Reply to Kevin Walker on Salvation, the Nature of the Church and N.T. Wright

Kevin Walker had an excellent post on The Language of Salvation, which dealt with a passage from N.T. Wright.  His response to my comments was as follows:

Thanks for commenting Don. I just started reading N.T. Wright, and I’m enjoying his work. My only beef is, like you said in your comment, that he almost seems to push away the issue of individual salvation. My thing is this: Who makes up the church? The body of Christ? Individuals. Who does God work through in Scripture? Individuals.

So, you can’t take the individualism completely away. You just have to keep it in it’s proper perspective. I’m trying to open up my perspective and thinking a little in my reading… Any books that you could recommend would be much appreciated.

I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer to the last point, for reasons I’ll get into.  But you’ve hit on some interesting stuff with this, stuff that’s not too familiar to Pentecostals but is very much at the heart of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.  So I’ll try to shed some light on this.

First, as I said before, the key defect in the Reformation concept of salvation is the apparent lack of required change in the individual, only the individual’s “legal” status with God.  “Therefore, if any one is in union with Christ, he is a new being! His old life has passed away; a new life has begun!” 2 Corinthians 5:17, TCNT.  That’s a revolutionary transformation; to make it real, God must be present in the believer just as much as the believer in God.  What takes place in heaven and in the believer are simply two sides to one relationship.  We cannot make it without his indwelling in our lives any more than we can make it without his heavenly approval.  The Wesleyan concept of sanctification (and the Pentecostal one of the baptism in the Holy Spirit) go a long way to dealing with the issue of internalisation, but too often the real meaning of these events is lost in either legalism, emotionalism, sensationalism or a combination of all of these and more.

Turning to the church/communitarian issue, the basic Roman Catholic concept of the church (and by extension salvation) consists of two things: a) a grace-dispensing institution which acts as an active mediator between man and God, and b) a body of people who are brought into a good relationship with God and each other through the sacrament of baptism.  (I was reminded of that in no uncertain terms at the funeral of my old prayer group leader, even though I well knew his relationship with God was highly volitional.)  Leaving aside the theological problems this creates, from a pastoral standpoint it lulls the church and its people into a false sense of security that putting people through “the system” is all that’s needed.  I discussed this several months ago in regard to infant baptism.

With an Anglican like N.T. Wright, it’s worth remembering that Anglicanism, after considerable conflict, set itself forth as the “via media” between Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.  This is most succinctly expressed in the Epistle Dedicatory to the King James Bible:

So that if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish Persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us, because we are poor instruments to make God’s holy Truth to be yet more and more known unto the people, whom they desire still to keep in ignorance and darkness; or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by self-conceited Brethren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil; we may rest secure, supported within by the truth and innocency of a good conscience, having walked the ways of simplicity and integrity, as before the Lord; and sustained without by the powerful protection of Your Majesty’s grace and favour, which will ever give countenance to honest and Christian endeavours against bitter censures and uncharitable imputations.

Unfortunately that “via media” (especially since the Oxford Movement) has been more of a theological (and ecclesiastical) “tug of war” between the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings of Anglicanism.  It appears to me (and I hope that people more familiar with Wright’s writings than I am will chime in) that
Wright is nudging Anglicanism (and by extension his non-Anglican readers) in an Anglo-Catholic direction on this.  From an Anglican standpoint, however, the big danger of this is what happens when, as Fr. Greg so pithily puts it, “the “weeds” get control of the structure, as with TEC.”  An illustration of that is the infamous Baptismal Covenant, what I call the “Contract on the Episcopalians.”  It’s noteworthy that many revisionists in that tribe, who are big on this, frequently refer to themselves as “Affirming Catholics.

Getting back to a more Pentecostal situation, our glorious movement has the theological elements to make this work, if we would look at things a little more objectively.  We need to keep the following in mind:

  1. Our theology speaks of a volitional salvation for every believer, followed by spiritual progress.  If we would couple the theology of spiritual progress with some serious discipleship, we’d be really dangerous to the devil.  (When the two are put together, we really are!)
  2. The discipleship is a large part of the role of the church.  Since we do not believe in the church as an active mediator between man and God, much of the church’s role needs to be in the edification and equipping of the believers.  Unfortunately our overemphasis on revivalistic techniques and the concomitant focus on spectacular spiritual manifestations (which certainly have their place, especially from a purely evangelistic standpoint) has sidetracked that part of our mission.

As far as the books are concerned, personally I find much modern theology (especially Protestant theology) profoundly dissatisfying.  I’ve always preferred the Fathers of the Church (as I demonstrate here,) St. Thomas Aquinas and some of the French Catholic “classics” (Bossuet, Pascal, Arnauld, etc.)  It’s not always easy to get through but to read people who actually think theology out is a life-transforming kind of thing.  And, of course, there’s John McKenzie’s The Power and the Wisdom, which has influenced me since my parish priest got me to read it in the mid-1970’s.

One thought on “Reply to Kevin Walker on Salvation, the Nature of the Church and N.T. Wright”

  1. The missiology of Lesslie Newbigin is also excellent. He writes a great deal on the West also, especially in his later work after leaving India.

Leave a Reply