On Salvation

The second part of my sin-salvation double essay.


The question of what Jesus saves us from is not, I think, a particularly useful one. This is because I do not regard salvation, as such, to be a fundamental theological category. There is one unified divine economy, in which creatures are raised from nothing into the divine life. It makes little sense, however, to think of us as being saved from nothing – we are created from nothing in the image and likeness of God. To think of salvation is really to think of the divine economy from a particular perspective: that of either longing for, or thankfulness for, the fulfillment of some temporal aspect of the divine economy. Accordingly, I will concentrate on the question of how the earthly life and death of Jesus contributes to the fulfillment of the divine economy. The simplest answer to this question, I will argue, is two-fold: firstly, Jesus’ death offers us a sacrifice the appropriation of which enables us to restore our divinising relationship with God; and secondly, the life and death of Jesus is at the heart of God’s work in the divinising relationship, because it offers us the knowledge of God. This view is best seen as using a teacher/exemplar model as an explanatory gloss on a robustly Patristic incarnation-divinisation model.

Christ the Perfect Sacrifice

Sin ruptures the relationship by which God means to complete the divine plan of creating us in His true image and likeness. This relationship must be restored if the divine economy is to be fulfilled. In the previous essay, I discussed the potential of sacrifice as a means of repairing that relationship. In fact, Christ’s death has traditionally been seen in terms of sacrifice: ‘Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sin’ (Hebrews 10:12). Thus I suggest it would be appropriate to view Christ’s death in the terms laid out in the previous essay. A decisive rejection of our sinful, false selves requires bodily destruction. In place of such a high penalty, we can, by accepting that Christ died for our sins, let Christ’s death enact the destruction of our own false selves. Thus we can firmly seize hold of God as our ultimate end, and restore the divinising relationship.

Once this basic mechanism is granted, it remains to be seen in what sense Christ’s death can be a uniquely perfect sacrifice: that is, what is special about Christ’s death such that everyone can appropriate it as a sacrifice sufficient to abolish their whole false self? I think we can identify three relevant aspects. Firstly, Christ was sinless, ‘without blemish or spot’ (1 Peter 1:19). No ordinary human death could as easily be appropriated for ourselves, for ordinary human beings already have false selves that are destroyed at death. Because Christ had no false self of his own to destroy, each one us is able to read into his death the destruction of our false self. A second, related, consideration is that Christ’s will is perfect. However sincere our desire for repentance may be, as long as we have grown accustomed to our false self, and, as inevitably occurs, come to love it, we will never be able wholly and unreservedly to will the false self’s destruction. It has made itself too precious to our warped imaginations. Try as we might to appropriate other deaths, we can never use them to abandon our false selves completely. The will of Christ, however, is not distorted by the same forces that our wills are. He is able wholly and unreservedly to will the destruction of everyone’s false self. We can therefore trust in him to will the destruction of our false selves on our behalves, without relying on our own imperfect efforts. A final point, related to the second, is that Christ is a sacrifice that God has provided. We need not fear, therefore, that the sacrifice will not cleanse us deeply enough, or that it will not repair our relationship with God enough to ensure the possibility of our continuing divinisation: God has vouchsafed that the one sacrifice of Christ is sufficient for all human need.

Before turning to the second aspect of Christ’s saving work, we should note the relationship between Christ’s sacrifice in death and the sacraments of the Church. Our discussion of sacrifice was originally stimulated by the idea that our false self is embedded not just in our minds but in our bodies. Though appropriating Christ’s sacrifice in faith may better enable us to abandon our false self than exerting our will, it remains a mental rather than a bodily process. For the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice to flow through our whole being, we require a more bodily means of appropriating it. Hence the significance of baptism: ‘all those who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death’ (Romans 6:3). Baptism unites us bodily with Christ’s sacrifice. Because, however, baptism is not enough to destroy every trace of sin within us, we need continually to be renewed in Christ’s sacrifice. Hence the eucharist: ‘Drink it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. Appropriating Christ’s death as a sacrifice, both psychologically in trust and bodily in sacrament, helps us to relinquish our false selves and so restore our divinising relationship with God.

