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.