Tag Archives: soteriology

Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther on Salvation: The Heart of the Difference

I’m currently waist deep in writing my thesis to complete my MA. This is one of the main reasons I haven’t blogged for months! My thesis compares Thomas Aquinas (the preeminent theologian of the Roman Catholic Church) and Martin Luther (the great reformer) on their understanding of salvation. I’ll share the finished product in a few months, but here’s a spoiler: All of the old polemical comparisons (e.g. protestants teach salvation by faith, while Catholics teach salvation by works) are just wrong. Nonetheless, there are real differences. Here are four statements I’ve crafted to get to the heart of the difference between Thomas’ and Luther’s understanding of salvation. What do you think?

  • Thomas’ problem is that we cannot get the good we desire (though that desire is itself a gift from God). Luther’s problem is that we cannot desire what is good.
  • For Thomas, salvation is like falling in love. For Luther, salvation is like being loved.
  • For Thomas, salvation is like the blind receiving sight. For Luther, salvation is like the lost getting found.
  • Luther worries about whether God will really save me. Thomas worries whether it is really me that God is saving.

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A Homily: Why Our Suffering is Meaningless (And Why That’s Really Good News)

Job 38:1-7

You know Job’s story. He has suffered great loss—loss his personal fortune, his health, even his own children. All of this through no fault of his own, but as the result of some strange cosmic pissing contest between God and the devil, which we the readers are privy to, but which Job knows nothing of. He suffers, like the rest of us, in the dark—searching for answers, for the meaning in his pain.

And here, in the passage I just read to you, God enters the conversation for the very first time. He comes with perhaps an unexpected agenda. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” he asks Job. In other words: Who the hell do you think you are, Job, to question me? “Dress for action like a man, and I will question you.”

And question him, God does: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Are you picking up the sarcasm? I hope so, because he’s laying it on pretty thick. And God doesn’t let up after these seven verses we read this morning. No, it goes on like this for almost four chapters.

  • Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
  • Have you commanded the morning, Job…and caused the dawn to know its place?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?
  • What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?
  • And who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
  • Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
  • Is it by your understanding, Job, that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?

If I’m honest, I find these verses more than a little distasteful. Maybe you do too? I mean, Job is at the end of his rope here. He’s poor, mourning the death of his children, scratching the boils on his skin with broken pottery in hopes of a moment’s relief. Now God shows up? And just to give Job the third degree? If we read these chapters by themselves God comes across as a pitiless bully who just wants to kick Job while he’s down.

But hold on just one minute. It was, after all, Job himself who asked for this trial—back in chapter 31. After rattling off a litany of his innocence:

  •  He’s always shared what he had with the poor.
  • Never said a bad word about anyone.
  • He’s been honest.
  • Faithful to his wife.
  • Why, Job’s never even looked upon another woman lust in his heart.

Then he cries out, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense—let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made—to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.

God is just giving Job the trial he had asked for. But you see, therein lies Job’s problem, and, I would argue, the reason for God’s unorthodox interrogation. Both Job and his so-called friends have, throughout the book, been assuming the law of reciprocity: suffering properly comes to the wicked, while the righteous should prosper.

What goes around, comes around.

You reap what you sow.

We may call it karma. Or, if you grew up in a certain corner of Pentecostalism, perhaps the health and wealth gospel: if only you have enough faith God will make you rich and prosperous.

So Job’s friends keep trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong, and that’s why God is punishing him.

But Job maintains his innocence. He’s done nothing wrong, and he certainly doesn’t deserve this. That’s why Job calls God to the carpet: He’s being treated unfairly, according to the law of reciprocity, and he wants some answers.

But maybe God’s not bullying Job. Maybe instead he’s showing Job just how little he understands the way the world works.

Have you commanded the morning…and caused the dawn to know its place?

Maybe God is pushing back against Job’s unquestioned assumption of the law of reciprocity.

But before we write off this naive worldview, consider how often you and I think like Job and his friends. It might be easy to see how we’re not thinking like them—we have long since given up the notion of reciprocity. Sure, there are folks like Pat Robertson who are always quick to blame every natural disaster on Wiccans or homosexuals or whatever group happens to be on the chopping block that week. But most of us, on our better days, don’t really believe that good things come only to those who do good, or that only the wicked suffer. We have seen too many good people stricken with cancer. Too many good parents cradle dead babies in their arms. Too many tsunami waves crash indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. Yet, still, we search, sometimes frantically, for some purpose to our pain, some narrative that will explain why we suffer.

