Monday, 22 December 2014

How to Understand Salvation? A Great Diversity in Biblical Language

The wide array of diverse (and sometimes seemingly conflicting) conceptions of salvation within the Christian tradition points at the complexity of the Biblical language on salvation. Firstly, it is not that easy to grasp the meaning of the Greek word that is translated with “salvation”, soteria. Secondly, there is a wide variety of Biblical metaphors to describe what actually happens when salvation is brought about.

So what language does the Bible use to refer to God's "salvation"?

[Part 7 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]

1. The Meaning of Soteria

First, the meanings of the noun soteria, its root word soter, also a noun, and sozo, a verb. In English Bible translations, the Greek soteria - used 45 times - is commonly translated as “salvation”. Soter - used 24 times - is translated as "savior". The verb sozo - used 110 times - is translated in a variety of ways - the King James Bible opts 93 times for “to save”, nine times for “to make whole”, three times for “to heal”, two times for “to be kept whole”, and three single times for another phrase that is closely related.

The root word sozo clearly has a wide semantic field, Dutch Reformed theologians Gijsbert van den Brink and Kees van der Kooi emphasize in their recent Christian Dogmatics.[1]  It comprises, they explain, meanings as:

  • to save (from all kinds of peril in life)
  • to deliver
  • to set free
  • to redeem
  • to restore
  • to make whole
  • to keep whole
  • to make or keep safe and sound
  • to make complete, and
  • to heal.

This wide semantic field should not be lost in translation - the common English translation “to save” might lead to an understanding that is too narrow (certainly when it is read from the frame of reference of an Anselmian doctrine of atonement for sin).

This semantic field should also not be lost when the noun soter is commonly translated with “savior” - it should retain the connotations of, for instance:

  • deliverer
  • liberator
  • redeemer, and 
  • whole-maker or healer.

And obviously the same goes for soteria - salvation.
Conradie points out that in earlier works on salvation often the term “redemption” was used, but that this has induced an understanding that is too narrow, since salvation is “more inclusive”. Conradie stresses that the full spectrum of biblical terms needs to be recognised, even beyond merely soteria, soter and sozo.[2] He refers to the Anchor Bible Dictionary that lists a whole series of Hebrew terms under “salvation” and “redemption”, including:

  • nasal (deliver)
  • palat (bring to safety)
  • padah (redeem, liberate)
  • malat (deliver)
  • ga’al (buy back, restore)
  • yasa` (save in times of distress, rescue)

and Greek terms besides soteria and sozo, including:

  • ruomai (rescue)
  • agorazo (to buy back, redeem)
  • lytroo (to pay a ransom, to release) and
  • apolytrosis (redemption).[3]

This whole array of soteriological terms may be needed, Conradie suggests, to appreciate the wealth of biblical connotations of God’s salvation. To associate salvation - merely or primarily - with “salvage”, to rescue from sinking or being lost (in German “Rettung”, in Dutch “redding” or “behoud”) - as has often been quite common in Evangelical and Reformed Pietism - clearly is too limited in light of Scriptural semantics. Salvation in its Biblical understanding comprises redemption, deliverance, restoration, healing, and - arguably most aptly - wholeness.[4]
Instead of conflating the many biblical themes through the use of generalised categories such as “redemption” and “forgiveness”, the variety of soteriological metaphors should be maintained, Conradie stresses, acknowledging that “the Christian gospel promises a sense of comprehensive well-being.”[5]

"Heil" and healing
In German and Dutch, soteria commonly is translated as “Heil”, a word that is able to retain the original richness in meaning, mostly if it is kept in mind that the related translation for soter, “Heliand” (German) or “Heiland” (Dutch) literally means “Healer”. The understanding of “healing” clearly can be extended to encompass medical, psychological and social connotations, even the “healing of memories”, Conradie argues.6]

When the Gospels speak about “healing”, five different words are being used, Conradie shows:

  • therapeo (26 times, most common in Matthew)
  • iaiomai (19 times, most common in Luke)
  • sozo (16 times, most common in Mark), and
  • apokathistemi and diasozo (each once).

