AMERICAN HERESY #1: Salvation is Strictly Personal

As noted in the previous post, the three American heresies that I described reflect yielding to, rather than resisting, the temptations Jesus faced in the gospel stories often called The Temptation in the Wilderness. First, a recap of that story … then, an exploration of how things drifted from back there and back then to the here and now.

Not all of the canonical gospels (the ones in the Bible) have this account. John doesn’t have it at all. Mark does, but it’s only a verse or two. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have the more elaborated accounts. All three do take place right after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan … and the Spirit descends as a dove … and immediately kicks Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing. Matthew and Luke give us the figure of the Accuser (ha satan) doing the testing.

Rather than rendering ha satan as a proper name, I prefer the actual translation of the word, which is the accuser. Using a name like Satan or the devil calls to mind cartoonish figures clad in red with horns and pitchforks – or the literal figure of a handsome devil.  Either way, satan as devil is a tempter, trying to lure good people into shadowy places to do bad things. The accuser, however, is a very determined, aggressive, maybe even zealous, prosecutor trying to get at the truth of things … much like any of the prosecuting attorneys one might see on any Law & Order episode.

Furthermore, the whole purpose of this encounter is testing, a “putting to the proof” much like a bread maker will proof the yeast, check it out to make sure it will work as expected. The accuser is less concerned with trying to get Jesus to do something wrong or bad and much more interested in determining just who this Jesus is and just what he is up to in the world.

As the story goes, Jesus has been in the wilderness 40 days (a highly symbolic number) with little or nothing to eat and just as little water (or anything else) to drink. The first test the accuser offers is “Why not command these stones here to become bread?” Jesus declines, quoting a scripture verse about humans not living by bread alone but by the Word of God.

It’s not that eating is bad or that bread, a basic food in any culture, is not a good thing. All human beings need food and water in order to just survive. Indeed, in a story that makes all four gospels, Jesus actually does something similar to what the accuser suggests here: take a bit of something and make it more. In the case of the later stories, it’s a few loaves of bread and some fish that, somehow, become enough to feed thousands. Although Jesus starts with real bread, not stones, he does miraculously call forth food in abundance.

The real difference isn’t between starting with some stones or starting with some bread. The real difference is in the why – why do it at all? In the scene of the testing in the wilderness, the idea is just about feeding Jesus … getting what he needs … what he wants … any way he can. However, in feeding the multitude, it’s about the community. Everybody eats; everybody gets enough – not just the person(s) who happened to have a little food with them … not just Jesus and his closest followers or favorites – everybody gets enough to eat.  The food is for the sake of the community, not lone individuals within it.

Now how did things move from this sense of communal wellbeing (salvation) to a very individualized perspective (as in “my personal savior” or that only the souls of individual believers who have made their personal decision to accept Christ their particular savior will do to heaven)? The best way to trace that route might be to start with the history of baptism.

This will be brief in order to focus on the key shifts from era to era that led to the current understandings at-large in our culture today. A lot of interesting, and perhaps somewhat important, details will have to be skipped over. However, I’ll do my best to make it quick and interesting. Here we go …

Infant baptism seems to have been a practice in the Christian community from the earliest days. The Book of Acts and several letters from Paul speak of whole households being baptized. And as these were multi-generational households, there is a good chance very young children and infants were baptized along with the adults. Baptism was a sign of commitment to the community of Jesus’ followers, a joining to the death and resurrection story, and continued on some sense of cleansing from sins that John the Baptizer offered.

The earliest controversies around baptism focused on the cleansing from sins aspect. There was widespread agreement among the early theologians that baptism dealt with any sin that preceded the action of baptism. However, there were a lot of questions about sins committed after one had been baptized: Were those forgiven too? What if the sin was really big – like renouncing the faith and making a sacrifice to the emperor? Did it count as a sin if it was done just to avoid execution? What if it was a priest or a bishop who did this? Did such an act of apostasy make the sacraments performed by such a priest invalid?

These questions led to some interesting conclusions. Some chose to postpone baptism until they were nearly past the ability to sin, meaning they were nearly dead. This carried the risk of waiting just a little too long and dying without baptism. Different theologians had different perspectives on whether forgiveness and restoration could be possible for one who renounced the faith or committed obvious, public sins (such as apostasy). And this led to trying to determine what counts as a major sin and what isn’t and might be something that could be overlooked.

