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 ……..


  1. Julian A. Davies

    [Eric had some trouble posting to the blog for reasons mysterious, so I’m posting his comments – Julian]

    I will not speak to the entire post, but only three points.

    First, my view of Adam & Eve & The Fall. I am not committed to literal existence of any of these two persons or the event. I view them more as archetypes (warning: I may not know how to use the word “archetypes”). I’ll try to be brief. My view is that humans, being in God’s likeness, inherently want to be like God. But the way in which they are not to be like God is in “knowing good and evil,” that is to say in setting for themselves what good they will pursue and what evil they will avoid. God alone holds that authority. But humans, every one of us in some way or another, want that authority. We’re born with a tag on our arse that says “challenge authority.” We’re born rebels, wondering who in the world God thinks he is to tell me what I should pursue and what I should avoid. Like God, we want to be the one’s in ultimate control. We want to write the contract, give it to God with the thought that he has to accept us on our terms.

    Second, I guess I distinguish between our inherent propensity to “flip off” God (call that the sin nature, if you will), and our actual instances of flipping off God (call that sinful acts). So how is the sin nature passed on? I probably think that is not a sensible question. We are humans bearing God’s likeness, and that just is what it is to be human. Adam and Eve (still thinking of them merely as archetypes) had that even before they committed a sinful act. Does every person do a sinful act? Almost everyone (I’m willing to hold out Jesus as the only exception–I hold that he had the human propensity to flip-off God, but never in fact exercised it, but was fully content to live in submission to God).

    So, now that I think about it, I suppose I do not think that there is an inherited sin nature. Like the US govt’s recent renaming of hunger as something like ‘unstable nutrition access,’ I rename our sin nature as the God-likeness in each of us. God intended, I am supposing, our likeness to enable us to do many good things–to invent, design, order, think, create beauty, and so on. But he set a limit to what we can do with that likeness: we cannot just decide for ourselves what is good and what is bad. All people have that God-likeness, even Jesus had it.

    Third, on the notion of salvation. I am inclined to avoid the word, and not talk about being saved. For me, I prefer the notion of restoring the God relationship. I know, it makes a shorter bumper sticker to say “I’m SAVED!” than to say “I am living in a restored God-relation.” I like the notion of “restoration.” It implies something broken or sick, in need of healing. I think the Greek term usually translated “save” is a medical term having to do with curing or making well. It got extended to refer to other forms of protection, like rescue from disaster, or kept safe on a sea voyage. Money and S&H Green stamps are saved; people are made whole or restored or cured.

    Can you say the word “unorthodox”?

    Not (obviously) a theologian,
    Eric Snider

  2. Brad

    The doctrine of original sin seems to me too deterministic, while an insistence that humans are essentially good seems too idealistic. I believe in, what I call, “original vulnerability”. Humans are born inclined neither to good nor evil; rather, we are born with malleable inclinations. Some of us, however, may be inclined more toward certain behaviors, as modern psychobiology demonstrates. Notwithstanding this fact, the environment in which a person is raised significantly influences his nature, as modern social psychology demonstrates. Thus, Jesus’s social gospel becomes all the more relevant. Jesus aimed to redeem society inasmuch as he aimed to save the individual. When society is redeemed, individuals are saved from the worldly influences that suade one away from a divine relationship and toward selfishness. Jesus instructed his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God, a social reality to be expereienced now – albeit not perfectly – in which the individual might participate more profoundly in relationships with others and with God. Therefore, the world, not the individual, is that which is “fallen”; the fallen world negatively influences vulnerable humans; Jesus introduced a new social order, the kingdom of God, in which redeemed society saves individuals from meaninglesness by introducing fulfilling relationships between fellow humans and with God.

  3. Bill

    Jesus said the greatest commandment, and the basis for the entire OT, is to love the Lord with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength. “Sin” is that which keeps us from fulfilling that commandment. In this respect, sin is not about behavior as much as it is about attitude – not only adultery, but lust; not only murder, but anger.

    People disagree on whether we’re inclined to good or evil, but we certainly are easily distracted. I am inclined to say the most frequent object of our attention is ourselves. I see the desire for authority that Eric talks about as self-centeredness.

