Christian Salvation: More and More Questions

Ted Grimsrud—February 5, 2012

It is now over a month since I wrote my last set of reflections on the theme of salvation. That post received several quite helpful and challenging responses that I can only now get back to. It won’t be until this summer that I will have the time to concentrate directly on my writing on salvation, but I want to try to keep the conversation going with some responses now.

I will start with a general comment. Like all other theological themes, I think the most important issue in relation to thinking about salvation is that of how can this thinking help us better to love God and neighbor. That is, I am interested in the theology of salvation not mainly because I want to figure out a way to summarize what the Bible or history of Christian doctrine says about it. It is certainly the case that the Bible (and the tradition) presents us with many different views. But I don’t think all those views are equally helpful in helping us to practice love—some in fact are unhelpful.

I don’t think we need to insist that there is just one true view, but I do think we do operate in practice in light of particular ideas that we do value above others. In practice, we don’t operate with a bunch of different views that we keep in mind as various options that reflect the diversity of biblical theologies. We do prioritize. I’m simply saying, then, that we should recognize our need to prioritize and be self-conscious about it. And I then present the case for a perspective that makes theological priorities based on the call to love God and neighbor—in part because Jesus clearly does this and calls his followers to do likewise (I believe).

I greatly appreciated the challenging reflections shared by three people in particular. I find thinking of how best to respond to the comments of John Miller, Philip Bender, and Al Steiner has helped me tremendously in thinking things through. I am deeply grateful to each of these friends for pushing the conversation forward. Here are some thoughts in response. In this post I will only be able to respond to John’s comments. I hope to take up Philip’s and Al’s soon.

Let me organize my thoughts in response to John’s concerns in three categories.

The New Testament and the “inner workings” of Jesus’ death

(1) John raises concerns about my statement, “the New Testament does not explain the inner workings of how Jesus’ death is a meaningful act that is linked with human salvation.” He points out that the New Testament does in fact in many ways speak about “how Jesus’ death is meaningful.” John also senses that I too cavalierly “pick and choose” from Old Testament literature the motifs that fit with my argument and do not deal adequately with the different streams of theological thought in the Old Testament.

First of all, I grant that I don’t deal adequately with the full diversity of views in both the Old and New Testaments. I want to take one step toward remedying that lack by spending time with both the Gospel of John and the book of Hebrews in the months to come. I intend to try to add more interaction with John’s Gospel in my discussion of Jesus death in the book I am working on. And I plan to add an additional chapter on Hebrews.

However, I don’t expect this expanded attention to these writings with cause me to change my conclusions that have been written based on the other gospels, Paul’s writings, and Revelation. That’s in part because I am not saying that the New Testament does not in many ways speak about Jesus’ death as meaningful. But I do think those “many ways” are in basic harmony. So to expand the circle should only reinforce the picture of the relation between Jesus’ death and our salvation that I present. Certainly, John’s Gospel gives us no hint that Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to God that satisfied God’s wrath/holiness/justice in order to make salvation available in a way it wasn’t before. The story as John tells it emphasizes the presence of salvation in Jesus’ life even more strongly than the other three gospels. Hebrews may be more complicated, but there does clearly seem to be the sense there that Jesus is portrayed as a priest, not as a sacrifice that God requires for satisfaction.

The main point I was trying to make with my statement that John challenged has to do with the phrase “inner workings.” Jesus’ death is certainly “meaningful” (in my book I devote four chapters to that idea), but we do not have it directly explained to us how this death works to effect salvation. So it is simply wrong to assert that the Bible directly teaches that Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to appease God’s wrath or satisfy the demands of God’s holiness or the other ways that atonement theology has typically claimed that Jesus’ death was necessary in order to make it possible for God to give salvation to humanity.

Since the bases for the standard account of how Jesus’ death works for salvation actually are not clearly articulated, we would have grounding (I want to say) for questioning that account and seeking for other ways to understand how Jesus’ death works for salvation. That quest for “other ways” is what animates my book. And, in a nutshell, I think the best alternative explanation for how Jesus’ death works is the most obvious—his death illumines the basic message regarding salvation that he embodied in his life and that he drew from the Bible: God offers forgiveness for those who turn from idols and trust in God. The most important way Jesus’ death itself illumines God’s mercy is by showing that the structures that most claim to speak for God (empire, temple, Torah legalism) are in fact in rebellion against God.

Doing away with “atonement models” altogether?

(2) John writes that he would like to see a fuller argument for my statement that I would want to get away from the idea of atonement models altogether. I fully agree! This point is actually kind of new in my broader argument (since I wrote the first draft of the book—and I actually have changed the book’s working title from Mercy, Not Sacrifice to Instead of Atonement), stemming from studying the standard atonement models this past Fall in my Contemporary Theology class (especially as ably presented in Hans Boersma’s book, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross).

