Monday, December 3, 2012

A review of Horizons' "Jesus Saves: Early Christian Reflections on Salvation"

Alexander Hwang, visiting professor of theology at Brescia University, in his article, “Jesus Saves: Early Christian Reflections on Salvation,” contends, among other things, that “Jesus saves,’ is an incomplete sentence.  Hwang, in his article, examines, a bit simplistically, the salvific views of Augustine, Pelagius and Origen. Hwang, in order to contemplate who Jesus saves, uses the image of a dinosaur, a towering statue of some sort that sets beyond a billboard with the words “Jesus saves” on it. So the question becomes, does Jesus save dinosaurs? Is salvation universal or are only the elect-or only those who trust Jesus saved. [1]

Today, December 2, at Journey Church, we had a visiting pastor who told a story about two pastors he had met in the Republic of South Sudan.  They understood, at least theologically and experimentally  that “Jesus saves” is truly a complete sentence. One pastor had been a soldier, kidnapped for that purpose at eleven years old. When wounded he was dumped with other wounded soldiers into alligator infested waters. He survived and became a Christian and a pastor who has put together an orphanage in South Sudan. Another pastor, studying to become a Muslim imam, was ostracized by his community for asking how he could be forgiven and gain paradise. He became a Christian who in the process of caring for the needs of others has seen many Muslims, including imams, become Christians.

Hwang suggests that many Presbyterians will object to the sentence Jesus saves because of its “theological imprecision” and because they claim that “Jesus saves only the elect, the chosen, the predestined of God.” Of this he writes:

This [reformed] interpretation was based on a particular—some would say peculiar—reading of Paul’s letters that can be traced the back to the Westminster Divines (The authors of the Westminster Confession), John Knox, and before that, John Calvin and Augustine.

At this point Hwang points out the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, Augustine believes; “Jesus saves those whom God wills to save.” And Pelagians believed “Jesus saves those who choose to be saved.” Hwang believes that both of these men were setting limits on God’s salvation. Hwang concludes that in Western Christianity the dinosaur would probably not be saved!

The biggest problem when one explores the controversy between Augustine and the Pelagians is the Pelagians denial of original sin and their insistence on works as a means to salvation. Yes, they both set limits on salvation, but the real controversy had to do with salvation by works or the salvation Jesus bought by his death and resurrection. As Paul states in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourself, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works; so that no one may boast.”

Hwang turns to the Eastern Orthodox and one of the Church Fathers, Origen, who was a universalist, believing that even Satan would be saved. He states that Origen was using neo-Platonism and its idea of the eternal return of all things to their source.  Hwang believes in this case the dinosaur would be saved. Nevertheless, as Hwang points out, Origen’s idea of Satan’s salvation was condemned in the sixth century.

Not ready to give up, Hwang also writes that “Clement, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa and other church fathers held similar views.” But the idea is somewhat limited in Orthodoxy. One of the explanations given by Eastern Orthodoxy is that God draws all to himself but those who reject his love find his love hellish while those who are truly in Christ find God’s love blessed. Think of those on the bus that moves from hell to heaven in C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. Even the grass of heaven was sharp and painful to the visitors from hell. Universalism, meaning all will be saved, is not an acceptable doctrine to most Orthodox communions.

Hwang concludes with the idea that this is all a mystery. We know Jesus saves but we don’t know the object of the sentence. He writes:
I know with certainty that Jesus saves. I hope it’s me. I hope Jesus saves everyone and everything, but I don’t know for certain. Jesus saves. Perhaps that is all that can and should be said—nothing more and nothing less.
This is a great deal less than what the Apostle Paul wrote when he was dealing with imprisonment and suffering for the sake of Christ:

For this reason I suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and am convinced that he is able to guard that which I have entrusted to him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12)

[1] One should note that two different questions get mixed in this article. It is possible to disbelieve in the predestination of the elect and still not be a universalist. While the author does tend to mix the questions he understands that both Augustine and Pelagius were not universalist. However, Pelagius who believed in salvation by works would have agreed that it was possible for all to overcome their sin.

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