A hopeful vision

‘In the final chapters of John’s vision, we might expect to discover that the sinners, who clearly do not escape the apocalyptic judgment described in 18:1–20:15,59 are either in the lake of fire or have now been annihilated by it. But instead, we actually find them outside the city (Rev 22:15). Furthermore, this “exclusion” is one that must be read in the light of the fact that there is still a mission to the nations (Rev 21:24; 22:2). John’s vision reveals that because sin has no future in God’s world, the impure may not enter the city (Rev 21:27). Yet this provides no ammunition for those who want to preach the “final” judgment of hellfire and damnation as “On no day will [the] gates [of the New Jerusalem] ever be shut” (Rev 21:25). Against the openness of God, the evil that would annihilate God’s creation, close down history and shut the world off from its Creator, does not have a hope in hell’. – Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 210.

Picking up some Hauerwas for Lent

There’s one wee book of Hauerwas’ that I purchased during the past year and never got around to reading, namely Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Brazos Press, 2004). Lent seemed like the right time to dig in. So I found me a quiet moment tonight and read it. Here’s a few passages that I sat with for a while:

‘Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality’. (p. 26)

On Luke 23:43: ‘What does it mean to say these are criminals?’ (p. 38)

Citing Rowan Williams: ‘God is in the connections we cannot make’. (p. 39)

‘Our attempt to speak confidently of God in the face of modern skepticism, a skepticism we suspect also grips our lives as Christians, betrays a certainty inappropriate for a people who worship a crucified God’. (p. 40)

‘Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten’. (p. 44)

‘In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reasin than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly’. (p. 50)

‘Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been … The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation; instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis – complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love’. (pp. 62–3)

‘This is not a dumb show that some abstract idea of god appears to go through to demonstrate that he or she really has our best interest at heart. No, this is the Father’s deliberately giving his Christ over to a deadly destiny so that our destiny would not be determined by death’. (p. 63)

‘We try … to compliment God by saying that God is transcendent, but ironically our very notion of transcendence can make God a creature after our own hearts. Our idea of God, our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make everything turn out all right for us, at least in the long run, is revealed by Jesus’s cry of abandonment to be the idolatry it is … In truth we stand with Pilate. We do not want to give up our understanding of God. We do not want Jesus to be abandoned because we do not want to acknowledge that the one who abandons and is abandoned is God. We seek to “explain” these words of dereliction, to save and protect God from making a fool out of being God, but our attempts to protect God reveal how frightening we find a God who refuses to save us by violence’. (pp. 64–5)

‘If God is not in Mary’s belly, we are not saved’. (p. 76)

‘”It is finished” is not a death gurgle. “It is finished” is not “I am done for.” “It is finished” will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. “It is finished is a cry of victory. “It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work. The work that is finished, moreover, is the cross. He will be and is resurrected, but the resurrected One remains the One crucified. Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This is a remark that makes unavoidable the recognition that we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be consummated or perfected until the end of the world. Williams observes that Pascal’s comment on Jesus’s on-going agony is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers; it is instead an exhortation to us, those who believe in Christ. It is an exhortation not to become nostalgic for a supposedly lets compromised past or take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”‘ (pp. 83–4)

‘We are told in John 1:18 that without the Son no one can see the Father. Von Balthasar, therefore, reminds us “when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible.” This is the terror, the silence of the Father, to which Jesus has committed himself, this is why he cried the cry of abandonment. He has commended himself to the Father so he might for us undergo the dark night of death. Jesus commends himself to the Father, becoming for us all that is contrary to God. Christ suffers by becoming the “No” that the salvation wrought by his life creates. Without Christ there could be no hell – no abandonment by God – but the very hell created by Christ cannot overwhelm the love he has for us’. (p. 97)

‘Christ had no Christ to imitate’. (p. 99)

Eberhard Jüngel on Salvation

‘Salvation … can only mean that it is the life man has lived that is saved, not the man is saved out of this life. The meaning of salvation is that God saves this life which we live. It involves the participation of this earthly, limited life in the life of God; the sharing of this temporally limited life in God’s eternity; the participation of a life which has incurred guilt in the glory of God. To share in God’s glory means that man in honourably acquitted of his guilt. It is as finite that man’s finite life is made eternal. Not by endless extension – there is no immortality of the soul – but through participation in the very life of God. Our life is hidden in his life. In this sense the briefest form of the hope of resurrection is the statement: ‘God is my eternity’. He will make everything whole; everything, including what we have been. Our person will then be our manifest history’. – Eberhard Jüngel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery (trans. Iain Nicol and Ute Nicol; Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975), 120.