    The antidote for sin, then is humility. The second half of the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. There are actually two relationships in this commandment – if you hate yourself the commandment is meaningless. So, like Brad says, salvation involves both the individual and the community.

    From what are we saved? From a condition of self-centeredness, which leaves us weary and burdened. The immediate reward of salvation is rest and peace.

  4. Julian A. Davies

    Eric notes that the Greek verb often translated as “to save” has a semantic range that includes medical meaning.

    In Luke 8:50, for example, the verb (transliterated as “souzo” or something like that) is rendered as “she will be saved” in the NRS, as “she will be healed” in the NIV, and as “she will be made well” in the NAU.

    As a side note, Eric mentioned bumper sticker theology and he also wrote of the human propensity to “challenge authority”. Wouldn’t you know it but when my son returned from a protest rally in Georgia this weekend he came with a gift (very thoughtful for a 15-year old) – a bumper sticker that reads “Challenge Authority”! Perhaps he knows more about the human condition than I give him credit for!

  5. Julian A. Davies

    One more thing, the title I gave to this blog entry on salvation (“Saved!”) was a cryptic reference to the movie of that same name, which includes a scathing indictment of evangelical Christianity as percieved by the authors of the screen play.

    Anyone interested in seeing how at least some in the sommunity envision Christianity might think about watching this movie.

  6. Bill

    From “New Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton (1961) –

    “It is a pity that the beautiful Christian metaphor “salvation” has come to be so hackneyed and therefore so despised. It has been turned into a vapid synonym for “piety” – not even a truly ethical concept. “Salvation” is something far beyond ethical propriety. The word connotes a deep respect for the fundamental metaphysical reality of man. It reflects God’s own infinite concern for man, God’s love and care for man’s inmost being, God’s love for all that is His own in man, His son. It is not only human nature that is saved by the divine mercy, but above all the human person. The object of salvation is that which is unique, irreplaceable, incommunicable – that which is myself alone. This true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent.

    We must be saved from immersion in the sea of lies and passions which is called “the world.” And we must be saved above all from that abyss of confusion and absurdity which is our own worldly self. The person must be rescued from the individual. The free person of God must be saved from the conformist slave of fantasy, passion and convention. The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”

  7. Bob

    This is a fascinating discussion and one that is most relevant to our society and individual lives today. I want to add a slightly different focus to the discussion which I would call “the psychology of sin.” Thirty-three years ago, a psychologist named Dr. Karl Menninger, of the world famous Menninger Clinic, published a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? In his book, Dr. Menninger is decrying the disappearance of the concept of “sin” from the everyday consciousness of our society. Dr. Menninger was concerned not only about it disappearance in public dialogue, but more importantly about the consequent impact upon the mental health of individuals as well as our society.

    I believe that the early writers of the Bible had a deeper understanding of the consequences of “sin” upon the human condition than many sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and, yes, even theologians in our more “enlightened” age. Whether we accept the story of Adam and Eve as being literally the first man and woman or whether we consider them to be archetypes, it seems to me that the important point is the message that is seeking expression. To follow the story from the point of the Fall, the overall mental health of individuals and consequently human organizations such as corporations, state and federal governmental administrations and even institutions of higher learning and dare I say, churches on both local and denominational levels just to point to a few, fall prey to the effects of that part of our human existence call “sin.”

    We do not have to search hard to find examples of this fallen state having its impact upon the health and wellbeing of the leaders of our world. Consider Bill Clinton’s escapade with Monica Lewinski and his stammering attempt to avoid speaking the truth; or what of George Bush and his inability to name (or admit) even one “mistake” he made during his first term of office; or what shall we say about the corporate executives of Enron and World Com who made off with billions of dollars leaving their employees without their pensions; or most recently the case against Tom Noe. In the church consider the number of priests and pastors who fall prey to their sinful nature and cross boundaries making every justification in the world to make it “right” in their own mind. Talk about being mentally and spiritually disordered. In naming these few examples, I would hope that I would not avoid looking at my own struggle with that fallen human nature within me.