Divinisation Through Knowledge

The earthly life and death of Jesus, however, does more than enable us to repair our relationship with God: it is the basis of that relationship’s fulfillment. This returns us the thought of Irenaeus: to accomplish the divine economy God sent ‘His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that He might join the end to the beginning, that is, man to God’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 4) . For Irenaeus, the incarnation of the Word was an essential aspect of the divine economy, insofar as the Word had been ‘foretelling from the beginning’ that He should be ‘present to His own creation, saving it’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 4). As the forgers of orthodoxy insisted through centuries of controversy, the Word ‘became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’ (Against the Heresies, V, prologue).

This leaves an important question unanswered. How exactly does God’s becoming human help humans become God? Now I can’t pretend to give a comprehensive answer to this question, and indeed it seems that one appropriate and correct answer is simply ‘it’s a mystery’. I believe, however, that one vital part that the earthly life and death of Jesus plays is to provide teaching and example. This view, though defended by Abelard and revived by Paul Fiddes, has not generally been held in high regard. Phillip Quinn, in discussing Abelard, notes that the charge of examplarism is ‘often thought devastating’. There seem to be related objections to the position. One is that the position is Pelagian. Since Pelagianism is primarily a doctrine concerned with grace and sin, some work needs to be done to explicate the connection between the ideas. The argument, I think, is this: if it is the case that we can be saved by good teaching and example, then human beings must be able to live without sin by their own will and unassisted by grace. Only if our will were already good could we seize upon a good example and follow it. But our wills are not good, but distorted by sin. So a good example avails us nothing. In short, this account of salvation entails Pelagianism. The second objection is more or less continuous with the first, except that it doesn’t refer to Pelagius. The idea here is that salvation is ontological and not merely epistemic. Gaining new knowledge does not change our nature fundamentally, but a fundamental change in our nature is what divinisation requires. The single basic objection is that no good example or instruction can influence us deeply enough to effect the change God seeks.

My main response to these objections will be by way of example: that is, I will simply try to construct an account of salvation which is not vulnerable on these scores. But first, I will try to undermine the prima facie plausibility of the objections by consulting scripture and tradition. My first point is that Irenaeus himself, despite the association of his name with ‘physical’ theories of salvation, laid great emphasis on the role of knowledge. Returning to a passage already quoted, we should consider in detail what role Ireneaus thought the Word had foretold for Himself:‘God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon earth, should confer with them’, become ‘capable of being perceived’ by His creation, with the ultimate end of ‘causing us to serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 4). The crucial change that the Incarnation brings about, it seems, is that our relationship with God becomes more concrete: we see and speak to Him. In Christ we enjoy fellowship with God, and ‘fellowship with God is to know God’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 5). This theme is worked and reworked to a pitch of mystical fervour: ‘For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendour. But His splendour vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 5). God became human in order to allow Himself to be comprehended by humans, and our comprehending God brings us immortal life and a share in the divine nature.

These ideas of Irenaeus, moreover, are thoroughly Scriptural. His equation between the sight of God, the sight of Christ, light, and life is already present in the Gospel of John. ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men’ (1:4); ‘I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’ (8:12); ‘Whoever sees me sees him that sent me. I have come to the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness’ (12:45-6). John is similarly emphatic about the power of Christ’s words: ‘already you are clean because of the word which I have spoken to you’ (15:3), ‘you have the words of eternal life’ (6:68). Finally, we should note what John says explicitly about knowledge: ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’ (8:32). He is equally clear about what the truth frees us from: ‘whoever commits sin is a slave of sin’ (8:34). According to John, the knowledge Jesus offers really does bring about the change God seeks for His creation. The final goal of this change is indicated in 1 John: ‘when He is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is’ (3:2). Paul also testifies to the power of knowledge to transform: in 2 Corinthians he discusses the importance of reading the Old Testament in the light of Christ, saying that in this way ‘all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’ (3:18). Here Paul is referring back to a tradition from Exodus, which relates that when Moses came down from Sinai, he was visibly marked by the the divine glory ‘because he had been talking with God’ (34:29). The idea that the knowledge can conform us to God is wholly Biblical.