Jacques Ellul on hell and the grace of God

‘I am taking up here a basic theme that I have dealt with elsewhere but which is so essential that I have no hesitation in repeating myself. It is the recognition that all people from the beginning of time are saved by God in Jesus Christ, that they have all been recipients of his grace no matter what they have done.

This is a scandalous proposition. It shocks our spontaneous sense of justice. The guilty ought to be punished. How can Hitler and Stalin be among the saved? The just ought to be recognized as such and the wicked condemned. But in my view this is purely human logic which simply shows that there is no understanding of salvation by grace or of the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. The proposition also runs counter to the almost unanimous view of theology. Some early theologians proclaimed universal salvation but almost all the rest finally rejected it. Great debates have taken place about foreknowledge and predestination, but in all of them it has been taken for granted that reprobation is normal.

A third and the most serious objection to the thesis is posed by the biblical texts themselves. Many of these talk about condemnation, hell, banishment into outer darkness, and the punishment of robbers, fornicators, idolaters, etc. As we proceed we must overcome these obstacles and examine the theological reasons which lead me to believe in universal salvation, the texts that seem to be against it, and a possible solution.

But I want to stress that I am speaking about belief in universal salvation. This is for me a matter of faith. I am not making a dogma or a principle of it. I can say only what

I believe, not pretending to teach it doctrinally as the truth.

1. God Is love

My first simple thesis is that if God is God, the Almighty, the Creator of all things, the Omnipresent, then we can think of no place or being whatever outside him. If there were a place outside him, God would not be all in all, the Creator of all things. How can we think of him creating a place or being where he is not present? What, then, about hell? Either it is in God, in which case he is not universally good, or it is outside him, hell having often been defined as the place where God is not. But the latter is completely unthinkable.

One might simply say that hell is merely nothingness. The damned are those who are annihilated. But there is a difficulty here too. Nothingness does not exist in the Bible. It is a philosophical and mathematical concept. We can represent it only by a mathematical sign. God did not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. Genesis 1:2 speaks of tohu wabohu (“desert and wasteland” RSV “formless and void’) or of tehom (“the deep’). This is not nothing.

Furthermore, the closest thing to nothingness seems to be death. But the Bible speaks about enemies, that is, the great serpent, death, and the abyss, which are aggressors against God’s creation and are seeking to destroy it. These are enemies against which God protects his creation. He cannot allow that which he has created and called good to be destroyed, disorganized, swallowed up, and slain. This creation of God cannot revert to nothing. Death cannot issue in nothingness. This would be a negation of God himself, and this is why the first aspect seems to me to be decisive. Creation is under constant threat and is constantly upheld.

How could God himself surrender to nothingness and to the enemy that which he upholds in face and in spite of everything? How could he allow a power of destruction and annihilation in his creation? If he cannot withstand the force of nothingness, then we have to resort to dualism (a good God and a bad God in conflict and equal), to Zoroastrianism. Many are tempted to dualism today. But if God is unique, if he alone has life in himself, he cannot permit this threat to the object of his love.

But it is necessary that “the times be accomplished,” the times when we are driven into a corner and have to serve either the impotence of the God of love or the power of the forces of destruction and annihilation. We have to wait until humanity has completed its history and creation, and every possibility has been explored. This does not merely imply, however, that at the end of time the powers of destruction, death, the great serpent, Satan, the devil, will be annihilated, but much more. How can we talk about nothingness when we receive the revelation of this God who will be all in all? When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself also will be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

If God is, he is all in all. There is no more place for nothingness. The word is an empty one. For Christians it is just as empty as what it is supposed to denote. Philosophers speak in vain about something that they can only imagine or use as a building block, but which has no reality of any kind.

