Topic: That Jesus Christ is saviour is one of the core beliefs of Christianity. Outline and critically evaluate some traditional ways of understanding salvation. Outline and critically evaluate some contemporary theologians’ thinking on salvation. Briefly address the implications of this for teaching salvation in schools. The Oxford English Dictionary defines salvation as “deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ” . “Sin”, in turn is defined as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law” .
One of the core beliefs of Christianity it that Jesus Christ is saviour and is, therefore, responsible for delivering humanity from perpetrating acts that are considered transgressions against God’s will. The Catholic Church, however, has never articulated a definitive explanation of how Christ will achieve salvation. This has led to diverse and, at times, conflicting interpretations of the nature and function of salvation. Indeed, Hill says that the meaning of salvation is “elusive … pluralist … [and] fluid … [and] every Christian knows its meaning until asked to explain it” .
It has, therefore, largely been the function of theologians to articulate the definitions of salvation and how it manifests in the thoughts, actions and teachings of Christians across the intervening period since the death of Christ. In order to address the implications for teaching the doctrine of salvation to children in schools in the 21st century, it is important, first, to explore some of the traditional and contemporary theological models of salvation that have informed Christian thinking over the last two thousand years and to understand both the strengths and limitations inherent in these paradigms of soteriological thought.
Over the last two millenia, a diverse range of models of salvation has emerged, each seeking to define salvation and the way in which it may be achieved. Each model varies according to the social, cultural, political and historical circumstances of the times in which it was written and according to the experience of the Jesus event that underpins it such as the Ministry of Jesus, the Cross or the Resurrection. Each of the models explored below is underpinned by the principal of incarnation where Jesus is understood to be both human and divine. The ivine God is understood to be embodied in the human form of Jesus Christ. One of the earliest traditional models of salvation was promulgated by the second century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyon (AD 130-200). His theory of Recapitulation suggests that Christ summarised – or recapitulated – the whole of creation in God’s own image. When [Christ] was incarnate and became a human being, he recapitulated in himself the long history of the human race, obtaining salvation for us, so that we might regain in Jesus Christ that which we had lost in Adam, that is, being in the image and likeness of God”.
God’s purpose was to share divinity with the world and his plan unfolds in three acts: “the creation, the fall and the restoration of the world by Jesus Christ” . Adam disrupted the plan by exercising his free will and succumbed to the temptation of sin. God sent Jesus to be the new Adam and to recapitulate the intended order of His plan for creation. Jesus exercised his free will to reject sin. All elements of God’s plan for creation, therefore, are summed up in Christ. Irenaeus espouses that salvation was an “historical process” and that the creation was the first act of salvation.
From the beginning, God “intended that the world should share in God’s own life” . While Irenaeus’ theory suggests that, through Christ, God’s plan for creation is resumed, Casey suggests that the Recapitulation model “runs the risk of making redemption seem like an automatic and inevitable process that neglects the role of freedom, both human and divine” . It is perhaps for this reason that the Recapitulation model has sometimes been supplemented by other models such as Abelard’s model of Salvation by love.
The twelfth century Medieval theologian argued that Christ’s death had both a moral and a transformative influence on humanity and that Christ died “not out of any necessity, but in order to reveal the profound depth s of God’s love for humanity” . Anselm of Canterbury, also a twelfth century theologian, had a quite different understanding of sin and redemption. He espoused the theory of Satisfaction that argued “it is not enough for humans to cease from sin. They must offer satisfaction for the sins that they have already committed” .
He argued that only Jesus, who was born without sin, could offer his life to God as satisfaction. Humans could not do so because they owe everything to God. While Anselm’s theory draws upon “the double Homo-ousios of Chalcedon – that Christ is both consubstantial with the Father of his divinity and consubstantial with us in his humanity” , it was, however, developed within the limited socio-cultural context of a feudal system where rigid social structures determined the rights and responsibilities of individuals within the “acknowledged feudal order” of that society.
While Anselm disowned any account of redemption as a ransoming from the devil, he overemphasised the legalistic interpretation of salvation where the debt to God was paid in full by the death of Christ and saw redemption as simply being “the restoration of a pre-existing and pre-ordained order” of creation that had been distorted. Fiorenza suggests, however, that Anselm “[neglected] the meaning and truth exhibited in the traditional metaphors, images and mythic drama” of redemption as satisfaction. Another traditional theory of salvation is the Greek or ‘Physical’ theory that links redemption to human mortality.
Corruption and death are “the primary effects of the human sinful state” and Christ’s redemption “entails the elevation, transformation and sanctification of human nature [and] effects ‘incorruption’ and ‘immortality’” This model teaches by example and espouses that human nature is “deified by the incarnation” . The limitations of this model, however, lie in the fact that it does not seem to address the concept of free will. It represents Christ as physical and suggests that human nature is a “concrete universal” in which all humans must, therefore, participate.