    When I talk with those parents presenting their children for baptism, I try to establish a reasonable basis for performing this most sacred ritual. It the discussion, I simply talk about the fact that as infants enter the world they are immediately calling attention to themselves, demanding that we center our lives upon their every waking moment. When they are able to control some of their movements, everything they get in their hands goes into their mouths. This seems to say that from the first breath we take, we believe that the whole world is there for our consumption. Talk about being egocentric. Could this be the early expression of “original sin” or that innate character of what Eric had in mind when he wrote, “I rename our sinful nature as the God-likeness in each of us?” We want to control everything and have authority over all.

    Well, I have rambled long enough for the first time to respond to this blog. Perhaps we will engage more later.

    Bob Ball

  8. The Edz

    Hello all…my first blog here!
    Saved…a very interesting, and important topic.

    Paul puts this very plainly in Romans 10:9 -“That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

    Seems a lot simpler than many think. Sometimes I think we make our relationship with God more complicated than it really is, or needs to be. If we say it with our lips, and believe it in our heart, we’re “Saved”. And we have truly moved from unbelief, as Julian described Wesley’s view.

    Yes, some only say it with their lips, but dont believe in their heart. That is not salvation. And if you truly believe in your heart, you cant help but confess it with your lips, letting the world know!

    I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this Romans verse section in the Message:

    The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as close as the heart in your chest.
    It’s the word of faith that welcomes God to go to work and set things right for us. This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God—”Jesus is my Master”—embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: “God has set everything right between him and me!”

    Amen. Now that’s Grace!

  9. Joe

    So, Do we need to define evil versus sin? For God, it would appear they are one in the same. Mankind may argue that there is a difference. People may say, “I’m not evil, I just don’t believe in God and find no reason to accept his divinity (which is of course a sin). Perhaps this is the essence of wanting to be our own God (or God-like) versus wanting to exhibit attributes of God (or being like God). Of course, Sin is anything that separates us from God, and for some, it can be difficult to accept that those things that separate us from God may be considered as bad things or even good things.

    As for original sin being inherited (or being born with)? I imagine if I asked my parents if I was born “evil” they would say no. Likewise, it is difficult to picture any newborn baby as a being a sinner. However, I also know my parents (and I as a parent) understand the true self-centered nature of a newborn baby. I’ve considered this nature neither bad nor good, but it is true self centered-ness at it’s finest. It’s an interesting thought to consider relative to inherited sin (and how it’s defined as wanting to be closer to a God rather than closer to God).

  10. Julian A. Davies

    Both Bob and Joe mentioned new-born babies in connection with the issue of “original sin” and Bob noted the self-centeredness of babies as they cry for attention, put everything in their mouths, etc.

    In our coffee-time conversation on salvation we talked for a while about the idea that a new-born baby is born into a world that is not as it could be (a quick look at the newspapers or, better yet, history books, should suffice to convince most people of that). If it is true that people are defined, at least in part, by their relationships with others and with their environment, which I suspect is the case, then as a baby defines who she or he is, that definition occurs by relationships that are inherently broken (at least, some of them).

    So…a long way of saying that if we are born into a sinful world, perhaps that is the sin we “inherit” from our ancestors – not so much that we are born with it but rather we are born into it. What do you think????

  11. Julian A. Davies

    Bob’s comments about the “sins” of organizations (governments, corporations, etc.) reminded me of the work of theologian Walter Wink who writes about what might describe as “emergent properties” that come forth from organizations such that an organization might do something damaging (e.g. pollute the environment) even when all the individual people within the organization know that such a thing is wrong. Somehow they become powerless to stop it and it takes on a life of its own (hence we speak about “the powers that be”, we refer to “them” as some group doing something to “us”, and so on). Wink equates this sort of thing with the “powers and principalities” of Scripture – a kind of corporate sin that has a life of its own. I suspect I am not doing justice to Wink’s work, but Bob’s post hints at what Wink writes about.

  12. Julian A. Davies

    The Edz posting about the simplicity of salvation (Romans 10:9) raises a couple of questions for me…..

    What about the person who is mentally challenged and cannot conceptualize the concept of Lordship (let alone think/say the words)? My personal experience with some folks who have severe mental challenges is that they somehow actualize the presence of God in the world and so I wonder if the Romans concept might be the “90% solution” but one that leaves the “what ifs” (the other 10%) hanging out there??

