More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud

Here are some more thoughts as I reflect on the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” The first part of my responding to the responses is here.

Covenant and atonement

Ryan Harker, drawing on N.T. Wright’s early book, The New Testament and the People of God, asks about my sense of how the biblical emphasis on covenant might fit in this discussion. I actually haven’t read this book of Wright’s. It’s the first of what has now been three immense and crucial volumes on New Testament theology, the second being on the historical Jesus and the third on the resurrection. Those latter two were both important resources for my book, and from them I think I have a fairly good sense of what Ryan is asking about.

I really like Wright’s work a great deal, but I am not quite sure I would follow him all the way on his thoughts about the covenant—at least in the way Ryan seems to use them. My difference may be subtle, but still quite important. Indeed, I do think God makes a covenant (or commitment) to Israel that involves demands for Israel’s faithful response to God’s mercy that created them as a people and gave them the vocation to bless all the families of the earth. Torah is the central embodiment of the meaning of this covenant. And there are big problems that arise when the Israelites violate the covenant and turn toward idols and empires and injustice.

However, I don’t think ultimately that the story indicates that God is so offended and alienated by these violations that God then requires a human being (even if God-in-the-flesh) to die as a means of taking upon himself the consequences of the failure. Ryan suggests that God’s “nonviolence” towards God’s people leads God to create this alternative possibility, where the punishment falls on God-in-the-flesh instead of God’s people. This is an attractive idea in some ways, but I think it leaves us with the same problems that other versions of satisfaction atonement do. That is, God remains punitive and we project onto God a retaliatory disposition that must response to sin with punitive consequences.

Certainly, the story does give us instances where God seems to respond the way Ryan suggests, but the overall story makes clear, I believe, that God never requires punishment as a prerequisite for mercy. The mercy is always free and unearned. The role of the covenant (which is closely related to the role of Torah according to Jesus and Paul) is to be an asset in helping people who accept God’s mercy to live faithfully and is best seen in the call to love the neighbor. This was the case throughout the story and does not change with Jesus and the New Testament. As always, the problems arise when people of God get things backwards—be it with sacrifices, Torah, and the land or with the sacraments and doctrines. All these elements of the covenant are meant to serve human beings not human beings serve them.

This is to day, that God’s nonviolence toward God’s people (and the world)—that Ryan, like me, affirms—means that God simply forgives the covenant unfaithfulness and then pulls out all stops to help the people understand and live in response to this forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that God must create some mechanism to punish that would leave God’s people unscathed. It’s mercy all the way down. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)”

More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

I appreciate the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” It has taken longer than I would have hoped, but I want to reflect further on the issues raised by these responses. [Here is part 2 of these reflections.]

Why did Jesus “have to” die?

I appreciate “Tommy’s” affirmative comments about the “Bible’s salvation story” post. He raises a good question. In light of my suggesting that the core content of the salvation story is established at the very beginning and remains in effect throughout (i.e., salvation through God’s mercy in a way that does not require humans offering sacrifices to satisfy God’s requirements), then why does Jesus seem to say that he “had” to die? Thus, “the death obviously holds some significance.”

I strongly affirm that Jesus’ death “holds some significance.” In fact, in my forthcoming book, I devote five long chapters to the significance of Jesus’ death. The issue is what is this significance. I would ask what “had to” means. And, even more, why did he “have to” die? This all comes back, then, to the basic issue—did God need Jesus’ death in order to make salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t otherwise? Did Jesus “have to” die in order to make salvation possible on God’s side—or did Jesus “have to” die in order to make God’s already present (and fully sufficient) mercy sufficiently visible to encourage of response on the human side?

I am uncomfortable with the deterministic connotations of using “had to” in this discussion. However, I would be comfortable saying that Jesus’ death was inevitable given the way he undermined the Domination System of empire, temple, and legalistic cultural boundary maintenance. Because the Powers are so set on opposing agents of the true God, such an agent who embodied God’s will for humanity as thoroughly as Jesus did “had to” die should the Powers not be overthrown. The power of the true God, though, was that this death (that was intended to defeat the will of the true God) actually boomeranged on the Powers. Not only did Jesus not stay dead, but his resurrection underscores how the Powers are hostile toward the true God, and it thus undermines the potential of the Powers to hold sway.