My idea is that the standard atonement models in Christian theology (satisfaction [with its sub-model penal substitution], moral influence, and Christus Victor) all focus in one way or another on Jesus’ death in developing their understandings of salvation. I think if we read the Bible as a whole, we will see that salvation is about God’s gift, a gift that empowers humanity to respond with faithful living. That is, salvation is about life, not about death.

Jesus’ death does play a crucial role—but the role is to expose the powers of death so that they might be rejected and to emphasize the life-giving character of Jesus’ words and deeds. The atonement models—especially the dominant variants on the satisfaction model—divert our attention from a focus on the Powers and on Jesus’ life.

Now, the broader issue John raises is a good challenge for me to reflect in working on this project. What about the role of “atonement” as reflecting a much more general religious dynamic—to what basic human need do atonement models speak? I think this issue certainly remains on the table even if we do jettison a focus on the traditional Christian atonement models (or theories). It could be that the atonement motif in religion does need to be addressed even by an atonement-model-free theology of salvation.

Off the top of my head I can see two elements to this persistence of atonement concern—the one that needs to be respected is the need for safety in the world. We try to find ways to negotiate the mysteries of life that help us find safety. So a central challenge for all religions is helping its adherents to enhance their feelings of safety. The element that needs to be refuted is how atonement rituals serve as power-enhancing strategies for elites. I think my account of the biblical salvation story could speak meaningfully to both of these elements. It needs to try to, at least.

Emphasizing Jesus’ uniqueness—or not

(3) John raises concerns about my statement that I “don’t find the emphasis on Jesus’ uniqueness helpful (or hopeful).” This also is a complicated point that touches on issues way beyond what I can address right now. But I would like to work a bit at least at further clarity concerning what I am trying to say.

Part of my concern is how the belief that Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s needs links with the emphasis on Jesus as utterly unique. The story of Jesus’ death then becomes basically a story about his uniquely sinless life and him making this sacrifice that only he could make. One popular expression of this theme is that “Jesus suffered and died so that we don’t have to.”

If we think of the role of Jesus’ death in our salvation along the lines that I suggest, then that need not diminish our affirmation of Jesus as “unique,” but the uniqueness is of a different kind. It’s a uniqueness that serves as a model for us, a uniqueness based on the quality of his life that shows us how we also should (and can, at least to some large extent) live. It’s not that Jesus is unique in a way that is utterly different from us—a sinless life and a sacrifice to God that only he could make. It’s that Jesus’ uniqueness is about how he embodied in life that precise kinds of virtues that we are all meant to embody.

Jesus’ uniqueness is not on the other side of an unbridgeable chasm, but is on our side of the chasm beckoning us ever forward into the ways of love of God and neighbor that are always possible. That is, Jesus’ uniqueness invites others to be like him, not to confess him as qualitatively different from us.

If we trust in Jesus as our savior, if we affirm an identity as Christians, it would seem to me that we are confessing that Jesus is our model in a way that there can be no other model of truthfulness that contradicts his model. That could be termed a kind of uniqueness—as Christians we would confess that there is no other model on the same level. Jesus defines true human existence for us. But, as I said in my original comment, this should (I think) encourage us to affirm others to share in that truthful way of life—whether they are Christians or not. (In fact, one could interpret polling data in the United States to indicate that in our society right now, people who label themselves as Christians are less likely to be following Jesus’ model [e.g., in loving enemies] than those who label themselves as non-Christians. So, if Jesus is indeed uniquely truthful, he exposes most of those in the religion named after him as being untruthful.)

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1 Comment

Filed under Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, Salvation, Theology

One response to “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions

  1. Ted, again I thank you for your thoughtful responses to my and the other posts.Your careful thinking continues to challenge me to examine my views and the options for interpreting central themes related to our faith, i.e., how we live out the implications of what we understand about God. I will follow your response to my earlier questions for a few brief comments and some more extended reflections.

    I find your frame that “the most important issue in relation to thinking about salvation is that of how can this thinking help us better to love God and neighbor” and that your focus is “not mainly because I want to figure out a way to summarize what the Bible or history of Christian doctrine says about it” provides a helpful view. I find this in line with your methodological orientation in Theology As If Jesus Matters. I understand that no one should critique another’s thought for what is not said, for it is impossible for a writing to treat any topic exhaustively. However, I must note that this arbitrarily—if indeed helpfully—reduces the scope of the inquiry into the meaning of salvation.

    You make the case that indeed one must prioritize from among the different biblical views. While you make a good case for “a perspective that makes theological priorities based on the call to love God and neighbor,” even in terms of what I consider the priority source, i.e., the Gospel’ narratives, I observe that Jesus represents salvation primarily in terms of the in-breaking of God’s reign described as forgiveness, healing, deliverance, and societal re-formation. Or, as Paul says, “If anyone be in Christ, look, a new creation.” From this perspective, the moral response of love of God and neighbor is consequential, not primary.