A friend of mine once told me about an essay he had read in an evangelical magazine. The author—whose name I can no longer remember—was trying to answer that age old question, why we suffer. His story was tame. Some hooligan had thrown a rock through his windshield. So he called AAA, had the window repaired, and then told the repairman about Jesus. Then he had an epiphany!  This, this is the reason God allowed his window to be broken—so he could tell another soul about Jesus!

Then he had another epiphany: this is the reason for all sorts of suffering in this world. Now, think about that. In essence, this author is declaring that God kills the children of his followers, strikes wives and husbands with cancer, destroys cities in earthquakes, and wreaks general havoc with human lives…

…so that believers can tell non-believers about Jesus?

That’s it? That’s the meaning of suffering?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it.

Are we really to believe that broken car windows and broken lives are the same thing—all a part of God’s plan for evangelism?

But this author is not alone. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard explaining that God allows human suffering to teach us patience or humility or to make us ready to help others through times of suffering.

This is the same thing Job’s friends were doing. They came to help Job, to comfort him, to endure his trial with him.  But they ended up blaming him for his suffering.  Well-intended though they may be—Job’s friends, the preachers we’ve all heard over the years, the author of that essay about the windshield—each claims a wisdom no one really has, the wisdom to explain this world’s inscrutable ways.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky resisted similar consolations. Ivan, an atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, refused to accept the notion that suffering serves any purpose whatsoever.  And if it does, it’s a cruel purpose.

“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one [innocent child] . . . would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

Ivan’s protest is powerful because he does not dally in the realm of the inconvenient—the realm of shattered car windows—but goes to the heart of the real question: murder, abuse, torture, the gratuitous suffering of children.  Did God allow the Russian nobleman in Dostoevsky’s story to set his dogs upon an eight-year old boy so that the boy could later testify to the love of Jesus?

Well, the boy died.

Did he do it so the mother could—the mother who was forced to watch?

The fact of the matter is that these answers just won’t work for Christian theology.

Christian theology has always held that evil has no being of its own, but is merely parasitic on God’s creation. Think of evil like a hole in a shirt. A hole in your favorite shirt can be a pretty terrible thing. But when you think about it, it’s really no-thing at all. It’s just a big, gaping nothingness, where there should be fabric. So, the technical language for this is: evil is “a privation of the good.” Evil, according to Christian theology, is literally nothingness, a corruption of God’s good creation, a perversion of God’s purposes. So, according to classic Christian theology, we can never know why there is evil in the world, because there is no why. Evil, at its core, is chaotic, arbitrary, nothingness. I want to repeat that—and I’d like for us to let it soak in—because this is the frightening reality that many of us have spent a lifetime trying to escape:

Our suffering is utterly meaningless…

But now let me alleviate the tension a little bit. I want to suggest that this notion—that our suffering is not a part of God’s plan and purposes—it right near the heart of the gospel, the good news.

It really is good news, I think, that we don’t have look upon the devastation wreaked by the latest natural disaster and console ourselves with sentimental drivel about how God works in mysterious ways, or assure ourselves that there is some ultimate meaning or purpose in such misery. It is good news that we are permitted to hate death and evil and suffering with the kind of perfect hatred that they deserve.

It really is good news that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. That is why, at the end of the story, God vindicates Job’s complaint and says that his friends have spoken ill of God. For God does not permit human suffering to punish sin—nor for any reason.

It’s good news because the Christian gospel is a story of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come. The whole creation, Paul says, groans with the pains of childbirth in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. And the incarnate God enters this world, not to teach us how God works mysteriously through human suffering, but to break wide open the bonds of suffering and sin and death, and to redeem creation to its original beauty. God will not, in the end, show us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the kingdom. No, God will raise her up and wipe away the tears from her eyes.

And there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”


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New Essay: Martin Luther and the New Horizons in Soteriology

I just submitted the final essay for a Research Methods course I’m taking for my masters degree. Since some of you helped me write it by critiquing the initial thoughts I shared here, I figure it’s only fair to give you a look at the finished product.

Here’s the abstract:

At the center of much of the stereological reflection in the last half century lies a debate about the interpretation of the theology of Martin Luther. The research here presented examines three areas in the contemporary soteriology debate. We will first consider the recent reassessment of the Christus Victor atonement theory, and evaluate Luther’s role in the development of various atonement theories. Next we will survey the New Perspective on Paul, which takes Luther as the catalyst for the malfunction of Western readings of the Apostle, and we will consider one possible response. Finally, we will evaluate whether, as some Finnish interpreters of Luther have been saying, there is an analogy to be made between Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis.