The second and equally essential factor is that after Jesus Christ we know that God is love. This is the central revelation. How can we conceive of him who is love ceasing to love one of his creatures? How can we think that God can cease to love the creation that he has made in his own image? This would be a contradiction in terms. God cannot cease to be love.

If we combine the two theses we see at once that nothing can exist outside God’s love, for God is all in all. It is unthinkable that there should exist a place of suffering, of torment, of the domination of evil, of beings that merely hate since their only function is to torture. It is astounding that Christian theology should not have seen at a glance how impossible this idea is. Being love, God cannot send to hell the creation which he so loved that he gave his only Son for it. He cannot reject it because it is his creation. This would be to cut off himself.

A whole theological trend advances the convenient solution that God is love but also justice. He saves the elect to manifest his love and condemns the reprobate to manifest his justice. My immediate fear is that this solution does not even correspond to our idea of justice and that we are merely satisfying our desire that people we regard as terrible should be punished in the next world. This view is part of the mistaken theology which declares that the good are unhappy on earth but will be happy in heaven, whereas the wicked are successful on earth but will be punished in the next world. Unbelievers have every reason to denounce this explanation as a subterfuge designed to make people accept what happens on earth. The kingdom of God is not compensation for this world.

Another difficulty is that we are asked to see God with two faces as though he were a kind of Janus facing two ways. Such a God could not be the God of Jesus Christ, who has only one face. Crucial texts strongly condemn two-faced people who go two different ways. These are the ones that Jesus Christ calls hypocrites. If God is doubleminded, there is duplicity in him. He is a hypocrite. We have to choose: He is either love or he is justice. He is not both. If he is the just judge, the pitiless Justiciar, he is not the God that Jesus Christ has taught us to love.

Furthermore, this conception is a pure and simple denial of Jesus Christ. For the doctrine is firm that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died and was willing to die for human sin to redeem us all: I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32), satisfying divine justice. All the evil done on earth from Adam’s break with God undoubtedly has to be judged and punished. But all our teaching about Jesus is there to remind us that the wrath of God fell entirely on him, on God in the person of the Son. God directs his justice upon himself; he has taken upon himself the condemnation of our wickedness.

What would be the point, then, of a second condemnation of individuals? Was the judgment passed on Jesus insufficient? Was the price that was paid-the punishment of the Son of God-too low to meet the demands of God’s justice? This justice is satisfied in God and by God for us. From this point on, then, we know only the face of the love of God.

This love is not sentimental acquiescence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). God’s love is demanding, “jealous,” total, and indivisible. Love has a stern face, not a soft one. Nevertheless, it is love. And in any case this love excludes double predestination, some to salvation and others to perdition. It is inconceivable that the God of Jesus Christ, who gives himself in his Son to save us, should have created some people ordained to evil and damnation. There is indeed a predestination, but it can be only the one predestination to salvation. In and through Jesus Christ all people are predestined to be saved. Our free choice is ruled out in this regard. We have often said that God wants free people. He undoubtedly does, except in relation to this last and definitive decision. We are not free to decide and choose to be damned. To say that God presents us with the good news of the gospel and then leaves the final issue to our free choice either to accept it and be saved or to reject it and be lost is foolish. To take this point of view is to make us arbiters of the situation. In this case it is we who finally decide our own salvation.

This view reverses a well-known thesis and would have it that God proposes and man disposes. Without question we all know of innumerable cases in which people reject revelation. Swarms are doing so today. But have they any real knowledge of revelation? If I look at countless presentations of the Word of God by the churches, I can say that the churches have presented many ideas and commandments that have nothing whatever to do with God’s revelation. Rejecting these things, human commandments, is not the same as rejecting the truth. And even if the declaration or proclamation of the gospel is faithful, it does not itself force a choice upon us.

If people are to recognize the truth, they must also have the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. These two things are indispensable, the faithful declaration of the gospel, the good news, by a human being and the inner witness in the hearer of the Holy Spirit, who conveys the assurance that it is the truth of God. The one does not suffice without the other. Thus when those who hear refuse our message, we can never say that they have chosen to disobey God.

