Monday, 8 December 2014

How to Understand Salvation? A Typological Overview

New Wine understands God's salvation as "wholeness of life", but this is a contested concept. For mainstream Protestant theologians - and maybe even more so for the Evangelical and Reformed theologians among them - embracing the concept of “salvation as wholeness” isn’t obvious at all. In fact, it is a concept that is mostly overlooked and if not overlooked, it is often contested because of specific theological concerns.

How do the Orthodox-Reformed, Evangelical and Modern Protestant traditions perceive "salvation"? A typological overview.

[Part 5 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]

Salvation as Wholeness – A Contested Concept

Within the charismatic renewal of New Wine God’s salvation is understood in a holistic way, comprising wholeness of being in all aspects of life. We have seen that from the viewpoint of mainstream Protestant theology, this raises several questions. How then could the charismatic concept of “salvation as wholeness” be grounded in Protestant theology - if at all?

By the end of this thesis I will be saying that theology in the tradition of the Reformation indeed does harbor resources to do so. Theological notions on the scope and nature of salvation may sometimes have been narrowed down, or slipped to the background of both piety and theology, but they can and should be retrieved and interpreted afresh in the light of the charismatic renewal.
It goes beyond the scope of this PhD-research to construct such a Protestant soteriological framework. I’ll be merely “testing the waters.” But drawing from Moltmann and Pannenberg I will suggest that such a framework would need to be eschatological, trinitarian and pneumatological in thrust, with the concepts of the Kingdom of God and the baptism with the Spirit figuring as its key metaphors.

But first we have to take a better look at the concept of salvation itself. For mainstream Protestant theologians - and maybe even more so for the Evangelical and Reformed theologians among them - embracing the concept of “salvation as wholeness” isn’t obvious at all. In fact, it is a concept that is mostly overlooked and if not overlooked, it is often contested because of specific theological concerns. Other concepts tend to be prevalent, mostly with a strong focus on the justification of sinners - although, indeed, the resources to vindicate “salvation as wholeness” have always been present.[1]

What has been the distinct contribution of divergent strands within Protestantism to the understanding of salvation? Which concerns and emphasises have been expressed? A brief typological overview of perspectives within three divergent strands of Protestant theology - Reformed, Modern Evangelical, and Modern Protestant - will shed light on these contributions and concerns.

1.Salvation according to Reformed theology

Within Reformed theology “salvation” is primarily understood as the “redemption” or  “salvage” of “sinners”, though especially Calvin’s theme of “double grace” emphasized both the justification and the sanctification of sinners (in contrast to Luther’s focus on justification). Especially within the strands of orthodox-Reformed and Puritan Pietism - such as the Dutch “Nadere Reformatie” or “further Reformation” - the focus is predominantly on the order of salvation in the spiritual formation of the individual, with much emphasis on the personal appropriation and assurance of salvation. At the same time, especially Puritan Pietism emphatically addressed the purification of the believer’s daily life and induced a strong social involvement in terms of charity and social justice, expressing that God’s salvation impinges on societal realities. The pressing question in orthodox-Reformed piety, however, is: “When God’s judgement on sin comes, will my soul be saved for eternity?”[2]

Also in the broader Reformed tradition there has been a long-standing tendency to portray the message of salvation as being focused on the redemption of sinners that stand in need of forgiveness. “Justification by faith alone” has remained a cardinal doctrine within Reformed theology - and rightly so, I would say. However, this doctrine has become paramount to the extent that salvation becomes almost synonymous with “justification”, as British Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has pointed out in his classic study Iustitia Dei.[3] Most Reformed soteriologies, McGrath argues, focus mainly on the believer’s “right standing before God” through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner: Christ took our place and bore the wrath of God’s judgment on sin, that we might be declared righteous (substitutionary atonement).

