Christian Salvation: Biblical and Theological Perspectives

Article excerpt

CONTEMPORARY TREATMENTS OF trinitarian theology and Christology routinely make the point that these central doctrines of Christian faith are ultimately anchored in a soteriological vision. (1) Yet, contemporary articulations of Christian salvation tend to be less inclusive of traditional motifs than analogous reflections on the mysteries of Trinity and Christ. (2) Undoubtedly, part of the reason for this is that the tradition has not authoritatively sanctioned a particular version of conceiving Christian salvation. Colin Gunton suggests that another reason is the post-Enlightenment disdain of imagery, metaphor, and symbol on behalf of a "conceptual rationalism" that gives exclusive honor to the propositional expression of truth. (3) On the other hand, the revalorization of metaphor as rendering valid epistemic access to reality is a feature of contemporary hermeneutics that provides new opportunities for the contemporary appropriation of traditional representations of Christian salvation. (4) Such appropriation can find resources in various modern taxonomies of this tradition that seek to identify the key metaphors for articulating Christian salvation such as victory, atonement, and illumination. (5) But as valuable as this approach is, it tends to overprivelege the pertinent metaphor (e.g. "atonement") and lose sight of the underlying systems or "models," the complex of experiences, concepts, images, and patterns of divine-human interaction that gives meaning to the metaphor. The project of this article is to suggest three such models for conceiving Christian salvation. We have chosen to designate these models as "prophetic," "liturgical," and "sapiential." (6) In each case, we aim to show a biblical pattern for conceiving God's salvific work, the concrete referent in human experience to which this pattern referred, and a theological appropriation of this pattern in the theology of the early Church. Our goal is not to provide yet another taxonomy of soteriological metaphors, though readers will note that each of the models lends itself most naturally to a particular set of traditional soteriological metaphors. Rather, our aim is to demonstrate the value of looking at the biblical and patristic tradition through a larger lens than that provided by the category of metaphor. Our hope is that such an approach will render this tradition more intelligible and susceptible to appropriation in our own time.

In the first of our biblical models, the "prophetic," salvation is effected in a lengthy process within history by means of human instruments; we call it "prophetic" because it is clearest in the Old Testament prophets especially Isaiah; in the New Testament it is well represented in the Gospel of Luke. In the "liturgical" model, atonement is a part of a system where the divine suzerain dwells in the midst of his people, the relationship being maintained and safeguarded through gifts and sacrifices; the system underlies Leviticus, which in turn has influenced the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. In the "sapiential" model, sin is viewed as ignorance and disregard of divine instruction, and salvation as willing reception of divine wisdom; the system is clear in Proverbs 1-9, when Wisdom, personified as an attractive woman, invites "simple" youths to become her disciples and to live with her. This concept of Woman Wisdom shaped the portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.


The Prophetic Model in Isaiah

In the "prophetic" model of salvation in the Old Testament, God initiates a process within history to rectify an unjust situation and employs human instruments to do so. Without atonement rituals, the effects of sin are undone and divine justice restored. A small-scale (and non-prophetic) example of such rectification is found in Genesis 37-50 where the brothers' sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery is healed through a process that is recognized only retrospectively as divinely led (Genesis 38:26; 45:1-15; 50:15-21). …