Sozo isn’t used in cases of only physical healing, it clearly refers to healing of the whole person.[7]
Clearly, “health” is not only a medical or biological concept, Conradie argues.
“It includes inner healing, forgiveness, a rebuilding of broken relationships, reciprocity, renewed fellowship, cosmic harmony and a return to wholeness. Health is a physical, environmental, psychological, social, moral and a spiritual concept. Healing is inseparable from building community, fellowship, koinonia.”[8]
Salvation as wholeness
All in all, the word-set “wholeness” (soteria), “to be made whole” (sozo), and “the one who makes whole” (soter) might at least function as a corrective for one-sided renderings of “salvation”, “to be saved”, and “Saviour”. It might actually be illuminating, to read “make whole”, “made whole”, “keep whole” in all instances where sozo has been translated otherwise (most commonly “to save”, “to be saved” - for instance Matthew 9:21 and 22; Mark 3:4, 5:23, 5:34; Luke 8:12, 8:36, 19:10; Acts 4:12).

The understanding of salvation as wholeness corresponds with Old Testament notions, such as the prophecies in Isaiah 53 and 61, which define the character and characteristics of the coming redeemer in terms of healing, delivering, restoring and making whole all those who believe.
"Wholeness" would correspond, too, with the Hebrew understanding of shalom, thus including not only (physical or inner) healing but also “social wholeness and healing” in terms of peace, justice and reconciliation. The emphasis of liberation theology on social justice would certainly be vindicated by the Hebrew understanding of shalom as salvation, justice and peace, asserts Mennonite theologian Perry Yoder. Instead of “placing matters relating to peace on the outer edge of faith, making them an optional, individual matter of conscience”, the Hebrew conception of shalom and salvation puts them right in “the central core of Biblical faith”.[9]
Study of the use of the word-sets soteria, sozo and soter, makes clear beyond dispute, asserts Brand, that,

“Holy Scripture itself contains a holistic conception of salvation. Unlike the classical ‘theories of atonement’ in the post-biblical tradition of the church, the biblical authors use the word salvation to refer to any and every kind of deliverance wrought by God for his people, and not only for Christ’s work on the cross.”[10]

2. The Variety of Biblical Images and Metaphors for Salvation

Secondly, there is a wide variety of Biblical images and metaphors that are applied to the concept of salvation, as Catholic theologian Thomas P. Rausch notes in his introduction to Christology. [11]
He refers to Gustav Aulén’s classic study on soteriology, distinguishing three main models:

  • atonement as the victory of God in Christ in overpowering the forces of evil (Christus Victor)
  • the “objective” Latin view, based on the idea of sacrifice (Anselm’s theory of satisfaction)
  • the “subjective” view of liberal theology (based on Abelard’s theory of inner change).12]

Catholic theologian Michael Slusser expanded this mapping into five soteriological themes which are prominent in the patristic writings and can be traced back to very early strata in the New Testament tradition:

  • victory
  • atonement
  • revelation
  • eschatological judgment
  • exemplar.[13]

And the theme of divinization (theosis), strong in the Eastern Church, should be added.

The variety of images that are used within the New Testament to refer to God’s salvation is even greater, as Rausch points out. He refers to Joseph Fitzmeyer, who lists as much as ten distinct images used in the Pauline writings alone “that attempt to express different aspects of how our salvation was effected through the Christ-event”: 

  • justification
  • salvation
  • reconciliation
  • expiation
  • redemption
  • freedom
  • sanctification
  • transformation
  • new creation
  • glorification.[14] 

