Friday, December 07, 2007

Jesus Saves: A Primer in Soteriology

As I post this, it is on the eve of the momentous San Joaquin vote, and it is probably dominating the radar screen by the time you're reading it. Nonetheless, when the dust settles from that a bit, I invite you to come back and take in what follows. It's another of those old seminary term papers from two decades ago that I came across recently. Eerily, it's perhaps more timely now than it was then, because underlying many of the divisions among Anglicans and other Christians today is a divergence of thought on just what we mean when we speak of Jesus as our "savior"--what is it he saves us from, what is it he saves us for, and how does he do it?

Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved, for your mercy's sake. Amen.
—Noonday Collect, BCP p.107
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation
by thy Nativity and submission to the Law;
by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation . . .
By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat,
by thy Cross and Passion;
by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension;
by the Coming of the Holy Ghost,
Good Lord, deliver us.
--from the Great Litany

The first question to be addressed in any examination of what it means to speak of Jesus Christ as “Savior” is a semantic one. The word, of course, is the customary English New Testament translation of the Greek soter; its cognate soteria is normally rendered “salvation”. A perusal of lexical entries for these words yields a fairly consistent theme of deliverance from an immediate peril, a situation of crisis, with a secondary connotation that any deity, leader, or prominent citizen can routinely be spoken of as a soter.
Reflection on the way “savior” and “salvation” are actually used in the English language today, however, casts doubt on whether the traditional “word study” approach will shed conclusive light on their theological content. We are accustomed to hearing “Ronald Reagan was the savior of the Republican Party in 1980” or “Eliminating mechanical defects will be the salvation of the U.S. space program” or “His academic saving grace is that he can read quickly” or any number of similar constructions. While these uses can, to be sure, be broadly understood as in etymological continuity with their Greek antecedents, they are much more sat­isfyingly interpreted in the context of the Christian culture of the last two millennia. Taking them out of an overtly religious setting only underscores their essentially religious roots. The pervasive influence of Christian thought on the development of our language and culture has effected a semantic shift, a role reversal. When used in a secular sense, “savior” and “salvation” function as metaphors, the literal meaning of which is none other than the person and work of Christ.
Another, perhaps more demonstrative, example of such a semantic shift is the way we use the words “crux” and “crucial” to denote something central and essential. The words are, of course, metaphors based on the centrality of the cross (crux) in salvation history. To understand or explain how Jesus is a savior, then, it is most productive to begin and end with him.
This is not to say, of course, that it is not necessary to “translate” the Church's theological articulation of who Jesus is and what he accomplishes into terms which connect existentially with the men, women, and children to whom the evangelion is addressed. But it nevertheless remains that the “saviorhood” of Jesus is not metaphorical, nor even merely participatory in a generic semantic notion of saviorhood. It is definitive, the source in which all other uses of the word find their meaning. The salvation which is offered to us in Jesus is not “like” being rescued from a burning building or a sinking ship. It is a unique category, which can inform and be reflected in experiences of deliverance.
One further preliminary remark (though not strictly a semantic one): Soteriology is one area of theology where the bounds of Christian orthodoxy are relatively expansive. The Church has always affirmed, in various ways, that “Jesus saves”, but she has never dogmatically defined precisely how. There is, therefore, a certain degree of liberty to be speculative.

