is offered through Jesus). I think this is felt by postmoderns, more than the traditionally required ‘guilt’.

    I am not saying guilt is always absent, but when we explain the atoning work of the Great Physician to someone, it sometimes seems as if the penal substitutionary prescription is the only one we prescribe, irrespective of the sickness or injury of the person when approaching Christ through us. Why would we not look for the gentle guidance of the Spirit, through wisdom or revelation, to show us what the current and primary need is, and the particular ways in which Christ’s work is the answer, just as we might if dealing with physical healing?

    I stress, this is not about inventing therapeutic soteriology to order. It’s about, one, ‘starting where people are at’, two, not being ‘lazy’ in our telling and three, using the complete range of the biblical materials, to present the fuller and more wonderful gospel that is there in its pages, waiting to be extolled.

    Penal substitution is ‘easy’. Newbiginian mission demands a great deal more of us. Or at least, it does if we’re more concerned with what is heard than with what is said – give me ‘learning’, over ‘teaching’, as the object of our endeavours any day!

  17. Cathy Zellmer says:

    Sorry I missed the conversation, Steve. I do have to say that your presentation at the SVS conference was almost a paradigm shift for me. I’m at a place in life/education where I’m just beginning to realize how contextual and dynamic the gospel is. To understand that there are different ways of viewing the atonement was like a fresh, sweet breeze blowing past. Thank you!

  18. Thanks Cathy – you must get hold of a copy of ‘Recovering the Scandal’ (Mark Baker and Joel Green) – it’s an easy read and very useful as a starter on thinking more boradly. It still requires some further work (by us, individually) to take it on to the question: “how do I apply this at the pastoral level?” One advantage of penal substitution, if I can call it an advantage, is that it’s easy to explain, summarise and remember.


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