Monday, September 29, 2008

Believe the Good News

I teach an undergraduate course called "Teaching Good News." (I've written about this before on the blog, but I want to visit it again to preface a series of posts). I ask the students to write the same paper three times through the course of the semester, "The Meaning of Salvation." This turns out to be a challenging exercise. Many cannot form a meaningful set of paragraphs. This could be because the habits of college students do not exactly keep the brain in full firing capacity. But mostly, I think, its because for them salvation is the end result of a theory, or a formula, that is difficult for them to sketch with any confidence.

To the extent that they do have a coherent answer, they always give me penal substitutionary atonement--"He paid a debt he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay. . ." God's wrath demands punishment for sin. Jesus takes my place, takes my punishment, averts the wrath of God, and allows me to stand forgiven before God. It's a courtroom scene, complete with judge, verdict, sentence, and the like. With my students, this account is ubiquitous. It is the gospel without remainder.

There is a Baptist church in the area that evidently sees our Christian college campus as prime evangelistic real estate. They leave fliers from time to time all over our campus warning students and others of our impending doom. I've found them under the windshield wiper of my car, under the lid of a photocopier, even (I kid you not) strategically rolled up in the toilet paper roll in the bathroom. I guess they figure that's one place you're likely to be looking for something to read. The content is classic penal substitutionary atonement.

This makes for great classroom discussion. What assumptions are at work if this is how you do evangelism? What is the human problem if you can present this in a disembodied way--in a flier, not in a person or a community? How would you know if this worked? What would that look like? What view of God is assumed here? What is the significance of Jesus? For instance, why is his resurrection never mentioned? Why are the deeds of his life conspicuously absent?And what does this assume about the person reading this? What is our problem? What is this trying to do, to accomplish, with the person who finds it? And what do we make of this idea that forgiveness can only come through capital punishment? 

My students have no problem identifying the problems. Thing is, they can't imagine talking about salvation in any other way.

As gently as possible (and many of them don't experience this as gentle), I try to widen their horizons. They are stunned to find out that this is a fairly recent explanation of the meaning of the death of Jesus. While the historical development is long, their version is circa 19th-20th century. I point out that this is old as far as sea turtles go, but with theories of atonement this is a Johnny-come-lately.

More to the point, there is no detailed theory of atonement spelled out anywhere in Scripture. Nor did the church that decided what needed to go in the Bible feel the need to define atonement. While creeds like Nicea and Chalcedon go to great lengths to define the divinity of Jesus and the identity of God as Triune, they made no effort to explain the "how" of salvation.

This does not mean that theories have no place in understanding salvation or in helping others understand why Jesus' life, death, and resurrection bears saving significance. But these theories are always secondary. They came after something else. And no single theory can every explain the full meaning of salvation. It takes a multiplicity of pictures, sometimes in metaphor, sometime in theories, to get at all the dimensions of salvation. If we identify any of them as equivalent to the gospel, we are straightway into distortion.

It is interesting in this regard to see what passes for gospel in the New Testament. In 1 Cor 15, the gospel is the announcement that Jesus died in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and raised in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to witnesses. It is the announcement of an event.

Mark 1:15 also has a clear and concise statement about the gospel. Jesus comes proclaiming the gospel of God. Namely, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news." While there are differences in vocabulary between these two texts, they share one important thing in common (among others we will delineate in future posts). They both define gospel in terms of the announcement of an event.

Before the gospel is an explanation, a theory, or a metaphor, it is an event. And in light of this, my reading of NT texts indicates that the primary language of salvation is the language of participation. We are saved as we participate in this event. The implications here, I believe, are massive, and would change not only the way we do evangelism, but would also change our understandings of worship, doctrine, koinonia, ethics and morality, etc. Another way of saying this is that our practice of the Christian life is inextricably embedded in what we believe salvation to be. And by extension, our understandings of mission are tied to our notions of salvation.

I don't think that most churches who want to move beyond "a place where" church to a "people sent" church will make much headway without some shift in soteriology (the meaning of salvation). Missional travels on certain theological themes, and the missional church literature has opened up in essential ways the theme of Trinity, and to a certain extent eschatology. More focus needs to be given to soteriology. So, hang on, and let's see if we can do some thinking about this together. Are you up for it?


Kevin said...

I remember our discussion in "Teaching the Good News" well. (I had Flanders instead of yours a few years ago) I agreed with the ideas presented, but I did not connect with them until recently. I am willing to join you in the jounrey towards a broader soteriology. Thanks for the post.

Mark Love said...


Despite your inferior tutelage in this area (just kidding, Flanders is great), welcome to the conversation.


Kevin said...

Today, as I read from Acts 17, I was struck by Paul’s storytelling. It was not a story about a miserable humanity, but instead people created by God. On Mars hill, Paul invites his hearer to enter into life with the God that gives life and breath and everything else. That is a salvation I want to be a part of and I think other do too.

Cheryl Russell said...

The toilet paper evangelism thing has me rolling on the floor!!! So funny! It's the answer to all of our missional questions, we partner with people in their most vulnerable moment! "Can you spare a square?" ;)

Great thoughts Mark. Salvation can not be wrapped up in a single theory. I'm thinking I could spend the rest of my life seeking the answer to this question, likewise, the implications of any understanding here are huge.

Mark Love said...

I can always count on you, Cheryl, to find the heart of the argument. Can you spare me a square! Very missional.

Cheryl Russell said...

There are just too many potential jokes here Mark. The rolling and wrapped up references were no accident!

I mentioned this post on my blog, hope you don't mind.