What is Salvation? (II) – A Last Post Before Easter

This will be my last post until after Easter. I used to think that it was strange to pray for “my readers,” since, for one thing, I didn’t know if I really had any. I trust that a few people are reading, so please know that I am grateful to you for prodding me to think and write about things that I previously might have shrugged off. I would like to think that I have become at least a little more attentive, patient, and generous because of blogging. So “my readers” are in my prayers this Holy Week.

Before Christmas, I put up a post entitled “What is Salvation?” that attempted to formulate a small answer to a deep and essential question, drawing from a recent article in Theological Studies by Fr Richard Clifford, SJ, and Khaled Anatolios. We looked at prophetic, liturgical, and sapiential models, drawing on different books of the Bible and various Church Fathers, but it was poorly written in a characteristically verbose way, and, more seriously, failed to mention St Paul. We should be meditating on salvation this Holy Week, so I would at least like to remedy the Pauline problem (well, there was at least a little here). How can St Paul help us to pray for our salvation and the salvation of others? I want to look at the metaphors of salvation that St Paul uses, borrowing from a recent essay by the prominent Evangelical exegete Gordon Fee.

We often imagine salvation in individualistic terms, even though our lives are generally surrounded by other people and our spiritual lives inevitably occur in the context of a church. Dr. Fee reminds us that St Paul speaks collectively of “the saints,” echoing Exodus 19:5-6 and Daniel 7. The Daniel passage, in particular, tells us that these saints will include “all nations and peoples of every language.” So, St Paul writes to entire churches, which are imagined to be “temples” that must now include both Jew and Gentiles (Ep 2:20-2). St Paul will also speak of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). This echoes the “new thing” prophesied by Isaiah (43:18-19) that will culminate in “new heavens and a new earth” (Is 65:17; 66:2-3). The new order of Jesus Christ is hardly private or individual, but changes our social conceptions of ethnicity and status altogether: “Here there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11). Humanity is meant to be restored back to the divine image through Jesus Christ – “conformed into the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom 8:29; Col 2:10-11), but this “new creation,” we should remember, does affect the natural world as well. If I might add to Dr Fee’s exegesis, I would recommend looking closely at a Byzantine icon: “Besides being shown suffused with light, nature is also represented in the icon as incorruptible – trees neither shed their leaves nor decay and nothing appears to have weight or subject to decay.”

So we should not imagine salvation in solitary and individualistic terms. We must also remember that salvation is God’s initiative, not ours. Dr Fee reminds us, “Thus, contrary to many popular Christian ‘theologies,’ Christ did not die in order to make it possible for God to love us, who were otherwise unlovable. Rather, he died precisely because God loved us even while we were still sinners and enemies.” The place of this initiative was the Cross, the “divine scandal” (1 Cor 1:18-25) of a crucified Messiah. We should also remember that St Paul does not restrict himself to one metaphor to describe our salvation. In the third chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul even changes metaphors no less than three times: “all [Jew and Gentile alike] are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as a hilasterion (atoning sacrifice).” Keeping all of this in mind, let’s look at the four principal metaphors that St Paul uses.

The first is redemption. Paul’s primary use of this metaphor is to echo the story of the Exodus, here retold in terms of our enslavement to sin and our redemption through Christ’s death on the cross. Two very distinct ways of life are contrasted- the life of slavery under the “curse” of the law and a life of freedom lived according to the Spirit – and we are told that Christ’s life and death was meant to “redeem those under the law” (Gal 4:5), ushering us into the second way of life. This second, post-conversion way of life is further imagined according to the Graeco-Roman concept of adoption: “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal 4:7). We see the conjoining of redemption and adoption in the Epistle to the Romans, as well, where Paul tells us, “we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).

A second, more controversial, metaphor drawn from the Old Testament is atonement. Paul speaks of atonement four times (1 Cor 5:7, Rom 3:25, 8:3; Eph 5:2), and he will write about blood on eight occasions. The only real precedent in biblical Greek for hilasterion (atoning sacrifice) is to the covering (the “mercy-seat”) of the ark of the covenant in the most holy place. But there is a Graeco-Roman use for the term as an instrument for the appeasement of an angry deity. Dr Fee thinks it unlikely that St Paul would choose the pagan usage over the Septuagintal meaning. Besides noting the inevitable confusions resulting from thinking about the Father propitiating his own anger through violence directed against his Son, we should remember that St Paul does not speak of God’s present anger, but of a wrath to come (e.g., 1 Thess 1:10; Rom 5:9). And he would certainly have remembered Psalm 51’s commendation of a broken and repentant heart, rather than sacrifice, as a means of forgiveness. Dr Fee tells us to use this metaphor not to clarify a particular mechanism of expiation or propitiation, but to imagine atonement with “Christ as the replacement of the ‘mercy-seat’ with its sprinkled blood on the Day of Atonement,” accommodating the sins of both Jews and Gentiles.