How Truth Frees

Still, this falls someway short of a theoretical account of how divinisation through knowledge works. First, let us consider the content of divinising knowledge. Here, ethics and doctrine are inseparable. We know what the life of Jesus was like, what Jesus taught that human life in general should be like, and who Jesus was. Saving knowledge, therefore, is not simply a matter of good moral precepts. Because Jesus is fully divine, we know that his example is a manifestation of God’s perfection, and that his teaching is the will of God for human life. And because Jesus was fully man, we know that his life was a genuine human life, and so that trying to follow his example and his teaching will not take us beyond the limits of our human nature. Even more specifically, knowing that Jesus had both a divine and a human will shows that it is possible for a human will to be in perfect harmony with the divine. Truly following Christ’s example requires that we imitate Christ’s inner life. Thus we know not to trust our own unaided will to do what pleases God, but rather cultivate a perfect and perpetual harmony between our own will and the divine, as occurred in Christ through the hypostatic union. Finally, the fundamental inadequacy of our own unaided will is revealed still more fully by Christ’s death. It directly demonstrates the power of sin, insofar as it shows that humankind have become capable, not merely of destroying a righteous man, but killing our creator; and it indirectly demonstrates the same, insofar as the lengths to which God was prepared to go to address the problem show how grave the problem really is. The knowledge that saves us combines both ethics and doctrine.

No matter how valuable the content of our knowledge may be, the charge can still be pressed that we cannot apply it unless a change has already been wrought within us. This is why the character of our knowledge, and not just the content, matters. What if God had simply handed down to us the sum of Christ’s moral instruction along with the ethical application just derived from Christological orthodoxy? The difference is that being told that a certain way of life is possible, even by God, is not the same as being shown that something is possible by a concrete instance. The content of saving knowledge, because revealed in the actual person of Christ, is grasped with greater assurance. Only this kind of assurance truly opens up the Christlike life as a possibility for all, such that ‘other other people can make it their own, repeating it and reliving the experience’ (Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation, 136). Apart from the degree of assurance, the human response to an example is simply different from our response to instruction. Thus the instinctive revulsion to hypocrisy, and the importance of the demand to practice as one preaches. It is not just moral censure; we cannot take the teaching of a known hypocrite seriously on its own terms, despite many of us being rationally cognisant of the fact that this response involves the informal ad hominem fallacy. Consider also the thrust of Paul’s discussion of the law: ‘but now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter’ (Romans 7:6). Paul seems to suggest that the many ordinances of the law are experienced as oppressive, from which oppression we are liberated by turning to the human being Christ, in whom the law is spiritually fulfilled. This seems phenomenologically true: we experience a command as an imposition, and are inclined to resent and perhaps resist it. An example, however, when recognised as right, tends more to encourage us towards the right. Further, as Abelard and his modern followers have urged, Christ’s example is uniquely attractive insofar as everyone can construe it at as an act of love directed towards them personally. Any act of human love directed towards us naturally provokes a response of loving gratitude on our own part. How much the more so, as Phillip Quinn argues, an act of divine love, which is a supernatural power tending to work supernatural effect. Thus does Christ ‘draw our minds away from the will to sin and enkindle in them the highest love of himself’ (Abelard, Commentary on Romans).