One fundamental premise behind naming Jesus as Savior is that there is something which human beings need to be saved from. What is it? This is no incidental question, no mere formality. The way we understand the nature of the “problem” has a significant impact on the way we describe the “solution.” In approaching this question, one is confronted immediately with a deeply-embedded network of images and concepts which has dominated this area of theological inquiry (in the West, at any rate) since the Middle Ages. New Testament passages such as IPeter 3:18 (“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous ...”), 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (... there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all), and Revelation 5:12 (“Worthy is the lamb who was slain. . .”) are the foundation for this network. Its classic articulation is found in Anselm and amply perpetuated in all the traditions stemming from the continental Reformation. The central idea is expressed in several different ways, but is something like this: God's essential holiness is violated by humanity's sin, and this violation of justice inherently demands a compensatory satisfaction. Jesus, who is without sin, provides that satisfaction through his death on the cross. Such, then, is the “scholastic” theory of the atonement, sometimes known as the “objective” or “penal substitutionary” theory. It is, to be sure, not without its problems (which will yet be discussed), but it cannot be casually dismissed, for it is very well-grounded in scriptural and traditional sources.
Perhaps the chief problem with this theory lies in the high degree to which it is subject to caricature; one might call this the notion of Jesus-as-scapegoat. In this way of thinking, Jesus literally takes our place on the cross, enduring the penalty which each one of us, on account of our sin, deserves to suffer. Our sins are imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is considered by God as belonging to us. God's justice and righteous wrath are thereby (somehow) propitiated, and those who are positioned (through faith, sacraments, election, etc., depending on one's theological taproot) to be the beneficiaries of this transaction secure their eternal salvation.
This approach to the atonement, particularly its caricature, presents something of a moral and logical offense. Does it not satisfy God's justice precisely by perpetrating an injustice (the death of an innocent victim)? The sort of God who would be “satisfied” with such an offering is hardly likely to evoke a response of love and affection! Moreover, it is manifestly implausible. By what standard of reckoning can the death—indeed, the “temporary” death—of one man, no matter how innocent, possibly be said to impute righteousness to the entirety of the human race? Plainly stated: It does not make sense.
The problems which we have seen arise from the scholastic theory of the atonement, upon examination, can be seen as related to what is therein implied about the nature of the human distress. What is it that alienates us from God? What do we need to be saved from? The evident implication is that what we need to be saved from is juridical culpability—we are guilty o
having transgressed the divine law. Salvation, in this view, is a forensic transaction in which, by virtue of the vicarious death of Christ, we are adjudged, under the law, to be not guilty. In this conceptual framework, there is a certain reasonableness in the notion of substitutionary atonement. A sovereign God is presumably free to establish his own standards of guilt and innocence with respect to his law. If he is willing to accept the death of an innocent victim as adequate reparation for our infraction, who are we to question?
Although the efficacy of this transaction presumes the presence of sincere faith, it has no particular or necessary connection with the actual moral state of the individual involved. In other words (to indulge in cynicism), it is a legal fiction, a technicality. To be thus acquitted removes my legal culpability, but it does not take away my inclination to transgress the divine law at the first possible opportunity. Herein lies the real defect in the theory: not that it is illogical or immoral, but that it is ineffective. My alienation from God is illumined by but not defined by my legal guilt; indeed, quite the opposite is the case—my legal guilt is rooted in my alienation from God. God may choose to acquit me from my transgression of the law, but does that sort of acquittal truly effect reconciliation? Does it heal the breach that is the sure result of my inclination to sin?
Now it is true that the earliest paradigm for the Christian kerygma was the “forgiveness of sins.” A surface level understanding of this—forgiveness as “wiping the slate clean”—can certainly lead to a benign view of penal substitution. A deeper look, however, yields the realization that forgiveness is not synonymous with mere exculpation. It involves reconciliation of a much more radical sort. Such reconciliation comes to fruition only in the context of real moral change. It follows, then, that any satisfying explanation of the saving work of Christ must include the instrumental means for a lasting metanoia, a permanent re-orientation of the will and affections toward God. For this, we need to re-articulate the nature of the human predicament.

If forensic guilt is not the heart of our alienation from God, but yet forgiveness of sins effects reconciliation, how can we articulate more clearly what we are dealing with? We skirted the edge of a possible answer to this question above in the observation that reconciliation involves some sort of actual movement or change. There is something in the way we are that is not right, something that precludes communion with God. Here the concepts of divine holiness and human sinfulness which are integral to the scholastic atonement theory are pertinent and helpful, but with the qualification that it is our actual state of sinfulness, not sinful acts themselves, which separate us from God. Legal culpability, at this level, is at best merely indicative, and quite possibly irrelevant. Our problem lies in our fundamental habitual disposition. We are unholy. It is not a matter of God arbitrarily or willfully rejecting us on account of our unholiness—there is no element of retribution here—but a sheer incompatibility of being. The holy cannot exist alongside the unholy. This is our problem. The peril from which we require deliverance is our own unholiness. A salvation which offers us “forgiveness of sins” as forensic exculpation without also offering us holiness is, in the end, no salvation at all, but a triviality.
In this light, then, how is it that Jesus is our Savior? In other words, what is it in his “person and work” which results in our being made holy?
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis enunciates a theory of the atonement in which he conceives of Jesus as the “perfect penitent.” In order to be made holy, what human beings need to do is repent, to move “full speed astern” back to God. But the very condition which creates the need –sinfulness—inhibits our ability to do so. Only God has the ability to “repent.” Lewis does not explicitly mention the Trinity at this point, but it does seem that an appreciation for the communitarian dimension of the life of the Godhead aids in understanding the notion of “God moving toward God”. But as God, he has no need to, so his ability is irrelevant to our predicament. God's radical solution to this dilemma is the Incarnation. The incarnate Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, has the ability to repent, and, by virtue of his humanity, the ability to repent effectually. By living a life of unwavering orientation toward God, even to the point of obediently suffering an unjust death, he introduced something entirely new into the human milieu. Through faith and the sacramental life, we may enter into solidarity with this pattern and participate in the divine-human life of Christ. The repentance that we cannot accomplish on our own, we accomplish in solidarity with him.
Lewis's explanation has much to commend it. Significantly, it allows for continued use of the imagery of sacrifice and satisfaction which is associated with the scholastic theory of the atonement and is deeply entrenched in western Christian piety. Yet, it avoids the moral and logical scandal that this theory is susceptible to and deals unconvincingly with the real source of
human angst, i.e. unholiness. In typical Anglican fashion, it accounts admirably for the theological centrality of the Incarnation. In the interest of catholicity, however, is it possible to refine or expand upon the “perfect penitent” theory in a way hich would put it more fully within the context of the other elements of the paschal mystery?
The Swedish bishop and theologian Gustaf Aulen is renowned for an explanation of the atonement which he labels Christus Victor (in his works The Faith of the Christian Church and Christus Victor). Actually, it is his own refinement of what is known as the “classical” theory, which more or less prevailed from patristic times until the high Middle Ages. The governing paradigm for this view is the death of Christ as the culmination of a cosmic struggle between the Divine will and all the forces of Evil. As revealed by his subsequent Exaltation (of which the Resurrection is the primary manifestation), Jesus' death, representing as it does the synthetic fusion of God's love and God's justice, defeats Evil and effects humanity's reconciliation with God. In favor of Aulen, it can be said that Christus Victor puts discussion of the atonement in a cosmic and communitarian context which is not explicitly present in the “perfect penitent” model, but which is a significant motif in the broad sweep of the biblical witness. Moreover, its “classical” roots provide a welcome connection, not only with patristic thought, but with the entire Eastern tradition (to which the categories of the scholastic theory are somewhat foreign). It also attends directly to the Crucifixion/Resurrection (Aulen sees the two as inseparable) without neglecting the Incarnation. Indeed, Aulen seems to consider the Incarnation as, in a qualified sense, “incomplete” until the Crucifixion, inasmuch as the death of Christ is the fullest expression of God's incarnate love. But does Christus Victor—as articulated by Aulen, at any rate—deal with the essential malady of unholiness? To be sure, Aulen does devote considerable attention in his systematic theology to the work of the Holy Spirit, the life of grace, and the progress of the soul toward its end of union with God. But it is telling that he does so in a completely different section than that in which he enunciates his atonement theory. His consideration of the work of Christ is thus not integrally linked with life in Christ. Without suc hconnection, the way is left open for the re-emergence of a forensic interpretation of the divine/human estrangement, and, eventually, an exculpatory salvation that does not really save.
The selection of Lewis and Aulen for specific comment is, of course, more than a little bit arbitrary. When seen as mutually illuminating, however, the two models contain elements which are responsive to the practical nature of the human peril, the mainstream of Christian imagery and piety, and the totality of God's redemptive activity in Jesus Christ. Any coherent approach to soteriology must take serious account of at least these concerns (and, no doubt, several more as well).

