Category Image Alex, What is salvation?

 9.West sent me a link the other day to this podcast from Issues, etc., a ministry formerly of the LCMS and now somewhat independent (at least of the official structure of the LCMS).  The topic of the program was the history of a movement within Lutheranism known as Pietism, and its ongoing presence, at some level within the LCMS.

You can listen to the podcast for yourself, but it helps for me to define things a little bit first, or at least my understanding of things.  Pietism was a movement that arose as a response to the perception that Luther was too focused on doctrine, and not interested in the Christian life.  Ideally, the outcome would have been a blend of doctrine and praxis.  However, given the way in which people tend to overcorrect, pietism led more toward practice over and generally against doctrine.  The negative outcomes were numerous.  For instance, one of the outcomes was that one's praxis became the standard by which the validity of your Christianity is to be judged.  That is, real authentic Christians will have proper praxis, but nominal Christians won't.  From an Orthodox perspective, there is some truth there, but at the same time, it is well understood within Orthodoxy that only God judges the state of the soul.  What we don't know about other people's souls is substantial - and frankly for most of us only slightly less than what we know about our own.

Setting praxis against doctrine also has the result of creating a sort of religious universalism.  If it is what we do - in particular caring for the poor, the sick, the prisoners - that is of primary, perhaps even exclusive, importance, then what we believe that leads us to the proper behavior is irrelevant.  That is, quite frankly, the state of many mainline denominations in the U.S. today, which was part of the point of the Issues, etc. podcast.  In fact, that disease had apparently spread to Russia in the 19th century.  St. Brianchaninov gave a sermon that sounded positively Lutheran, pointing out that it is faith which saves.  In this treatise, works are that which we do to enliven our faith.  They are done in response to a divine command and thus are done out of faith. In other words, they are not indicative (Calvinism), nor merely expressive (Lutheranism, Baptist?), but serve to enlivening.

The underlying dilemma of Lutheranism that led to the rise of Pietism, is, I think, not "what saves us?", but rather "how are we saved?".  That is, in fact, the question that really triggered the Reformation itself.  Roman Catholicism had developed a theology that said that a priest (and ultimately the Pope) was entirely responsible for the remission of one's sins.  If mortal sins remain unconfessed, then you are damned.  If you go to confession and tell a priest about it, you are saved and go to heaven.  This is a fairly simplistic rendering, but pretty accurate in practice (the whole punishment vs. guilt argument would take a blog entry to review).  Of course this led to abuses, how could it not?  Within the hands of the hierarchy of the Church rested ultimate power.  Beyond the abuse problem, something doesn't quite feel right.  You don't necessarily have to love one another, or care much for the things of God, provided you followed the numerous rules about what was and was not a mortal sin, and was sure to receive the Church's forgiveness for any such sins committed.  That sounded so much like Pharisaism that the Reformers had to address it.  That is, they had to address the how you get to heaven question.

If its merely a binary heaven or hell question, then you need to search Scriptures and build the decision tree.  Western philosophy had developed two principles very useful in scientific exploration, Occam's Principle and the Principle of Parsimony.  This pursuit to reduce questions to the simplest sometimes overlooked the possibility that the answers are more complex.  Thus, there must be a simple yes or no formula to determine whether you are saved or not.  Unfortunately, Scripture is interestingly contradictory if that is the type of answer you are looking for.  On the one hand, you have St. Paul telling the believers that its not based on works but on faith that you are saved.  To the Western medieval mind, faith is that which you believe.  So, if you confess a belief, that is faith.  On the other hand, we have the Lord himself telling us that people will be sent to the outer darkness based on their failure to do good works.  So which is it?  Well, the debate is now 500 years old and no answer seems to be in sight.

So, what if the wrong question has been asked for 500 years?  The foundation of Western theology had been that the fall involved angering God and getting barred from heaven.  Salvation lies in appeasing the angry God and so being permitted back into heaven.  All Westerners agreed that Christ's sacrifice was the means of appeasing God.  In that context, as well as from Scripture, the Reformers rightly understood that nothing we can do would ever compare with that.  Purgatory, treasury of merits, punishment as opposed to damnation, all these things they could not buy.  Not only is the Scriptural support a bit weak, but the abuses that grew out of this theology serve as condemnation of it as well.

The Orthodox Church holds to a different view of salvation.  Although it will use the juridical model at times (after all, St. Paul did), she will use various other models as well, as they have Scriptural support.  However, because the Church doesn't lock herself into one model, a fuller understanding of the meaning of salvation is forthcoming.  Essentially this understanding is that salvation is a restoration of man, a healing.  Human nature is healed - having been assumed by Christ - and now, once again, man can look forward to communion with God.  By communion, we do not mean just fellowship, as the word koinonia is often translated, but rather theosis, or the partaking of the divine nature.  With this in view, then the works that St. Paul and Christ focus so much energy on, make sense.  Christ's work on the cross, and his resurrection, are what healed human nature.  Because of Christ, that which was impossible before, is possible now, becoming more like God, so that we can truly commune with Him.

Why should we want to become more like God?  Isn't the question the same, how do I get to heaven?  The Orthodox would answer by saying, you may get to heaven, but will you want to be there?  Orthodoxy understands God to be every present and filling all things.  There is no place where God isn't.  Because of that, everywhere is heaven.  The problem is, if you are not sufficiently purified, God, the pillar of fire, will be painful to be near.  That is the definition of hell.  This is what St. Brianchaninov meant when he referred to the enlivening of our faith.  Our good works take our belief and help us to be alive - to grow.  Note that without the correct belief we cannot move in the right direction, but without our works we could not get there at all.

This deeper understanding of salvation serves to explain the apparent contradiction in Scripture between faith and works.  Had Luther, in rejecting Rome, looked to the East, then the Pietist movement would arguably never have appeared on the scene.

Posted: Sunday - January 25, 2009 at 09:57 PM