Monday, October 12, 2009

Israel and the Scope of Salvation

It's not surprising, given our context. But precisely for that reason, because its explainable by our circumstances, the need to resist is all the stronger. It's not that we've reached some pinnacle from which to stand and judge all prior arrangements and agreements. But things have a way (the Spirit of God?) of showing themselves from time to time that are against the grain and deserve our attention for that very reason.

While this is true of many things, I have in mind here our notions of salvation. I have been bushwhacking at this for awhile now. And I've been staring at this picture long enough that every detail looks different to me now. And this new picture recommends itself at the level of fit (the pieces hang together in a more inclusive manner), of strong biblical attestation that brings more of Scripture into play, and it can be found in the tradition, even if at times as a dissenting or minority voice. It has the added benefit of bringing the question of God into a more satisfying relationship with human suffering. And that ain't small potatoes.

At its most basic level the shift can be said this way: salvation is about God and the renewal of all of creation. Which is to say, salvation is not about the eternal status of my skinny backside. This is not to say that there is no benefit to the individual within the scope of God's work on behalf of all creation. There is enormous benefit, including forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But this is one piece of a much larger picture that has God at its center.

The reach of this shift is enormous. I have written about many of the aspects from time to time here. It changes how we view God's engagement with the world, how we define gospel, understand eschatology, interpret the death of Jesus, and learn to recognize the Spirit of God. That's a big enchilada.

Equally as impressive as the magnitude of this shift is the stubbornness of the old perspective, the one that equates salvation with my personal destiny without remainder. And I have been searching for therapies, ways of interrupting this imagination long enough for something new to take root. Which means, I am constantly bracketing aspects of this phenomena so that it can appear in its force and complexity. And today I had another little aha moment.

I am reading NT Wright's book, Justification. Wright certainly is sponsor of my interests along these lines. And Justification, is a response to John Piper's push back against the "new" directions being charted in Pauline studies. Central to Wright's reading of Paul is the relationship between Jesus and Israel. Jesus is not God's plan B when the Israel thing didn't pan out. Jesus is the representative Israelite, the Israelite who fulfills Israel's calling in the world.

Now this is important for all kinds of reasons (not least of which is that it makes Romans 9-11 the high point of Paul's theological argument in Romans, not an embarrassing parenthesis). But at a far more fundamental level, it keeps Israel as an indispensable part of the story of salvation. Let me explain why this is significant.

I read a paper at a conference a few years ago arguing for an approach to theology that took the rich variety of biblical perspectives as its methodological starting place. I was challenged by an evangelical scholar who wanted to collapse all biblical narratives under an overarching scheme, namely creation-fall-redemption. Similarly, I have had a professor the past few years who uses this three-fold scheme as shorthand for the biblical story related to salvation. I resisted at the conference and in class (though to myself in class. I was, after all, being graded) and reading Wright today confirmed my sense of resistance. And here's why (all that to say...).

This three step shorthand cuts too easily from the Fall to Jesus. From this perspective, the problem is too easily summarized in individualistic terms. Adam sinned. Adam needs to be saved. What is at stake is individual guilt.

In contrast, Israel's calling in the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not so easily reducible to individual salvation. God chooses a people to live together a particular way of life that has as its goal the blessing of all creation. It defines salvation from the first word as social, political, and ecological, without neglecting the burden of human sin (which is certainly also social, political and ecological). They are all of one piece. Jesus is not plan B. Jesus is plan A fulfilled, in continuity with God's saving purposes in the covenant made with Israel. He is Jesus Messiah, the representative Israelite.

My professor, Pat Keifert, told me once that a person's theology is determined to a large degree in relation to the place assigned to Israel. I wonder if this is what he had in mind, at least in part. The larger point is that I think the exclusion of Israel as a necessary part of our shorthand version of the salvation story might be one of those places that both reveals and reinforces our individualistic assumptions regarding salvation. The creation-fall-redemption schema fails to adequately interrupt our a andropocentric soteriology. As NT Wright puts it, "God is not circling around us. We are circling around him." Or as my former student, Jarrod Robinson, put it, "Salvation is not so much getting God into my life, but getting us all together into God's life."


Unknown said...

Thinking from a systems perspective, destabilization of the old perspective might create imaginative space for the new.

Passages such as 1 Thess. 4 coupled with 2 Peter 3 are employed to propogate the idea that Jesus' 2nd Coming will involve all saved souls being wisked away to some far off Heaven, meanwhile Jesus pitches the A-bomb of all A-bombs over his shoulder to destroy what's left. This belief promotes a disconnect between Christians and their environment. More than that, it generates a palpable disgust for the larger environment.

Wright offers a very different understanding of what Paul is imagining in 1 Thess 4. An appreciation for Peter's use of apocalyptic imagery in 2 Peter 3 should caution against a literal interpretation of that text.

I'm wondering if addressing interpretive issues regarding these texts would destabilize a substantial portion of the ideology that fixates on individual salvation.

JNW said...

it's a long and winding road to the world you describe for a church fixated on individual salvation and immersed in evangelical schmaltz.

Mark Love said...


Thanks for the excellent comments. The culprits here are many and NT Wright helps at many places. I think destabilizing texts is certainly a part of the reorientation. This work, however, is fraught with peril for the one disabusing people of cherished interpretations. I think the destabilization has to include some new experiences as well. The Sensemaking literature suggests that frames that are ideological in nature (and I think this one qualifies) absorb new cues that consist primarily in new ideas. These frames are overcome through new experiences. It's clearly a both/and here. And in fact, there are new ways for people to experience texts that might open up something other than an "idea" cue.

Matt T said...

Mark, it was great to see you in Abilene. I didn't know you had a blog--Great post on a great topic. Your writing style is excellent. I glided through this with ease. I completely agree with the enormous significance of Israel and covenant for a deeper and more biblical understanding of salvation--one that overcomes the supersessionism of the creation-fall-redemption scheme of the Church Fathers. I only recently realized how terrible the Jews have been treated in Christian theology and how much work we have to do to make it up to them (not to mention detox from antisemitism for our own health). From what I've read though, N.T. Wright doesn't get us very far down the road from these old problems. I've been influenced by Scott Bader-Saye's Israel and Church after Christendom and Douglas Harink's critique of Wright in his Paul Among the Postliberals. Both show that Wright is extremely supersessionist and misreads Paul. I think they are right, but I'm new to the topic. Kendall Soulen's God of Israel and Christian Theology was the work that really shed light on this for me only a couple of months ago. I'm growing increasingly interested in Jewish-Chrisitan relations for many of the reasons you point to in the post.

Mark Love said...


It was good to see you as well, and to hear of your continuing. I'm glad my class was a part of this journey for you.

You raise much bigger issues than my essay does here. I share your concern, but not your level of familiarity with the conversation. I would point you to Moltmann on this subject as well. If I'm remembering correctly, he has some important things to say about all of this in The Coming of God.