    Similarly, what about very young children who cannot grasp the concept of Lordship, etc., etc.

    I doubt very much that the Romans passge was intended to exclude these folks from the possibility of salvation…..

    What do you think????????

  13. The Edz

    I agree Julian….a baby or very young person does not have a concept of sin and their separation from God.
    I am a firm believer that all those kids who die before they have the option to accept Christ as savior and Lord go to be with the Lord, because they never rejected Christ.
    Yes, they were born with that sinful selfishness we all are born with, but it is the decision for or against Christ that is the watershed moment of salvation, as Paul describes in that Romans verse.

    There is a verse in the OT where David says when he dies, he will go to be with his dead child. If you take that as more than the cold, damp grave of Sheol, then David is acknowledging that his child is in the presence of the Lord already (assuming that’s where David expected to go).

    Same goes for the mentally challenged…they are like a child that cannot conceptualize the concept of Lordship. So I agree…the Romans verse (much like Jesus’ “you must be born again” verse) is probably the “90% solution” but one that leaves the “what ifs” (the other 10%) to other areas of discussion.

    For the sake of space, somebody will next ask “what about the remote tribe in the Congo that has never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ….can they be saved?” According to Romans 2, we are going to each be judged on the amount of light we receive. Hence, when a gentile (or in this case somebody who never heard the gospel) receives a certain amount of light directly from God, how they follow that amount of revelation of God will be how they will be judged. Either way, salvation is still through Jesus Christ…nobody can come to the Father except through Christ. Yet, children, mentally ill, those who never heard, seem to have other ways to Christ (and thus to the Father) than just a decision that we have to make. I am so thankful that “God wants all humankind to be saved!” That is a gracious God…that is Love!

    The Edz

  14. Brad

    If there is a literal Judgement, I think Matthew 25:31-46 better indicates the measure by which we will be judged than Romans does.

  15. Olorin

    The edz had posited Rom 2 as a model for universal judgement, while brad opined Matt 25:31ff as a better model.
    I have to go with the edz as preferable, since the Matt 25 passage specifically is limited to how people act toward Christians. And since a whole buncha people have not had the historical situation to be measured on their activity towards Christians, then Rom 2 is more universal.
    Of course a lot of popular thinkers do not realize Matt 25 describes Christians and think it describes general humanity. But a deeper understanding of the familial metaphor in covenant language shows that only those who are in the New Covenant as little Christs (Christians) are the brothers of Jesus and sons of his Father. Consider Matt 25:40: “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'”
    That is, people outside the covenant are not brothers of Jesus, and so this judgement is addressing a limited scenario of how people act toward Christians.
    While the Romans 2 scenario is of much broader scope without being limited to the sphere of treatment of Christians.

  16. Brad

    I am glad to have another participant in this conversation!

    Olorin writes, “[T]he Matt 25 passage specifically is limited to how people act toward Christians.” The first problem I see is that there weren’t actually any Christians, as we understand the term, at that time. When we describe the Jesus movement as Christian, we easily impose on it our own conceptions of Christianity which are often quite different from what the beliefs and practices of the Jesus movement were. Christianity became almost exclusively Gentile, whereas the Jesus movement was initially almost entirely Jewish. The early Jesus movement did not perceive themselves as members of a new religion, but rather as Jews believing Jesus to be the promised Messiah. There was no New Testament, nor even a determined canon of Hebrew scriptures. There was no doctrine of the Trinity, no bishops, no seminaries. There was no Sunday school and youth group. Jesus never used the term “Christian”. The Jesus movement was much different from the Church two thousand years later.

    Given this fact, what is meant by Jesus’s family? Is it so exclusive? I plead ignorance regarding Covenant theology, but it seems to me overly dependent on early Reformed readings of Romans that were very subjectively shaped by reactions against the Roman Catholic Church. Does Jesus ever discuss a new covenant in Matthew? How inclusive or exclusive is Jesus throughout the rest of Matthew? How does Matthew understand Jesus’s family?

Thanks for visiting!