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A CRUCE SALUS
The Catholic Theology of Salvation
It has been noted that Christian theology is in its essence salvation theology. Despite different theories concerning how and why Jesus Christ saves, the common theme to all developed theories of salvation is the claim – not to mention the central dogmatic belief – that in His Incarnation, in His divine works on earth, and in His death and resurrection, the Lord did in fact save humanity from sin and death. It is therefore not a question as to whether Christians from the Apostolic Age to the present time in 2022 believe in the centrality of Christ’s salvific mission on earth. Rather, the debates over the centuries have focused on how we define salvation itself (Holcomb 251).
Saint Paul wrote that salvation in the Christian context not only has a past (Romans 8:24), but also a present (1 Corinthians 1:18) as well as a future (Romans 13:11) in the lives of those following Christ (McGrath 83). The word “salvation” in Pauline writings therefore not only references what happened in the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior, but emphasizes that salvation through Christ is ever present, and an ongoing process into the future concerning the liberation and healing of humanity.
As noted by Ferguson, the early Church while under persecution brought into conflict those who were termed the “rigorists,” such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, who envisioned the Church as a people already apart from sin; and the “laxists,” such as Callistus and Cyprian, who proclaimed that the Church itself was the ongoing instrument of salvation in real time, not apart from the world itself (145). In other words, according to this latter school, souls were constantly in need of salvation; and the Church itself as the heir to Christ on earth was the mechanism to achieve ongoing salvation. Therefore, soteriological debates ensued from the very beginnings of Christianity and the establishment of the Church itself. Although it should also be noted, as I have pointed out in other Missio Dei reflections published earlier, that much of the early doctrinal debates, ecumenical councils, and magisterial actions of the Church focused on the person and nature(s) of Christ and the Trinity as a response to the proliferation of heresies in the east and west.
As Holcomb noted, “if a generalization can be put forward despite the hazards of inherent limitations, it is that the early church was more dedicated to understanding the Savior as the Divine Giver of salvation than it was to salvation for the human receiver” (12). That is not to say that the salvific implications of Christ’s works on earth were not at all times an essential component of the Christian experience in the early Church, despite the lack of comprehensive, systematic patristic writings focused in this particular area.
As noted above, Saint Paul imbued his letters with salvific references. Interpretations of Pauline writings in this area range from the concept that salvation was achieved by the followers of Christ as a result of their being adopted into God’s family (Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 4:5); through the sacrifice of Christ; to later Protestant arguments on justification (and therefore salvation) through faith (McGrath 83-84). Saint Paul even integrates the law with righteousness and salvation – but through Jesus Christ:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith (Gal. 3:23-26).
It became apparent from the Nicene theologians forward, and reflected in the Nicene Creed that remains with us to this day, that the meaning of salvation is our sharing in the experience, the life of God.
What are the major salvific themes offered by the patristic fathers, continuing into the age of scholasticism in accounting for the messianic mission of Jesus Christ? Mitros (415) provides for a succinct summary of the patristic writings concerning the salvific work of Jesus Christ, grouped into six major themes of salvation:
The pedagogical or “Christ the teacher” theory of salvation. Jesus Christ served as both a teacher and behavior-setter to his disciples; the arbiter of a reestablishment of humanity back to God.
The mythological or transaction theory of salvation. Jesus Christ as a ransom being paid, assuming Satan is the beneficiary of this ransom; although ultimately Jesus as Savior has defeated the evil spirit through His glorious resurrection from the dead and Satan is vanquished.
The recapitulation theory of salvation. Jesus Christ is the new Adam, restoring humanity back to its original age of innocence and harmony with all that was and is good in God’s creation. As such the immortality of the soul has been restored, and humanity reborn.
The physical or Platonic theory of salvation. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, has sanctified and saved humanity by the very act of becoming fully human.
The realistic or sacrificial theory of salvation. Jesus Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sake of humanity. In so doing the Savior became the personified Suffering Servant of mankind. Death upon a tree is not a ransom paid by Christ per se; rather it is the most powerful testament of Jesus’ love for both God the Father and for humanity, drawing them together through His voluntary sacrifice upon a cross.
The satisfaction theory of salvation. Jesus Christ has liberated humanity from the vicissitudes of evil by atoning for the sins of mankind through His death. In so doing satisfaction to God the Father is made for the forgiveness of sins.