Rites for confession and penance emerged from all of this. Concepts arose like purgatory (where the souls of the dead can work off any unforgiven sins and enter heaven once this is done) and limbo (an in-between place where theologians dared not say for sure which way things would go). Then in the late 500s, Gregory I became Bishop of Rome when the once-Roman Empire had more or less abandoned Rome and moved the imperial capitol to Constantinople. Gregory earned his title of “the Great” due in large part to keeping civic society functioning in the aftermath as well as organizing a lot the heritage of the Church in Rome (liturgies, chants, records, etc … etc… etc). Keeping civil society functioning does require some money, so Gregory leveraged doctrines about purgatory and penance to fund things through payments for masses said on behalf of the souls of the dead, selling indulgences which would credit some of the excess good works by saints toward the debts of souls in purgatory.

About 900 years later, the selling of these indulgences by a different Pope to raise funds for the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome became the flashpoint that ignited the Protestant Reformation. A lot of things happened in the various reform movements. Most significant for this present context is the emergence of anabaptist movements in the Reformation Era. These groups aimed to return the rite of baptism to what John had proclaimed in the wilderness, preparing the way for the coming of the Reign of God. Baptism became a demonstration of conversion, a way to renounce the old, corrupted Roman faith and commit to the new (renewed) true faith. The separatist and purification movements tended to adopt the anabaptist practices.

The storied Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the early Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony were the religiously motivated colonial efforts in America. Obviously, it took a lot of zeal and devotion and commitment to leave the familiar (if oppressive) established community and come to a very different place without a lot of existing support and create a new community. Although this initial settlement generation had these qualities to a great degree, as generations followed, the intensity waned.

Questions arose about who should – and should not – be allowed access to the communion table, who counted as a full member of the congregation, and who should be treated with some skepticism. As so often happens, people were concerned if their children would really have the full true faith.  These concerns and fears gave rise to the first Awakening, the first big revival moment in the Americas during the early part of the 1700s, primarily among the anabaptist groups. (The groups that held more closely to well-established traditions more readily embraced increasing intellectualization of their faith.) This set the pattern for a second wave of awakening movements (sometimes called the Great Awakening) in the latter part of the 1700s and into the 1800s. It was this second wave that featured the camp meetings and tent revivals.

Later figures like Billy Sunday, Dwight Moody, and eventually Billy Graham carried the tradition of the tent revivals … the sawdust trail … the altar calls … accepting Jesus as one’s savior forward from the 1800s into the present era. Of all of them, it was Billy Graham who has really had the largest shaping influence on our modern context. He found ways to connect his arena-filling crusades and the power of television to extend the reach of his message. Although he had maybe a million and one ways to approach things, at the core of his message it was all the same sermon: a call to personal conversion, giving one’s life to Christ. His arguments were based on what is called the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement and a personalized reading of John 3:16

Throughout history, there have been a number of theories to explain how the death and resurrection of Jesus make humanity and all things right with God. Not one of them has been hailed as the full explanation. Like the fabled blindmen with the elephant, the various theories have a part of the thing, but no one theory has the whole of it.  What Anselm of Canterbury proposed, the Satisfaction Theory, is but one of these.

Anselm developed this theory within the context of the medieval feudal society of the 1000s in which he lived and wrote and thought. The essential concept was that humanity owed a debt to God and, already owing God everything, had nothing extra with which to pay; Jesus, as perfect humanity, garnered no debt and was able to pay what humanity could not. In Anselm’s time and context, this makes certain reasonable sense. However, wrenched from that context and grafted into a very different one – a more independent, more egalitarian, capitalistic context – this explanation doesn’t really fit, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In our present era, this theory has become so warped and twisted I doubt that, were he to visit our era somehow, Anselm himself would recognize it.

This Satisfaction Theory of Atonement is one piece; John 3:16 is the other. This citation is displayed on signs at sports events and all over the place and sometimes called “the gospel in miniature.” A lot of people think they know it … memorized from a familiar translation, adjusted the reading for the personal application, as evangelists like Billy Graham encourage.  Because I’m not as constrained by how people are used to hearing things, I can be more direct in translating than Bible publishing houses can afford to be.

Here’s my reading: For in the same way God loved the world so that God gave the only begotten son in order that every one who is trusting in him would not be utterly destroyed but would have the life of eternity.  There are two things I want to highlight as a conclusion. First, the word translated as world here is cosmos, meaning all of creation – not just a person, not just a collection of individual people, but the whole of creation. Second the word rendered as life is zoe … as in the root of zoology, pointing more toward – or at least including – the physical sense of life; the word is not psyche, which in classic Greek usage was an all-encompassing sense of the inner, spiritual, mental life as well as the physical.

Salvation was never meant to be about individual souls getting into a purely spiritual heaven after death. It was always about creation itself, the physical as well as the spiritual … and about moving the present reality closer to God’s intention for all creation. The call of faith is not just to get right with God. Rather, it is to join with God in God’s on-going work to bless and heal creation, to move life in this world closer to what God always intended it to be.