Some aspects of these traditional models of salvation still have currency in a contemporary context. The recapitulation model, for example, promoted a process of moving from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light. Anselm moved Christian thinking away from the power of the devil towards the redemptive power of human nature and Abelard’s model espoused the redemptive nature of love. Modern theologians have challenged the traditional models of salvation and notions of “vicarious satisfaction” . They have focused, instead, on the role of Christ’s relationship with both the human self and the Christian community in a contemporary world.
This is not to say, however, that all elements of traditional thinking were discounted. The Participatory model of salvation is an extension of, or a harkening back to, Irenaeus’ model of Recapitulation where incarnation is central to the concept of salvation. This model also adopts the notion that salvation is a process rather than a single event. We are, in effect, already on the road to salvation here on earth. God is seen not only as our destination, but also as our companion on the journey and we are asked to reach out along the journey to those experiencing hardship.
Casey notes that “the New Testament is replete with examples of this [Participation] approach to the nature of salvation in Christ” . “Since everyone of you who has been baptised has been clothed in Christ” [Gal. 3:27] and we are “sharers in the divine nature” of Christ [Gal. 2:20]. It is through the explication of what constitutes sin in the Participatory model – failure to co-operate with God, failure to be fully responsible, isolation from fellow human beings – that we come to understand the central notions of mutual participation and sharing in Christ: relationships and communion.
The journey towards salvation is relational and interpersonal. This model is valid in a contemporary context in that it extols the virtue of supporting those experiencing such tragedies as poverty, homelessness, dispossession or natural disasters and of valuing the communal over individual autonomy. It does, however, raise a question about the notion of God’s will: if all humanity is travelling along the path towards salvation, then why does God confront only some members of humanity with such obstacles that render salvation nigh on impossible? The Contextual model of salvation has much in common with the Participatory model.
Although, in this model, salvation is grounded in the ministry of Jesus rather than incarnation, it focuses on humanity helping others who are less fortunate than themselves along life’s journey. It takes the word of Jesus as written in the Gospel according to Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. [Luke 4:18-19] This model asks us to consider the Kingdom of God as being in the here and now. The poor and the outcast experience salvation in the healing and acceptance that Jesus offered through his actions. The Contextual model, therefore, brings individuals closer to internalising their personal understandings of journeying towards salvation because it asks us to frame these experiences of salvation within our own contexts. In the mid twentieth century, political and liberation theologies emerged which sought to redress the religious socialism and apocalyptic theologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Proponents of the political and liberation theologies such as Johan Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx and various Latin American theologians, offered diverse interpretations of salvation, which emphasised the social and political images and dimensions of redemption which, all concluded, was both human and divine. This model is grounded in the Old Testament rather than the New Testament and suggests that God is a God of liberation and that Jesus, through his incarnation and death, liberates humankind from all that continues to oppress it.
The model does not, however, address the limits of self-liberation or the limits of individual freedom within society. The Political and Liberation model gained purchase in some Latin American countries during the 1960s in response to the rise of numerous dictatorship regimes that sought to oppress communities and individuals who opposed their views or challenged their power base. It attempts to align eschatology with political extremism but, as Fiorenza notes, “redemptive salvation always transcends historical and political liberation just as spirit transcends body” .
What, then, does an exploration of the traditional and contemporary models of salvation imply for the teaching of salvation in schools? Religious education in Catholic schools today is grounded in the Scripture and Tradition of the Christian worldview. The books of Scripture “communicate both God’s invitation to friendship and humanity’s varied responses” . Like the development and evolution of salvific theologies, Scripture “emerged in different places and times in response to a community’s experience of God in and through historical events and circumstances. By inviting students to enter a relationship with God through Scripture, we allow them to explore their own understandings and interpretations of “Jesus’proclamation, life, ministry, death and resurrection” through stories and text that are rich with metaphor, symbols and imagery and that reflect the various socio-cultural, legal and political contexts in which they were written. Tradition refers to “the living faith experience of the Christian community, a living faith believed, shared, celebrated and handed on. ” The various theological models of salvation are part of this living faith that is handed on to new generations.
It is, therefore, incumbent on teachers of religious education to provide students with opportunities to explore both historical and contemporary interpretations of scripture and tradition within the Catholic community so that they, too, like theologians past and present, may develop their own interpretations of salvation and clarify their understandings of the meaning and implications of living the Gospel in a spirit of community and friendship within the context of their own lives. The relationships students develop in this process will be important in shaping who they are and who they hope to be.
The Second Vatican Council stated: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal. Like the Participatory model, this suggests that we are all somewhere along the road to achieving the “same goal” of salvation and, within the traditions of the Church, we must pass these knowledges and understandings to the next generations so that they, too, can contribute to the dynamic reality of the Christian faith.. ENDS