The pedagogical or “Christ the Teacher” theory of salvation – namely that the Lord served as both a teacher and behavior-setter to his disciples – seems to be the most self-evident of the theories of salvation. Who can argue against the profound, life changing nature of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospel narratives? That being said, it is interesting that Saint Paul directly references the imitation of Christ in his epistles only once, in writing to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:6; Ladd 560). And yet so much of the typical Christian’s focus in the practice of faith centers upon contemplation on and imitation of the life of Christ on earth. We see this in the focus of the Church on the messages contained in the Gospels, both through surface textual reading as well as exegetical analyses. The importance of concentrating on Christ the teacher was also apparent during the Second Vatican Council of the mid-twentieth century, AD. For example, Fitzmyer analyzed The Biblical Commission’s Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels which was presented on April 21, 1964 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope Saint Paul VI, who thereafter approved the instruction and ordered its publication (Beare 231).
According to Fitzmyer, there are three “stages of tradition” in which the historical accuracy of the words (and actions) of Jesus Christ can be understood, including in the salvific context. First, we have an analysis of what Jesus actually said and did based upon what his apostles experienced directly as they accompanied the Lord in His divine mission on earth. Here the historical record appears rather sparse. Second, we have the next generation of wordsmiths, so to speak, the testimonies of the apostles themselves in the times and places in which they preached the good news in their salvific missions throughout the Roman Empire. We require a little faith here, but the bottom line is that we have no reason but to agree that the apostles were in fact being fidelious, in other words true, to what Jesus Christ said and did in His mission on earth. A clear example of this type of apostolic testimony is what Saint Peter is recorded to have spoken in Acts (10:36-41).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, in our faith we understand that what the apostles gave to us about the historical Jesus was ultimately a function of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As a central tenet of both our faith and the significance of Pentecost itself, the descent of the Holy Spirit was and continues to be in our own lives a cementing, if you will, of the words and deeds of the Lord to future generations through spreading the good news by those Christ Himself selected to carry on His salvific mission after His ascension. In other words, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit Pentecost became the “glue” so to speak of the authentic transmission of the words and deeds of Jesus Christ the teacher and savior of mankind, through those who experienced directly, and indirectly – let us not forget Saint Paul – the Word.
We see the synthesis of this historical understanding and transmission of the divine words and deeds of the Savior summarized most succinctly in this way by Fitzmyer:
The most significant thing in the whole [Biblical Commission’s Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels], when all is said and done, is that the Biblical Commission calmly and frankly admits that what is contained in the Gospels as we have them today is not the words and deeds of Jesus in the first stage of tradition, nor even the form in which they were preached in the second stage, but only in the form compiled and edited by the Evangelists. This form, however, reflects the two previous stages, and the second more than the first.
Again, relying to a significant degree upon our Catholic faith, the most important point to reflect upon in an analysis of historical accuracy is that we believe that by the Grace of God, by the intercession of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, in the end we gain immunity from formal error in our understanding and adherence to what is written in the New Testament concerning the words and deeds of our Savior Jesus Christ; and understanding and imitating these words and deeds are central to our own salvation. To this end we have a departure from a traditional historical analysis in coming to terms with Christ the teacher. However, truth comes in many forms, as Fitzmyer instructs us:
The opposite of inerrancy is not simply historicity but truth. But there is poetical truth as well as historical truth, rhetorical truth as well as legal truth, mythical truth as well as the Gospel truth. If a passage in the Gospels contains historical truth, it does not simply contain it because it is inspired. The reasons for its historicity will be quite other than the inspired character of the text. The inspiration may guarantee such historical truth as is there, but it will not guarantee it any more than it would guarantee the poetic truth of the hymn to Christ in Phil 2. Its guarantee is not quantitative but qualitative and analogous. The inspired Gospel truth was intended by God to give us not simply a “remembered” account of the doctrine and life of Jesus, but a “preached” form of it, “so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and of morals (par. X).
To those in whom faith is wanting or suspect; to those who rely on traditional historical analysis; to those who look to the imitation of Christ for their own salvation; it is understandable that questions are raised in that we do not have a more direct accounting of what Jesus Christ actually said and did in His mission on earth. What we do have, however, is both understanding and inspiration that those who directly witnessed the person of Jesus, those who experienced the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, those who subsequently gave their lives in martyrdom testifying to the Word, provided Christians who followed them with the divinely inspired truth of the works of the New Testament in all its forms. Ongoing exegetical analysis provides increasing knowledge, insight, and inspiration of the words and deeds of Christ the teacher.