One surprising implication of this research is that Luther’s theology cannot be accounted for merely as a tired continuation of the medieval tradition, expressed as it is in Protestant orthodoxy. Neither does Luther represent a fortress of insulation against the teaching of the Church universal. Rather, Luther is, on the one hand, a robust ecumenical dialogue partner, able to engage with the early Church from which he is thought to have rebelled, and on the other, a persistent challenge to his own theological progeny.

And you can read the entire essay here.

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Soteriology Chronicles: On Rob Bell

I finally read Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  This year I’m reading several books on soteriology, with the intention of blogging my way thought them—a sort of self-directed class on soteriology. Even though I have failed in the latter, I had not planned to stray from my reading list.  But I just had to slip this one in. What with all the controversy surrounding Bell right now, the fact that the book is at least tangentially related to my reading project for the year and that a friend gave me the book for free…it seemed like a no brainer. I actually rather enjoyed it. It’s a quick read—you could probably finish it in a single setting if you’re committed. And I found myself in agreement with Bell through most of the book. Now I know that’s a controversial statement so I’ll make a couple of quick comments about the book generally before I get on to my real intent for writing this post: to pose to you a few questions this book helped me to raise.

As you know, debates about universalism have raged in the blogosphere and even made their way to major news outlets in the weeks before the book even hit the shelves—all the result of one conservative bloggers heated response to a promo video released by the publisher.

I vowed not to get involved in the debate, but that was when I thought the debate was properly about universalism, and I just did not feel ready yet to make any sort of decisive statements about that issue. But I was mistaken. So, before I get on to the real point of this post—to pose for you some questions that this book helped me to raise and which are relevant to my soteriology “class”—allow me first to make a few comments as a sort of outside observer. After reading Love Wins, I don’t have any idea why there remain debates about universalism surrounding it. Bell makes no claim anywhere in the book that sounds even remotely like universalism. To the contrary, he explicitly denies it. “Love demands freedom. It always has and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (p. 113). I could site others, but why don’t you just read the book?

Don’t get me wrong, this is a hard-hitting book. Bell is stunningly frank and people will find lots that they might take issue with. For instance, some might think that Bell has an unbiblical view of both heaven and hell. “Here is the new there,” he says. Heaven is not somewhere “out there” beyond the spacio-temporal word where disembodied souls float up to be with God. Heaven is about God’s kingdom come on earth (his will be done on earth as it is in heaven). It’s about resurrection life. Heaven is a physical, local reality that is both here and now as well as extended into the future (see chapter 2). So also, hell is not a place of eternal, conscious torment for those who have rejected Christ after they have died. Hell is the torment, suffering, violence and heartbreak that is the result of rejecting Christ’s way of love. Hell is a physical, local reality that is both here and now as well as extending into the future (see chapter 3). So heaven and hell are right here together. If C. S. Lewis wrote of the “great divorce” of heaven and hell, Bell writes of their marriage. Both the younger brother and the older brother are “at the party,” he notes, echoing the story of the prodigal son. But for the older brother it’s not much of a party.

It’s important to note that Bells teaching on these points is well within the broad stream of historic Christianity, and I for one tend to think that he is closer to the biblical account than many of the alternatives. Those who would oppose Bell on these grounds will have to deal with the relevant passages of scripture at least as thoroughly as he has—and that’s no small feat!  But at least then they might have a case.

Still others may take issue with Bell’s affirmation of “inclusivism”—the teaching that “Jesus is the way, but…the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people,” including those who do not call themselves his followers or even know his name (p. 155). Again, I suspect it would be no small task to make a case from scripture negating inclusivism as strong as Bell’s case for the affirmative, but the charge of inclusivism is at least a legitimate one. (For Bell’s argument for inclusivism see chapter 6). The charge of universalism, on the other hand, is completely unfounded. I really don’t understand why we’re having the conversation. The only explanation I can come up with is that those people who jumped the gun and reviewed the book before it was released were successful in hijacking the conversation and distracting us from the real issues. They owe us all an apology.