The human and divine acts are one and the same only in the Word of Jesus. When he told his hearers not to be unbelieving but to believe, if they refused then they were rejected. In our case, however, we cannot say that there is an act of the Holy Spirit simultaneously with our proclamation. This may well be the point of the well-known text about the one sin that cannot be pardoned, the sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 12:31-32). But we can never know whether anyone has committed it. However that may be, it is certain that being saved or lost does not depend on our own free decision.

I believe that all people are included in the grace of God. I believe that all the theologies that have made a large place for damnation and hell are unfaithful to a theology of grace. For if there is predestination to perdition, there is no salvation by grace. Salvation by grace is granted precisely to those who without grace would have been lost. Jesus did not come to seek the righteous and the saints, but sinners. He came to seek those who in strict justice ought to have been condemned.

A theology of grace implies universal salvation. What could grace mean if it were granted only to some sinners and not to others according to an arbitrary decree that is totally contrary to the nature of our God? If grace is granted according to the greater or lesser number of sins, it is no longer grace – it is just the opposite because of this accountancy. Paul is the very one who reminds us that the enormity of the sin is no obstacle to grace: Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20).

This is the key statement. The greater the sin, the more God’s love reveals itself to be far beyond any judgment or evaluation of ours. This grace covers all things. It is thus effectively universal.

I do not think that in regard to this grace we can make the Scholastic distinctions between prevenient grace, expectant grace, conditional grace, etc. Such adjectives weaken the thrust of the free grace of the absolute sovereign, and they result only from our great difficulty in believing that God has done everything.

But this means that nothing in his creation is excluded or lost’.

Jacques Ellul, What I Believe (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 188-92.

Advent Reflections for 2007

Advent Reflection 10: That Which Christ Assumes

‘If any assert that He has now put off His holy flesh, and that His Godhead is stripped of the body, and deny that He is now with his body and will come again with it, let him not see the glory of His coming … For that which He has not assumed He has not healed … If only half of Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may by half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, an so be save as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation’. – Gregory of Nazianzus (4th cent. A.D.), Epistle 101, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7 (Peabody: Hendrickson), 1994, 440.

‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’: A response to David Fergusson

Professor David Fergusson is one of the ablest theologians teaching and writing in Britain today. A few weeks ago, I heard him give a delightful paper on providence, a mere entrée to a larger project that he’s currently working on. Everything I’ve read of his I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, especially his Scottish Philosophical Theology, The Cosmos and the Creator, and Christ Church and Society: Essays on John Baillie and D. Donald Baillie (which he edited). And so it was that I approached his essay ‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’ with the certain sense of excitement, never dreaming that I might be disappointed with its contents. The essay, which was originally presented at the Sixth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, appears in a collection from that conference entitled, Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (pp. 186–202).

Fergusson properly begins his essay by reminding us that ‘the love of God demands an eschatology’ (p. 186) before proceeding to rehearse the three possible ways in which his title question can be answered. In the first section, he outlines the Augustinian and Reformed traditions in which the love of God triumphs only through the limiting of its scope, i.e. towards the elect. This, Fergusson suggests, is ‘unacceptable’ (p. 188).

In the next section, ‘Universalizing the Scope’, Fergusson turns to Karl Barth, and to what he considers to be an inconsistency between Barth’s doctrine of the election of humanity in Jesus Christ and his denial of an apokatastasis. After fairly outlining Barth’s position and properly emphasising the Swiss theologian’s fall-back position in the divine freedom, Fergusson elicits Berkouwer’s criticism of Barth in support:

‘In view of Barth’s emphasis on the factuality of Christ’s rejection, it is not possible to close the door to the apokatastasis doctrine by pointing to the fact that the Bible speaks of rejection as well as election and then entrust everything eschatologically to the hand of God. Did not the hand of God become visible in His works, and specifically in the one central “modus” of his work in Jesus Christ, in election as the decretum concretum, in the triumph of grace?’ (p. 192)

The third, and final, section is entitled ‘Against Universalism’. It is in this section that Fergusson outlines his own proposal for answering the question he began with. He begins this section, by asking ‘what is wrong with universalism in any case’? (p. 196). After noting the ‘burgeoning literature on this subject’ (p. 196) he proceeds to note that ‘one of the more perplexing aspects of the current controversy is the way in which critics of the universalist case concede that it would be nice if it were true’ (p. 196-7). He cites Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig as examples of those who would like to believe that ‘universalism were true, but it is not’ (p. 197). He then comments: ‘Such remarks are puzzling. Are we saying that God’s final scheme is undesirable? Are we even suggesting that our own moral preferences are somehow better than God’s. Can we claim to be evangelical if we hold that it would be good if universalism were true while also lamenting wistfully that it is not what God has on offer? There is a good dominical response to this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11)’ (p. 197). I believe that we ought to hear these questions with their full force, regardless of where we end up on this vexed question.

