I believe that the most consistently profitable time I’ve spent online has been reading the thought of Alastair Roberts. Stuff like this from many years ago:
It seems to me that many of the debates over such movements as the Auburn Avenue theology find their origin in the fact that there are some radically different ways of approaching the concept of salvation. If you try to interpret one paradigm within the frameworks provided by the others you will often end up with something resembling a bizarre heresy. Few people consciously adopt one particular paradigm over the rest and so remain, for the most part, ignorant about the assumptions that they import into their understanding of salvation. It is at this stage that a hermeneutic of self-suspicion becomes extremely important.
I will briefly try to outline what I see to be the two prominent ways of viewing salvation that seem to me to underlie many of the debates about such things as baptismal regeneration. Over the past two years I have been undergoing a shift between these two paradigms.
Most popular evangelical theologies of conversion are generally built around an understanding of conversion as first of all a private and individual decision, with incorporation into the Church seen as a secondary thing. The important thing is the saving of ‘souls’. ‘Souls’ are non-corporeal and abstracted from community. For many, salvation means little more than that the soul will go to heaven when the body dies.
Within such a theology ‘salvation’ becomes increasingly identified with that which happens ‘inside’ a person. Many Christians talk about salvation primarily as something we receive and possess. ‘Salvation’ is a substance, object or a correct status relative to an abstract and absolute legal standard that we are given.
Within such a theology — where the individual is elevated above the corporate — an abstract legal concept of God and salvation will generally take precedence over other views of God and salvation. God is the god of the contract, the god who operates in terms of systems of merit. The Law provides the stipulations of this contract. The Law is an abstract and absolute system of justice or code of ethics which we must obey perfectly or be condemned eternally. God is characterized primarily as the strict Judge, as one of unyielding justice who stands in detached judgment over us. It is with the framework of the legal contract that any individualistic theology or philosophy will generally frame forms of relationship between different parties.
Such a theology may have a place for intense ‘communion with God’ following justification. It can place considerable stress on individual subjective religious experience. Ironically, however, this focus on experience often serves to eclipse the God who is to be experienced. The focus of the Christian faith can become the individual’s experiential response to God, rather than God Himself. Such a theology throws us back upon our own response, and fails to draw attention to the Response that God has already provided in Jesus Christ. A doctrine of God is enshrined in every understanding of salvation; as James Torrance observes, such an understanding has clear unitarian leanings.
Within such a theology, the sacraments are subjectivized to fit in with the conception of salvation. If salvation is fundamentally about something that happens ‘inside’ us, the sacraments can be thought of in one of two ways. Either they become magical rites that pump me full of ‘salvation stuff’ in some mystical manner or they become empty vessels to be given content by my faith. It is my faith that gives Baptism its meaning, or my subjective remembrance and pious meditation that gives substance to the Supper.
As the ‘means of grace’ are increasingly downplayed, the mediatorship of Christ will be downplayed with them. The focus will be almost exclusively upon my possession of new life in my soul. As the means of grace are gradually emptied of their efficacy, I will be thrown back upon my own response to grace and will find myself crippled by assurance problems. I will have focused upon Christ in me so exclusively that there is no longer any Christ to be found outside of myself (i.e. meeting me graciously in the Word and sacraments). When the prospect in my heart looks bleak I will have nowhere to turn. If my communion with God is understood as fundamentally direct and unmediated by ‘externals’ such as the sacraments, it will not be long before I find that my faith has nothing sure left outside of itself to hold onto.
Within such a theology there is an emphasis upon such things as ‘imputed’ righteousness, ‘imputed’ righteousness here being understood as something which is ‘put to our account’ by means of some extrinsic legal transaction. We should not be surprised to see extrinsic legal transactions playing a prominent role in any individualistic soteriology.
Within such a theology ‘regeneration’ is seen as essentially the change that takes place inside an individual’s heart by means of the work of the Spirit of God. The Christian is one who has been given new life in his ‘soul’. This new life is possessed and comprehended by the soul. This theology also shapes the theology of the atonement to a great degree, as I have argued in the past.
Salvation is often regarded as distinct from the ‘relationship with God’ that follows after it. As salvation is fundamentally something that takes place ‘inside’ the individual, ‘joining a church’ becomes a mere ethical or religious duty. With its individualistic bias, such a theology thinks of the Church as that which exists for the chief purpose of enabling individual Christians to fulfill their individual vocations. When someone says ‘the will of God’, it is the will of God for the individual that instantly springs to mind. Within such a theology sola Scriptura naturally implies that only Scripture can have authority over the individual and so Church tradition should be treated with great suspicion when we come to interpret God’s Word.
Within such a theology one’s personal Bible study, personal quiet time, personal relationship with God, etc. are all granted priority over the Church’s engagement with Scripture, meditation and prayer and the communion with God that is enjoyed in corporate worship.
Within such a theology, redemptive history is downplayed because redemptive history has few immediate implications for the salvation of individuals. Redemptive history is treated as little more than a series of stories that give us pictures of Jesus, a few good and bad moral examples and some decontextualized texts that make for good evangelistic sermons.
Within such a theology regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification are, at their foundation, events to be put in the correct order within an ordo salutis. Within such a theology such issues as the bringing of Jews and Gentiles together in the Church is of relatively minor import.
In contradistinction to this conception of salvation stands a view of salvation that regards salvation as fundamentally relational. Salvation is not something that should be regarded as the ‘property’ of an individual (any more than a husband or wife is the ‘property’ of their spouse), nor as something which is bounded by subjective experience. Rather, salvation is situated in restored relationships.
It is man’s life that needs to be saved and man’s life is not limited to a part of his make-up labeled the ‘soul’. Man’s life is something that is forged by community. If man’s life is to be saved, it must be saved within community. While many who follow the first model tend to see man’s true existence as something that is fundamentally individual and ‘internal’, this way of thinking sees man as a being in relationship. For man to be saved involves being reconstituted in a new matrix of relationships.
As a human being, my true identity is not found by stripping away all my relationships; rather, my identity is found in my relationships — both to God and my fellow human beings.
Within the biblical teaching on salvation, the central focus is not upon some amazing experience in my heart or upon blessings of Christ abstracted from His Person and ‘put to my account’. In the biblical teaching on salvation, the accent is placed upon the reality of belonging to something that is far larger than anything that can be comprehended by our own experience. The New Life of salvation is something that far exceeds and transcends my mere ‘religious experience’ or the quickening work of God in my soul.