I’ve been re-reading Carl Braaten’s Principles of Lutheran Theology – it’s really a good read and a great encapsulation of some classic Lutheran themes.
One of the best chapters is the one on The Christocentric Principle. Here Braaten discusses the work of Christ and its implications.
He recognizes that soteriology has fallen on hard times, especially with a shift from an otherworldly to a more this-wordly focus. Liberation and other political theologies have taken their cue from the story of the Hebrews in the OT, especially the Exodus, as the paradigmatic act of God’s liberation for his people.
However valid this insight might be, Braaten thinks that it is at best a partial account of salvation and shortchanges the gospel. Liberation, understood as political praxis has two major shortcomings: it shifts the burden of providing salvation from God to human beings. It is at best synergisitc and at wost Pelagian. Secondly, it doesn’t sufficiently reckon with the enemies of human life and flourishing that go beyond the structural injustice and political oppression. “[F]or all the liberating praxis in history can do nothing to produce love and freedom and can do nothing about human bondage to sin and death” (p. 78).
Instead, Braaten contends, Christians need to hold on to the cosmic and universal signficance of Jesus. “The most important notion, common to preaching, piety, and dogmatics, is that ‘Christ died for us.’ This is the sin qua non of every doctrine of atonement.”
He goes on to say:
In dying for us, Jesus did not die instead of us, for we all still have to die. In suffering for us, he did not suffer instead of us, for we all have to suffer. Yet he represents us before God. He speaks for us when we are silenced by death. He claims that each one of us is unique, indispensable, and absolutely irreplaceable even though the world treats us as expendable and exchangeable and as mere statistical units. Here we have the solid ground of personal identity free of charge, while people are madly searching for security in a supermarket full of answers with high price tags. In this world in which the value of individual human beings is becoming infinitesimally low, Jesus is our representative in his life and in his vicarious death and in his victorious resurrection.
Faith is an act of letting Jesus be our representative. Because he died for us, we never die alone without representation, without hope for personal identity beyond the grave. We will never have to die alone on a Godforsaken hill outside the gate. We can die in a communion of his love, in the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, with undying hope for resurrectoin and eternal life. Because Jesus died the death of the sinner as the sinless one, assuming our lot by his love, he can be our representative. Because he died the death under the law as the man of love, full of life to share and taking time for others, he can be our representative. He can be our representative because, in being raised from the dead, he was approved by God as having the right credentials to be the ambassador of the human race. (pp. 72-3)
This seems similar to what some theologians have described as “inclusive substitution.” Jesus doesn’t die instead of us so much as he enters into our condition and transforms it. We still have to die, but death has been transformed; it need no longer be a source of terror and hopelessness.
Braaten goes on to discuss the universal implications of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. He acknowledges that Christians have to take account of the other great religions of the world in a way that wasn’t always clear to Christians in the past. However, he also doesn’t think that Christians can sacrifice the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s “only saving bridge to the world.”
He identifies two unsatisfactory positions about salvation. There’s the old-fashioned view which requires as a condition of salvation that one be a member of the Church in good standing (the traditional Catholic view) or that one have explicit faith in Jesus (the conservative Protestant view). Both of these variations consign possibly the majority of the human race to eternal damnation by God’s sovereign decree. Then there’s the modern pluralism that sees all the great religions of the world as equally valid means of attaining salvation (the position of someone like John Hick).
Braaten points out that the first view, held by traditionalist Catholics and conservative Protestants has already been forced to create various loopholes (for infants, virtuous pagans, the Old Testament patriarchs, etc.) and thus isn’t as rigorous as it first appears.
The second view frankly sacrifices the universal significance of Jesus, treating him essentially as one potential savior among many. This is hardly compatible with the main thrust of the New Testament witness, which sees Jesus not simply as the savior of a small band of followers, but as the cosmic Christ and Lord of all.
Parenthetically, it’s always seemed to me that the “hard pluralist” position claims to know a lot more about the divine than seems to be justified. If particular religious traditions are relativized in their truth claims, on what grounds does the pluralist claim to know that God/the divine can be reached by any of these channels? It seems to me, rather, that Christian assurance of God’s good will is rooted firmly in the revelation of God in Jesus, which requires the kind of robust Christology and doctrine of the Atonement that is anathema to pluralists.
In Braaten’s view, a Christian hope for the salvation for all people has to be firmly rooted in the person and work of Christ. “The Christian hope for salvation, whether for the believing few or the unbelieving many, is grounded in the person and meaning of Christ alone–not in the potential of the world’s religions to save or in the moral seriousness of humanists and people of goodwill or even in the good works of pious Christians and church people, who perhaps are compulsively believing too many things and going to church more than is good for them[!]” (p. 82).
It’s important to note, I think, that Braaten is also ruling out what we might call the modern “inclusive” Christian view that wants to hold on to the uniqueness of Jesus, but nevertheless holds that everyone who “does their best” can be saved. This ends up being semi-Pelagian at best. If all I need to do is the best I can, what need is there for a savior in the first place? This is precisely the attitude that Luther railed against – the view that God would give his grace to those who “do what is in them.”
Lutherans have traditionally not followed Calvinists in holding to double predestination and limited atonement. However, there is an unresolved tension there in that the implication of monergism (human beings don’t contribute to their salvation; all is a gift from God) and unlimited atonement would seem to be some form of universalism. After all, if Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the sins of all, and we can do nothing to secure that salvation for ourselves, and God doesn’t predestine to reprobation, then it seems like all will be saved.
The traditional response has been to say that God predestines for salvation but not perdition. But it’s far from clear that this is more than a verbal distinction. What we might say, though, is that the mysteries of the divine will remain permanently inscutable to us, at least conernign these matters.
Will, then, all people be saved in the end? We do not already know the answer. The final answer is stored up in the mystery of God’s own future. All he has let us know in advance is that he will judge the world according to the measure of his grace and love made known in Jesus Christ, which is ultimately greater than the fierceness of his wrath or the hideousness of our sin. (p. 84)
This has always seemed to me like the best answer. We hope that all will be saved, but that hope rests in Christ, not in us.