The tragedy is that Jesus’ death came to be misinterpreted. Instead of being seen as a denial of the idea that God is retributive it came to be interpreted in a way that makes God so retributive that God’s will to punish leads to God endorsing the necessity of Jesus’ death for the establishment of salvation.

One can reject the idea of understanding Jesus’ death in terms of satisfaction atonement and still affirm that this death was significant for salvation. Not as something that enables God to forgive but as something that underscores that God’s forgiveness is our starting point and that we need to see and turn away from the Powers that usurp God and keep us from trusting in God as merciful. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)”

A message to President Obama about salvation

Ted Grimsrud

[A friend of mine, in response to yesterday’s post, asked me to imagine trying to summarize my ideas about salvation so that they could be presented, say, to President Obama in 90 seconds. Recognizing that the President is a Christian, I will assume a certain level of common understanding and common commitments—such as belief in God, respect for the Bible, and acceptance that ultimately we as human beings are accountable to God and not free simply to operate in an autonomous way.]

God is a God of justice, and the universe operates according to this justice. However, contrary to many conceptions of justice, the biblical picture of God’s justice presents it in terms of healing and reconciliation, not punishment and retribution (or even strict fairness). God’s justice seeks to heal and restore people and relationships that have been broken.

From the beginning of the Bible, God works to bring healing in face of brokenness. Humanity’s biggest problem has been not trusting in God’s healing justice (which is an expression of God’s love, not in tension with it). Rather, humanity has tended to trust in sources of meaning and security other than God—that is, in idols.

Tragically, trusting in idols rather than in God exacerbates the problems of brokenness and alienation. The worst idols, according to the Bible, tend to be human kingdoms with their power politics, religious institutions, and cultural boundary markers. Like most idols, these human structures are part of created reality and can play a life-enhancing role when they are kept in perspective and do not usurp God. Continue reading “A message to President Obama about salvation”

Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 3)

Ted Grimsrud—February 10, 2012

In what sense should we think of Jesus as our savior? My cyber-friend Al Steiner has raised a series of challenging questions (scroll down for Al’s comments) of my account of salvation based on his careful reading of the Bible. Reflecting further on the questions Al raises will help me continue to think though what I want to say about salvation.

How is Jesus “instrumental” for salvation?

(1) Al concludes from John’s Gospel and the first letter of John that Jesus “is instrumental in the grace of God, purifying us, taking away our sin.” Key verses include John the Baptist’s declaration when he first sees Jesus that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and these words: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

On the face of it, at least, I don’t really see these assertions about Jesus’ role in salvation being in tension with what I am trying to say. So much depends on definitions—both of the problem Jesus is trying to resolve and the meanings of such key works as “takes away,” “sin(s),” “blood,” and “cleanses.”

First of all, I see no hint in these verses and their wider contexts that John is portraying Jesus’ saving work as in any way related to providing a necessary sacrifice that, in a way only it can, makes it possible for a wrathful/just/holy/honorable God to offer forgiveness that prior to that sacrifice was not possible. That is, whatever “take away” and “cleanse” have to do with, it is not satisfying something in God.

I think that the problem, basically, is that our trusting in idols has separated us from life-giving relationships with God and fellow humans. What needs to happen is that the power of sin (idolatry) over us needs to be broken. To have sin taken away or to have sin cleansed, it seems to me, is about breaking this power of sin over us and freeing us to accept and live in light of the persistent and ever-present mercy of God. Continue reading “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 3)”

Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 8, 2012

Our understanding of salvation seems an important enough issue to warrant continuing reflection  and conversation. I appreciate comments that have been written in response to some of the thinking I have been doing on this topic.I want to respond to some further thoughts from Philip Bender in this post and will return again shortly with thoughts in response to Al Steiner’s comments.

