Monday, 15 December 2014

How to Understand Salvation? Critiques on a Narrow Understanding

In the previous post in this series, we saw that "salvation" has often narrowly been understood in terms of "justification" (Reformed theology),  or "saving souls" (Evangelical theology). Over the past decades, this narrow understanding has increasingly been criticized, both by Western and non-Western theologians.

God's salvation, it has been argued, must be understood to comprise social justice, healing, and/or ecology.

[Part 6 in a series on New Wine and systematic theology, drawn from my research master thesis Life to the Full. From Creation to Re-Creation, VU University 2014]

Criticism from Global Christianity

Over the past decades, the traditional Protestant concepts of salvation have increasingly come under criticism from theologians from the Global South. These non-Western theologians are approaching soteriology from different perspectives and divergent worldviews, asking different questions and emphasising other strands in the Biblical witness of the salvation of God.[1] And for the record, these are not merely liberation theologians and Pentecostals, but Reformed theologians too.
They are joined by theologians from the West, who as a consequence of a renewal of biblical studies with its revitalized understanding of soteriology, agree that the traditional Protestant dealing with issues of salvation often has been too narrow. Some of these Western theologians can be associated with the charismatic renewal within the Protestant churches, that was ignited in the 1950s - decades before any significant influence of charismatic non-Western theology was noticeable in these churches (see the previous chapter). But quite apart from charismatic renewal, many Western theologians have come to reconceive their soteriologies and their understanding of the nature of salvation as a consequence of either ecumenical dialogue - enriching denominational perspectives on soteriology - or new insights coming from a renewal of biblical studies, or most likely a combination of both.

The typologies give above, then, are no more than typologies, indeed, since each strand has more or less been influenced by these debates over the last few decades. Bottom line of the contemporary criticism, then, has been that if we want to be true to the Bible, the scope of salvation must be broadened to comprise wholeness in various aspects of creaturely reality. Three broad categories can be distinguished:

        Social justice and peace
        Healing and deliverance

Let’s have a brief look at each of these categories.

1. Salvation and Social Justice

Missionary Christianity has an ambiguous heritage in Africa, as often has been stated over the past decades by both African theologians and Western missiologists like David Bosch and Andrew Walls.[2] This is not merely of matter of politics and cultural dominance, but also of theology. Moreover, not merely Western mission has needed revision, but also a revision of theological content might be called for, as many Western theologians have argued.
One of these voices comes from South African Reformed theologian Gerrit Brand. As a white South African who studied theology at the University of Pretoria and did his PhD-research at the Theological Faculty of Utrecht University (The Netherlands), he must on the one hand be considered a Western theologian, but on the other hand “an African who shares many of the concerns [of African theology]”, as he states in the preface of his PhD-dissertation.[3]  This bridging-position makes him an interesting representative. His dissertation is also interesting for our present study because it focuses on the concept of salvation.
One aspect of this ambiguous heritage of Western mission in Africa, has to do with social justice - not merely as a political category (the wrongdoings of colonialism), but in direct relation to the theological understanding of salvation. Brand refers to the old adage: “When the missionaries came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’, and we closed our eyes… and when we opened our eyes, we saw that they had the land, and we were holding the Bible.” Is it not true, that “very often, the missionaries either prepared the way for the colonizing power or missionary work was used for political purposes”?[4] After the political decolonization of Africa, African Christianity has needed decades to also decolonize the Christian faith and emancipate. Christianity had to be allowed to root in African soil, and to be recognized as a religion that is not Western and foreign, but global and true to Africa. This included a re-thinking of the concept of salvation.[5] It is unavoidable, Brand asserts, to acknowledge that something is wrong with the traditional Western understanding of salvation.

