Sunday, November 25, 2018

Questioning Salvation History

Last month (here) I made reference to the second chapter of Miguel De La Torre’s disturbing book Embracing Hopelessness (2017). This article is about a theological problem I encountered in that same chapter.
Accepting Salvation History
One of the first theological German words I learned in seminary was Heilsgeschichte; I never understood why it was so often used in place of the English equivalent: salvation history. Then, the year I finished my basic seminary degree and entered graduate school (1962), Dr. Eric Rust, my major professor, published a book titled simply Salvation History.
While I mainly wanted to study Christian philosophy under Dr. Rust, I also studied Old Testament theology under him—and at that time I had no trouble accepting the basic ideas presented about salvation history—which still seem to be used in Christian colleges/seminaries, as is seen in the following diagram: 
(This diagram is copyrighted by Marion G. Bontrager (b. 1936), retired professor at Hesston College, a Mennonite school in Kansas.) 

Questioning Salvation History
I first began to question the validity of the concept of salvation history I had learned and accepted when I read books by Taiwan theologian C.S. Song, whose writings I studied and wrote essays about in the 1980s and ’90s.
In his seminal 1975 work Christian Mission in Reconstruction, Song (b. 1929) proposed the doctrine of creation rather than salvation history as the starting point for doing theology in Asia.
Japanese theologian Ken Miyamoto has a helpful section in his book God’s Mission in Asia (2007) titled “The Problem of Salvation History” (pp. 168~170). (My review of Miyamoto’s book was published in the January 2010 issue of Missiology: An International Review.)
Much more recently, as mentioned above, I read De La Torre’s rejection of salvation history. That stringent criticism is largely based on how he sees that idea linked to the notion of “manifest destiny,” which was so disastrous for American Indians.
In relating the horrific story of the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred on November 29, 1864, De La Torre declares: “Sand Creek marked the start of a catastrophic collapse of the Plains Indians’ way of life, an unavoidable consequence of the reigning salvation history of the era known as Manifest Destiny” (p. 40).
In a way, the ideas of salvation history, American exceptionalism, and manifest destiny have been intertwined from the beginnings of the British “invasion” in the 17th century of what is now North America —even though those connections have seldom been sufficiently recognized.
Thanksgiving Day, which most Americans have just celebrated and during which many recalled the so-called “first Thanksgiving” of 1621, is by no means a time for remembering a glorious past for those who are not white.
A few days ago I read the following hard-hitting article written by Glen Ford, the Executive Editor of the Black Agenda Report. It is titled, “American Thanksgiving: A Pure Glorification of Racist Barbarity”—and it is quite different from what we usually read about the beginnings of Thanksgiving Day in this country.
Read it here, if you dare.
Affirming Salvation History
Questioning salvation history has led me to the following conclusions:
** The concept of salvation history has sometimes led to a destructive triumphalism among some Christians, and that is unacceptable. De La Torre’s criticism must be taken seriously. But that misuse of the concept doesn’t call for rejection of the idea. Rightly understood it can still be affirmed.
** Salvation history recounts important matters regarding God’s work in the world—but not all of God’s work. C.S. Song’s criticism must also be taken seriously. Affirming salvation history does not necessitate denying God’s grace that has operated and is operating outside the confines of that framework.


  1. I wonder, thinking about “the upside-down kingdom” approach to the Jesus’ gospel message, if a re-considered salvation history might continue to include events like the Exodus, but might also include others like God’s giving of the Sabbath/Jubilee laws, the dramatic events leading to the deliverance of the world from slavery, from colonialism, and its eventual future liberation from racism, sexism, economic injustice, and that prophesied future time when wars cease and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation,” and that other prophetic moment when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage” — perhaps when the earth (or the galaxy or the universe?) is freed from all abuse to its air, water, animal life and plant life — all this still looking forward or back to Calvary.

    1. I like the fuller thinking of salvation. God started His full creation. He is still engaged in it, including the others with whom He made earlier covenants. It's all about Him. Sadly, American Christianism (and maybe others) see this as "all about me, Jesus, all about me" and my petty little concerns. Just this morning we were singing that theme again at church. I am sure He must see something far other than our myopic foci about our perceived issues and concerns. Something far more than a "relevant" creature can understand. Yet we yearn for it - or something "all about me". But Christ's name (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ) seems to give hope to our puny cries of Hosanna.