Participatory soteriology and the shape of Christian life together

Christopher offers a semi-defense of Pelagius (a semi-Pelagian defense?) and calls for a movement of “Advent asceticism” that sees a particular form of communal obedience not as an attempt to earn heaven, but as a response to Heaven as it has come to live among us in the Incarnation. He notes that much Protestant theology, with its focus on a once-for-all transactional account of salvation, has a hard time underwriting this kind of response. Instead, he advocates a “participatory soteriology”:

What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

Somewhat relatedly, I’m reading Keith Ward’s Religion and Human Nature, which is the third volume in his four-volume “comparative theology.” In it, Ward is trying to develop a Christian theology that is open to the insights of other traditions while still remaining a distinctively Christian theology.

An important distinction Ward makes in this volume is between “forensic” and “soterial” models of sin and salvation. In short, for a forensic model, the fundamental human problem is guilt and the solution is remittance of guilt (whether through punishment, satisfaction, or forgiveness). For a soterial model, by contrast, the fundamental problem is the the sickness of the human self: its affections and desires are disordered. The self is turned in on itself, to borrow Luther’s phrase, loving itself in a disordered way. The corresponding solution is healing: we need a re-orientation of our deepest selves toward love of God and neighbor.

Writing about different forms of Hinduism (but in a way that he intends, I think, to apply to Christianity) Ward observes that “a concentration on a forensic notion of desert misses something basic to the religious perception”:

What is missing is the idea…that the goal of human life lies in a relationship of devotion to the supreme Lord. A mechanical and forensic model, concentrating on individual moral success of failure, misses this element of personal relationship that lies at the heart of devotional faith….[A] soterial model…construes the spiritual state of the human self primarily in terms of analogies to disease and health. The healthy soul is one that is in a state of devoted login service to the Lord, that is transfigured by the beauty of the Lord, and empowered by the Lord’s love. The sick soul is one that withers and atrophies because it is incapable either of giving or receiving the love that alone gives life. (p. 53)

A lot of traditional theology, particularly Protestant, has favored the forensic account. Jesus dies on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. The problem, as Christopher notes, is that Protestantism (particularly Lutheranism) hasn’t always had a good account of what we’re supposed to do after that. The result has all too often been a complacent conformity rather than lives conformed to the image of Christ.

Correspdonding to the forensic and soterial models, Ward distinguishes two understandings of “justification.” The first, which has dominated much Protestant theology, understands it as a kind of declaration of legal innocence. God “imputes” the righteousness of Christ to us, even though in ourselves we remain sinful. Arguing for a different view, Ward suggests understanding it more relationally. Justification is being rightly related to God.

When ‘justification’ is taken to mean, ‘a declaration of legal innocence’, one faces the difficulty that a guilty person has to be declared innocent by God. But, if God is perfectly just, how is this possible? As I have interpreted it, justification means ‘establishing the possibility of being rightly related to God’. How can a person whose deepest motives and dispositions are to cause great harm be rightly related to God? Only if those motivations and dispositions are wholly changed, by an inward turning of the mind, a metanoia. (p. 190).

What is accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection is that God unites humanity to divinity and makes possible this restored relationship. The cross shows both “the suffering that self-regard causes to self, to others, and to God [and] the life of obedient self-giving that God requires” (p. 191). But it is more than that: it is “the historical vehicle of divine power to forgive and heal” (p. 191).

Instead of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’, it might be better to speak of ‘healing’ and ‘participation’. What God requires of sinners is a transformation of life in penitence and obedient love. This requirement is met by participation in the power of the Spirit, which is luminously expressed in and mediated through the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice gives particular form to the Spirit’s activity, and founds the community of the new covenant in which the Spirit can transform human lives into the image of cruciform love. (p. 214)

That last point strikes me as key in light of Christopher’s observation that Protestant Christianity often lacks forms of disciplined community that give a paritcular shape to the Christian life. Participation in the Spirit is participation in the particular cruciform shape of Jesus’ humanity. This incorporation into Christ restores our relationship to God and makes possible a re-ordering of our desires. We “put on the mind of Christ,” to use Paul’s phrase, and are renewed in our humanity. This is a gradual process, one that may not be complete until after death. But by being “in Christ” we are empowered to receive a new self, one that is rightly related to God, our neighbor, and the rest of creation.


