‘For us and for our salvation’; is the redemption offered in Christ for the World or for human beings?
In writing to the Colossians, Paul expresses the supremacy of Jesus Christ over all creation and declares him to be ‘before all things’ (Col 1:17). Moreover, the Apostle uses words which will be later echoed by the Nicene Creed in saying that all things were created through Jesus and that through him all things hold together (cf. Col 1:16-17). Thus, it is only fitting for Paul to believe that God has reconciled to himself all things in Christ (cf. Col 1:20).
The theology of salvation has been concerned for centuries with the relationship between the Godhead and human beings. However, in comparison relatively little theological work has been done in order to examine the position of the rest of the world/creation in relation to the salvific intervention of God. This essay will argue for a comprehensive view of redemption which reaches everything in the created order. To do so, this paper will have to briefly examine the nature of the World ‘fallen-ness’ and two possible objection to world salvation. It will then examine the unique role of Christ as the redeemer and the role of his Church.
The Fall of creation and redemption
To argue for salvation of the whole created order one should presuppose that everything has drifted away from the original relationship with the Creator and that human beings are not alone in needing reconciliation with God. Some theologians would argue that precisely through the fall of the primordial parents the consequences of human rebellion have spread through the rest of the created order. For instance, John Wesley (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 329) argued that the human self-alienation from God was the act which prompted the animal kingdom and the rest of creation to be in a disordered state where each animal is a predator or a prey and where suffering and death are present in parallel ways as in humanity. Wesley’s interpretation of the Fall finds an echo in modern problems about sustainability, extinction of species and climate change. This man-originated phenomenon can find a theological explanation in the marred relationship between humans – as the appointed stewards of the world – and the Creator. Thus it seems that selfishness, greed and anthropocentrism are able to destroy the Planet’s resources and irreversibly tear the fabric of creation.
Two issues about the salvation for the world
There are two main problems, two sides of the same coin, which make it difficult to argue in favour of salvation through Jesus for the non-human world. These are sketched out in this chapter. The first problem finds its major modern advocate in John Hick (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 17) and it regards the universality of salvation through the Son of God. The second problem is represented by a fundamentalist reading of the doctrine of justification by faith.
i. Christ’s universality should be upheld whilst recognising the spiritual riches of other faiths. The role of Christ in the story of redemption should be regarded a central to the world salvation, even for those who reject it of do not know it. Furthermore if one was to envisage a variety of co-equal saviours from different religions, races or walks of life, then the non-human side of creation should be expected, by extremes, to present its own saviour or mediator. It is precisely because the offering of Christ as man-God was done once for the whole cosmos that He ought to be regarded as the ‘great high priest who has passed through the heavens’ (Heb. 4:14) in order to represent before God all human beings and indeed, the whole creation as well.
This theme was picked up by JRR Tolkien in The Silmarillion where the elf-man Eärendil sailed through the Great Sea to intercede with the gods in favour of both races and for the whole of Middle Earth. As redemption for elves was granted, Eärendil became the brightest star – perhaps a ‘Sun of righteousness’ – to enlighten a world until then left in darkness.
ii. Sola fide is arguably the pinnacle of Reformation theology. In its most narrow sense, it envisages redemption only for those who are able to acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Saviour, thus it implies various degrees of self-awareness. The doctrine of sola fide would not apply to non-humans due to a lack of depth in cognitive skills of the rest of creation – e.g. plants, animals etc. However, a better reading of justification by faith is given by Thomas Torrance (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 19) and other modern Protestant theologians. Torrance envisages the salvation as a share in Christ’s own righteousness and faithfulness through union with Him.
The view that creation can be freed from death and reconciled with God is only tenable if one understands the uniqueness of the Jesus’ role in the cosmos and that Salvation is freely bestowed on creation by union with Him. To hold views such as John Hick’s which hamper the uniqueness of redemption through Christ; or radical views of justification by faith could risk to undermine the concepts of world redemption. The next section will present a plausible interpretation of salvation for creation by focusing on Christ himself.
Christ the Redeemer
Paul proclaims the ‘arrival’ of a ‘new creation’ in writing to the Corinthians. ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ and ‘everything has become new’ (2 Cor 5:17). This new age has been ushered in by Christ who in his faithfulness has redeemed the rebellion embodied in Adam. As the ‘image of God’ is fully restored in human beings, so God’s sovereignty is re-established (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 48). The work of salvation is both completed and yet not fully manifested as the whole creation ‘groans in labour pains’ (Rom 8:22) while waiting for it to be revealed and recognised in all things. As Peter Forsyth puts it, God ‘does not come out to grout the gaps of nature, not simply to bless nature, but to change it, to make a new earth from a new foundation in heaven’ (T. Hart in Gunton ed. Cambridge 1997 p. 205). However, new heavens and new earth do not necessarily imply physically new things. Just as an ancient, restored jewel can look entirely different – perhaps even transfigured or resurrected – under new light, so the created order will appear entirely new under the true light of the Creator. In God’s light humanity sees light (cf. Ps 36:9) and through His Son a new era – the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ (Isa 61:2) – is proclaimed and creation is reconciled within itself and to God (cf. Isa 11:6).