We continue to proclaim what Jesus Christ said and did because Jesus’s life was a life of salvation with God. Therefore, not one important detail should be left out! For as Mitros reminds us, Jesus Christ is presented in the Gospels “as the one who brings eternal life or salvation through the revelation of God” (417).
The mythological or transaction theory of salvation posits that the Lord was a ransom paid for the salvation of humanity. This ransom is usually presented in context of payment being made to Satan for humanity’s salvation; although in a twist it becomes Jesus as Savior who defeats the evil one through His glorious resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, for example, posited that in Jesus being fully human and without sin, He drew the attention of Satan – as bait, so to speak. It was in the passion of Christ at the very moment when evil believed it had won the day that in reality death was conquered through the cross, “the Word destroyed the power of death and the devil by his resurrection” (Holcomb 197).
Mitros noted that the mythological theory did find good footing in the New Testament, especially given the Scriptural recognition of evil attributed to Satan, and the tying of the evil one with sin (422). Further, it has been argued that this theory was one of the most significant and formative accounts of Christ’s salvific mission (Mitros 426). After all, Christ the teacher Himself taught his apostles that His death would be serve as atonement (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). As noted by Enns, Jesus’s statement that He would give His life as a ransom for many cannot be discounted, and it also implies substitution: “In this statement Jesus also used the word ransom (Gk. lutron), which meant the ransom money paid to free a slave; Christ paid the price – His death – to free many from the bondage of sin” (Kindle Locations 1560-1565).
However, as the centuries passed, the mythological or transaction theory declined in acceptance, most principally through the development of philosophical Realism, which discounted the notion of a real and personal Satan – instead focusing on evil as the absence of good (Ferguson 439).
The recapitulation theory of salvation holds that Jesus Christ is essentially the new Adam, the restorer of all that was and is good in God’s creation. In short, through the Lord’s redemption, mankind has a new birth. A principal and early proponent of this view was Saint Irenaeus, whose writings according to Holcomb “can often sound very jarring to modern theology” (41). When Irenaeus noted that the genealogy presented in the Gospel of Luke traces the lineage of Jesus Christ back to Adam, the evangelist is in fact giving direct testimony to how the Lord recapitulated all generations in himself, with Adam and the Christ being the alpha and the omega of the great human lineage from creation to the birth of the Savior of mankind. In this view espoused by Saint lrenaeus, Jesus Christ reversed what Adam wrought on mankind through his own pride and disobedience. Because Christ became man, and experienced the fullness of human existence, by His own humility and obedience to God the Father Jesus in essence regenerated humanity (Mitros 428). In other words, as the new Adam through His Sacrifice Jesus Christ saved humanity from sin and death.
A good example of the development and synthesis of salvific themes from the Patristic to the Scholastic ages begins with Saint Athanasius writing in the fourth century, AD and continuing to Saint Thomas Aquinas writing in the thirteenth century, AD. The focus here concerns the physical or Platonic theory of salvation. In this rich philosophical and theological position, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, redeemed humanity by the very act of becoming fully human. In his monumental De Incarnatione Verbi, Saint Athanasius exemplified the physical or Platonic theory of salvation when he wrote that Jesus Christ “was incarnate that we might be made God” (105). In other words, through the very act of the Word Made Flesh, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the salvation of humanity was at hand: God in the act of sharing fully in humanity through Jesus Christ created a synthesis of God and man. In the eyes of Saint Athanasius God did away with sin and death through the Incarnation, giving new life to mankind ultimately in the passion and resurrection of the Savior (Holcomb 4).
As Mitros observed, Saint Athanasius defended Christ’s divinity as necessary for salvation because we are redeemed by being consubstantial with the Lord if and only if Christ Himself was consubstantial with the God the Father (429). Eight hundred years later Saint Thomas Aquinas argued that Christ’s divinity was prerequisite for an understanding of the redemptive power of His death: “the worth of Christ’s flesh is to be reckoned, not just according to the nature of flesh but according to the person who assumed it, in that it was the flesh of God, from whom it gained an infinite worth” (Summa Theologiae, Part 3, Q 48.2. 3). In essence, the death of one person in human history is so significant for all in human history because Jesus Christ is God, not just man.