Fergusson proceeds to note that universalism’s attraction is its ‘ability to present a vision of cosmic fulfillment in which God executes justice, not only for human beings whose lives have been maimed by nature or society, but also for the whole creation … Universalism should not be tempered therefore until its profound attractions are understood. We might try to avoid it by proposing that the grace of God is offered to all in Christ but, for those who reject it, God’s scheme of justice demands eternal punishment or at least annihilation’ (p. 197).

Fergusson rehearses the well-worn argument that any certainty in an apokatastasis, while a theoretical possibility, is ultimately ‘as deterministic and destructive of human freedom as the doctrine of double predestination in hyper-Calvinism’ (p. 199). The theoretical possibility Fergusson entertains is entirely dependent on an advance in human free will. He employs the usual rhetoric of love needing to be a free human response, an ontological reality that makes the possibility of rejecting God a final possibility. One of the problems with this common argument is that Jesus potentially died for no-one. And so parroting Davis’ and Craig’s response to universalism, I confess that it would be nice if the free will argument was true, but it’s not. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the only two tenable (i.e. biblically and theologically defensible) positions available for this soteriological question are either (i) a robust reaffirmation of limited atonement (the negative side of which includes the possibility of annihilation), or (ii) some form of christological universalism (as opposed to the Hickian vision).

Fergusson’s final answer to the question that he started off with, that is, ‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’, seems to be answered by, ‘Only with our help’! He concludes: ‘An eschatology needs to express the ways in which our lives are bound up with those of our neighbors and with creation as a whole and involve decisions and projects of eternal significance. By so doing the eschatological vision of the kingdom of God can furnish us with a sense of the permanence and grandeur of God’s love. The possibility that we may inexplicably exclude ourselves from this ultimate community is a condition of the significance , of our God-given freedom’ (p. 202).

My question is this: In the light of God’s action in Christ, is Fergusson’s vision all that we can reasonably hope for? I hope not, and Barth’s witness in 4/1 reminds me why I have good reason to hope not:

The ordaining of salvation for man and of man for salvation is the original and basic will of God, the ground and purpose of His will as Creator. It is not that He first wills and works the being of the world and man, and then ordains it to salvation But God creates, preserves and over-rules man for this prior end and with this prior purpose, that there may be a being distinct from Himself ordained for salvation, for perfect being, for participation in His own being, because as the One who loves in freedom He has determined to exercise redemptive grace – and that there may be an object of this His redemptive grace, a partner to receive it … The “God with us” has nothing to do with chance. As a redemptive happening it means the revelation and confirmation of the most primitive relationship between God and man, that which was freely determined in eternity by God Himself before there was any created being. In the very fact that man is, and that he is man, he is as such chosen by God for salvation; that eschaton is given him by God. Not because God owes it to him. Not in virtue of any quality or capacity of his own being. Completely without claim. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 (ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. G. W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 9–10.

Ratzinger on Salvation and Hope

Within the past week, on the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle and on the eve of Advent, Pope Benedict XVI released an encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope). In his introduction he writes, ‘Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey’.

Even if not convincing at all points, it is a rich document that deserves close reading and reflection. Here’s a particularly rich taster:

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning-it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice-the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together-judgement and grace-that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

What Does It Mean To Be Saved?: A Review

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., (ed)., What Does It Mean To Be Saved?: Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). 203 pages. ISBN: 080102353X. Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic.