“What will be clear, is that, if Africans are to speak authentically and with integrity about salvation in Christ, they will have to do so in ways that differ considerably from traditional Western (missionary) precedents. At least part of an adequate African Christian soteriology will have to consist of an attempt to expose the characteristic weaknesses of traditional Western accounts of salvation. It is not sufficient to assume that ‘something’ must be wrong with Western Christian talk of salvation if such talk did not prevent, and even contributed to the enslavement, oppression, exploitation and humiliation of Africans.”[6]

It is not surprising therefore, says Brand, that much of the African literature on salvation is engaged in a “deconstruction” of traditional Western soteriologies - a “hermeneutic of suspicion” applied to the concept of salvation that was introduced to Africa by Western missionaries.[7] And as a matter of fact, Brand stresses, Western theology should do the very same.
Apart from these matters of colonialism and identity, African theologians have been pointing to the fact that Western concepts of salvation have been inadequate to address the contemporary political, social and economic issues that Africa is faced with: problems of (neo-)colonialism and economic exploitation, poor government, oppression and corruption, tribalism, racial violence and refugee crises, illiteracy, disease and poverty. These are the areas “in which Africa’s need for salvation is most clearly discernable”, Brand argues.

“A soteriology that has nothing to say to the present-day context in which the Christian church in Africa has to fulfil its mission is simply an unaffordable luxury, and perhaps even a dangerous form of escapism - a kind of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.”[8]

If salvation is to be of any meaning in the African context - or in the context of majority Christianity, for that matter - it will have to deal with these socioeconomic and political dimensions and with the harsh realities of life. The charge of many African theologians against Western Reformed and Evangelical theology has been that its “crucicentrism” meant a one-sided focus on the atonement for sin at the cross (often understood as penal substitution), that has led to a spiritualized concept of salvation, ignoring these harsh realities of life.
Kenyan theologian Jesse N.K. Mugambi insists that both in the African context and in the Bible, “salvation cannot be complete without liberation” - salvation and liberation are theologically complementary, and by commencing his salvific ministry through his reading of Isaiah 61, Jesus acknowledged that the one cannot go without the other.[9] Jean-Marc Ela, eminent among Africa’s contemporary theologians, opposes any presentation of Jesus via a theology of the “salvation of souls”, and repeatedly insists that “salvation in Jesus Christ is liberation from every form of slavery.”[10]

Western voices: Integral mission

The call to reconceive salvation to comprise these aspects of social justice often is associated with the Liberation Theology that began as a movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, and then spread to other churches and continents, including Africa. Many Western theologians - like Jürgen Moltmann - have listened and learned from it.
But many others - mostly so among Evangelical and Reformed theologians - rejected Liberation Theologies for both their political, Marxist thrust, and their theological method (understanding human reality from praxis). As an unfortunate side effect, the entire theme of social justice often was treated suspiciously.

It must be acknowledged that despite this suspicion an awareness arose within the Western Evangelical movement that mission must comprise issues of social justice, leading to a movement of “integral” or “holistic” mission, as was noted in our paragraph on the perception of salvation in Modern Evangelical theology. However, we also noted the general refusal to consider social justice as part of God’s salvation. We will get back to this in the next chapter. At this point it suffices to note that this is exactly what many non-Western theologians are pleading for: reconceiving the theological understanding of salvation, in order to comprise issues of social justice.

Michael Welker: Realistic Theology

German Reformed theologian Michael Welker wholeheartedly agrees. Welker - who received his first PhD-degree in 1973 for research with Moltmann in Tübingen - is well-aware of the pluralistic, global context for contemporary theology, and engages frequently in exchanges with theologians from the Global South. Drawing from these academic experiences, he pleads for a so-called “realistic theology” that is grounded in the experiences within the Global Church. This realistic theology is

“a theology that is related to various structural patterns of experience and that cultivates a sensitivity to the differences of this various patterns. It is precisely in this diverse and complex relation to God’s reality and to creaturely reality as intended by God that realistic theology seeks to perform its task.”[11]

This does not imply that Welker’s theology is a theology “from below”, grounded only in human experiences and people’s search for God, he hastens to say. “A realistic theology mediates this need of theologies grounded in human experiences with the concern of classical, Reformation, and dialectical theologies ‘from above’.” In other words, while warranting the concerns of Reformed theology, Welker aims at taking serious the experiences of believers around the globe.
This leads him to vindicating the concerns of the liberation theologies from Latin America, Asia and Africa, and processing this in his own systematic theology. Without agreeing with everything that is asserted by liberation theologians, Welker maintains that these theologies take up central biblical concerns.