As we began with a discussion of semantics, so it seems salutary (pun unintended but serendipitous) to end. The bulk of ecumenical conversation today—at least that which takes place on an official level—concerns itself with, and often seems bogged down in, matters of theological vocabulary. The polemical categories arising in the Reformation seem intractably still with us. Words like “justification” and “salvation” are among the perennial bugaboos. I would not presume to try and cut the Gordian knot, but some reflections specifically in light of earlier observations about the human predicament seem in order.
If the root of human estrangement from God lies in our sin-induced unholiness, then “salvation” lies in being made holy. We are speaking here not of a mere forensic holiness—a legal fiction— but of a fundamental and effectual moral transformation. For this to be accomplished, the imago dei which is fatally distorted by primeval sin, must be restored to perfection. The clear implication here is that salvation, so defined, is a process that occurs over time. It is best understood under the metaphor of organic growth. Strictly speaking, then, to be ”saved” is to be in a state of this process having come to fruition.
While the telos of salvation is the restoration of holiness and union with God, it is nevertheless possible and helpful to identify points and/or phases of particular importance in the process. The beginning of the salvation process (from a Catholic perspective, identifiable with sacramental initiation; other traditions would want to speak of a moment of “saving faith”) seems particularly worthy of note. At that time, a fundamental relationship is established, a trajectory is determined which, if left to its natural course, will result in perfect holiness. Salvation is as yet a hope, for it is not yet fully manifest, but the effectual seed is planted. This initial “moment” of being put “right” with God seems eminently worthy of the label “justification.” There is indeed a proper forensic element here, a sense in which the purely volitional intention of God, regardless of the absolute moral status of the individual concerned (“Just as I am, without one plea ...”), is the operative factor. To be justified is, in effect, to be “rectified”, to be “put right”. It seems that an inordinate amount of confusion and discord stems from the attempt to refer to this initial transaction as “salvation”, thereby investing the word with connotations of “quick fix” legal fiction.
In any case, whether one concentrates on the beginning of the path toward holiness, or on its end, the process itself must not fall by the wayside. The word “sanctification” commends itself at this point as a specific designation for the time-consuming process that takes place following justification. Indeed, quite literally, it means “to be made holy."
If salvation, then, is conceived of as the totality of justification and sanctification, it seems quite pointless to engage in the sort of faith vs. works arguments that seem so vexing even now. One thinks, in particular, of any dialogue involving Lutherans. Justification, so understood, is indeed very much by faith, and not based on works. There is nothing we can do to de­serve or earn it, or even to hasten or prepare for it. Sanctification, on the other hand, while ultimately the fruit of grace, is bound up with concrete acts of cooperation with the indwelling Holy Spirit. Our “works” can have a serious effect on whether the seed planted in justification brings forth the intended fruit.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Interesting. I found myself thinking of von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale as I read the essay, although von Balthasar seems to focus more on the God side of the equation rather than on how we are called to respond to God's grace.