Jesus and Salvation: An Essay in Interpretation

By Haight, Roger | Theological Studies, June 1994 | Go to article overview
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Jesus and Salvation: An Essay in Interpretation


Haight, Roger, Theological Studies


THE CONCEPT of salvation is central to Christianity. From a historical perspective, the experience of Jesus as savior is the basis from which the Christian movement sprang. This religion arose and continues to exist because people experience Jesus as a bringer of God's salvation. Christology in its narrow sense of defining the status of Jesus before God and human beings depends upon soteriology. Yet despite this centrality and importance, the Church has never formulated a conciliar definition of salvation nor provided a universally accepted conception. This is not necessarily something negative, but it still leaves us with a pluralism in the domain of the theology of salvation, the meaning of which remains open and fluid. Salvation is also elusive: like time, every Christian knows its meaning until asked to explain it.

Because of its centrality, the problems that surround the concept of salvation are rendered more grave. Many of the traditional expressions of how Jesus saves are expressed in myths that no longer communicate to educated Christians; some are even offensive. Some of the traditional theological "explanations" of salvation through Christ do no better. Often treatments of salvation are largely devoted to rehearsing traditional theories or presenting models or types which seem to inject some order into the disarray.(1) But one cannot assume that these are credible today, and too little attention is given to intelligible present-day reinterpretation. Given the pluralism of conceptions, is there a way systematically to establish a center of gravity on the salvation mediated by Jesus that will be clear and definite but open and not exclusive? In the face of the confusion about the nature of salvation, can one formulate the present-day questions and crises to which Jesus provides a salvific answer? Given the incredibility of the mythological language when it is read at face value, can one find a symbolic formulation of this doctrine that is closer to actual human experience today?

These issues serve as a backdrop for the main question that guides this essay at interpretation. Because salvation in its religious sense can come only from God, many of the theories of salvation that emerged after the first century in both the Greek and Latin traditions focused on Jesus as a divine figure, or on the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, their language drifted away from the concrete historical ministry of Jesus. On the one hand, these theories are beginning to sound unrealistic; even when they are interpreted symbolically, they are too far removed from ordinary experience to command respect. On the other hand, this situation is reinforced by present-day historical consciousness and its highlighting of the humanity of Jesus. How does the prominent place that the historical Jesus is assuming in Christology come to bear on salvation theory? More deeply, how is the salvation mediated by Jesus to be understood within the framework of a historicist imagination?

In attempting to respond to these questions, I have divided this article into three parts. The first part lays the groundwork for the rest of the study. It deals with definitions of the point of departure of this investigation, its presuppositions, and its method. The second part deals with the tradition and offers an interpretation of some of the experiences that lie beneath some of the standard theories of salvation from the history of doctrine.(2) The third part is an effort to draw the experience of the past forward by placing it in conjunction with some existential questions of our time that call out for salvation.

Some of the best ground regarding salvation has been gained in the area of New Testament history and interpretation.(3) This article picks up where study of the New Testament leaves off and is limited to a consideration of some of the tradition's classic conceptions of how Jesus saves.(4) The New Testament is viewed only obliquely as providing the data which later theology itself interprets.

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