“According to the messianic promises, God establishes justice, mercy and knowledge of God through a ‘Chosen One’ on whom rests the Spirit of God, as well as through the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit. There is no righteousness without mercy, without integration of the weak, without liberation of the oppressed, without those who have been forces to the margins of society participating in the processes of economic, judicial, social, and cultural life.”[12]

Traditional “spiritual” accounts of salvation that narrowly focus on justification must be reconceived, Welker argues, since “material” issues of social justice and peace belong to what the Bible describes as the core of what messianic salvation is about. Moreover, he asserts in his extensive study on the Spirit of God in both the Old and the New Testament, the Spirit of God is primarily the Spirit of justice and peace, acting in, on, and through fleshly, perishable, earthly life, establishing liberation and freedom.[13]

2.Salvation and Healing

The second category that is firmly put on the theological agenda by theologians from the Global South, is that of healing and deliverance. Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye makes the fundamental statement that,

“the cry for salvation/liberation in Africa is primarily a cry for health and wholeness”.[14]

The African understanding of healing is closely related to that of salvation. While in Western understanding illness is a bodily matter concerning the individual, the African perception is holistic. Healing involves more than just the bodily afflictions and reaches beyond the individual – healing is being understood as re-creation of wholeness in all aspects of life, including the spiritual aspects and restoration of social and cosmic relations.[15] For much of African theology, Christian salvation has to comprise this holistic notion of healing to be “salvation” at all.

Within such African theology, deliverance of evil spirits is perceived as part of healing. Traditional Protestantism doesn’t pay much attention to this spiritual world, if any at all. Western missionaries therefore failed to take seriously African concerns about attacks by spirits, witches and sorcerers. When Western missionaries denied the existence of spirits rather than claim the power of Christ over them, they didn’t free their African converts from their ancient beliefs and fears, Evangelical missiologist Keith Ferdinando points out.

“On the contrary, it suggested to them that the gospel had little or nothing to say to their deepest concerns and was thus of only partial relevance to what they saw as the fundamental issues of life. They therefore continued to deal with these concerns in the old ways(...) Christ might be able to save from sin, but the redemption announced by the missionaries had apparently no response to the profoundly felt need for salvation from witches and evil spirits. A syncretistic amalgam of Christian faith and traditional religion was the result, a whole area of reality remaining unredeemed by the gospel”.[16]

In a thorough article on the growth of charismatic churches in Ghana, Presbyterian theologian Cephas Omenyo analyses how Western missionaries in Africa assumed the primacy of Western culture, and failed in contextualizing the Gospel.[17] Often they accommodated their message at the first three levels of contextualization – behaviour, values, and convictions – but failed to discern the deepest level, that of world view. Christian theology, and certainly the concept of salvation, must move beyond its Western perceptions and resonate with non-Western culture too, or it will fail to be “Gospel” - good news – for non-Westerners. Put shortly, Omenyo argues,

“The process of contextualization of Christianity […] should essentially have the reputation of harnessing resources in Christian belief and theology in providing a holistic salvation.”[18]