    With regard to your argument that “it is simply wrong to assert that the Bible directly teaches that Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to appease God’s wrath or satisfy the demands of God’s holiness or the other ways that atonement theology has typically claimed that Jesus’ death was necessary in order to make it possible for God to give salvation to humanity,” I want to enter a plea for a more careful delineation of this argument that takes into account more the way the New Testament various arguments are developed.

    I would start with the proposition that we first look at how Jesus spoke in anticipation of his death and along with that interpret the contributory dynamics we find in the Gospel narratives. My sketchy reflections indicate that Jesus spoke of his upcoming death as a consequence of his messianic ministry that confronted the religious and governmental powers. There is the additional statement in John that he as the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, but that does not appear to be as a satisfaction to God.

    We easily recognize that the Jewish authorities did not say, “This man must die as a perfect atonement sacrifice for the sins of the people,” nor can we conclude that the Roman authorities had a motive to cooperate in putting Jesus to death for the sins of the world. Hence, we must read the ensuing—and, yes, even the Gospel interpretations, esp. in John—as ways of apologetical purpose of making Jesus death meaningful for particular audiences. In this we find that they—as has all theology since—walked that razor’s edge of the necessity to speak in the thought forms and answer the questions of the recipients without betraying the original message. And, I suggest, most apologetical remessaging to some extent betrays the essence of the original.

    At this point I must affirm your statement: “[I]n a nutshell, I think the best alternative explanation for how Jesus’ death works is the most obvious—his death illumines the basic message regarding salvation that he embodied in his life and that he drew from the Bible: God offers forgiveness for those who turn from idols and trust in God.” However, I enter the caveat that while I agree this statement is true, for me it is important to say that Jesus speaks of his death as the consequence of his announcement and actualization of God’s reign and that it represents the pattern for all who would be his followers. I believe he speaks of his death more in these terms than as a basis for forgiveness. This may relate to your summation, “I think if we read the Bible as a whole, we will see that salvation is about God’s gift, a gift that empowers humanity to respond with faithful living.”

    The issue of how to interpret the prevalence and persistence of atonement models in human cultures. At this point I think one has to deal with the deeply embedded atonement model of the Old Testament. As Mennonite Brethren scholar Eric A. Siebert posits: “And how do we know what God’s true nature is? Siebert gives a good Anabaptist answer: Jesus Christ revealed it. When God’s actions in the Old Testament don’t match what Jesus taught and lived, the peaceful Jesus trumps the violent Yahweh. In fact, Siebert believes, the peaceful Jesus proves the violent Yahweh was a figment of human misconceptions. It was a theological mistake by people who, due to their cultural context, thought gods commanded wars, and so their God did too.” (http://www.mennoweekly.org/2012/2/6/biblical-violence-gods-or-ungodly/) I propose that in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus, we may conclude that the Old Testament sacrificial system resulted from a Hebrew understanding of God influence by their cultural conditioning and that Jesus provides a different understanding. The New Testament writings, esp. the Epistle to the Hebrews, reflect a particular effort to interpret Jesus’ death in a way that speaks to the specific faith questions faced by the audience within their particular culturally-shaped understandings. I think the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews strains every artifice of rabbinic and rhetorical device to dissuade Jewish believers from reverting to Old Testament atonement religion. In so doing, he develops an atonement theology of Jesus’ death that we hope was persuasive to the potential apostates but that should not become primary in building our understanding though it may be useful in cultures where atonement shapes one’s understanding of God. Nevertheless, one might hope that renewed interaction with Jesus’ own words and perspectives on his death may lead in the direction you are headed. Need for forgiveness is a constant need in a world of sinning humanity. Finding it in the love of a bountifully gracious God may ultimately trump the need for satisfaction violence.

    Finally, on the issue of uniqueness. You emphasize here that your major concern relates to “the belief that Jesus’ death was a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s needs.” While I accept this to be a legitimate concern, I read in your statements a broader denial of uniqueness. I find your affirmation of “a uniqueness that serves as a model for us, a uniqueness based on the quality of his life that shows us how we also should (and can, at least to some large extent) live” reassuring, but it still seems to me that it comes short of the New Testament claim and the church’s claim that Jesus in a unique way Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us,” that the eternal logos who was with God and was God … became flesh and tented among us,” and that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself” (not, as Albert Outler clarified, “reconciling Godself to the world!”). I think the Christian claim is that Jesus’ uniqueness is not merely a perfection of human virtues, i.e., “about how he embodied in life that precise kinds of virtues that we are all meant to embody.”

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