What is Soteriology?

1. The Subject Matter of Soteriology

1. What is Salvation?

2. History of Understanding Salvation

3. Contemporary Trends and Relevance of Soteriology

1. The Subject Matter of Soteriology

(1) What is Soteriology?

(i) Soteriology as an academic discipline is primarily a study of salvation, i.e., what it is, how it is acquired, and how it is fulfilled. However, as it is a study based on the Christian belief that salvation is available in Jesus Christ, it deals with the Christian salvation offered in the Scripture, so excluding the other ways of salvation in various religions and ideologies.

(ii) It follows Christology in the order of systematic theology, for soteriology deals with the subjective application of objective salvation achieved by Jesus Christ through His atonement and reconciliation. Without Christology, there is no soteriology.

(iii) Usually, it includes a study of the Holy Spirit as the Applicator of salvation achieved by Jesus Christ. In some traditions, it is dealt separately from soteriology as Pneumatology.

(iv) Soteriology mainly deals with the so-called ordo salutis, i.e., order or steps of salvation, including calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification etc. However, this traditional concept of chronological order is biblically and practically criticized today. As Anthony A. Hoekema pointed out, “various phases of the way of salvation are not to be thought of as a series of successive steps, each of which replaces the preceding, but rather as various simultaneous aspects of the process of salvation which, after they have begun, continue side by side.”

(2) The Importance of Soteriology

(i) Soteriology is personally important, for it offers the personal way to receive and enjoy the benefits of salvation achieved through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As John Calvin emphasized, “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us.”(Inst., III.i.1)

(ii) This is the authentic science of human change, i.e., inner, essential and fundamental change by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, differing from outer, behavioral and complementary change by the human disciplines like education, psychology or philosophy. It is initiated by the heavenly calling of God and concluded by transcendental glorification, i.e., sinner to saints, spiritual death to eternal life, hate to love, earthly to heavenly being. It helps us to reflect the past and expect the future according to the divine plan of salvation and to appreciate the precious salvation of Jesus our Savior to be applied in our lives.

(iii) As the practice of salvation depends on his/her understanding of salvation, soteriology is crucial in the life of Christian individual and community. Especially, the understanding of the nature, process and purpose of salvation, by which a particular model of salvation is adopted, is decisive in his/her orientation to fulfill salvation. It affects not only to one’s life and world view, but also to one’s view of church, evangelism, mission, diakonia, as well as expectation of future and hope. Also, it provides the foundational structure to ethics and orientation. It is essential to understand the world history and divine providence.

2. What is Salvation?

(1) The Necessity of Salvation

(i) Human being is a problem to oneself. As an other-willed being, he/she has to solve one’s own questions of existence, such as Why do I exist? Who or What made me exist here and now? How did I happen to exist? For what purpose do I exist? If he/she does not answer those fundamental questions of existence properly and sufficiently, his/her life fails to be meaningful and successful. Therefore, the absolute answer and direction from outside extra nos as well as empowerment to fulfill one’s mission of life is necessary.

(ii) Human being is a self-contradictory existence whose thinking and acting do not fully coordinate, but agonizing efforts to harmonize oneself are constantly failed, as well portrayed in Rom 7. Human is always aspiring peace and safety out of uneasiness and crisis consciousness. Many things and sufferings around them are not satisfactorily solved or explained.

(iii) Human being is limited in many ways, being finite with recognizing finitude which presupposes the idea of infinity. Human are destined to die against his/her will. Therefore, liberation from the fear of death, limitedness and powerlessness is necessary for the meaningful and satisfactory life.

(2) Human Efforts of Self-Salvation

(i) The solution of those fundamental problems has been attempted through religions, i.e., by the help of God or supernatural power. But God or such power is used as instrument to satisfy human, and such human-initiatives naturally result in the manipulation of religious leaders. Arbitrary feeling of being righteousness by relative keeping of religious laws and regulations are recognized in legalistic religions such as Judaism and Islam.

(ii) Optimistic humanism approaches those problems by the gradual improvement of human ability. The belief in the Supermensch (Nietsche) prevails in the contemporary postmodern world of technology and capitalism.

(iii) Denial of those problems is another way to avoid such difficulties. Naturalism denies the special significance or purpose of human existence and suggests to simply follow the way of Nature. They find meaning in meaninglessness or Nothingness, i.e., Nihilism. On the other hand, mental escape is attempted, for example, in Buddhism and Platonism.