Western voices: Charismatic renewal and healing

Traditional concepts of salvation in Reformed, Modern Evangelical, and Modern Protestant theology (as previously typified), have thus come under criticism from majority Christianity for its failure to include issues of healing and deliverance. This is not to suggest that this critique comes only from the Global South. Perhaps even stronger than was the case with social justice, this critique is also to be found within Western theology. Within Western Protestantism, there are long-standing traditions that make similar propositions to include healing in our understanding of salvation. In the twentieth century, these traditions surfaced vigorously in the charismatic renewal of the 1950s and 1960s (see my Introductory Chapter).
A prominent representative of this charismatic renewal in the Netherlands, is Old Catholic theologian Martien Parmentier, the first theologian to hold the endowed chair for the theology of charismatic renewal that was constituted at the VU University (1992 - 2000). A well-known phrase by Parmentier is  “Heil maakt heel” – “salvation makes whole”. This is also the title of his book on healing ministry. The historic separation between theological “salvation” and medical “healing” is rather unfortunate, Parmentier holds, since the salvation of God is intrinsically connected with physical and inner healing.[19] Parmentier is hesitant when it comes to deliverance ministry, but other theologians within mainstream Protestantism fully recognize deliverance as an aspect of Christian healing. [20]

Excursus: Materiality of Salvation

The charismatic renewal of the 1950s and 1960s (and in later decades) within the traditional churches called attention to the Pentecostal movement and its insistence on the “materiality of salvation” - the way salvation impinges on earthly, material reality. In 1989, Croatian Protestant (non-charismatic) theologian Miroslav Volf published an much-debated article on this “materiality of salvation”, arguing that classical Protestant theology could benefit from listening closely to Liberation and Pentecostal theology - “the most vibrant expressions of Christian faith in the rapidly growing two-thirds-world church.” A willingness to learn from majority Christianity, could help Western Protestant theology to come to “a more adequate doctrine of salvation.”[21]
While Liberation theology emphasizes the immanence of God and God’s activity in history “from below”, and Pentecostal theology stresses the transcendence of God and God’s activity as coming down vertically “from above”, they share one crucial aspect in their soteriologies, namely their emphasis on the “materiality” of salvation.

“Salvation is not merely a spiritual reality touching only an individual person’s inner being but also has to do with bodily human existence. Moreover, for both theologies the materiality of salvation is not a marginal theme but an essential constituent.”[22]

It is precisely in this respect, Volf asserted, that they differ most radically from classical Protestantism. Volf then offers a sophisticated analysis of Luther’s soteriology, showing how Luther first made an anthropological distinction between the “inner man” and the “outward man”, and then superimposed on this anthropological distinction a second, soteriological distinction between  “new man” and “old man”, often imprecisely identifying the two pairs of expressions. It is then only the “inner man” who may become a “new man”. In the present life, the “outward man” remains outside the sphere of the salvific activity of God. Salvation then, is merely spiritual, concerning only the non-bodily existence of man.
The earthly realm does matter to Luther, as he stresses the importance of acts of love, stemming from faith. But these acts have to do with temporal well-being of the “outward man” only, with law and iustitia civilis, and should not be understood as an aspect of salvation (and iustitia Dei) itself.

“Classical (and to a large extent modern) Protestant theology since Luther has retained his radical distinction between salvation and well-being and denied that salvation can be partly experienced in the realm of bodily existence in the world. Today, both liberation theology and pentecostal theology, each in its own way, are calling into question this soteriological tradition. While they are careful not to identify salvation with the betterment of the earthly condition, both claim that salvation can be experienced in the material realm as well.”[23]

After discussing the understanding of salvation in liberation theology and Pentecostalism, Volf proposes that

“A responsible contemporary theology of salvation needs to integrate the distinctive soteriological characteristics of all three traditions discussed - the personal-spiritual aspect of salvation emphasized in classical Protestantism, the individual-physical aspect of salvation emphasized by Pentecostalists, and the socioeconomic aspect emphasized by liberation theologians.”[24]

