The meaning of salvation (part 3)

Several months ago, I purchased and read Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright. I had read reviews of some of his books and had been wanting to read at least one. When I read the description and reviews of Simply Jesus, I “simply” had to get it.

I did not immediately write a blog post about the book, partly because there is so much meat in the book that it is hard to do it justice, and also because I wanted to wait and see what long-term impact – if any – the book would have on me. Sadly, it’s very easy to be excited about a book that seems to change how you think about things, but then pretty soon to go on with daily life much as before.

I’ve been thinking about rereading the book, and then writing a blog post on it, but it was only reading another book that pushed me to do so. One morning at church when I had little to do (being a pastor’s wife means getting to church early and sometimes staying late afterward, and occasionally I forget to bring a book to read while I wait), I found an interesting book in the church’s small “library” (two bookshelves in the room used for fellowship and coffee hours).

The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World by Orlando Costas was written in 1974, so I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be today. But I’ve always (well, since I made plans as a teenager to become a missionary) been very interested in the idea of missions (I majored in Bible with a missions emphasis in college). The missionaries and mission societies I have been acquainted with were mostly from the United States (I did attend a church in Madrid pastored by a missionary from Cuba), so the idea of a critique from the Third World intrigued me.

Costas writes as an evangelical Christian to (primarily) evangelicals Christians. His concern is ways in which Christians from the “North Atlantic” (North America and Western Europe) have allowed the culture in which they live to shape their understanding of their faith, and then have tried to impose that understanding in their missionary work in Third World counties.

I was expecting this to have to do with things like style of worship (are the songs just translations of hymns from English, or do they use the musical style most familiar to the local people) and teaching methods (are people divided up by age groups and taught in a lecture format). But Costas’ critique goes far deeper. I had trouble finding it spelled out clearly, but it includes the relations between churches and mission societies, between those countries that have historically sent missionaries and those that they consider mission fields, and with the meaning of salvation itself.

Costas spends a fair amount of time discussing two opposing views represented at the World Council of Churches in the mid-20th century. There were the liberals, who had come to salvation primarily in terms of liberating oppressed people. And there were the evangelicals, who viewed salvation in terms of personal repentance and conversion, and who decried the liberals’ tendency to minimize those aspects of Christianity that distinguished it from other world religions.

As an evangelical, Costas clearly saw dangerous tendencies in the liberals’ neglect of evangelism in terms of personal faith. But he also saw a necessary corrective in their understanding of salvation as being not only rooted in historical context but also applying today to the social and political contexts in which people live. Evangelicals from the North Atlantic, he found, too easily focused on how salvation transcends the concrete situations in which people find themselves, and gave little if any thought to how salvation meant transforming those situations.

I had grown up in a typically liberal church. I never knew the theological reasoning behind their views, and – when I got old enough to reflect on the matter – assumed that theology simply did not matter to them. Missions, to them, meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and championing the rights of the poor and oppressed. What one believed about God or Jesus was of little importance, except to the extent that it motivated one to “love one’s neighbor” (and one’s neighbors were assumed to include the whole world).

When I became a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager, I learned to see churches such as the one I grew up in as apostate. Reacting against the liberal push for social justice rather than personal faith in Christ, the fundamentalist churches put all their focus on personal conversions, and saw ministries such as medical missions as simply a way to get a foot in the door to proclaim the Gospel. Every dollar spent on meeting people’s physical needs was seen as taking away from resources to meet people’s more important spiritual needs. As for transforming society, it was seen as self-evident that first individual hearts have to be transformed, and only then can social change follow.

Costas critiques both the liberal and conservative views, and rebukes North Atlantic Christians of both sides for trying to push their views on churches in the Third World. A large part of the book deals with developing a Scriptural view of missions, and Costas shows how this includes addressing social, political, and economic issues as well as teaching personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Reading Costas’ book, I was reminded of N.T. Wright’s emphasis on Christ’s mission as being far bigger than saving people’s souls so they could go to heaven when they die. I have started rereading Simply Jesus, and while it will take me a while to finish, and I may blog more on the book later, I will try to give a rough summary of it here.

