Soteriology and Christology

The following was a paper responding to the topic, "What is the relationship between an attempt to portray the salvation Jesus Christ brings to us (soteriology) and an attempt to portray the identity of this bearer of salvation (christology)?"

While this may sound quite boring, if you're familiar with the Arian controversy or the various Jesus movements from The Enlightenment period onward, there are some interesting insights to be gleaned from how we influence how Christ is seen, in addition to how such impacts upon salvation.

Contents

Introduction

This paper will explore the relationship between an attempt to portray the salvation Jesus Christ brings to us (soteriology), and an attempt to portray the identity of this bearer of salvation (christology). Although soteriology and christology have just now been succinctly described, these theological fields of study run more deeply than such words express. Therefore this paper will firstly take a deeper look at soteriology, and subsequently christology. Following this, the relationship between these two theological fields will be explored over three separate sections:

  1. The first section will examine the Arian controversy which was the cause of much tension between early Christians, yet helped to define how Christ’s human and divine natures were to be understood. The objective of such an examination is to clearly reveal that a strong relationship does exist between christology and soteriology, as well as to reveal what the central link of this relationship is.
  2. The second section will take a look at the original movement for historical Jesus. The objective here is to reveal a deeper relationship between an attempt to portray soteriology and an attempt to portray christology, while preparing the reader for the third section.
  3. The third section will explore the new quest of the historical Jesus and some christologies resulting from this movement. The objectives here are to reveal how christology shapes the way soteriology is related to different groups of people, in addition to strengthening the position that a close relationship exists between the two fields.

Finally, I will conclude by summarising and remarking on the various relationships that exist between christology and soteriology as exposed by this paper.

Soteriology

Soteriology is a term derived from the Greek word soteria, which within the English language translates into salvation.1 It has increasingly been used to refer to “theories of atonement” or “the work of Christ”.2 Two major theological areas embraced within soteriology consist of how salvation is to be understood, and secondly how salvation is possible in relation to the history of Jesus Christ.3

It might surprise some to learn that “salvation” is not a purely Christian term. It also has different connotations within other religions, and can even be used in a thoroughly secular manner. As theologian Alister McGrath points out, “Military coups in African states during the 1980s frequently resulted in the setting up of ‘councils of salvation,’ concerned to restore political and economic stability.”4 In its broadest sense, it has been asserted that salvation could simply mean “some benefit conferred upon or achieved by individuals or a larger group.”5

Turning to the Christian tradition, salvation may often be associated with Christ’s atoning death, which is seen as the culminating act allowing communion between God and humanity. Yet, McGrath points out that Christian salvation is to be understood as grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.6 Christ’s saving work is not confined to his death, but also encompasses his life as the Apostle Paul remarks, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). Theologian Walter Lowe exemplifies this point:

For the New Testament community, salvation was already present in his life—in his preaching and healing, his pronouncing of forgiveness, and his compassionate identification with the outcast and the oppressed.7

This means soteriology is not only concerned with the final acts of Jesus, by which Christians believe their sins to be washed away opening communion with God. Rather soteriology is concerned with every facet of Christ’s life, his lived life in addition to his death and resurrection. Thus, it naturally follows that the shape of salvation is itself formed by Christ.

Christology

Christology is concerned with the study of the identity of Jesus Christ. Within christology, there are perhaps two distinguishable areas. The first is interested with understanding the character of Jesus Christ and has close connections to his actions in life. The second involves the nature of Christ and deals with issues pertaining to his humanity and divinity.

Concerning the first area, it might be an obvious statement to make that the personality of someone is significantly tied in with their actions. For example, one acts out of compassion to help the poor because they are “compassionate.” This is an important point to make as soteriology, as previously examined, is also concerned with Christ’s actions. Professor of Systematic Theology Daniel L. Migliore also stresses this point saying, “We cannot speak meaningfully of anyone’s identity, and certainly not of Jesus’ identity, apart from that persons’ life act8 (emphasis mine)

In relation to the second area, controversial beliefs and ideas surrounding Christ’s nature has been of great concern to Christian theologians throughout the past. When it is said God assumed human nature in the form of Jesus Christ, one is naturally inclined to wonder how Christ’s divinity can be understood in relation to his humanity. As will observed in the next section, our understanding of Christ’s nature has dramatic implications on Christian salvation.