Theologians throughout the past two millennia have tried to identify the nature of the salvation won by Christ. In the patristic period, theologians such as Irenaeus, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Leo the Great have firmly argued about the divine and human natures of Christ. In their views the redemption brought by the Son of God could not be perfect if the Word had not assumed true human nature (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 15). For example, Gregory of Nazianzus stated that what is not assumed in the person of Christ is not redeemed by him (Stevenson, London, 1989 p. 88). Only Origen (Gunton ed. Cambridge 1997 p. 149) argued explicitly for a general redemption of the entire created order, thus envisaging re-absorption of all things – visible and invisible – in the Godhead to take place at the end of time. Origen did not deny the ontological goodness of the material world like other theologians, but his views about creation, redemption and the Godhead appear flawed to modern theological thought thus invalidating his ‘universalist’ argument.
On the whole, the Church Fathers did not seem to focus their attention on the redemption of the whole creation. However, by focusing on the human nature of Jesus – rather than on his ‘maleness’ – they have opened the way for a more comprehensive understanding of salvation. A parallel could be drawn from a feminist interpretation of Christ’s redemption. The reconciliation with God is offered to all humanity because Jesus, although having a gender, primarily assumed a human nature; he assumed the ‘human-ness’ of both men and women. Building on this, one could argue that at the incarnation the Son of God – coming down from heaven – assumes corporeity in time and space thus allowing the work of redemption to take place. Therefore, Christ is able to represent the whole of creation ‘to God and before God’ (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 16). He – through whom all things were made, in whom all things are held together and by whom all things are redeemed – is the only One capable of reconciling a fallen cosmos with God because of his divine nature united to the physical reality of ‘this world’.
Irenaeus argued for an even more inclusive understanding of salvation; he understood the first act of creation, the incarnation, the Easter story and the consummation of all things as God’s plan of redemption stretching from the beginning to the end of all things (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 18). This concept of Recapitulation was further developed by later theologians and ultimately by the Second Vatican Council. The divine intervention which takes place with Christ does not end with Jesus’ ascension into the Father’s glory but it has a lasting effect. In Him the renewal of all things is inaugurated and revealed and for this ‘blessed end’ (Davis; Kendall ed. Oxford, 2006 p. 118) all things were created. According to the theology of Maximus and Irenaeus it is possible to reinterpret God’s outlook on the world as one of enduring love; as Trevor Hart describes it ‘[God] does not need to be changed from being against us to being for us, or from a condition of alienation to one of forgiving and accepting love. [...] the change takes place on the human side’ (Gunton ed. Cambridge 1997 p. 203). Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses a similar concept by recognising Christ as the One who manifested clearly the ‘limitless reach of divine love’ (Ford ed. Oxford, 2005 p. 114)
The role of the Church
The Church is gathered around the risen Christ and the teachings of the Apostles. She offers the salvation obtained through Jesus by being the minister of the sacrament and the Scriptures. In the Dominical commission (cf. Mt 28:19) she finds her vocation to be the herald of God’s kingdom and bring forth the signs of the new creation. The ‘image of God’ is restored in the community of baptised. Gordon Fee sees this as the mark of the Creator’s sovereignty impressed in men and women under whom the new creation needs to find harmony.
Although the full effects of redemption are not fully revealed Jesus’ salvific work is not finished; it has relevance in the present (Ford ed. Oxford, 2005 p. 14). The Church awaits for the eschaton, when salvation will be fully manifested but she is also called to live the risen life of her Lord in the present time. Therefore, the Church should play an important role in issues of environmental ethics and by rejecting a utilitarian vision of creation. Her subordinate role in mediating salvation should entice Christians to live out the message of reconciliation of the Scriptures, through intercessions and examples of ‘new life’.
The Gospel of John proclaims Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins toῦ kόsmou” (John 1:29). Although the word kosmos is translated as ‘world’ by the NRSV it would have meant ‘universe’ or ‘entire created order’ in antiquity. This is an extraordinary affirmation made from the Evangelist who in a single line is capable of summing up all the Pauline soteriology and indeed, also the interpretation of redemption examined here. Jesus is the redeemer who transfigures creation and reconciles everything to God through himself as part of God’s creative work. The ‘final product’ will be ultimately revealed at the end of times when the cosmos will fulfil its true vocation: prefect unity with its Creator.
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