You can get an idea of Wright’s ideas from an interview with him about Simply Jesus, by Frank Viola, as part of Viola’s Beyond Evangelical series. I had heard of Viola before, but never read anything by him. He is viewed by many evangelicals as having some good points to make, but taking things so far in his criticism for the traditional way of “doing church” that he discards too much wheat along with the chaff. If the views expressed in Simply Jesus had been written by Viola, I would not have bought the book. But N.T. Wright is known as a good evangelical scholar, so his word carries a good deal more weight with me.

Wright addresses the problem this way in the interview:

You can see it rather obviously in the fact that for many Christians it wouldn’t matter if Jesus had been simply born of a virgin and died on a cross, doing more or less nothing in between. His ‘identity’ would be secure; he could still be our savior and lord. But the four gospels would protest: you’ve missed out the heart of it!

It had long bothered me, in fundamentalist and evangelical churches, that most teaching and preaching seemed to be from the letters of Paul, rather than from the Gospels. At least once, I heard this tendency justified on the basis of the events in the Gospels having taken place under the “old covenant,” while the rest of the New Testament pertains to the Church Age in which we now live. If liberal churches tend to go too far in focusing on the life of Jesus and how we can follow his example, fundamentalist and evangelical churches tend to go too far in the opposite direction, nearly ignoring Jesus’ life and pointing to his sacrificial death as what really matters.

Wright puts both Jesus’ life and death in the larger context the purposes of God as understood by the people of Jesus’ time. Yes, the people were mistaken in thinking God would send a political leader who would end Roman rule and restore the Jews to independence under a truly Jewish king (unlike the puppet kings imposed by Rome). But they were right, Wright says, in understanding the promises of God to set things right – not just in people’s hearts but in society as a whole. What they looked forward to was seeing God finally “in charge” again, through the person of the one God would anoint to rule for him.

Evangelical Christians, of course, also look forward to that day, but they understand it as not happening until the Second Coming, when Jesus will return in power and glory. Until then, it is assumed that things will get worse and worse, and signs of their getting worse are often welcomed as showing how soon Jesus will return. Acting in any way to make society better is pointless at best, since it cannot last, and possibly as a hindrance to the inevitable disaster that must overtake the world before Jesus comes again.

In the Presbyterian churches I have attended since getting married, there is an understanding that Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God, but that it is realized only to a very small extent, as his followers learn to obey God’s rule in their own lives, until the time when Jesus returns to bring in the Kingdom in its fullness. Even this understanding, however, is rarely mentioned, and among evangelical Presbyterians (the liberal ones are similar to the church where I grew up), the focus still tends to be on personal faith. People support ministries to feed the hungry and help the poor, but often the reason behind this seems to be more along the lines of “this is what we’ve always done” than any clear theological reasoning.

When Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God, he was announcing that God was now in charge, and his healings and other miracles showed Jesus acting as God-in-charge. When he died, it was the means by which the Kingdom was established, as he did battle with the power of evil as the representative for his people (as David did for Israel when he fought Goliath), “to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent.” When he rose from the dead, “he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God had always intended to make.” And when he ascended, he was enthroned as king over both earth and heaven.

I wish Wright had spent more than a chapter at the end discussing what it means for Christians today to believe and to live out the truth that Jesus is the ruler of the world. Like Orlando Costas, he emphasizes that it is through the Church that God is doing his work today of “making things right.” And like Costas, he points out the importance of the Church giving witness not only by words but by actions of God’s transforming power, not only in how Christians live their own lives but especially how they live in community with one another.

When it comes to application of truth, though, that’s pretty much the same message as I’ve heard for decades in churches that put their focus on salvation in terms of “going to heaven when we die.” Neither Costas nor Wright give anything much in the way of positive examples of how living out salvation the way they talk about it would look. I suppose, per Costas’ stress on salvation having to do with the particular contexts in which people live, that any specific examples would run the danger of being universalized into distinctly different contexts where they would not be appropriate.

But perhaps that’s the subject for another book, either one Wright has already written or plans to write. Having read (and now rereading) Simply Jesus, I am eager to read another.

One Response to The meaning of salvation (part 3)

  1. Karen O says:

    Pauline, I just want to let you know that I am way behind in all my reading – online & offline. These posts have been bookmarked so I can come back to them, somewhat soon, I hope. I look forward to reading them.

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