Divergent images are used in Mark (cosmic struggle), Matthew (the new age already breaking in), Luke (exodus) and John (revelation, incarnation and judgment), Rausch notes.
The list could easily be expanded when looking at other New Testament voices, and at the Old Testament, and still not be complete. “There is something about the reality of salvation that resists an overview,” Anglican theologian David F. Ford aptly remarks in his profound study on salvation and transformation.[15] He mentions as many as ten different semantic fields or contexts in which a wider variety of images is used to grasp aspects of salvation, such as:

  • the religious cult (language of sacrifice)
  • the law court (language of guilt, judgment, justification)
  • warfare (language of battle and victory)
  • the market place (language of exchange)
  • family (language of parent-child relationships, adoption)
  • medicine (language of healing)
  • history (language of exodus, exile)
  • politics (language of satisfaction of honour, and of liberation from oppression)
  • friendship (language of laying down one’s life)
  • nature (language of light versus darkness, of seeds dying, and bearing fruit).

“It is striking,” Ford says, “how the most powerful ways of thinking about soteriology generally have been shaped by one primary image.” But one should never lose sight of the vast diversity of semantic fields and metaphors that the Bible uses to grasp the nature and the mediation of salvation.

3. The Need for a a Proper Order of Inquiry: Goal, Need, Scope, Agent and Means of Salvation

To help us retain the richness of the semantic fields related to the biblical understanding of God’s salvation, we need to be aware of the presumptions that determine our theological choices. Our presumptions might induce us to overexpose one biblical voice on salvation at the expense of other voices. If, for instance, beforehand we decide that the problem to be solved by salvation is human sin, we could easily run the risk to view the nature of salvation merely as “forgiveness of sin”, at the expense of possible diverging voices in the canonical witness.
That way, we will merely be reaffirming the concept of salvation that we had in advance, and judge other concepts to be off-topic or deficient. By opting for any definition or account of salvation from the outset, Brand argues,

“we would be excluding all but one interlocutor from the discussion, or we would end up using one particular soteriology as a standard for evaluating all others - an approach that is not likely to enhance mutual understanding and enrichment.”[16]
This is what happens continuously in ecumenical and cross-cultural debates on salvation, Brand observes. His dissertation is aimed at overcoming these stalemates, especially in the African context. By “listening in” to those debates, he tries to uncover the standards that the participants in those debates de facto are using to judge each other’s theological proposals, and he then seeks to develop a set of criteria that is as unbiased as possible.
Brand suggests to define salvation as broadly as possible, as “the dynamic(s) by which humans reach their good”.[17] Helpful for our present study is the set of analytical questions that Brand adds to his definition, offering a useful order for our inquiry into salvation:
1) What does the human good consist in? (the goal of salvation)2) Why needs this goal to be “attained” or “realised”? (the need for salvation: In what sense is the good absent, threatened, or incomplete? In other words, what is the evil that impedes the good?)The goal of salvation and the need for it (the “whereto” and the “wherefrom”) determine the nature of salvation (the “what”).3) For whom is salvation? (the scope of salvation: Does it only affect human individuals, or is it communal in character, or does it also extend beyond humanity, to flora and fauna?)4) Who “realises” or “attains” the good for human beings? (the agent(s) of salvation)5) How is salvation brought about? (the means of salvation)
Brand doesn’t argue that the nature of salvation - what is “good” and why does it need to be attained? - can be established apart from the agent and the means of salvation. Knowledge of the agent of salvation will contribute to a better understanding of the means - the “how” - of salvation. Perhaps one could speak of a “hermeneutical dynamics”, in which none of these five elements can be understood apart from the others, and a better understanding of one element will contribute to the understanding of the other elements.
But what Brand’s set of five elements helps us to do, is to explore the nature of salvation (what is God’s goal, and why does it need to be attained?), before moving to how we think it is brought about (in terms of specific salvific models, such as penal substitution or victory over evil powers), or by whom (in terms of specific accounts of God as Saviour, such as Jesus-who-paid-our-debt-at-the-cross, or Jesus-the-wounded-healer, or Jesus-the-ransom-for-many, or Son-and-Spirit-as-the-two-hands-of-the-Father).
In other words, this order of exploring the meaning of the salvation of God might be helpful to avoid that a presupposed understanding of the  agent and means of salvation, determines our understanding of the nature of salvation.

