Thinking about Salvation in Early Christianity (Part II)

Byzantine JesusMost early Christians seem to have lived with a fairly basic understanding of soteriology. Beginning with Tertullian of Carthage, however, deeper investigation into specific aspects of soteriological doctrine began to circulate within the Church.[14] Philosophical language and concepts began to find more frequent use among the Fathers, and soon after the Fathers began teaching that “Christ suffered for our sins, healing our wounds and destroying death by His blood, and that we have been restored to life and our sins purged by it.”[15] In the East, theologians such as Origen and Methodius debated the effect of Adam’s fall and its impact on human freewill, death, and the new Adam of Christ.[16] This eventually coalesced into statements indicating that, “sin called for a propitiation, and Christ stepped forward as ‘a victim spotless and innocent,’ propitiating the Father to men by His generous self-oblation.”[17] The developments in thought, influx of philosophical language, and challenges of geographic distance eventually led to different Christian centers processing different (at least slightly) beliefs regarding the person and work of Christ in human salvation.[18]

While God in Christ was widely viewed as the sole source of salvation during the first three centuries of Christianity, the growing divergence of thought exploded into full-fledged Christological controversies prior to the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).[19] Even though the central debate of Nicaea was between the Athanasian (orthodox) belief in Jesus as fully God and the Arian perspective in Jesus as created being, one of the central tenets of the orthodox position was the soteriological impact of the person of Christ. [20] In a word, the orthodox party argued that one which is created cannot save other creatures; extrapolating this principle, the council argued that if Jesus were not fully God, his death on the cross would have been soteriologically worthless.[21] This principle is best summarized by Gregory of Nazianzus, who wrote that “what Christ has not assumed he has not healed.”[22] The words of the Nicene Creed, that the Son is “begotten, not made” and “of one substance [homoousious] with the Father,” thus profess that Christ is divine, eternal, and coexistent with the Father.[23]

Constantine the Great (York Minster)

Constantine the Great (York Minster)

While Greek words such as homoousious had been used several hundred years prior to Nicaea,[24] the Council with its use of philosophical language and argumentation became the standard for theological discourse afterward.[25] For the three ecumenical Church councils (Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon), use of Greek technical terminology consumed the Church.[26] This has led some, Wiles for example, to suggest that the theology of the Church capitulated to Greek philosophy, transferring the Church from her Jewish roots to wholly Hellenistic ones.[27] Other historians, such as McCulloch and Olson, have noted the increasingly imperial nature of Christianity at this time, positing that at least the “official” Christian faith of the councils became more Roman and less the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.[28] Yet this type of analysis seems somewhat short-sighted (and perhaps more intent upon finding corruptions within the Church than anything else).

The Church Fathers undoubtedly saw the world through Greek philosophical terms and ideas, but we must not assume their conclusions are any less valid than those formed within a Hebrew context without critical discussion.[29] The historical reality is that most of the Christian writers of this period did not explain the work of Christ purely through philosophical terminology; to miss this critical fact and interpret their theology only through this avenue is to mistake the means for an end and miss the deeper realities of the countless treatises of the early Church. We must not forget that the creeds were written to benefit the Christian faith and exclude various forms of heresy from the Christian family, not provide the fullness of all doctrine for all of time. They are a place to start, boundaries to work within, and directed toward specific concerns and worldviews. As Wiles writes, the creeds were “never intended to minimize the essential personal nature of God’s act or man’s response.”[30] This should not denigrate the creeds, but rather free them from their oft-harangued position as “out of date” or “too traditional.”

cross-silhouette1The work of salvation is certainly a complex issue about which questions remain even today within the Christian tradition. Along with the Philippian jailer, we still ask “What must I do to be saved?” While those who argue that creedal faith requires different language and presuppositions than Biblical faith sometimes have legitimate concerns,[31] there is ample Biblical, historical, and philosophical evidence upon which we may base our soteriological doctrine. Let us continue to reflect and explore those beliefs.

[14] Kelly, 174-6. [15] Ibid., 178.  [16] Ibid., 182-3. [17] Ibid., 186. [18] Ibid. [19] Wiles, Doctrine, 95. [20] Ibid., 96. [21] Ibid., 97-98; Kelly, 97. [22] Wiles, Doctrine, 101. See Ep. 101,32 and SC 208,50. [23] Olson, 155. [24] Wiles, Doctrine, 103. [25] Wiles, Fathers, 108. [26] Olson, 158. [27] Wiles, Doctrines, 109-12. [28] Olson, 160; Diarmaid McCulloch. A History of Christianity. London: Penguin Books, 2010. 155-229. [29] Wiles, Doctrine, 114-6. [30] Wiles, Fathers, 108. [31] Wiles, Doctrine, 140.


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