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Salvation & the Church

Here is my theological proposal: to speak of salvation is to speak of the church.  Or, put differently when we say that God in Christ has saved the world, what we are really saying is that he has established the church.  This is a radical claim, and I think that Ephesians 2:14-22 sheds some light on it.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

Here Paul’s discussion of the death of Christ and its saving significance is centered on the dissolution of divisions between Jew and Gentile and the establishment of “one new humanity”.  Reconciliation of humankind to God, for Paul means the union of inalienably different “in one body through the cross.”

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

At the center of Paul’s understanding of the salvation that Jesus brings is the establishment of peace between previously alienated peoples.  Salvation means that all persons, regardless of differences that previously separated them are now members of the same family (“the household of God”), and the same polis (“fellow citizens”).  Previous divisions based on familial bonds and national loyalties are dissolved in salvation through Christ, which to become part of the church.

The meaning of Salvation, for Paul simply is membership in the ecclesial community.  To be sure, this is not a reduction of salvation to the current life of the church, as the next section of the passage shows, nor is it to posit the church as somehow supplementing the finished work of Christ.  Rather, understanding salvation as membership in the One Body is to understand the shape that the salvation which comes only through the mediation of Christ always and inevitably takes.  Christ is the foundation and the advocate, the center and the circumference.  There is no question of the church supplanting Christ.  For Paul the reality of salvation solely through Christ grounded and rendered intelligible his understand of the radical ecclesiality of salvation. 

Salvation is having access to the Father in the Spirit through Christ, and we enter the Trinitarian life in the this way by Christ’s work of creating in himself “one new humanity”.  It is right indeed to say that there is no salvation outside the church, not because the church possesses salvation, but because the church is the body of Christ and its life as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body is derived wholly from the Head, Jesus Christ.  Salvation is membership in the body, because Jesus is the Head.

In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Salvation means to be made into a communal body in which the Triune God dwells.  In saying that salvation means the church, we are not saying that the church as it is now is the fullness of salvation.  Rather, the church is being built by God into the fullness which eschatologically awaits it.  The church is properly called the locus of salvation because what is present proleptically in the church is the eschatological destiny of the world.  The future of the world is to become church.  What awaits the world is not simply the restoration of God’s initial creation of the world, but rather the ekklesialization of the world in which all of humanity and all of creation is transfigured into the dwelling place of God.  The future of the world is the fullness of God’s Triune presence which is proleptically realized in the church’s sacraments and common life.  When we see and experience those realties, we taste the powers of the age to come.  In the end all things will be gathered into one body and God will be all in all.  What awaits the world is the ubiquitous catholicity of divine-human communion.  

4 Comments

  1. vassilip wrote:

    dear Halden
    you are right; but let me add this:

    Church — as Christ’s body — is the place of His Spirit — who bestows to us His image — and because of that the Spirit is our natural place of being. “the Spirit [is] truly the place of the holy ones [=Church's members]” (St. Basil the Great, On Holy Spirit, 26, 62). (on that see my last post, where an allegory.)

    but, and here is the significant point, that does not make man a mere piece of a jigsaw-puzzle. on the contrary, man as a member of the body is a bearer of the fullness of the energy of that body. “and the holy one [=Church's member], as he makes himself a proper place for the Spirit to dwell, he becomes a son of God” (ibid). what here St. Basil says is not only that salvation is to become sons and daughters of the Father through participation in His Son Body [=Church], but also that through that mystery we, each one of us, become a living church [=a place for the Spirit]; and, because of that, a vehicle for others’ salvation.
    i believe that that point is the core of the political perspective of the Church.

    best wishes
    /vassili

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  2. WTM wrote:

    This is a very fine post, and I resonate with much of it. But, I want you to say more about the relation of the visible church to the invisible church. If we simply talk about the ‘church’ or the ‘body’, we can construe that as the invisible church and the visible church insofar as it participates in / overlaps with the invisible church. When you say “The meaning of Salvation, for Paul simply is membership in the ecclesial community” (setting aside Pauline interpretation issues at least for now) and take that to be a normative notion, you land a bit too heavy on the priority of the visible church for my liking. Of course, I think that the true visible church is vitally important, but let us not be quick to collapse the visible with the invisible.

    Perhaps these are simply my Reformed scruples – extra calvinisticum and all that. :-)

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I think the difference is that I am more Lutheran (Jensonian) and Anabaptist than Calvinistic on the issue of the visible church.

    Regarding the Pauline interpretation issues, I tried not be be reductive in connecting the church and salvation in his thought. I don’t want to say that “going to church” means you’re saved or some nonsense like that. Rather, that the common life of the church as the body of Christ which is constituted by the Spirit is savation, which will be fully consummated eschatologically.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  4. freder1ck wrote:

    As Origen said, outside Rahab’s house, the Church, no salvation (note that this formulation is somewhat less triumphalistic than Cyprian’s).

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

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