There are several questions that I have wrestled a lot with lately (lately meaning the last four years in the case of the first question) that I am currently trying to examine in slightly different lights.
The first question has to do with the nature of salvation or the nature of the gospel. Are these the same things? What are we saved from? Is salvation merely a pardon or giving of forgiveness (as it seems in many Baptist circles especially)? Or is salvation a constant process of taking sacraments and doing good works to become justified in the sight of God (as is often said of Catholicism by its evangelical critics)? Is the point of the gospel to get us into heaven or is it to take part in something that is happening here on earth?
These questions are difficult to think through, but I’m trying to put this in a slightly different light.
Instead of thinking about these questions in a strictly theoretical and theological perspective where we might debate the merits of each view and its sources of authority, I’m trying to understand the implications of these questions practically. While certainly there is a theoretical aspect to theology and to Christian belief, Christianity is also intended to be an belief system that is accompanied by a lot of action.
So the question I am posing now is what are the implications for different views on the nature of the gospel/salvation for what we do as Christians?
This is especially pertinent in terms of how we view evangelism.
If the gospel is entirely a spiritual message- your sins will be forgiven and you will go live with God in heaven when you die on earth- then our evangelism will be focused on conversion and not much else.
However, if we view the gospel as a call to participation in God’s kingdom on earth (NT Wright is major advocate of this view, for example), then our evangelism will be more focused on calling people to believe in and participate in the work of the church (which will be much more humanitarian in nature).
A related question is how the gospel fits into different historical contexts.
For instance, the early church was in a very Jewish context that had at its center the concept of a Messiah. Christianity latched onto that by proclaiming Jesus to be this Messiah. Later, as Christianity expanded into a more Greco-Roman world, it began to adopt the philosophical context of this community to explain the nature of God. Most of what we consider the classical theological views of God are taken from Greek philosophy and supported by scripture, rather than the other way around (contrary to the claims of many evangelicals and fundamentalists). As time progressed and the Roman empire fell a more pessimistic and legal framework of thinking developed and from that came the theology of substitution, which proclaimed that Christ had paid a certain penalty for our sins, one demanded to justify us in the sight of God. And a new view of salvation developed, one in which Christ’s work is seen as taking our place and paying our penalty in order to make us perfect in the sight of a God who cannot tolerate imperfection (and yet talks to Moses as a friend, just to give us a hint of where this view, like most, does not completely represent the Biblical data).
In other words, Christianity has adapted to address different philosophical contexts. In each of these the tradition has changed. The question is how this historical development affects our views today? Should we also adapt to a new philosophical context or do we cling to tradition (a call which ironically seems most strong from fundamentalists who also reject Catholicism’s canonization of tradition).
This issue become especially interesting in examining the progression of Protestant thought in the last few hundred years.
Protestantism started with a rejection of a medieval idea that by taking the sacraments we somehow obligate God to extend grace to us. Even still, Protestants maintained the same framework as the medieval church, essentially adopting the beliefs of Augustine.
Right on the heals of the Reformation came the Enlightenment, and suddenly the philosophical context of the world changed to based around the progress of human knowledge toward triumph over the forces of nature. In this context, the stories of Christianity seemed outdated and incapable of measuring up to the rigors of academic study. Out of this context developed Classical Liberalism, which attempted to accommodate Enlightenment thought and in doing so frequently rejected much of the Christian tradition. In response to this Liberalism, Fundamentalism formed which made the opposite error- instead of throwing out tradition they added to it things that had never been essential aspects of the Christian tradition and made them “necessary” to being part of Christianity.
The end result of this saga is that neither camp seemed to really address the modernistic social context, and as a result Christianity lost a lot of credibility in the modern world.
Post-modernism seems to pose a similar challenge, but at the same time some very interesting opportunities for Christianity to re-engage the culture meaningfully and address the new context. The question is how this will happen and who will participate? Will more conservative Christians shy away for fear of change? Will more liberal Christians throw away theology altogether? Is there some-sort of balance that can be struck to address the culture and still remain essentially Christian?