My earlier pieces since December 2011 have been: “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”, “Jesus’ Death and My Salvation,” “Does Paul Agree with Jesus About Salvation?”, “Christian Salvation: Do the Questions Never End?”, “Are All Sins the Same Before God?”, and “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions.” I write these current reflections as a preliminary effort to revise and complete a book on salvation, the first draft of which was called Mercy Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story.

Philip Bender, in his latest in a series of thoughtful responses to my posts, raises several important questions.

How are theological and political beliefs related?

His first question is about the connection between our beliefs about God and our political/social philosophy. “Does one’s view of God lead to one’s world view in other realms of life?” or is it more that “one’s social and political ideology…shapes one’s view of God?” Specifically, what do we make of the apparent correlation between “a strong satisfaction atonement theology and [belief] in a quite vengeful God” and “very conservative and reactionary social, political, and economic views”? Continue reading “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions (Part 2)”

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. Continue reading “Christian Salvation: More and More Questions”

Christian salvation: Do the questions never end?

Ted Grimsrud—January 1, 2012

I keep thinking about salvation and related issues—aided considerably by various thoughtful questions and comments. My post this week will be kind of a grab bag of responses to various recent comments that relate to my three-part discussion of Jesus’ death and salvation (“Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” “Jesus’ death and my salvation,” and “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”).

Life after death

My old friend David Myers in Washington, DC, asked about (I think) salvation in relation to life after death. He wrote: I’m stuck on the word ‘saved’—its forthright, non-theological meaning, especially related to the resurrection. I get that loving God and neighbor saves us into a richer, more meaningful life than we would have if we worshiped the idols, etc. Yet that very life of salvation may well lead to getting killed. So, now we’re dead as a rock, which is a condition I’d like to be saved from. Why then doesn’t the resurrection save us, in the simple, non-theological meaning of the word?

I don’t think my points about the relationship between resurrection and salvation were meant to speak to the issue of life after death one way or another. I believe there is strong continuity between life and in the present and whatever happens after we die. By the nature of the case, we cannot say anything definitive about life after death. And the Bible as a whole is much more circumspect in speaking about that theme than much of later theology. Whatever salvation means, though, I think it should be seen to apply to both life in the here and now and life after we’re “dead as a rock.”

That is, if we enter the “life of salvation” in this life (which is clearly the concern of the vast majority of biblical talk about salvation) there is no reason not to expect continuity in the afterlife. Whatever it is that saves us in the former state surely will save us in the latter state. The problem with much Christian talk of the afterlife is that it seems to assume some kind of discontinuity—we are “saved” for the afterlife by a kind of belief that does not necessarily lead to a “life of salvation” in the present. When Jesus responds to the question about “eternal life” with his call to love God and neighbor, he clearly has in mind life in its fullness in the present—we know we are living in such love when we imitate the Good Samaritan in his risky and costly compassion. But there is no reason not to think this “eternal life” does not extent to after we “get killed” for practicing such compassion. Continue reading “Christian salvation: Do the questions never end?”

Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2011

Jesus’ approach to salvation was simple—he bypassed the sacrificial system and offered direct forgiveness. He answered a direct question about how to inherit eternal life by reiterating what he believed was the essence of the law and prophets: love God and neighbor. He told an amazing story about a terribly sinful son who is welcomed by his father back into the family simply by returning home.

In other words, if we take our cues from Jesus himself, we should not be investing his death with the kind of meaning that sees in his death the one necessary sacrifice that might satisfy God and enable God to bring salvation about. To the contrary, Jesus echoes the prophets by insisting that God operates according to the logic of mercy, not the logic of sacrifice, payback, reciprocity, and punishment. According to Jesus, God’s justice is restorative not retributive.

But what about Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Jesus’ message, Paul the Apostle? How compatible is Paul’s understanding of salvation with Jesus? Do we have to choose between the two? I think not. In this, my third post on salvation (the first was “Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” and the second was “Jesus’ death and my salvation”), I will make that case that Paul was faithful and accurate to Jesus’ main message (with the implication that later Christianity has actually misread Paul).

Like his Jesus and the prophets, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world.  Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor.  Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death. Continue reading “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”