Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Healing and Salvation in Late Modernity: The Use and Implication of Such Terms in the Ecumenical Movement

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Healing and Salvation in Late Modernity: The Use and Implication of Such Terms in the Ecumenical Movement

Article excerpt


This article explores developments over the last decades in the way ecumenical texts, primarily originating from world conferences organized by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, speak about soteriology. Under the headlines, "Salvation Today" (1973) and "Your Kingdom Come" (1980), terminology inspired by liberation theology took centre stage, and a predominantly immanent understanding of salvation was promoted. In recent years a different terminology has taken over, and it is one that focuses on "healing" and "the fullness of life". At its best, the holistic healing approach manages to take up the important concerns from earlier times, such as economic justice, racism and environmental issues, while at the same time giving more room for existential issues and the experiences of the individual.

The new healing discourse appears to reflect two different modalities of the church's healing ministry, viz. that which is concerned with the causes of suffering, and that which addresses the experience of suffering. The latter was often ignored in the recent past. The healing discourse gives room for new explorations of practices that have been central in the church throughout its history, such as anointing the sick, and praying for and with them, and hearing individual confessions.

Openness towards subjective experience also has implications for the contextualization of the Christian faith. There is a new awareness that not only do the causes of suffering vary from situation to situation but so does the understanding of (what constitutes) suffering itself. Changing or varying understandings of suffering give rise to different approaches to its alleviation, and can inspire a rethinking of how we understand salvation in different contexts.

The new healing discourse can also be studied in its relationship to cultural trends known as post-modernity or late modernity. The texts under study display very ambivalent approaches to these developments. There might be a tendency for texts that have concrete experience as their starting point to take a more positive view of these cultural developments than do texts that begin with more general theological observations.


What is salvation? This simple and forthright question does not have a simple and forthright answer in current theology. Even if many would claim that the attainment of salvation is at the core of Christian life, few representatives of mainline churches would venture to give a precise definition of what salvation really is. Discussion often focuses on how to attain salvation, who attains it, and by what means it is attained. Nevertheless, the question of what the churches mean when they talk about salvation has been central in international ecumenical conferences over the last few decades. The Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), under the World Council of Churches (WCC), has repeatedly convened its world conferences under soteriological themes, such as "Salvation Today" (Bangkok 1973), "Your Kingdom Come" (Melbourne 1980) and "Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile. Called to be Reconciling and Healing Communities" (Athens 2005).

In this article, I will explore how the soteriological discourse employed in documents from ecumenical conferences over the last thirty years has moved from an emphasis on terms such as the kingdom of God, and God's preferential option for the poor towards centring on healing and reconciliation. Other international church organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches have also taken up these latter themes. (1) The change in terminology is noteworthy because it is exactly that, viz. a change in terminology. The issues discussed--the concrete challenges in the world and the church's ministry to address them--appear to vary less than the terminology employed to discuss them. …

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