16 thoughts on “Participatory soteriology and the shape of Christian life together

  1. I don’t know if its a defense of Pelagius so much as a willingness to recognize that this matter has become an open question in the scholarly and theological world, and we would do well to perhaps not be hasty:

    Here is an article on the matter by Martha Stortz, by the way:

    Click to access 8-2_Stortz.pdf

    My own theology on matters of grace veer to the Caroline Divines and Greek Patristics. Which is to say that grace stands as paramount without suggesting that the imago dei is completely destroyed. And at the same time taking the positive insight of Augustine seriously, that the imago dei isn’t merely covered over but fragmented. Pelagianism (again distinct from Pelagius) is condemned because it suggests we can make the first move…or that our will is completely free rather than limitedly as fallen…

    And yes to everything else. Ward’s work is always a fine bit of reading. Might I recommend this if you can afford it or find it in a library?:

  2. It’s all very interesting, isn’t it? There are problems with every answer in this area, actually, I think! And this must be why there is no one theory of Atonement.

    There isn’t any doubt in my mind that “healing” is the point, really. But unfortunately “healing” seems very often to take on a moral dimension – and that’s where “participatory soteriology” notions go wrong, IMO. “Removal of guilt” is a huge, huge deal for some people; their healing cannot take place without it. And of course, moralism by itself never healed anybody – and never will, I’m afraid. It only makes people run the other way. Grace – forgiveness – by itself, on the other hand, has and does. Grace, pretty much by definition, is prior to repentance.

    What A.A. seems to have that Christianity lacks is the idea that “healing” is very much the point – but also an acceptance that there are something like intractable flaws in us that can’t be “fixed,” only worked around. (I think this is a Catholic idea, too; at any rate see Frank Lake’s understanding of “The Thorn in the Flesh.”)

    IOW, there really IS no “divinization” – certainly not a straight-line path, at any rate – and in fact in A.A. the very idea of “divinization” would be an almost intolerable problem by itself. It’s just not at all a good idea for alcoholics to think of themselves as gods or as godlike; A.A.’s whole project is centered around “ego deflation at depth”! And it’s hard to keep the ego out of the idea of “divinization” – at least for most people, I’d say.

    What the Protestants are arguing (I’ve come to see) is that Grace – the notion that one’s past sins are forgiven – that they are utterly wiped away – is really the only way for at least some people to escape the monumental guilt they live with on a daily basis, and to start to live. And that does exist, believe me! It’s very, very deep in some folks. (In A.A. the saying goes: “Some are sicker than others” – and that’s the truth.)

    But, you are also correct when you note that this leaves a bit of a question as to “what next”? A.A.’s idea is that the 12 Steps have a lifetime warranty. A.A. members who do the Steps feel they are never exhausted. A.A.’s healing is thus cyclical in addition to being linear (but never in a way that implies “divinization”!). I think, basically, A.A. is leaving the future open for new discoveries; it’s an open-ended path, IOW – not one that points in any particular direction except towards humility: “….the attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of A.A.’s Twelve Steps. For without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all.”

    A.A. observes that “Everywhere, we saw failure and misery transformed by humility into priceless assets.” And surely that is the “Theology of the Cross” in a nutshell!

    Well, this is just what I’m thinking about these days, anyway. A.A. is the most amazing “healing” process – so I’m thinking about what it actually does and what it offers people that the church doesn’t (yet). I’m so glad you are talking about all this! It’s so helpful in thinking about it….

    1. Points very well taken–I wouldn’t want to downplay the importance of forgiveness and the crushing burdern of guilt many of us have. Luther has this wonderful image in his catechisms of returning to the waters of baptism daily to drown the “old Adam.” No sense of neat, linear progress there!

      I guess what I’m asking, though, is whether there is still a particular shape of life that we’re called to live as followers of Jesus. He saves us from guilt, sin, and death, but doesn’t he also save us for something? For participation in the life of the Trinity? And if so what does that look like?

  3. Well, the theory is – and it does work, I can say, from personal experience! – that once made free through Grace, we become very willing to share this Good News, because …. well, because it’s good.

    That is the experience of many people – surely those in A.A., but also Christians. Free Grace – the gift of God – is something that wants to share itself through those it’s touched. Not for any reason that presents itself as morality, but just because it feels like Salvation, and because you want others to experience it. This is A.A.’s Twelfth Step, exactly: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles [i.e., the Twelve Steps themselves] in all our affairs.” (Note the last clause!)

    One of the best things about this is that no particular formula is given; it’s rather understood that the “spiritual awakening” will be different for different people, according to their needs and gifts. There is no “blueprint,” except for what actually happens in a person’s life, and how A.A.’s principles apply to it.

    In A.A., of course, the course is made easier: the Twelve Steps are life itself. Without them, the personality will once more decay and shrivel, the alcoholic will likely resume drinking, and all will be lost. So A.A. meetings – where are really just a place to talk about life and death and suffering and spiritual awakenings, and to regain perspective – are necessary. The Steps are necessary. Talking about these things is necessary. Admitting our “character defects” is necessary.