‘This book shouldn’t be necessary’. So begins the Preface to this collection papers from a 2001 conference hosted by Regent College. Unfortunately, as each of the essays suggests, a book such as this will remain necessary this side of the Lord’s parousia. How well this collection, and the church itself, addresses such a perceived void ought in itself be a subject of some discussion too.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, and editor of Evangelical Futures and No Other Gods before Me?, has again placed us in his debt by gathering together a group of fine papers by a distinguished group of scholars: Loren Wilkinson, Henri A. G. Blocher, Amy L. Sherman, Rikk E. Watts, Cherith Fee Nordling, Vincent Bacote, D. Bruce Hindmarsh. The inclusion of two critically responsive essays, by John Webster and Jonathan R. Wilson, are a most valuable inclusion to this volume, identifying common themes among the various contributors, suggesting areas of concern and possible trajectories for further conversation.

Each essayist, from a wide range of specialisations, representing diverse confessions, various (Western, though not from lack of trying to include participants from the Two-Thirds World) countries, and different stages of academic life, though all with a common commitment to an evangelical expression of Christian faith, seeks to respond to a narrow understanding of salvation that amounts to ‘a sort of spiritual individualism that is little better than Gnosticism’ (p. 9) and point us towards a more holistic vision of what God is up to in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. The goal: ‘to prod evangelical theology out of its comfortable spiritual individualism and toward a vision of salvation as large as God’s mission to the world he loves and redeems’ (p. 10).

Stackhouse invites theology professors and pastors to move beyond the notion that salvation is not about ‘Christians going to heaven’. Instead, he suggests, ‘salvation is about God redeeming the whole earth. Salvation is about Christians – and perhaps others, also saved by the work of Christ but perhaps not knowing about him in this life – heading home to the God they love and the company of all the faithful. Salvation is about heading for the New Jerusalem, not heaven: a garden city on earth, not the very abode of God and certainly not a bunch of pink clouds in the sky. Salvation is not about the mental cartoons drawn by medieval illustrators and found in Far Side comic strips. It is about the splendid collage of images offered up in the wealth of biblical glimpses of what is to come. And salvation is not only about what is to come but also about what is ours to enjoy and foster here and now’. (p. 10)

In the opening essay, entitled, ‘The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God’, Rikk E. Watts fitly argues that a recovery of a biblically-informed and determined soteriology will transform our understanding of humanity as the imago dei. Specifically, our soteriology must maintain at or near its centre the notion of the new exodus/new creational restoration of our embodied humanity. Thus eschatology is fundamental to any soteriology worth its name. Watts traces this theme from creation as YHWH’s temple-palace though to the installation of YHWH’s image into that temple-palace, from the exodus as re-creation and image renewal to the final restoration of the imago dei in the Incarnation. This is a fascinating essay, and sets the ball rolling for multiple reflections throughout the book on the centrality of the imago dei for soteriology.

D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s essay, one of the most interesting in the collection, explores what being saved meant for the early evangelicals. He argues that the resources for a renewal and broadening of the grammar and praxis of soteriology that is called for by the Lausanne Covenant and the Manila Manifesto are to be found within evangelicalism itself. He suggests that there is a congenital weakness in the evangelical tradition that pulls evangelicals in the direction of withdrawal from society and a privatised, individualistic piety. The Lausanne discussions, he notes, along with a host of political, cultural, and charitable initiatives begun by evangelicals in the second half of the twentieth century, witness to a significant effort to redress the effects of the great reversal and restore a more balanced evangelical integration of gospel proclamation and social concern. The focus of Hindmarsh’s contribution is principally John Wesley, and Hindmarsh offers a beautiful account of early Methodism’s concern for the body and soul, for society as well as for individuals, for the poor as well as for the rich. He notes that Wesley understood his mission as privileging the poor, whom he believed have a ‘privileged place in God’s program’ (p. 48). Moreover, Wesley maintained a sociology of mission that understood that the gospel went to work on a society normally from the bottom up, not the top down. The very last to enter the kingdom, Wesley argued, will be the academics: ‘Last of all the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children, and enter into the kingdom of God”’ (p. 49). Hindmarsh cites John Walsh: Wesley ‘tried to re-sacralize the poor in an age in which moralists and economists often saw them only as a problem; as reluctant producers of labour, as a social threat, or at least a nuisance. For Wesley, the indigent were “poor members of Christ”’ (p. 51). Hindmarsh proceeds to note that the early evangelicals had a vision for the transformation of society and the entire cosmos, the gospel itself transforming first individuals, then families, Christian nations and finally non-Christian nations.

