Salvation is bigger and different than we’ve imagined

I mean, you can’t keep up with the literature. The books and articles and presentations charting revisionary directions on the meaning of salvation are like crickets in a Texas summer: plague like and chirping.

There are two prominent themes. First, the most common way our church members understand atonement has some significant problems. This view of the atonement has a name, “penal substitutionary atonement (psa),” and it goes something like this: God’s nature requires justice, defined as retribution. God can’t simply forgive sin, God’s wrath has to be satisfied, justice has to be done (penal). Justice in this case requires capital punishment. Jesus’ death in our place satisfies God’s wrath (substitutionary), allowing God to forgive us (atonement), his need for retributive justice intact. I won’t go into all the problems with this view (they are considerable), but will simply point out that it’s a fairly recent view as atonement theories go.

Mark Heim, in his very important book, Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross, points out that no one viewed atonement this way until Anselm (Green and Baker push it even later to coincide with the development of Western legal theory, claiming Anselm was more concerned with honor than justice), and one wing of Christianity, the Eastern church (Orthodox) has never seen atonement in these terms. “Some regard a form of substitutionary atonement belief as the essential heart of Christianity itself,” Heim writes. “But this can hardly be true, for one major stream of Christianity managed without such a teaching for all of its history, and all of Christianity managed without it for a large part of its history” (p 4).

Various proposals have been offered as a corrective. Many see the need to proliferate theories (e.g. Green and Baker, McKnight, prominent among many), others to choose a replacement theory like Christus Victor or the recapitulation theory of the atonement. My dissertation is in this area, and I follow Robert Jenson’s suggestion that “theory” is part of the problem. The earliest Christians offered no complete theories of atonement, but rather saw salvation in narrative terms. The death and resurrection is the narrative in which we participate which joins us both to the life of God and the saving realities of the age to come.

Mark Heim’s book suggests we’ve read the significance of the Bible’s “sacrifice” language totally backwards. For Heim, Jesus’ death is not the ultimate or most effective instance of redemptive violence or scapegoating, but the end of it. He writes, “Scapegoating brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We find peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. Satan casts out Satan and becomes all the stronger for it…” In contrast, “(Jesus’) death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it.” (xi-xii).

I have lived enough with Heim and Girard to affirm Heim’s statement, “The greatest gift I have received from Girard and those writers inspired by him, is the experience of reading the Bible with surprise. His writing points insistently to things lying in plain sight in its pages” (12). I’ll refer you to an earlier post I wrote as an example of these kind of “in plain sight” realizations.

The big point here is that from several sources and many angles, PSA is being critiqued and old/fresh alternatives are being explored. For my money, Heim’s work, more than most others, surprises us into alternative understandings and is worthy of our attention.

A second big trend in salvation studies is a re-reading of Paul. I had a grad student confess to me a few weeks ago that she had quit reading Paul because she laid so much of the spiritual baggage she was trying to overcome at his feet. And where PSA is concerned, its defenders cite Paul prominently in their arguments. But newer readings of Paul (last 50 years or so), by people like NT Wright, James Dunn, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, and others have profoundly shifted appraisals of what he is up to.

“Reformation” readings of Paul, popularized and made a staple in the social imagination of most contemporary congregations, suggested that the question, “how is an individual saved?” formed the heart of Paul’s writings, expressed in the doctrine of “justification by faith through grace.” While an important part of Paul’s theology, revisionary of readings note that it’s not even the center of Paul’s argument in Romans, much less his primary concern throughout his letters. He’s asking a bigger question, a more God-centered question. How does Jesus reveal the righteousness of God, particularly in relation to God’s covenant promises to Israel? The salvation of the individual is secondary to the large work of reconciliation that God is working, which features the new humanity (no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female), but extends to creation itself, so that Paul can refer to this enlarged salvation as a “new creation.”

Chief among those who are challenging  our well-worn notions of Paul’s views on salvation is Michael Gorman. In his work, notably Cruciformity, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, and Becoming the Gospel, Gorman sees Paul’s view of salvation as a participation the death and resurrection of Jesus. More this participation in the death of Jesus is nothing short of participation in the life of God, which is cross shaped. Paul’s views, Gorman suggests, are close to more Eastern notions of salvation, namely theosis. In relation to Paul’s writings, Gorman defines theosis as “transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ” (Inhabiting, p7). In this transformative participation we are embodying the very gospel we proclaim.

I have highlighted Heim and Gorman because I have learned a great deal from each, but also because they are two of the featured presenters at this year’s Streaming conference. I chose to focus my dissertation on salvation because I am convinced it defines more than anything else what we mean by mission. We enact whatever our understandings of salvation are. To my view, our views of salvation are at the very least too small. At the worst,  they are distorted and distorting. We need people like Heim and Gorman to help us think more clearly about salvation and mission.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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2 Responses to Salvation is bigger and different than we’ve imagined

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I first read Heim 6 or 7 years ago and I found his book to be so helpful and refreshing. For the longest time, I’ve felt as if I’m the only one who has read his work.

    Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone.

  2. Pingback: N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66J (Atonement Theories) | One In Jesus

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