What the Arian Controversy Reveals

Arius, who is essentially responsible for the “Arian” view, seems to have argued that Christ was finite and so there was a time when he did not exist. He insisted that the Son is a creature, “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.”9 As McGrath summarises, “The implication [of Arianism] seems to be that the Son outranks other creatures, while sharing their essentially created and begotten nature.”10

Of significance is how Athanasius refuted Arius’ now considered to be heretical christology. Instead of directly attacking Arius’ view of Christ’s nature, Athanasius built an argument based on salvation. His argument revealed that if Arius’ christology was true, then Christ would be unable to redeem humanity and nor should he receive worship. McGrath notes two general styles of arguments that were put forth:

  1. No creature can redeem another creature.
  2. According to Arius, Jesus Christ is a creature.
  3. Therefore, according to Arius, Jesus Christ cannot redeem humanity.11

And the second which is similar, is built more upon Scripture and Christian tradition:

  1. Only God can save.
  2. Jesus Christ saves.
  3. Therefore Jesus Christ is God.12

The way Athanasius was able to use the idea of salvation within Christian tradition to attack the Arian christological position, reveals a close relationship must exist between soteriology and christology. Within this example we also have confirmation that the shape of salvation is indeed formed by one’s christology. The obvious link that allows one field to impact the other is Christ himself, yet there is a deeper relationship which I aim to uncover in the next section.

What the Historical Jesus Reveals

A christological movement that came out of the Enlightenment period was the original quest for the historical Jesus. As theologian Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen writes, “The underlying idea of the quest was to discover the truth about Jesus as he really was, free from the faith interpretations of the church and theology.”13 McGrath notes that adherents of a more subtle movement related to the quest, the “life of Jesus” movement, “regarded themselves as practitioners of the objective historical method.”14 However, it was eventually realised that such portrayals of Jesus’ religious personality were actually radically subjective.15

Something noteworthy is a challenge by Martin Kähler laid against the “life of Jesus” movement’s conclusion of viewing Jesus as an ordinary human. McGrath notes his criticism:

If it is assumed from the outset that Jesus is an ordinary human being, who differs from other humans only in degree and not in nature, then this assumption will be read back into the biblical texts, and dictate the resulting conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth is a human being who differs from us only in degree.16

Revealed here is the dramatic impact ones own beliefs and presumptions can have in determining who Jesus is. This can be most noticeably observed within the “life of Jesus” movement. Kathryn Tanner strengthens this revealed point explaining, “Historical criticism, because of its methodological agnosticism (if not atheism) can only uncover a humanity of Jesus continuous with the humanity of persons elsewhere.”17 With this in mind, it stands to reason that the experiences and beliefs “of Christians” can also colour their christologies. It seems like something unavoidable given that we all have different life experiences and so, in a matter of speaking, we see the world through a different lense.

This leads to a further interesting relationship between an attempt to work out who Jesus is and the salvation he brings. If the shape of salvation is formed by Christ as previously observed in the last section, and Christ receives his shape from us, then we shape soteriology.

This flowing relationship tends to be most astoundingly hidden until one steps back to view the whole picture. Once realised it becomes readily apparent how we, with our prior beliefs and opinions, thoroughly encompass and pervade both christology and soteriology, “the study by people” of the person and work of Christ.

It is our subjectivity that tends to be of concern to Kathryn Tanner who, in the Cambridge Companion, encourages readers to recognise Christ is not of our own making. Within, she accentuates the pro me (for me) emphasis, particularly within the Lutheran tradition, which associates all Christ accomplished as being specifically for us.18 Her concern is with the pro me affirmation becoming a general methodological principle within contemporary theology. Though Christ died “for us”, such emphasis on us should not become an independent principle for making Christ one’s own.19

Yet, subjectivity is a part of who we are as human beings, and so this can obviously create a problem for anyone trying to formulate an objective christology. As I hope to reveal in the next section, subjective influences are not necessarily bad given that there exists some objective boundaries. As Tanner explains, the danger is when “the emphasis on such subjective processes is so great that Christ need not… be the subject matter of them.”20

What the New Quest Reveals

With the passing of the original quest for the historical Jesus, the “new quest of the historical Jesus” eventually emerged. McGrath notes that “it is generally regarded as having been inaugurated with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture of October 1953.”21 Seeing the failure of working out the historical Jesus, Käsemann accepted that a reconstruction of the historical Jesus was not possible, however believed it was also unnecessary.22 Instead he understood the proclamation of faith as taught in the Gospels (kerygma) to contain historical elements, and so focused on the continuity between the preaching “of” Jesus and preaching “about” Jesus.23 Therefore the Gospels were able to serve as the objective norm by which christologies could be developed.