It might very well be a particular trait of Western soteriologies to take their point of departure with the agent and means (whereas soteriologies in majority Christianity tend to begin with the nature of salvation), as Brand suggests in an insightful article on divergent soteriological approaches in Global Christianity.[18] We have seen how this often has deterred mainstream Protestant theology - whether Reformed, Evangelical, or Modern Protestant - from adopting theological notions as these are perceived within charismatic movements both in the West and in the Global South. Following the suggested order in exploring the meaning of the salvation of God, might therefore be helpful to mainstream Protestant theology in its process of adjusting itself to the new, 21st century reality of Global Christianity.

Part 4: New Wine and Salvation as Wholeness
Part 5: How to Understand Salvation? A Typological Overview
Part 6: How to Understand Salvation? Critiques on a Narrow Understanding


[1] See Gijsbert van den Brink and Kees van der Kooi, Christelijke Dogmatiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2012), 405.
[2] Conradie, Saving the Earth?, 34-38.
[3] David Noel Freedman (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
[4] See Van den Brink and Van der Kooi, Christelijke dogmatiek, 405, and Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 766 cf.
[5] Ernst M. Conradie, ‘Healing in Soteriological Perspective’, Religion & Theology 13:1 (2006), 3-22.
[6] Conradie, Saving the Earth?, 37.
[7] John Wilkinson, Health and Healing. Studies in New Testament Principles and Practices (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1980), 30.
[8] Conradie, ‘Healing in Soteriological Perspective’, 20-21.
[9] Perry B. Yoder, Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace (Nappanee: Evangel Publishing House, 1987), 8.
[10] Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost, 106.
[11] Thomas P. Rausch, Who is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003).
[12] Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor (New York: MacMillan, 1931), 17-31.
[13] Michael Slusser, ‘Primitive Christian Soteriological Themes’, Theological Studies 44 (1983), 555-569.
[14] Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, ‘Pauline Theology’, in Raymond E. Brown, Joseph Fitzmeyer and Roland Murphy (eds.), New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990); referred to in Rausch, Who is Jesus?, 170.
[15] David F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3-4.
[16] Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost, 58.
[17] Brand, Speaking of a Fabulous Ghost, 63-64. Much can be said against such an open definition (as Brand immediately acknowledges). Not only is the term good “notoriously vague”, it also seems to suggest that the nature of salvation can be determined apart from any knowledge about the one from whom salvation comes. Any such suggestion must be rejected on theological grounds - the nature of salvation can only be grasped in the light of God’s self-revelation. However, Brand’s proposal must not be understood as a definitio realis, a definition of the nature or essential structure of the reality of salvation itself, but as stipulative definition, merely indicating the function of the word salvation.
[17]Obviously, Brand is showing his colours here, being affiliated with the “Utrechtse School” of Vincent Brümmer and its rather analytical-philosophical approach. The openness of his definition must also be understood from the context of religious plurality and inter-religious dialogue, in which salvation must be defined without favouring any particular account of salvation. Though I recognize the importance of inter-religious dialogue in a pluralistic world and I admire some of the endeavours being made to arrive at a better mutual understanding (for instance Hendrik M. Vroom, A Spectrum of Worldviews. An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion in a Pluralistic World (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2006); Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse. Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003)), I seriously doubt whether it is possible to talk sensibly and meaningful about salvation apart from the self-revelation of the God of Christian faith. Talk about the nature of salvation cannot be separated from reflection on the agent of salvation, the triune God as referred to in the Bible.
[18] Gerrit Brand, ‘Salvation in African Christian Theology: A Typology of Existing Approaches’, Exchange 28:3 (1999), 194-223.

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