We have begun to discuss “salvation”, a topic that it seems might well occupy us for quite some time. We began by thinking of the questions that immediately pop to the surface, for example: Saved from what? Saved for what? Saved how? Saved by whom?
Initially, we talked about the idea that most historic formulations of salvation – the classic “Via Salutis” (Way of Salvation) or “Ordo Salutis” (Order of Salvation) of the Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches stem from days when the accepted understanding was that the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden was historic and factual in nature. The issue, quite simply, was “sin”. Based upon this presupposition, the key to understanding then became: If salvation is the answer, what is the underlying question? In other words, what is it that leads to sin?
Although generalizations are difficult here, it might be reasonable to say that the Catholic emphasis is that sin stems from pride. And if pride is the underlying problem then humility is the solution. For Thomas a Kempis, for example, humility meant embrace of suffering, while in the Rule of Benedict humility meant submission to authority (i.e. to the Abbot). Luther, Calvin and Wesley saw this a little differently. For them, the underlying problem is unbelief. And if unbelief is the underlying problem than faith is the solution. John Wesley wrote, “Unbelief is the parent of all evil”. He saw unbelief as the perversion of the relationship between God and humankind with the chain of events being: unbelief begets pride, which begets self-will, which begets sin.
Given the literal reading of the Garden of Eden narrative on which these ideas are based, and given the understanding of these early theologians that there existed a literal Adam and a literal Eve, one can see how original sin was understood as the transfer of this “inheritance” to all of humanity. Originally, John Wesley had no idea how this came about but ultimately he settled to tradutionalism (The “shoot and stem” model) that says, “like begets like”. Procreation necessarily transmits a fallen soul and hence the fallen Adam begets a fallen child. Adam could thus serve as the representative as well as primogenitor of humanity in these early theological understandings.
Suppose, though, one does not think that there was ever a literal Adam and literal Eve, how might one think about salvation, sin, the role of pride and/or unbelief, original sin, and so on? Some authors have written on this subject, for example: Patricia Williams in “Doing Without Adam and Eve: A Sociobiology of Original Sin” and Tatha Wiley in “Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings” but there is much still to do in this area. One thing seems clear, without being tied to a literal Adam and literal Eve, one might be able to think about issues such as communal/corporate sin, sin that evolves from government structures, corporate identities, and so on, more freely.
Before moving into these newer realms, we spent some time thinking about the different ways in which the Reformation theologians spoke of sin and salvation. Wesley, for example, saw the Fall as leading to several important consequences: (i) Understanding was covered with confusion; (ii) Adam and Eve became “dull” (they lived a “dimmed” experience); (iii) Adam and Eve were in a spiritual stupor; (iv) They had a propensity towards evil; and (v) They had carnal minds. Given that this condition was seen as one passed from generation to generation, it is not surprising that Wesley saw humanity as being in a spiritual abyss – all the superlatives he used to describe humanity were very negative.
The Enlightenment view was that humanity was essentially good and that the problem (sin) was really ignorance that could be solved by education. John Wesley saw humanity as totally corrupt – he was a “volitionist” – he believed that the will is perverted so education will never solve the problem – one can’t do what is right because of a conflicted will. Wesley described this as a collapse from the “Adamic State” (before the Fall) to the “natural state” (after the Fall).
Wesley saw that because humans are born in sin they must be reborn again supernaturally through grace to be renewed such that the Holy Spirit can transform their hearts and they can become children of God. Fundamentally, Wesley saw that: (i) ALL people stand under the condemnation of God and (ii) People cannot bring themselves back into right relationship with God through their own efforts.
These positions sound like Calvin and Luther (even perhaps Augustine and St. Paul), but when examined closely we see that Wesley and Calvin differ significantly.
For Wesley the concept of the “natural man” is a theoretical one and no such man actually exists. For Calvin, the “depraved man” was real – his doctrine was empirical when Wesley’s doctrine was theoretical. Wesley thought that all real people were in the presence of God’s prevenient grace whether they knew it or not and whether they denied it or accepted it. According to Wesley, God gives this gift universally (prevenient = comes before) and it is predicated upon Christ’s atoning work. Thus, while Wesley and Calvin agreed upon two key points in the Via Salutis, (i) the issue of total depravity and (ii) salvation by grace alone, they disagreed upon the offer of salvation which Wesley saw as open to all people while Calvin saw it as open to the elect and not the reprobate.
As in most free-ranging discussions, we touched on many issues that merit their own conversation: where is Christ in salvation? How can we think of ”original sin” or a “Way of Salvation” if we do not ascribe to a literal Adam and Eve? These are big questions and will certainly remain on the table until we get to them.
Until next time ……..