Resulting christologies from the “new quest” are evident within Christian theology today. I quote Migliore below to introduce some that have emerged:

Feminist theologians... contend that patriarchal theology in effect replaced the true scandal of the gospel with the scandal of the ontological necessity of Jesus’ maleness. Black and Third World theologians ask whether the church in the First World—mostly white and relatively affluent—takes at all seriously the scandal of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and the oppressed.24

Migliore in the above introduces two christologies, each one containing a different emphasis on Christ that tends to be subjectively motivated. The first is a feminist christology, which could probably be recognised as a subjective reaction to the way women have been devalued within the Christian church.25 As such, feminist theologians may emphasise the New Testament sees the full humanity of Jesus not in his maleness but in his shocking love.26 The second is often associated with a black christology, which is generally oriented towards the those with similar experiences to that of African-American people who faced oppression and poverty. Black christological expositor William L. Eichelberger, relating Christ’s cross to black experiences writes:

The cross as a medium of salvation indicates that there is something in it which points or leads towards deliverance. The cross as a medium of salvation first establishes an identity with someone in the suffering he is undergoing. As a medium of salvation it suggests a form of human solidarity which exists between certain kinds of people. The cross as an instrument of salvation suggests resurrection… [it] suggests new life… Blackness takes on the symbolic content of the cross.27

These fascinating christological insights, though subjectively influenced, help to relate Christ directly to specific groups of people. Eichelberger commenting further on the related symbolism between Christ and Black people says, “through the experience of [black] history we see Christ as he comes to the Black nation.”28

It is here we come to realise that christology not only shapes “the content” of the salvation within soteriology, but it also shapes how such salvation “is related” to different groups of people. In addition, these christologies can be valuable to assessing who Christ was, which in turn shapes salvation. This is perhaps best demonstrated by imagining if Christ was espoused as condemning everyone for their sin, or only associating himself with the Jewish people. Yet Christ came with love, forgiveness and compassion, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, to reconcile “the world.” To end with Migliore:

If we begin with the human Jesus and his ministry… we are confronted by one… who blessed the poor, forgave sinners, had table fellowship with the outcast, befriended women, collided with the self-righteous custodians of the laws, and evoked the suspicion and anger of the Roman authorities with his message of liberty to the captives.29

Concluding Summary

By examining the Arian controversy it was revealed that Athanasius was able to attack the Arian christological position by arguing it rendered any salvation Christ offered ineffective. This revealed a close relationship existing between christology and soteriology, of which the obvious link was Christ himself. As such, it was observed how the shape of soteriology is formed by one’s christology.

A look was then taken at the original quest for the historical Jesus, where it was revealed ones own beliefs and presumptions have a dramatic impact on trying to determine Jesus Christ’s identity. As salvation receives its shape from Christ, if Christ receives his shape from us, then we also shape soteriology. In this way, we ourselves influence any attempt to portray soteriology or christology with our prior beliefs and assumptions.

The new quest for the historical Jesus was next explored, where after examining some resulting christologies, it was observed that one’s christology not only shapes “the content” of the salvation within soteriology, but it also shapes how such salvation “is related” to different groups of people.

Although christology and soteriology have been distinguished as separate fields, it is perhaps best to see them as McGrath does, being two sides of the same coin.30 To more briefly conclude, this paper explored and revealed that the way one portrays the identity of Christ, which is influenced by our own prior perspectives, has great impact on the salvation he brings and the way salvation is related to varying groups.

Notes

1 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. 3rd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 410.

2 ibid.

3 ibid., 411.

4 ibid., 406.

5 ibid., 407.

6 ibid.

7 Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King, eds., Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. 2nd edn. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 225.

8 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 143.

9 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology, 358.

10 ibid.

11 ibid., 359.

12 ibid., 360.

13 Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 90.

14 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology, 389.

15 ibid.

16 ibid., 392.

17 Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 7.

18 Colin E. Gunton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), 252.

19 ibid., 254.

20 ibid., 255.

21 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology, 394.

22 ibid., 395.

23 ibid., 394-395.

24 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 142.

25 Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology, 196.

26 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 147.

27 William L. Eichelberger, ‘A Mytho-Historical Approach to the Black Messiah’, Journal of Religious Thought Spring/Summer76, Vol. 33 Issue 1 (2001): 66.

28 ibid.

29 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 156-157.

30 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology, 406.

Bibliography

Eichelberger, William L. ‘A Mytho-Historical Approach to the Black Messiah’. Journal of Religious Thought Spring/Summer76, Vol. 33 Issue 1 (2001): 63-74.

Gunton, Colin E. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Hodgson, Peter C. and Robert H. King (eds). Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. 2nd edn. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. Christology: A Global Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. 2nd edn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Tanner, Kathryn. Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.