Lest you think I just some die-hard Rob Bell supporter who thinks he can do no wrong, let me say that there is one entire chapter in the book that I thought was totally misguided. In chapter five Bell writes about how the entire universe is structured around the great mystery that death leads to life. Leaves fall to the ground and die causing new ones to spring into life. Gradually every few years we slough off our old skin cells making room for new ones to emerge. “This is true for ecosystems, food chains, the seasons—it’s true all across the environment. Death gives way to life” (p. 130). So far, so good. But Bell asserts that the ultimate example of this universal pattern is the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  “Although the cross is often understood as a religious icon, it’s a symbol of an elemental reality” (p. 131). A symbol of an elemental reality? So the cross is just a symbol of the pattern which exists intrinsically in the universe? Karl Barth would roll over in his grave! Look at the evidence another way. Yes there is a cycle that moves from death to life, but at other times in the cycle it is moving from life to death. Sure those leaves that fall to the ground make way for new life, but they’re dead—gone forever! When you and I take our last breath our organic material will eventually break down and become the food of the earth, but does that really feel like life the loved ones of the lost? The fact of the matter is that the evidence is neutral. Life springs forth all around us—but there is death, too.  We Christians understand that the universe arcs toward life only because the resurrection of Jesus makes the case.  It is the hope that the cycle will end in life, not death. The resurrection is not the prime example of some universal truth. It is the key fact around which all the evidence is organized. Bell gets it backwards. Now that’s a legitimate critique of one of Bell’s premises but it is about the doctrine of revelation—and it has absolutely nothing to do with universalism. Let’s be a bit more precise in our theological language, shall we? Otherwise we lose the legitimate points of contention and launch pads into rich conversation amid the wild goose chase for universalists statements that do not exist.

Okay, now onto the point. Before reading Love Wins I was working with theological framework pretty similar to Bell’s (with, of course, the exceptions noted above), but reading it has caused me to ask a couple of questions, and I’d like to know what you think. One quick disclaimer: If you’ve read the book, say whatever you want. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t care what you have to say about it, about Bell, or about universalism. Write it on your own blog. That said, whether you’ve read the book or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these questions.

  1. My first question is about the nature of judgment. The good news about judgement—and, I take it, part of what makes heaven heaven, whether it is here or somewhere else—is that is that evil and violence and chaos will be banished. (The biblical way of saying this is “and there was no more sea”). Bell clearly understands this (see pp. 37 ff; p. 113), though he never offers any clear account of what this great and final judgement will be like. So, then, how can both heaven and hell be here and now and extending into the future? If heaven and hell are physical and local realities, then wouldn’t those who continue to choose violence, oppression and evil have to be in a separate physical locality? Otherwise what’s to keep them from rendering heaven unheavenly? My suspicion is that if you push this question too far you end up having to say that heaven and hell are internal realities. I’m not sure that Bell would want to go there…I know I wouldn’t.
  2. The second is like it. If the gates to heaven are “never shut,” as Bell say, quoting the Revelation of St. John, then can and will those who would seek to cause chaos and war be exiled peacefully? If the division between heaven and hell is permeable, as both Bell and Lewis affirm, can judgement be non-violent? How, in other words, do justice and mercy embrace?


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The Soteriology Chronicles: Beginning

This year I’m doing some reading in soteriology, the Christian doctrine of salvation. This is one of the areas in theology that I have not done nearly enough reading, and it has become apparent through recent conversations with friends just how anemic my picture of salvation is. So, 2011 will be for me like a course in soteriology. In January I asked all of the best theological minds I know for book recommendations. I chose the top ten based on frequency of recommendations and the specifics of my own interest, and I will read one a month (following the order in which they are listed below) beginning today, Feb. 1st. Then, in December, I hope to write an essay chronicling what I’ve learned. But reading alone does not make for a class: it requires the exchange of ideas.

That’s where you come in! I’ve already solicited Wanda Childs, my pastor and author of the famous theologoholic series Sunday Homilies with Pastor Wanda, to read along with me and engage in conversation as we go. From time to time, I’ll be posting our conversation here under the heading The Soteriology Chronicles. We’d love for you to join in as well! You can read as many or as few of the books as you’d like, or you can just be a part of the email chain. Even if you aren’t reading the books you may have an insight or a question that will steer the conversation in a new direction. So, if you’re interested in being part of this conversation please let me know by commenting on this post, or by emailing me at jdsmith2000@hotmail.com.

The Readings

  1. The Nature of Atonement: Four Views, edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy
  2. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, by N. T. Wright
  3. How are We Saved? The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition, by Bishop Kallistos Ware
  4. Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, by Aulen Gustaf
  5. Why God Became Man, by Anselm
  6. The Freedom of a Christian, by Martin Luther; and selections from The Institutes of Christian Religion, by John Calvin.
  7. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson
  8. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, by David Bentley Hart
  9. The Nonviolent Atonement, by J. Denny Weaver
  10. A Community Called Atonement, by Scot McKnight

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