Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses
Perhaps more than any culture in history – America has championed the individual. The context for this cultural development was the nation’s historic resistance to the class structures of 17th and 18th century Europe (and later) as well as a positive response to certain intellectual concepts that were popular at the time of the nation’s independence. The European settlement of America in its early modern history was largely accomplished by individuals or individual families. Later migrations would see the settlement of larger groups – who frequently became part of the greater “melting-pot” in which people saw themselves first as defined by their individual talents and efforts and only secondarily as belonging to an ethnic or religious group.
American religion – first as import from Europe and later with varieties of home-grown denominations – gradually assumed the character of the culture. Salvation (already given an individual cast in some versions of early Protestantism) became viewed as almost exclusively individual in nature. By the late 20th century, Americans had become “consumers” of religion, many denominations and groups having grasped the basics of marketing.
In the face of such developments (which are quickly being exported across the globe), the essential message of the gospel – that salvation is corporate (or collective) in character rather than individual, simply sounds like heresy. At the heart of this discrepancy are two radically different views of what it means to be human – and thus what it means to be whole as a human being. I will offer several observations that seem to be related to these radically different views.
First, salvation understood primarily as individual, is inherently non-Trinitarian. This is not to say that those who teach salvation as individual do not profess faith in a Trinitarian God, but that their doctrine of salvation is divorced from their understanding of God. Trinitarian theology and soteriology have no particular or necessary connection. In such settings, worship will largely be cast in non-Trinitarian language (either emphasizing Jesus or the Holy Spirit, depending on the tradition). In many modern, market-driven models, the language of “God” will trump everything else. The Trinity is too complex and confusing to market easily.
Second, salvation understood primarily as individual, will tend towards the democratization of religion. If an individual can be saved without reference to a corporate body or collective (I’ll come back to these terms), then hierarchy is either useless or worse. The individual has his or her copy of the Scriptures, and, as individual, is seen as increasingly capable of reading the Word of God without reference outside themselves. “What it says to me,” is seen as the sufficient criteria for interpretation.
But what does this say about the understanding of what it means to be a whole human being? What is a whole individual? Politically, such wholeness has been defined in terms of power and freedom. If an individual is deprived of power, then he cannot fully realize his potential as a human being. If he is deprived of freedom, he is again deprived of his potential to choose and act in such a way as to be whole. These same concerns are easily translated into individual models of salvation. Being empowered to choose and act freely become ever more important. Thus if there is a hierarchy that refuses to ordain women – it is a stumbling block to freedom and power. The same can be said about homosexual unions, etc. Salvation, if understood in a manner that limits empowerment and freedom, will come to be seen as wrong, if only because it is a message that runs against the flow of empowerment and freedom as viewed within the culture.
An excellent example of this occured once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.
What does it mean to be a human being – such that being a whole human being would be any different than what we now are? In a proper Orthodox understanding, the very conception of the human being as an “individual,” in the modern sense, is itself one of the symptoms of sin. We do not rightly exist as individuals – and fall into sin whenever we act in such a manner. The classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human, created in the image of God, is that we are persons, which is not to be confused with individuals. Personal existence is never to be understood in an isolated, self-referential manner. In Trinitarian theology, we cannot say “Father” in a self-referential manner. The very name “Father” implies another and implies some sort of relationship. The same is true of “Son,” as well as “Spirit.” This is why some Christian modernist attempts to find new expressions for the Persons of the Holy Trinity are so often heretical. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” was a popular usage by liberal Anglicans when I was in seminary – but is heretical because all three Persons of the Trinity can be named by any one of these functions. Christ’s revelation of the Trinity was intensely personal – not only giving us names by which we could refer to the Persons of the Trinity – but ultimately revealing the very reality that God is Personal. The language of Personhood is distinctly Christian and developed only within the context of the Church’s efforts to find proper expressions for what had been revealed in Christ.
To be whole as a human person, is quite distinct from wholeness as an individual. Person carries within it the uniqueness and unrepeatablity that we usually associate with the word individual. However, it also carries within it – at its very root – the understanding that a person properly only exists in communion with another person. It is in this sense that we may say “God is love.” Love is not some abstract essence which may be equated with the being of God. Rather, God is love because the Father loves the Son and the Spirit and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus when Christ speaks of the new life given to His disciples He says:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another (John 15:9-17).
This passage would largely be nonsense in an individualistic understanding of the human. The love we are commanded is none other than the love of the Father for the Son. Christ is not offering a moral homily on the advantages of acting in a loving manner. We are commanded to love, indeed to “abide in my love.” These things are for the fullness of our being, “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” We are transformed from servants into friends – friendship being defined as mutual sacrifice of life. This is the love of God manifest in the “emptying” (kenosis) of Christ on behalf of all creation described in Philippians 2.
It is this image and reality of personhood that is damaged in the fall. Eve eats the fruit in a manner that has no regard for God. Thus she inaugurates the first moment of non-eucharistic behavior. Food is eaten with regard only for oneself and not with regard to God. It is not a communion of life, but a meal of death. Ever after, fallen human beings turned ever inward, away from the love of other. The result is death and murder and every form of brutality. It is betrayal and coldness of heart, greed, envy and lust. These are not moral failings, but existential failings. We do not live as persons, but as mere individuals. As such we could never be saved.
The incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are the invitation of God to humanity to an existence that is truly personal rather than individualistic. Thus it is that the first act to which a believer submits is Holy Baptism. There the individual ceases to exist as individual and is Baptized into true Personhood. It is the first act of communal existence given to the Christian and is the hallmark of every Christian action to follow. Met. John Zizioulas describes the new birth in Holy Baptistm as the birth of the “ecclesial hypostasis.” (I’ve never used his term in the context of a sermon-and don’t recommend it). But the “ecclesial hypostasis” means simply an existence that is “Churchly” and “Personal” (ecclesia=Church; hypostasis=Person). We are put to death in Baptism, united to Christ in His death, and made alive in His resurrection. The new existence we are given in Holy Baptism is no longer that of an individual (isolated and self-referential) but now of a Person – whose existence is confirmed and fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. These are not moral acts of a new moral code, but life-giving acts that fulfill a new existence.
Thus, to exist as a whole Person is the goal of salvation in Christ. It is for this reason that the place of communion and participation become of primary importance. Koinonia, the NT word for this reality, (often translated poorly as “fellowship”), is the truth of our existence the very mode of our being. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are thus rightly seen as a participation, as is our part in the Body of Christ. Indeed all of life becomes transformed into communion and participation in the life of God. It is the life of the age to come.
Our salvation occurs in a manner that is in no way isolated, but rather in a “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are Baptized into a community of existence that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23). For this same reason the Church prays as community, the prayers of all generations united in one voice of praise to God. For His life is our life, our salvation and our hope.