In honor of Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I enter into a discussion on salvation.
My question, salvation from what?
Though a complex question with many perspectives, I return to one of the most influential Christian theologians, Augustine, who lay much of the groundwork for later Christian theology. According to Augustine, humans are sinners thanks to Original Sin (see Re-Visioning Eve for an alternate perspective on Adam and Eve). We are thus inherently biased toward committing acts of sin; we have no control over sin. But humanity is obligated to be sinless. So how, if we are naturally inclined toward sin? For Augustine, we are totally dependent upon God for salvation and we require God’s free grace to be healed, forgiven, and restored. That is, saved.
How is this possible? Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As with much Christian theology, the roots of notions of salvation can be located in Ancient Greek where we find the word “soter,” the root of the English “savior.” To the Greeks, soter did mean savior, deliverer, and the processes of salvation and deliverance. Humans could be called “soter” if they healed or saved another. In rare cases it was applied to royal titles.
But it could also be applied to the gods. To many gods as a matter of fact. Zeus, Poseidon, Dionysus, Athena, and Hecate, just to name a few. In other words, numerous gods could save. Numerous gods, that is, could heal.
Save from what? Heal from what? The Greek soter was formed from the verb sozo, which meant to save, or keep from harm. This could include averting danger from something threatening, from war, and deliverance from an illness. In mystery religions one experienced deliverance/salvation through “sharing in the experience of the dying and rising god through the actions of the mystery cult” (Verbrugge, Verlyn D. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 548). In other words, there was precedent for the Christian story long established in the ancient world (and not just the Greeks).
Christians claim Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus was a Jew, rooted in his Judaism and, according to the Gospel according to Matthew, quite knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew mashiach, or “messiah”, is a complex concept that changes over time. While not the place to go into the complexity regarding Jewish notions of messiah, a point of interest in the current discussion is that nowhere in the Septuagint (the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) is soter used in reference to the coming of the messiah. Soter is reserved solely for Yahweh, God.
But of course for Christians Jesus is God and for men like St. Paul and St. Augustine, salvation is possible only through Jesus’s death and shedding of blood. Defined in terms of sacrifice, Jesus’s death is what makes salvation possible and through that death, we may be free from sin.
But not all Christians believed as much and those who expressed alternate views had their texts burned, were excommunicated, or sometimes put to death. And while these alternate views are many, I am going to present two: that of the gnostic text “The Gospel of Thomas” and the views of a man named Pelagius.
First off, Gnosticism has a long and variegated history and there were many gnostic Christian sects in the early Christian centuries. This is not the place to go into such complexity. Suffice it to say that Gnostic Christians (derived from gnosis, meaning “knowledge”) believed they had knowledge of Jesus’s “true” teachings, teachings related to knowledge of oneself, of one’s true nature–and that nature is divine. Thus the Gospel of Thomas presents, in the form of sayings, Jesus’s hidden wisdom.
Significantly, this gospel contradicts what would become Christian orthodoxy in term of salvation. Here are just a few of such and may provide you, the reader, with a little food for thought, for as Jesus says in Saying 1 “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” In other words, salvation is attained not through Jesus’s death, but by understanding what he means.
Saying 3: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty”
Saying 22: “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female…then you will enter the kingdom”
Saying 70: Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you.”
Saying 77: Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”
Saying 113: His students came to him, and asked, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come because you are watching for it. No one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth and people do not see it.” (Meyer, Marvin. The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus.)
In reading but a few of such sayings, one could see why Church authority would declare such views heretical, for when salvation comes through knowledge, one does not necessarily require going through the Church.
Similarly, the views of Pelagius from Wales would be deemed heretical. The timing of this declaration would have significant repercussions for the development of Christian history, for Pelagius was involved in a controversy with none other than our man Augustine himself, he who defined humanity as essentially sinful in nature completely lacking the capacity to do any good without the grace of God.
Pelagius is representative of what has been coined “Celtic Christianity” for which “the Garden of Eden is not a place in space and time from which we are separated. It is the deepest dimension of our being from which we live in a type of exile” (Newell, J. Philip. Christ of the Celts, 2). The Celtic tradition celebrates rather than denies “the relationship between nature and grace” as “grace is given to reconnect us to our true nature” (9) which is sacred, not, according to Augustine, sinful.
For Pelagius, the Doctrine of Original Sin “was a convenient ‘truth’ for builders of empire” (20) and he opposed Augustine’s view. He would be misrepresented as saying “that because our nature is sacred, we have no need of grace, we have no need of Christ” (21). No need to go on further, then, regarding why he was excommunicated and his view deemed heretical as were others in this “Celtic” tradition.
But what were these views?
First off, sin, according to Eriugena, a ninth century Irish theologian, for whom the problem of sin was not so much a problem with our inherent nature, but a problem that “leads us into an insensitivity to what is deepest within us, and more and more we treat one another as if we were not made in the image of God” (Newell 11). And what is deepest within us is of God, not opposed to God as implied by Original Sin.
For these Christians, “Christ comes to reconnect us to…the Unity from which all life comes…to root us again in the Holy Ground of All Being” (39), for we are not sinners by nature, they say, but good, sacred, and worthy of dignity and respect.
So if we are essentially good, why do we need to be saved? Because we grow sick and it is sin that leads to our disease, distances ourselves from our true sacred nature. Salvation in the context of Celtic Christian thought, then, appears to resonate with the Greek notions of soter and sozo in its healing capacity.
In other words, we need healing to be restored to our true nature, not to be “saved” from an inherently sinful nature. That is salvation as understood by the Celtic Christians and the cross “discloses the first and deepest impulse of God, self-giving. It reveals everything God does is a pouring out of love, a sharing of lifeblood” (84). However,
“Not only does the cross disclose love…it also discloses the cost of love. To offer the heart is to offer the self. And so the cross, in addition to being a revelation of the true nature of God, is a revelation of our true nature, made in the image of God. It reveals that we come closed to our true self when we pour ourselves out in love for one another, when we give our heart and thus the whole of our being” (84-85)