In his comprehensive article on the doctrine of justification throughout the history of Protestant theology, German Lutheran theologian Gerhard Sauter confirms that Reformation theology “took the word field of iustitia / iustificatio from biblical language (especially Paul) and understood ‘justification’ as the quintessential experience that supports a life of faith”.[4] In the Western tradition the word “justification” of course played a role already, “but it was a casual and subordinate role”. With the Reformation “justification” moved to the centre of theology. However, Sauter argues that the understanding of justification was meant to be broad, comprising endowment of humanity with God’s righteousness, giving humanity hope of participating in what God is, and hope of experiencing in human existence the overcoming of everything that is contrary to God - harbouring powerful resources for a comprehensive understanding of salvation as wholeness. Nonetheless, Sauter analyses, within the tradition of the Reformation all of theology becomes subsumed under the rubric of justification, understood from a clear focus on the problem of sin and the solution of forgiveness of sin. Sauter quotes Luther, stating that,

“The characteristic subject of theology is humanity, who is guilty of sin and condemned, and God who justifies and saves sinful humanity (deus iustificans et salvator - homo peccati reus ac perditus) Whatever is asked or discussed outside this subject in theology is a misconception and poison.”

The Calvinistic strand within Reformed theology harbours better resources to retain an understanding of salvation in the broad categories that Sauter would like to define justification in, as it emphasizes both justification and sanctification. The theological notion of “participating in what God is” is at the core of Calvin’s spirituality, as he emphasizes the unio mystica of believers with Christ.
Recent Reformed studies on Calvin as “theologian of the Spirit” claim to “retrieve” these resources, as they have supposedly slid to the background of Reformed theology, and these studies certainly seem to be promising for our inquiry into a Protestant soteriological framework that is able to vindicate and asses the charismatic notion of salvation as wholeness.[5]
The theological notion of “experiencing in human existence the overcoming of everything that is contrary to God” is deeply embedded in Calvin’s concept of “double grace”, too. In Calvin’s theology the theme of sanctification includes political and societal dimensions, enabling Calvinistic-Reformed theology to address the political order of society, stressing the task of achieving an order of justice and peace in social life. This strand within Protestantism offers rich theological resources to include issues of social justice in our understanding of God’s salvation as wholeness.

It must be noted, however, that Reformed dogmatics usually addresses these political and societal dimensions of sanctification not under the rubric of salvation/soteriology, but under the derivative rubric of Christian ethics. Social justice then might be perceived as a matter of ethics, and not so much as characteristic for the substance of the salvation of God. Astonishingly, the vast majority of Reformed treatises on soteriology fail to define the substance of salvation (for instance in the broad categories that Sauter would like to understand justification). Their indexes of subjects may contain entries like “history of salvation”, “appropriation of salvation”, or “mediation of salvation”, the key word itself often misses altogether.[6] The content of the term is simply assumed, and the apparent presupposition often is that “salvation” narrowly means “forgiveness of sin through the atoning death of Jesus Christ”, since in most cases this is the focus and scope of dogmatic chapters on soteriology.[7]

The Reformed concern for the theological focus on the problem of human sin is to be taken serious in any attempt to outline a Protestant soteriological framework for the charismatic renewal of New Wine, while at the same time the notions of the much broader scope of God’s salvation that are so deeply embedded in Reformed theology should not be overshadowed by this focus.

2. Salvation according to Modern Evangelical theology

Quite the same is true for the Modern Evangelical movement that became prominent in the United States and Europe after the Second World War. The Reformation understanding of salvation as “the reconciliation of sinners” through the substitutionary death of Christ “has flowed into evangelical theology”, as David Wells puts it.[8] The core and essence of salvation is justification, understood in a legal and forensic way: Christ died at the cross for our sin, he bore the wrath of God’s judgement in our stead, and his righteousness is imputed to us.[9]
The Reformed notion of the political and societal dimensions of salvation often received far less attention within Evangelicalism due to the influence of Anabaptist theology, while other strands of Evangelicalism were strongly socially engaged (though, like in Reformed theology, understood from the rubric of Christian ethics).