3. Salvation and Ecology

Volf also mentions a fourth aspect of salvation, that is largely disregarded in all three traditions: the ecological aspect. Since the early 1970s, the so-called “ecotheology” has emerged, though - slowly gaining influence.[25] One of its contemporary representatives within Reformed theology, is South African Reformed theologian Ernst M. Conradie.
Christian theology would lose its credibility if it failed to address the ecological challenges of today, Conradie argues in his impressive investigation into views on creation and salvation within the Reformed tradition.[26] Moreover, it should be acknowledged that the root causes of the environmental crisis are related to the impact of Christianity. There are some serious flaws in the Christian tradition, allowing for the exploitation and destruction of nature in the history of Christianity, Conradie asserts. He agrees with James Nash that a reformation of the Christian tradition is needed, induced by the ecological critique.[27] Therefore, “ecotheology” should not be a sub-discipline of Christian ethics, being a hobby for those theologians with a personal interest in nature. Instead, the entire life and praxis of the church should include an ecological dimension and vision.
Moreover, the ecological critique “requires a reinvestigation of Christian doctrine as well.” This reinvestigation,

“cannot be narrowly focused on a reinterpretation of creation theology only, but calls for a review of all aspects of the Christian faith, including (...) salvation.”[28]

There have been four crucial areas where Christian piety “has often inhibited an ecological ethos, spirituality and praxis”, Conradie argues, namely,

     a worldless notion of God’s transcendence
     a dualist anthropology
     a personalist reduction of the cosmic scope of salvation
     and an escapist eschatology.[29]

The main issue at hand, may be the “anthropocentric notion of salvation” that has been characteristic for much of Protestant theology. There has been,

“a long-standing tendency, especially in Protestant theology, to portray the Christian message of salvation as being narrowly focused on the redemption of human beings. At worst, it has been described as redemption from the earth.”[30]

Instead it should be affirmed that creation itself must be saved (redemption of the earth). The cosmic scope of God’s salvation implies a loving concern for all of creation (see Chapter 4).

In the next post in this series, we will briefly look into the Biblical language on salvation.