    A.A. says that: “Great suffering and great love are A.A.’s disciplinarians; we need no others.” And this is surely true for others, too.

  4. This is all confusing to me and always has been. When I took a retreat and had a conversion experience, I was crushed by the realization that it didn’t significantly change me morally, that I would always be at a moral disadvantage, even after embarking on a relationship with Jesus/God.

    Does this have to do with metanoia? Does it have to do with Aquinas saying that grace does not destroy nature but perfects it?

  5. bls makes a good point. Perfection-seeking often reinforces addictive behaviors. It is also crippling to the overly scrupulous like myself. The two can go hand in hand. To be able to admit our limitations is healthy and mature Christian spirituality. The saint is one who accepts without self-loathing that she or he is sinner, and paradoxically grace flows from and through that acceptance. And that for some of us, that involves a felt and experienced break with the past. For some of us, it involves a revision of inhabiting a loved universe not as we might wish it but as it is. I think that much of the sharper divisions on matters of sin and grace exist for at least two reasons: 1) particular theologians of great weight experienced sin and grace for and in themselves in particular ways–spiritualities, and write these into their theological musings–it’s unavoidable, 2) others are shaped by these spiritualities as they are enacted in prayer and imbibed in study. This leaves us always in conversation with others’ spiritualities that do or don’t give us full sense of our own experiences of sin and grace. For those who have experienced the surprise of grace in the midst of addiction or perfectionism, those who seek a way or rule of life may come across as reinforcing the very trouble grace is freeing them from. For those who experience the slow steadiness of grace, such folks may seem to be asking for dispensation from a shared way of putting on Christ. As someone who navigates both of these, I want to avoid legalism because it will crush grace, and at the same time not lose a sense of shared discipleship. At the heart of the genius of Anglicanism is a common rule that is meant to lean us encounter the surprise of grace–Common Prayer (see Countryman’s work on Anglicanism and poetry).

    I would posit that accepting our dependence on or trust in God (sound familiar) is the cornerstone that leads us into a vision of our shared coinherence as human beings and interdependence on one another and the entire creation. Dependence on our part paradoxically if slowly renews freedom because as Kathryn Tanner reminds us God is not in opposition to our createdness, but releases our createdness to be more itself, including admission of limitations and shortcomings. I would use Luther’s positive insight re: we don’t want to be creatures as the heart of Sin to reframe the famed theosis phrase, “God became human being so that human beings could become divine” to mean precisely not an upwards movement, as in ladder spirituality, but a groundward movement, where admission of and acceptance of dependence on God is the foundation. Divinity or our partaking of divine nature or participation as well as ways of life together are reframed not primarily as moral requirements, but shared ways that support our being more human–more honest with ourselves and others, more able to admit failure and sin, more responsible for ourselves, more generous to others, more caring of creation, etc. In this way, God became human being, so that human beings might be free, more ourselves, human. That is to say, that “divinity” on our “side” of the experience does not look more ethereal, but more earthy.

  6. I think you are right, Christopher, that I tend to recoil from “divinization” because I’m seeing it in a particular way, and perhaps not rightly. I really am, literally, afraid of the idea! It scares me in a deep way.

    I’m afraid of “holiness” too. I know its meaning is in reality that we are “set aside” for God’s purposes – but the meaning of the word has been degraded and now has moral implications over and above that original meaning. I can’t think about that word without recoiling, either.

    Crystal, I completely identify with your confusion! The one thing I would say is that it seems to me that healing is the goal, and any change in behavior is a byproduct. (Although in fact, that’s not quite right, either! A.A. treats the symptom first: it gets the alcoholic to stop drinking. But there is no moral dimension to that at all, I’m afraid: it’s merely a means to the very immediate practical end of saving one’s own life and sanity.)

    Christ said it, too: evil comes out of the heart. So then, the healing of the heart comes first. A central scriptural theme is that God brings Good from Evil. And as Frank Lake notes: “there is a strength made perfect in weakness.” (In the piece I linked above, he also makes this very profound statement: ” While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time it turns it into a satisfactory channel….”

    In A.A., our very weaknesses are our strengths.

  7. Thanks, all, for keeping this conversation going, both here and elsewhere at your respective blog-homes.

    I’ll admit that I’m of two minds on all this. Or maybe better that I think there are two emphases that need to be held together. On the one hand, like the Reformers I don’t want to lose sight of the once-for-all, “extra nos” character of Christ’s work–that we’re “justified”–set right with God–sheerly as a matter of grace, without regard to anything we do. That unmerited, uncondtional grace is pretty close to the heart of Christianity as far as I’m concerned.

    That said, as I read the Bible and the tradition, this Good News is supposed to change us in some way. All Paul’s language about having died with Christ and being a new creation, etc. seems to be pointing to this. Much as I agree with bls that we get off track if we start thinking about sanctification/holiness as moral perfection, it does seem to me that we lose something if we don’t have a place for that.