Henri A. G. Blocher, in certainly the most cogent historical-dogmatic paper in the book, seeks to redress the distortion in Aulen’s over-stated Christus Victor motif by bringing together the ‘classic’ and ‘Latin’ views of the atonement. He writes: ‘The key position of the doctrine of vicarious punishment answers to the privilege of personal-relational-juridical categories, within the framework of covenant, to deal with the divine-human communication, over against that of ontological participation and moral assimilation in other strands of the Christian tradition. This “mind” is biblical. However, such a position does not make other languages and schemes superfluous, and it does not rule out ontological dimensions and moral influence. The polemic presentation, especially, is a welcome complement: When one understands that Christ’s victory was based on his sacrifice, one should unfold the fruit of his death as radical and universal victory! Understanding that Satan was defeated as the Accuser may help us to retain the particle of truth in the awkward suggestion that God’s attributes of mercy and justice had to be “reconciled” by the cross: Though God’s attributes are one (descriptions of the one essence), once evil entered the world (through God’s wholly mysterious, inscrutable permission), his justice became in a way the enemy’s weapon – until the divine wisdom (and love) provided the way for God to be both just and the one who justifies sinners through faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26)’ (p. 90).

Vincent Bacote questions the adequacy of much evangelical soteriology, charging it with individualism and an over-concern with maintaining the status-quo. He proceeds to offer us what he calls ‘concrete soteriology’ which he describes as public in nature, political in character, pneumatologically inspired, and emphasises the need for place. ‘Concrete soteriology’ he argues, ‘recognizes that we were created to be at home somewhere and does not gloss over that fact by trumpeting the slogan, ”I’m just passing through this world.” While here, this life is not to be merely survived, particularly in nations and communities in which other Christians flourish’ (p. 112).

Cherith Fee Nordling’s delightful essay is one of the collection’s most instructive. Like Watts’, her concentration too is on the imago dei which she expounds as the relationality of the Triune Family into whose koinonia we are drawn to participate by virtue of God’s saving action. This reality also informs and defines humanity’s horizontal sociality and liberates sinners for fellowship. She then turns to the question of sexuality as an essential feature of the imago and argues that to be a human being is to be sexually differentiated, and therefore to be saved means that we continue to be female and male human beings in the age to come as new creations in Christ.

In the paper, ‘Salvation as Life in the (New) City’, Amy L. Sherman reminds us that the ultimate destination for believers is a city. She proceeds to define this city as characterised fourfold: (i) a refuge for the weak; (ii) a place of permanent residency; (iii) a place where we are named; and (iv) a place where we see Jesus face to face.

In the final essay, Loren Wilkinson tries to make a case for why ‘Christians should be converted pagans’. He suggests that Neo-paganism is ‘an attempt to recover an aspect of being human that is central to the gospel but is often obscured – that is, we cannot be fully human until our restored relationship with the Creator results in a restored relationship not only with other men and women but also with the rest of creation, which is seen and accepted as a divine gift. Paganism (old and new) sees that divine gift as the only essential revelation, and harmony with creation and its resident gods or spirits as the only salvation. Thus, paganism is forever inadequate for the wholeness its believers seek. But inasmuch as paganism does have open eyes to the gift-nature of creation, it glimpses a truth to which Christians are sometimes blind’ (p. 154). Beneath the puerility and plain silliness of a good bit of neopagan ritual, he argues, lies a longing for wholeness that can be fulfilled only through reconciliation with the Creator, a reconciliation that cannot be achieved outside of what God has accomplished in Christ. The danger for Christians today, he suggests, is that we are so afraid of the possibility of paganism or pantheism that we radically distance Creator from creation and understand salvation in such a way that it has no implications for creation. Until our understanding and our living our of new life in Jesus Christ involve a changed relationship with the earth, which God is also making new, we encourage an unconverted paganism, for paganism, rightly understood, is not an alternative to belief but rather a preparation for it. Wilkinson thus considers neo-paganism as a point of contact. He goes so far as to state that ‘a Christian who is not at the same time a redeemed pagan is in danger of a kind of Gnostic or Manichean denial of what it means to be a physical, created being enmeshed in the cycles of created. Thus, Christians need to be converted pagans’ (p. 155). Wilkinson’s essay is essentially a renewed defence of natural theology and, as Webster perceptively notes, highlights the incredibly high price that theology has to pay for its engagement in apologetics. Commendably, each contribution in this volume, and perhaps especially Wilkinson’s, is undergirded by a conscious concern for the mission of the church as part of the missio dei.