[1] See Gerrit Brand, ‘Salvation in African Christian Theology: A Typology of Existing Approaches’, Exchange 28:3 (1999), 194-223.
[2] For instance, David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission. Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), and Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996).
[3] Gerrit Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost. In Search of Theological Criteria with Special Reference to the Debate on Salvation in African Christian Theology, Contributions to Philosophical Theology, Volume 7 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag,  2002). Until his untimely decease in 2013, he worked as senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
[4] Victor Wan-Tatah, Emancipation in African Theology: An Enquiry into the Relevance of Latin American Liberation Theology to Africa, American University Studies: Series 7, Theology and Religion. Vol. 14 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 1989).
[5] See Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) and Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, revised and expanded edition (New York: Orbis Books, 2009).
[6] Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost, 68.
[7] Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost, 69.
[8] Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost, 70.
[9] Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa. Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), 222-224. See also J.N.K. Mugambi, ‘The Future of the Church and the Church of the Future in Africa’, in: José B. Chipenda (ed.), The Church of Africa: Towards a Theology of Reconstruction (Nairobi: All Africa Conference of Churches, 1991) and J.N.K. Mugambi, Christian Theology and Social Reconstruction (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2003).
[10] Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa, 194. See also Jean-Marc Ela, ‘Christianity and Liberation in Africa’, in: Rosino Gibellini (ed.), Paths of African Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), 142.
[11] Michael Welker, God the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994). Translation of Gottes Geist: Theologie des Heiligen Geistes (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1992), x-xi.
[12] Welker, God the Spirit, 16.
[13] Welker, God the Spirit, 296-7.
[14] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986), 44.
[15] Kingsley Larbi, ‘Healing’, in: Tokunboh Adeyemo (ed.), Africa Bible Commentary (Nairobi: WordAlive Publishers, 2006), 447. See also Diane Stinton, ‘Jesus – Immanuel, Image of the invisible God: aspects of popular Christology in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Journal of Reformed Theology 1 (2007) 6-40. In an illuminating article by Zabon Nthamburi and Douglas Waruta, they discern the “quest for salvation/healing and wholeness” as one of the key characteristics of African hermeneutics (‘Biblical Hermeneutics in African Instituted Churches’, in: Hannah Kinoti and John Waliggo (eds.), The Bible in African Christianity (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1997). See also Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, ‘African Theology’, in: Ford and Muers (eds.), The Modern Theologians (2007), 485-501.
[16] Keith Ferdinando, The Triumph of Christ in African Perspective. A Study of Demonology and Redemption in the African Context (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), 3. Ferdinando quotes Osadolor Imasogie: “The usual resort of the African Christian in crisis situations is a reversion to traditional African religious practices” (Imasogie, Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa, Achimota: Africa Christian Press, 1993, 52).
[17] Cephas Omenyo, ‘Charismatic Churches in Ghana’, Exchange Vol. 31:3 (2002), 252-277.
[18] Omenyo, ‘Charismatic Churches in Ghana’, 257.
[19]  Martien Parmentier, Heil maakt heel. De bediening tot genezing (Zoetermeer: Meinema, 1997), 11-13.
[20] Within the Dutch context the following contemporary Reformed theologians should be mentioned, as processing notions of healing and/or deliverance in their theologies: C. van der Kooi, Tegenwoordigheid van Geest. Verkenningen op het gebied van de Heilige Geest (Kampen: Kok, 2006); K.J. Kraan, Opdat gij genezing ontvangt. Handboek voor de dienst der genezing (Hoornaar: Gideon, 1974); K.J. Kraan, Genezing en bevrijding, Vol. 1-3 (Kampen: Kok, 1983-1986); M.J. Paul, Vergeving en genezing. Ziekenzalving in de christelijke gemeente (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1997); M.J. Paul (ed.), Geestelijke strijd. Demonie en bevrijding in christelijk perspectief (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2002); J. Veenhof, ‘Charismata – bovennatuurlijk of natuurlijk?’, in: Veenhof, Vrij gereformeerd (Kampen: Kok, 2005); H.U. de Vries, Om heil en genezing te vinden. De dienst der genezing en zijn plaats in instellingen van gezondheidszorg (Kampen: Kok, 2006).
[21]Miroslav Volf, ‘Materiality of Salvation: An Investigation in the Soteriologies of Liberation and Pentecostal Theologies’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26:3 (1989), 447-467.
[22] Volf, ‘Materiality of Salvation’, 448.
[23] Volf, ‘Materiality of Salvation’, 453-4.
[24] Volf, ‘Materiality of Salvation’, 467.
[25] The emergence of ecotheology is often traced back to the publication of an article by historian Lynn White in 1967, on the relationship between theology and the modern ecological crisis; Lynn White, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, republished in A.E. Lugo & S.C. Snedaker (eds.), Readings on Ecological Systems: Their Function and Relation to Man (New York: MSS Educational Publishing, 1971). See also Rogers, J. (1973). ‘Ecological Theology: The Search for an Appropriate Theological Model’, in: Septuagesimo anno: Theologische opstellen aangeboden aan prof. dr. G.C. Berkouwer ter gelegenheid van zijn afscheid als hoogleraar in de Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid van de Vrije Universiteit te Amsterdam (Kampen: Kok, 1973).

[26] Ernst M. Conradie, Saving the Earth? The Legacy of Reformed Views on Re-Creation, Studies in Religion and the Environment Vol. 8 (Vienna: LIT Verlag, 2013), 1. Conradie explores the views of Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, Noordmans, Van Ruler, and Moltmann. See also Conradie, ‘Creation and Salvation in the Wake of Calvin: Some Reflections from within the South African Context, Nederduits Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif, Vol 51 (2010), 357-369. More on Conradie, including publications, in Chapter 4.
[27] Conradie, Saving the Earth?, 1, referring to James A. Nash, ‘Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity’, Interpretation Vol. 50:1 (1996), 5-15.
[28] Conradie, Saving the Earth?, 3.
[29] Conradie, Saving the Earth?, 3.
[30] Conradie, Saving the Earth?, 4.

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