Marrying the physical or Platonic theory to the realistic or sacrificial theory of salvation – namely that Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sake of humanity – Saint Athanasius also argued that with the Incarnate Word as foundation, for humanity to be reconciled with God sacrifice was required, and that sacrifice would rise above anything seen in the Old Covenant (McGrath 89). The sacrificial theory of salvation was prominent among the patristic writers (Mitros 430), largely because it is so Scripturally based. From the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, to the foundation of the Last Supper itself. In Justin Martyr’s First Apology, composed in the first half of the second century, AD he wrote “in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
Eusebius of Caesarea, circa 310, AD wrote Christians were “daily celebrating His memorial, the remembrance of His Body and Blood, and are admitted to a greater sacrifice than that of the ancient law” (45). Saint Athanasius wrote in the fourth century, AD “the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘And again:’ Let us approach the celebration of the mysteries.” Also writing in the fourth century, AD Saint Cyril of Jerusalem exclaimed “His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is given to us under the symbol of wine, in order to make us by receiving them one body and blood with him. Having his body and blood in our members, we become bearers of Christ and sharers, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature” (33). The essence of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as central to our salvation could not be more clear than in the celebration of the Eucharist, practiced daily in the Catholic Church for almost two millennia.
Finally, the satisfaction theory of salvation posited that the Lord has liberated humanity from evil and death by atoning for the sins of mankind through His own death. As such, in the process of his own death on a cross satisfaction is made to God the Father for the forgiveness of sins. Mitros noted that the satisfaction theory of salvation became one of the most advocated interpretations of salvation through Jesus Christ in the West in the Middle Ages as well as modern times (442). It had a nice legal framework. Origen stated early in the development of salvific writings that in Christ an offering of true sacrifice was made to God the Father. Saint Athanasius also wrote of the payment of a debt offered by Christ upon the cross for the sins of mankind. Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that Jesus Christ discharged our sins on the cross. And Saint Cyril of Jerusalem was also of the learned opinion that the Lord offered himself up to God the father as a ransom for sin (Mitros 443).
Perhaps the most significant contribution to the satisfaction theory was made centuries later by Saint Anselm, who in his Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man) provided a proof from logic for the satisfaction theory of salvation. As Ferguson noted, Anselm’s work “is the most coherent statement of what has been the dominant Western explanation of the basis of Christian faith” (437). According to Saint Anselm, due to the grave nature of sin, a direct affront to God, it is only God who can make the satisfaction. And that is the principal reason that there was an absolute requirement of only a God-Man, a consubstantial essence in God the Father and God the Son to make the sacrifice and receive the satisfaction: “Death was the punishment for sin, so as a sinless person Christ had no need to die. Christ made his death an offering (sacrifice) to God, presented of free will and not of debt. He offered himself as a man; but what he did as a man was multiplied infinitely in its worth, for he was also Deity. He offered an infinite satisfaction for sin” (Ferguson 438).
In the end these theories of salvation and their variations (such as the penal substitution theory) employ a rich variety of symbolism to express central themes of Christ’s salvific work. After all, “Christ was not actually a sacrificial victim burned on the Jerusalem altar; he was not actually a debt paid to someone holding sinners as ransom; nor was Jesus a priest. These varied expressions are symbols taken from the world of the early Christian Church” (Hammond Kindle Locations 2280-2300). Historical analysis of patristic writings as well as later writings by scholastics, theologians and Doctors of the Church reveal that all these six major salvific themes were emphasized at various points in the theological development of the Catholic Church, and at times in combination, as illustrated above. In other words, these themes of salvation are not orthogonal in nature, and it can be argued that not only do they overlap in substance, but each can be complementary of each other in soteriological analysis and understanding of the world shattering impact of Christ’s divine work on earth, and our own salvation through and by Jesus Christ.
Anselm. Cur Deus Homo (Translated by Sidney Norton Deane, 1903). Andesite Press, 2015.
Athanasius. De Incarnatione Verbi 54.3 (translated by John Behr). Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae (Complete & Unabridged). Claremont, CA: Coyote Canyon Press, 2016.
Beare, F.W. “The Historical Truth of the Gospels: An Official Pronouncement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.” Canadian Journal of Theology, 11 (4), 1965, 231-237.
Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat 22, Mystagogica 4, 1. 3-6.9: PG 33, 1098-1106
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Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.
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Hammond, David M. Lonergan and the Theology of the Future: An Invitation. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017. Kindle Edition.
Holcomb, Justin S. Christian Theologies of Salvation. New York: NYU Press, 2017.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.
Martyr, Justin. The First Apology. Retrieved on January 1, 2022 from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm.
McGrath, Alister E. Theology: The Basics (Fourth Edition). New York: Wiley, 2018.
Mitros, Joseph. “Patristic Views of Christ’s Salvific Work,” Thought 42, 1967, 415-447.