While this assemblage of conference papers has less of a ‘hit and miss’ feel to it than do many published collections, the combined voice of the essayists, although traversing a lot of rich soil with a good torch, still left me quite unsatisfied and somewhat concerned about the current state of evangelical theology. Allow me to note just a few of my concerns:

On a minor point, it is unclear who the intended audience for this book is.

More substantially, there is very little explicit discussion on the issues of justification, and none at all on sanctification nor on the question of universalism. Whether these areas are simply assumed (can they ever afford to be?), or ignored as being in the ‘too hard basket’, the absence of any discussion on these themes across the papers is a disappointment. Also, the absence of any exposition on the notion of God’s wrath and final judgement seems to reflect evangelicalism’s increasing embarrassment and failure to speak about wrath in the context of a positive soteriology.

The largely unqualified acceptance of some undefined form or other of natural theology is troubling, especially if this collection represents the future direction of any theology which wishes to retain the name ‘evangelical’. While not all evangelicals will want to echo a ‘Nein’ as strong as Barth’s here, all ought to share Barth’s concern at what is at stake in the question, and proceed with caution as wisely as Calvin or Forsyth does regarding this question. Far too much is at stake to do otherwise.

Finally, a call: Salvation is not an idea. It is an act! In a collection of this type, more ought to be have been made of this. As Hartwell has reminded us, ‘Objectively (de jure) all [people] are already justified, sanctified, and called in Jesus Christ in and through what He has done in their stead and for their sake. In Him, objectively, the old [person] has already passed away; in Him, objectively, we are already the new [person], represented as such by Him before God. However, though the salvation of all [people] is already objectively accomplished by Jesus Christ – without them and, as His Cross teaches, against them – many of them have not yet perceived and accepted what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. In order that Jesus Christ’s objective reconciling work may subjectively (de facto) bear fruit in the lives of individual [persons] and through them, as His witnesses, in the lives of other [persons], there is still needed as an essential part of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ the subjective apprehension, acceptance, appropriation and application of that work’. More attention could (and should) have been given to this reality than is given in this volume.

These concerns aside, Stackhouse and Co are to be commended for putting together a helpful assembly of essays (and responses) that address such a central question What does it mean to be saved? – and to do so in a way that engages with contemporary issues. Each essay invites us to reflect again on how wide is the love of God in Christ, and to broaden our soteriological horizons so that the things of this world may not grow strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

God’s one need

The word: ‘God concentrates Himself on Christ. The whole light of Eternity is poured forth upon us through the single soul of Christ. The one thing needful for God was lost man’s salvation, and so He humbled Himself in the Cross. All the world belonged to Him, all stars, all powers, but not Man. This one thing had to be done, and Christ alone, who was the Presence of God, could do it. What shall it profit God if He win the whole world and lose Man?’ – PT Forsyth

The painting: ‘Jonah’ (c. 1885-95)
Albert Pinkham Ryder
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Calvin on salvation in Christ

It’s good to be back home after holidaying and conferencing. I found SST helpful for four reasons: 1. It was a good insight into the state of the theology academy in England; 2. Great opportunities to meet people who are engaged in the doing of theology; 3. I heard some great short papers. Ones by Oliver Crisp and Angus Paddison were highlights for me. Angus’ was on Forsyth, so how could he go wrong!; 4. I always enjoy giving a paper.

Today has been a day of getting back into thesis work. The quote of the day goes to Calvin: ‘We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him’ [I Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [compare to Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment; in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from the fountain, and from no other.’ – Institutes 2.16.19.

Hunting for stray sheep

‘What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.’ (Matthew 18:12-13)