Let us review. The knowledge of Christ is uniquely salutary because it is at once the knowledge of God, the knowledge of humanity’s potential for godliness, and the knowledge of humanity’s actual sinfulness. It is uniquely attractive, because of the supernatural power of divine love to provoke human love. Finally, we should not forget our earlier conclusion that Christ’s death is uniquely poised to enable us to abandon our false selves and return to God. Christ thus establishes certain conditions that must obtain if we are to serve God ‘in holiness and righteousness all our days’. For human beings in fact to do so, we must still respond rightly to all that Christ offers. Explaining how this response is made would involve a general account of the human will and its relation to grace, which I cannot provide. The view of Christ’s work here defended, however, does not presuppose the details of any such account. It is thus entirely consisted with all I have said to maintain that we are firmly dependent on grace in appropriating Christ’s work. The important point is that the life and death of Christ is decisive, for it uniquely reveals indispensable truth and attracts us towards that truth.There remains one final question, however: can knowing the truth induce any change so radical as divinisation?

From Knowledge to Mystery

Consideration of the supernatural power of Christ’s example leads us on to the climax of the divinising process. Though John and Irenaeus both seem to start from the quite ordinary knowledge of Christ’s words and deeds, they quickly move on to the importance of receiving such knowledge in faith, and finally to the theme of mystical fellowship. ‘If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (John 15:23). I believe that such language is not irreducibly mysterious, and can be furnished with the rudiments of an explanation. This explanation begins with our knowledge of Christ, and more particular from the form of that knowledge. It is a common and natural phenomenon that a well constructed narrative will, in some sense, make its characters ‘come alive’ to those who receive the narrative attentively. We all have favourite fictional characters, with whom we enjoy a personal relationship of sorts, and a good biography can draw us equally close to real personages. How much more so with the Gospels, which are the word of God. Thus the knowledge of God in the Gospels is the foundation of our fellowship with Christ.

This fellowship, moreover, can be enhanced in numerous ways. Firstly, we can read the rest of Scripture Christocentrically, and thus let God’s word shape our relationship with Christ beyond the four narratives of his life. Secondly, we can go further than the written words through devotional meditation on Christ’s life, enabling us to identify ever more deeply with him in our imaginations. Thirdly, we can maintain a continuing relationship with him, responsive to our own changing circumstances, through prayer. Fourthly, we can consciously strive to imitate Christ and obey his commandments, allowing us to abide in Christ’s love, as promised in John 15:10. Fifthly, we can unite ourselves to Christ through membership of his body, that is, by participating in the Christian community. Sixthly, there are many ways by which we can enrich our relationship with Christ intellectually, paradigmatically by hearing God’s word preached, but also through scholarly exegesis and even theology. Seventhly, we can encounter Christ in body and spirit through the sacraments. And last of all the means that I can identify, and not the least even of those, we can try to discern the image of God and presence of Christ in the people around us. All told, the resources available to us allow a rich relationship with Christ.

This fellowship changes us in much the way that ordinary human fellowship does. The more closely we get to know a person, the more we understand their attitudes and their thought processes, and the easier it is for us to enter into their perspective. Of course, we are not passive in this process, but must adopt Christ’s perspective as our own. It is only possible to do so systematically, however, on the basis of a deep fellowship. And the deeper the fellowship is, the more attractive will become the prospect of doing so, as we love Christ better. Thus we come consistently to see ourselves, the world, and all our interactions through a Christological lens. We decide, in effect, to let Christ make all our decisions for us, so that we may say with Paul that ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20). By aligning our perspective with that of Christ’s in thought and deed, we are increasingly conformed to Christ, and thus are ‘in God, and partake of His splendour’. By appropriating Christ’s death as a sacrifice, we are able to put aside our false selves, and restore our relationship with God. This relationship restored, we can turn to the knowledge Christ offers us, which is uniquely salutary because of who Christ is, and uniquely attractive because of how deeply Christ loves. This knowledge becomes increasingly salutary and increasingly attractive as we enter into increasingly rich relationship with Christ, until we let it conform us entirely into the image and likeness of God.


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