The November/December (2012) Presbyterian Women’s Horizons is entitled “Salvation.” There are five articles on salvation; some are good, although weak in important areas, others are speculative and historically inaccurate. Most of the articles do not make an adequate use of Scripture or the confessions. I believe that the greatest problem with all of the articles is a lack of enthusiasm for the great gift Jesus Christ has given his people. I will write about the articles one at a time over the next few weeks.
A review of “Salvation as Right Relationship”
Kevin Park, associate dean for advanced professional studies and assistant professor at Columbia Theological Seminary has written what I would call a three pronged look at the meaning of salvation. He begins by attempting to explain what salvation is not; his explanation somewhat caricatures evangelical Christian faith. Park also looks at what he believes are the roots of the western understanding of salvation. His basic focus is how the Christian understanding of the Trinity underscores a relational salvation. For this he uses both the first statement of the Heidelberg Catechism and ideas from the Office of Theology and Worship’s paper on the Trinity, “The Trinity: God’s Love Over Flowing.”
Park equates his early views of salvation with conservative and evangelical beliefs and sees them as understanding salvation only as a means of escaping hell and gaining heaven. In other words, for conservative Christianity, salvation has everything to do with humanity’s existence after death and nothing to do with this life. Park, correcting what he believes is true of evangelical teaching and I believe is his caricature, writes beautifully of the Greek meaning of the word salvation which is soteria. Explaining that the root of soteria is sozo he writes:
This word has a wide range of related meanings, including rescue, deliver, protect, save, make whole, preserve, heal and set free. The word sozo is closely related to the Hebrew word shalom—a very robust word that is much richer than its usual translation of “peace.” The meaning of shalom includes restoration, completeness, wholeness, health, prosperity, complete peace, wellness, reconciliation, fruitful life, rightness and justice.
However, simply defining the word salvation with its Greek shades of meaning fails to pull in the whole meaning of salvation as it is meant in Christ Jesus. It fails to deal with the depth of human depravity. It fails to speak to the historical actions of the God-man, Jesus Christ, who dying gave redemption to an utterly lost people. But most of all it fails to deal with the union between Jesus and those he has redeemed.
Park finds the foundation for what he sees as evangelical Christianity’s preoccupation with life after death in Platonism and its “tradition of the dualism of body and soul.” Park explains, “Platonism taught that the physical world was a shadowy corruptible copy of the real, eternal, spiritual world.” The soul found redemption without the body by “practicing philosophy and contemplating the spiritual realm.”
Park turns to the Eastern Orthodox tradition which supposedly followed a better way because they were influenced by Aristotle who, “took the physical world much more seriously than did the Western tradition.” These ideas are overstatements, in some ways untrue and simplistic. But more importantly there is too much emphasis placed on philosophical influence and not enough on the Scripture and Confessions.
It is true that early medieval Christianity was cognizant of Platonism using some of its terms to explain what they believed. And later medieval Christian scholars, as well as Renaissance scholars, were interested in Aristotelian philosophy—in particular, among western Christians, Thomas Aquinas’ name is equated with Aristotle. But one does not really find that divide running between western and eastern Christianity. Park has set up a caricature of evangelical beliefs, they are only interested in the afterlife, and then he tries to undergird it with philosophical history, but the lines of that history run in too many directions to be used that way.
Park turns to the Trinity to write about relational salvation. Park quotes that beautiful beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism:
…I belong—body and soul, in life and death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me… (4.001)
He goes on to point out that this answer brings body and soul, life and death together. He, also, once again points out what salvation is and isn’t. “…salvation is not attained by assenting to a doctrine or a set of knowledge.” And then:
Salvation is in Jesus Christ … Truth and salvation for us is a person not information. Therefore salvation is entering into relationship with the person who has initiated and invited us into this love relationship.
Park points out that this relationship has its “roots in the very being of God as Trinity.” This is because “God is relational.” He “exists in divine community and has created the world in order to share God’s overflowing love with us and with all of creation.” Emphasizing broken relationships, and never denying that humanity has sinned and attempted to live dependent of God, Park summarizes salvation this way:
The relational understanding of God and creation shapes the meaning of salvation. Salvation, then, is living in loving and right relationship with God and with all of God’s gifts, including relationships with our human neighbors, as well as with all of creation, marked by generosity of self-giving love as demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
He goes on to show how this salvation brings meaning to the whole created world as Christians become reconciled to all of creation. This is a salvation that touches all of life, ecology, money, those who live with need—and Park rightly insists that it is costly-it cost the death of the Son of God.
But something is missing—something very important. That is the righteousness of Christ and our union with him. While Park attempts to pull in the very important objects and people that are affected by our salvation he leaves out the very crux of the matter, that we bear the righteousness of Christ rather than our own righteousness. And our relationship is more than a relationship, we are united to Christ, in Christ—our communion is a life sustaining gift. This is what eliminates the dualism of a salvation concerned with only heaven. We are instead concerned with Jesus whether we touch earth or heaven. And because of our union with Christ we see the harvest fields in all of their whiteness—we also feel more deeply the needs of the wounded.
As Paul puts it, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, that will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.” (Phil. 1:21-22) The point is it isn’t a question of dualism but the gift of Christ.
Because the Father has chosen us and redeemed us by the death of Christ we bear the righteousness of Jesus. Yes, we are in a relationship with the eternal God. We are united to that one who took on flesh and carried it into the midst of the Trinity. Forever the Incarnation resides at the center of the Trinity and we, the redeemed, with him. Forever, we have communion with the Triune God. The word salvation, as it relates to us and the Lord of the Church stands alone, a unique category.