    I like Christopher’s way of describing this as becoming “more human” rather than ascending into some ethereal, “spiritual” realm. It remind’s me of Gerhard Forde’s characterization of Luther’s approach to the gospel as “down to earth.”

    I also read the article on Pelagius by Martha Stortz and found it very interesting. It seems that Pelagius wasn’t a “Pelagian” in the sense that we think. He didn’t deny grace. However, it does sound like he expected something like moral perfection from Christians due to his extremely high view of baptism. Seems hard to reconcile that with 2,000 years of Christian experience. On the other hand, the pessimism of the late Augustine that Stortz refers to also seems untrue to much of that experience. Is it possible to thread a middle way, both/and kind of path here?

  8. I guess I would answer, Lee, by again quoting from A.A.: Be careful what you pray for – you might get it!


    That is to say: the Gospel will change us, yes – but who knows except God how that will happen? The disciples were changed, certainly – and they mostly all died violent deaths in the attempted repression of Christianity, along with many others of the early martyrs. St. Francis gave up all his possessions (including his clothing, in one dramatic scene!). And then others, too: St. John of the Cross, Bonhoeffer, etc. – and others who give up everything and follow, who knows where?

    Going to the extreme: Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice his own son – and was willing. I’ve only started “Fear and Trembling,” but Kierkegaard’s concept was, after all, “the telelogical suspension of the ethical.”

    I think the relationship with God is beyond knowing, in some way – and so totally unpredictable. I do like Lake’s “channel” idea; to me it seems to say that the ultimate idea is that we offer ourselves to be changed for God to use as God sees fit. But who can know what that will involve?

    To answer more straightforwardly, though: doesn’t it seem like it would be a completely natural thing for a person touched by Grace to be changed? In other words: is there any reason to work at it, or worry about it? The Twelve Steps of A.A. are there for our recovery – and in the process of recovery, we learn to reach outside ourselves (because others reached out to us, and because we now can do it, too) and to try to give back. It’s a natural part of the process itself. It happens on its own, IOW; it’s part of Grace itself, I think….

  9. (But you know, now that I think of it: perhaps the answer is simply that Salvation is whatever it has to be for each person, given his or her individual situation.

    Perhaps the thing to ask is exactly that: “What is Salvation, for you?” And there you would have the key to how that person needs to be healed, I think…..)

  10. Sorry–a little inside baseball there. It’s just that Lutherans, historically, have been very big on “justification by faith” and letting sanctification take care of itself, so to speak. In fact, one of the things that is appealing about that, in my view, is that it avoids the kind of morbid introspection that is constantly asking “Am I making progress?”

  11. And you see: I was speaking empirically (as I almost always do!). I watch what happens in A.A. meetings and note that rarely is there any disruption. Everybody there knows that their health and lives depend on the meetings, and on trying to help somebody else. (“You have to give it away to keep it,” as still another A.A. parable has it.)

    Somehow, a room full of (sometimes certifiably!) crazy people can in fact keep order. Somehow, A.A. continues to perform its miracles, even while everybody in the room acknowledges that they are deeply flawed – permanently flawed, in fact. “I am an alcoholic,” we say, by way of introduction.

    I guess that really is Lutheran, isn’t it, though? At once sinner and saved, all of us….


  12. Pro me or for me, the for you-ness emphasis of Luther is central to an Evangelical understanding of the Personal God meeting each person where she or he is at and working salvation in her or him in the specific and particular. We cannot lose this emphasis. Bonhoeffer expanded this to the pro nobis, the for us dimension. I would expand it to the pro mundis, for the cosmos.

    At the same time, salvation is pro nobis and pro mundis, for us and for the cosmos (world). There is a social and ecological dimension to salvation. Anglicans, ingeniously, have tended not to over legislate in these areas, letting Common Prayer be the central shared partaking that will do its work pro me and pro nobis (and I think pro mundis–look at how much we pray the earth-loving Psalms), and at the same time, we do have some minimums, like encouragement to fast, give alms, and do works of love during Lent. These are not unrelated to a social and ecological dimension. On the contrary, the lend us to be less selves curved in upon ourselves and more selves-by-with-for-others. And that is about as far as I would take it ecclesially. Anything more tends to a legalism that is the destroyer of grace.

    I would note that for me holiness is not a glow of ethereal perfection, but more about a glow of earthen wholeness. A real earthiness attends wholiness in my experience. We are freed to admit wrong. Freed to laugh. Freed to rest in ultimate dependence…

    So the honesty and realism refreshingly found in AA seems to me precisely to be what wholiness looks like.

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