(iv) Paul Tillich listed five efforts of self-salvation, i.e., religious, legalistic, ascetic, mystical, and sacramental-doctrinal-emtional ways of self-salvation.

(3) The Biblical Concept of Salvation

(i) Etymologically, salvation [v;ye swthria is synonymous with deliverance, rescue, preservation, liberation, safety, health or well-being. So, “it means the action or result of deliverance or preservation from danger or disease, implying safety, health, and prosperity.” In the Scripture, it includes physical, moral and spiritual aspects, and it is found exclusively in Christ.

(ii) In the Old Testament, salvation is generally understood as a political, economic or physical deliverance from the oppression of enemy and depression of poverty, while its spiritual and moral aspects are continually reminded as the basis of those deliverances. By sending deliverers, God saves His people from danger and oppression. The Exodus is the most significant experience of salvation in the Old Testament and shaped the Jewish idea of salvation. However, the human agents are imperfect and fail to achieve the eternal salvation of Israel. So, the messianic salvation is promised with the coming of God Himself for the perfect and eternal deliverance as the Suffering Servant.

(iii) In the New Testament, salvation is described in various concepts like new birth, new creation, new and eternal life, liberation and freedom, reconciliation and peace, love and faith, gift of grace, knowledge of truth, homecoming, adoption and inheritance, healing and restoration, washing and forgiveness of sins, justification and sanctification etc. And, Jesus Christ is the only Savior, therefore no other name(Acts 4.12), and His salvation is applied by the Holy Spirit. It is both free and costly, by faith and work, individual and common. To be saved, baptism is required: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”(Mk 16.16)

(iv) Salvation is a long process to be completed like the Exodus, rather than a momentary event. It has three temporal aspects, according to G. Walters(NBD), past, present, and future, or possessive, progressive, and prospective. So, we can say that a believer “is saved, is being saved, and will be saved (Eph 2.8, 1Cor 1.18, Mt 10.22, Rom 5.9-10, 8.24) … Even the elect are warned to make their calling and election sure (2Pet 1.10) and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2.13).”

(4) Various Models of Christian Salvation

(i) The current models of salvation are as follows: Salvation as the Mystical Fellowship with Divinity, Salvation as the Authentic Knowledge of God, Salvation as the Moral Improvement of Humanity, Salvation as the Cultural Participation in the Religious Community, Salvation as the Political Participation in the Liberation of the Oppressed, Salvation as the Future Participation in the Eternal Life, and Salvation as the Happiness and Prosperity of the Present Life.

(ii) Donald Bloesch listed five theological models of salvation: Christian mystical model, Luther’s model, Calvin’s model, Wesley’s model, and Barth’s model.

3. History of Understanding of Salvation

(1) Early Soteriology

(i) The early Church Fathers emphatically taught two requirements to receive salvation, that is, faith in Jesus Christ and repentance to God. And, they show “initial drift towards ceremonialism” that forgiveness of sin is bestowed at baptism.

(ii) Against the early heresy of Pelagianism that man has ability to save himself, Augustine taught total depravity of fallen man and therefore the need of irresistible grace for salvation. However, he initiated the Roman Catholic system of soteriology by introducing the concepts of two graces that initial grace in baptism makes regeneration and forgiveness of sin possible, but it can be lost without the second grace of perseverance.

(iii) The Roman system of soteriology was developed in five distinctive elements: faith as the intellectual assent to the orthodox creed, works of mercy and self-discipline as the satisfaction for the sins of believers, reward for extra obedience (supererogation), Mary and saint-worship based on the transferred merit of their superabundant works, and salvation dependent on baptism.

(2) Medieval Soteriology

(i) Concerning the doctrine of grace, Scholasticism followed the soteriology of Augustine in asserting the need of sufficient grace, but the necessity of efficient grace was denied. Peter the Lombard distinguished between gratia operans and gratia co-operans, between Deum credere and in Deum/Christum credere, and between fides informis and fides formata.

(ii) In spite of minor differences, the Roman order of salvation is as follows: When sufficient grace is infused, gratia infusa, and it is not resisted but co-operated, it prepares justification through seven elements of work, i.e., assent to the truth taught by the Church, insight into one’s sinful condition, hope in the mercy of God, the beginning of love to God, an abhorrence of sin, a resolution to obey the commandments of God, and a desire for baptism. When this sevenfold preparation is completed by baptism, justification happens. It is preserved by obeying the commandments and by doing good works, and then finally everlasting life. In this system, justification and sanctification do not differ significantly.