More recently, the Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon has written, “The Cross was the supreme altar, and Good Friday was preeminently the Day of the Atonement. The removal of sins was not accomplished by a juridical act, but a liturgical act performed in great love: ‘Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma’ (Eph 5:2). Loving both the Father and ourselves, Jesus brought the Father and ourselves together by what He accomplished in His own body, reconciling us through the blood of His Cross.” In other words, we should not look to atonement for an explanation or a juridical solution, but rather for “the symbol of the loving dedication of the life of the person making the sacrifice.”

When Fr Reardon writes that “Jesus brought the Father and ourselves together,” it is a reminder that our third metaphor will be reconciliation, which occurs four times in Paul (2 Cor 5:18-20; Rom 5:9-10; Col 1:19-22; Eph 2:16). God reconciles the world to himself through Christ and does so to overcome the Gentiles’ alienation and enmity towards God. This reconciliation is not only between God and humanity, but between different humans beings (Jews and Gentiles), and between, I would add, human beings and the natural world. Reconciliation is a change in worldview to the point in which Christ becomes “our peace, he who made both [Jews and Gentiles] one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it” (Ep 2:14-16). Dr Fee tells us that it is not clear “how Christ’s death brings about this reconciliation … it functions as yet another metaphor” without explanation or elaboration.

The fourth metaphor – and the one that has historically been taken most realistically – is justification. We should be a little careful here. To be sure, both Catholics and Protestant can and should say:

We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.

But while we should avoid any trace of “works-righteousness,” we should also remember that Paul was not deciding later Reformation-era debates but arguing against an emphasis on following the law. And justification is hardly his only metaphor. The main metaphor in the Epistle to the Galatians is redemption, and, writing to the Romans, St Paul speaks of redemption and sacrifice when describing the work of Christ. Dr Fee recognizes, however, that certain Reformation-era debates are really unavoidable and says a few words about them. While he does say that in justification the “ungodly” are “declared” justified, he maintains that we must say more – Christian conversion also includes the coming of the Spirit to dwell in the believer. Salvation is Trinitarian, and, “as proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!'” (Gal 4:5). This coming of the Spirit means that salvation is not a “legal fiction.” To give but one example of the effects of the Spirit, if I can quote a paragraph I once wrote:

The Holy Spirit also reminds us of the importance of experience. Now, many of us fear any appeal to experience and distrust subjectivity, preferring the supposedly more ironclad objectivity of carefully constructed arguments and authority. But St Hilary of Poitiers writes, “We experience intense joy when we feel within us the first stirrings of the Holy Spirit.” And the late Orthodox priest John Meyendorff told us, “The conscious and personal experience of the Holy Spirit is … the supreme goal of the Christian life in the Byzantine tradition, an experience which presupposes constant growth and ascent.” Christianity is, among other things, an inner experience.

Likewise, justification is not merely an “acquittal” or being found “not guilty.” Quite frankly, we were guilty. But our status has changed, and we must be transformed by the awareness of having been forgiven by the merciful God. The penitential psalms here become extraordinarily concrete: “Blessed is the one whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sin is covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin” (Ps 51; Ps 130). We must then extend this forgiveness to others.

The last words should be Gordon Fee’s: “How the cross works is never carefully spelt out in Paul, but the fact that it works is evidenced by our redemption from enslavement to sin and the law and our adoption as God’s own children and heirs, by Christ’s being set forth as a hilasterion (place/means of atonement) in our behalf, by God’s reconciliation of his enemies to himself, and by God’s justifying the ungodly, not reckoning their trespasses against them but instead offering forgiveness and pardon.”

Perhaps this can help us pray during Holy Week. Let me offer all of you a blessed Easter in advance, especially Todd.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to What is Salvation? (II) – A Last Post Before Easter

  1. Dennis Durel says:

    While all you said is true, I think it is essential to simplify the definition to the primary and basic message as the Church does.

    Salvation is defined by the Church in Pope Paul VI encyclical “Evangelization in the Modern World”
    “As the kernel and center of His Good News, Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him.”

    Pope JPII carried on with the same definition, as does Pope B16 today.

    The bible is a witness to their teaching, esp. where Jesus says, “I have come to proclaim liberty to the captives”. in Luke.

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