The Evangelical movement has to a large extent be determined by its focus on world mission, and its missiology might be characterizing for its soteriology. Its priority has always been “saving souls for eternity”, and therefore many Evangelical leaders were strongly opposed to so-called “integral mission” (aimed not only at “saving souls” but also at social justice), fearing that integrating social action into mission would avert from this priority of evangelism.[10]
Though this might still be true for large parts of conservative Evangelicalism[11], within wider Evangelicalism the so-called Lausanne Movement stands out as a movement that calls for “holistic mission”, associating evangelism with the wider mission of the Church “within the divine Plan of redemption”. The Manilla Manifesto (1989), an extension of the original Lausanne Covenant (1974), states that a commitment to justice and peace necessarily accompanies any legitimate evangelism, for “good news and good works are inseparable”.
The references to “God’s mission” and “cosmic purpose” might suggest a broad understanding of salvation as wholeness. However, it must be noted that “concern for justice” and “human dignity” are regarded as part of the mission of the Church, but not as part of its core. The core of mission remains defined as the conversion of individual souls, and salvation remains implicitly understood as forgiveness of sin (more on these debates within Evangelicalism follows later in this series, Reformed-Evangelical Theology and the Kingdom of God).[12]

For similar reasons, many conservative Evangelical leaders have just as strongly been opposed to  Pentecostal healing campaigns and the so-called “Power Evangelism” of the Third Wave of charismatic renewal.[13] At best, these healing ministries avert from what the gospel message really is about, namely reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sin. Even John Stott, who clearly advocates integral mission addressing both spiritual and physical needs, denies that healing “either is, or is included in, what the Bible means by salvation.”[14]

The Evangelical focus on mission thus seems to induce a more narrow understanding of the nature and scope of salvation than its Reformed roots would allow.

3. Salvation according to Modern Protestant theology

Modern Protestants might not have emphasized so much the need for “substitutionary atonement” as orthodox-Reformed theology, or the need to “save souls for eternity” as Evangelicals, they too have often tended to a narrow understanding of salvation in terms of “personal redemption”. Jürgen Moltmann rightly observes a “retreat from cosmology into personal faith”, as modern Western Protestantism struggles to plausibly view the world as God’s creation.[15] It has become less and less clear how salvation is supposed to relate to God’s actions in the world. Perhaps mostly in Protestant piety - or “lived theology”- salvation is spiritualized and personalized.
Rudolph Bultmann might be illustrative for this spiritualizing and personalizing movement, holding that salvation is existential in character, and is not expected to materialize - neither in terms of personal wholeness nor in the world. When a person becomes a new creation, he asserts, “outwardly everything remains as before.”[16]

In wider Protestant academic theology and in ecumenical debates on soteriology, the focus has been as much on justification as it has been within the strands of Reformed and Evangelical theology.[17] Modern Lutheran theology provides a good example. Liberation theology, Black theology and feminist theology may have influenced the debate by drawing attention to political and societal aspects of salvation, Lutheran theology still wrestles with - and often holds on to - their conviction that the doctrine of justification is not merely one soteriological model among others but the central soteriological model. Lutheran systematic theologian André Birmelé is certainly not the only one to maintain that the doctrine of justification is not only the centre of the Lutheran interpretation of salvation, but the exclusive content of Christian soteriology. Birmelé clearly equates salvation with “justification of the sinner”.[18]

Dutch Protestant theologian Bram van de Beek strongly argues against any expectation to see anything substantial of Gods kingship and salvation in the world: It is still hidden and will not show before the consummation of this world. Christ did not come to “change the world”, and if we think about his salvation “in terms of justice, peace and wholeness for creation” our understanding will become “clouded”. It is “fundamentalistic” Bible-reading.[19]
It might be telling, that in the mainstream Dutch Protestant Christelijke encyclopedie (“Christian Encyclopedia”), “salvation” is unhesitatingly defined as “a deliverance from sin”.[20]

In the next blog in this series, we will look into the criticism that arose (both within Western theology and non-Western theology) against this narrow understanding of salvation.