(iii) Here, salvation may be lost either by unbelief or mortal sin, but may be regained by the sacrament of penance, i.e., absolution by contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The guilt and eternal punishment can be removed by absolution, but temporal penalties of sin must be paid by the works of satisfaction, which can be merited after justification in several ways including merit transfer from the saints or Mary.

(3) Reformation Soteriology

(i) Against the Roman system of penance including indulgence, Martin Luther insisted that God freely forgives sin, and declared the doctrine of justification by faith as ‘the article of a standing or falling Church’. Sola fide and sola gratia salvation became the hallmark of the Protestant soteriology.

(ii) Lutherans based ordo salutis on Acts 26.17-18, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”, and listed calling, illumination, conversion, regeneration, justification, renovation and glorification, while Calvinists based it on Rom 8.30, “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified”, and started from eternal election and mystical union established in the pactum salutis.

(iii) Therefore, Calvinists insisted the unconditional salvation of the elect and the perseverance of all the regenerated without exception. But Lutherans asserted that the grace of God can be always resisted and faith can be lost any time but regained again.

(iv) Arminianism arose with the emphasis on the universal grace and human ability of faith. God bestowed universal grace to every human on the basis of redemption by Christ, and therefore anybody who responds by faith is justified because of the merit of faith, and if perseveres to the end will become a partaker of eternal life. Sharp difference between Arminians and Calvinists made a great controversy.

(4) Modern Soteriology

(i) John Wesley in the Pietistic tradition attempted the second Reformation in reaction to the Protestant weakness in sanctification. Revivalistic movement of Wesleyan Methodism made all efforts in the preaching of the Gospel which acceptance results in sudden conversion and immediate assurance of salvation, but second radical change for entire sanctification was demanded. It is possible with the gift of second grace.

(ii) Liberalism denied the supernatural grace of salvation and offered a psychological, moral, or cultural salvation in imitation of Jesus Christ, i.e., His extraordinary morality and religiosity.

(iii) In the 20th Century, new soteriologies appeared to accommodate the modern situation of secularization. Existentialist soteriology is based not on the historical redemption of Jesus Christ but one’s existential decision before God. According to Bultmann, salvation is a way to be an authentic existence by radical self-commitment to God in the expectation that everything will come from him and nothing from ourselves. Such a life spells deliverance from all worldly, tangible objects, leading to complete detachment from the world and thus to freedom” “It is a fundamental alteration of our Existenz, our whole outlook on and conduct of life.” Paul Tillich understands salvation as “the fulfillment of the ultimate meaning of one’s own existence.” Secularization Theology insists that mature form of sanctification is secularization: “Realizing one’s capability and utilizing it, becoming independent of God, coming of age, affirming oneself, and getting involved in the world—this is the true meaning of salvation.” Salvation is a becoming like Jesus who is “the man for others”(John A. T. Robinson).

4. Contemporary Trends and Relevance of Soteriology

(i) Social Understanding of Salvation: In reaction to the traditional understanding of salvation as individualistic and futuristic, Theology of Social Gospel and Liberation Theology including Feminist Theology and Black Theology understands salvation primarily as liberation from the oppressed situation in this world. Moreover, salvation is conceived rather as holistic, universal and even ecological.

(iii) Objective Understanding of Salvation: Subjective understanding of salvation in the Liberaism and Existentialism is challenged by the emphasis on objective reality of salvation.

(iii) Teleological Understanding of Salvation: Weakening tendency of the Protestant churches in the Reformational emphasis on the sola gratia salvation is attempted to overcome by the emphasis the purpose of salvation, i.e., soli Deo Gloria. Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized the secularized natural religion of cheap grace and deus ex machina, and refocused our salvation as participatio Christi which necessarily follows the suffering of the cross.

(iv) Pluralistic Understanding of Salvation: Following the contemporary postmodern trend of pacifistic pluralism, the exclusive salvation by Jesus Christ is denied with the concept of anonymous Christ in other religions and cultures. Salvation is understood as “an actual human change, a gradual transformation from natural self-consciousness to a radically new orientation centered in God and manifested in the ‘fruit of the Spirit’”(John Hick, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World), rather than personal reconciliation with the triune God.

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This entry was posted in Christianity, Church, God, Growing in grace, Searching for God, Soteriology, Theological Education, THEOLOGY. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is Soteriology?

  1. igbagbo says:

    your explanation on soteriology was well understood and clear. i thank God it came at the right time when i was given assignment on the topic.
    thanks a lot

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