Part 4: New Wine and Salvation as Wholeness


[1] Obviously, each strand within Protestantism will assert that its understanding of the scope and nature salvation has always retained its breadth and richness. However, both non-Western theologians and many Western theologians in the second half of the twentieth century have perceived this differently, pointing at a prevalent focus on individual justification of sinners at the expense of other aspects of salvation (see below; also Gerrit Brand, ‘Salvation in African Christian Theology: A Typology of Existing Approaches’, Exchange 28:3 (1999), 194-223 (analysing different approaches both within African theology and in comparison with Western theology); Martien E. Brinkman, Justification in Ecumenical Dialogue: Central Aspects of Christian Soteriology in Debate, IIMO Research Publication 45, Utrecht 1996; and Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification from 1500 to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
[2] Represented for instance by Wilhelmus á Brakel (1635-1711, author of De trappen van het geestelijk leven - “The Steps of Spiritual Life”) and Bernardus Smytegelt (1665-1739, his collection of sermons Het gekrookte riet - “The Bruised Reed”- is famous). See also Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance. The Legacy of Calvin and his Successors (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1999).
[3] Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification from 1500 to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
[4] Gerhard Sauter, ‘God Creating Faith. The Doctrine of Justification From the Reformation to the Present’, Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. XI (1997), 17-102.
[5] For instance Hans Burger, Being in Christ. A Biblical and Systematic Investigation in a Reformed Perspective (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009); Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder. A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ. Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), even earlier, Kees van der Kooi, Als in een spiegel. God kennen volgens Calvijn en Barth (Kampen: Kok, 2002). See also Chapter 4 of this thesis.
[6] For instance J. van Genderen and W.H. Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 2008); Hendrik Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Eerdmans, 1979); Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1932); Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2008).
[7] The title of the soteriology of Presbyterian theologian John McIntyre is telling, and no exception at all in its understanding of the scope of soteriology: The Shape of Soteriology. Studies in the Doctrine of the Death of Christ  (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992). Soteriology is narrowly understood as inquiring into the death of Christ and in which ways this could mean to bring about redemption. It is obvious how this downgrades the life and ministry of Jesus Christ prior to his death, but also the ascension, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the mission of the Spirit after his death, to a second-rate-importance without salvific meaning.  It must be said, to McIntyre’s defence, that he argues for retaining all Biblical models of salvation, though still he speaks narrowly of “salvation from sin”.
[8] David F. Wells, ‘Evangelical Theology’, in: David F. Ford and Rachel Muers (ed.), The Modern Theologians. An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 608-621.
[9] See authoritative evangelical publications as Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1955) and John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1986), more or less equating “salvation in Christ” with “justification”. Also Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2 Vols. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978-79). More recently also Edmund P. Clowney, ‘The Biblical Doctrine of Justification by Faith’, in: Donald A. Carson (ed.), Right with God: Justification in the Bible and the World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), and John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).
[10] Joel Nichols, ‘Mission, Evangelism and Proselytism in Christianity. Mainline Conceptions as Reflected in Church Documents’, in: Emory International Law Review, Vol. 1 (1998), 563-656.
[11] As Tom and Christine Sine observe in their essay ‘The State of God’s World: Globalization and the Future of Integral Mission’, in: Tim Chester (ed.), Justice, Mercy and Humility. Integral Mission and the Poor (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003).
[12] Nichols, ‘Mission, Evangelism and Proselytism in Christianity’, 596-605.
[13] For the Third Wave Movement, see C. Peter Wagner, The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1988), and Kevin Springer and John Wimber, Riding the Third Wave: What Comes After Renewal? (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1987).
[14] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 88.
[15] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1985), 34.
[16] Rudolph Bultmann, ‘New Testament and Mythology’, in Hans Werner Bartsch (ed.), Kerygma and Myth: A
[16]Theological Debate (London: SPCK, 1957), 20. 
[17] See for a detailed overview of these debates, Martien E. Brinkman, Justification in Ecumenical Dialogue: Central Aspects of Christian Soteriology in Debate, IIMO Research Publication 45, Utrecht 1996.
[18] Brinkman, Justification in Ecumenical Dialogue, 201.
[19]Bram van de Beek, Jezus Kurios. De Christologie als het hart van de theologie (Zoetermeer: Meinema, 1998), 216-217 (transl. as  Jesus Kyrios, 2002).But even Hendrikus Berkhof - who does emphasize the renewal of both humans and the world and explicitly understands salvation as bearing on our earthly lives “with all its facets”, and “God’s healing and salvation-bringing work” to be “directed to us and the world in which we live” - can elsewhere unhesitatingly state that “salvation can be summarized in words as: suffering, cross, dying, blood”, suggesting an equation between “salvation” and “atonement” - or not clearly distinguishing between salvation and that which bring about salvation. See Berkhof, Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 360, 4, 308.
[20] George Harinck (ed.), Christelijke encyclopedie (Kampen: Kok, 2005).

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