Starting Salvation With Jesus, and Ending Salvation With Jesus: From the Patristics to Barth and Torrance

Donald Fairbairn, Patristics theologian par excellence, has written a rich and very accessible book entitled Life In The Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers. I would highly eleisonrecommend this book to you, and even recommend it as a devotional type of book if you are interested in doing your devotions with the Trinity.

I have just recently finished reading through a section of the book that is discussing Christian salvation, and in particular, God’s action and human action in the realm of salvation. After sketching the common dilemma that has obtained in the Western branch of the Protestant church (i.e. Calvinism V Arminianism, e.g. emphasis on God’s choice or humanity’s choice in salvation – to be a bit reductionistic) in regard to salvation, Fairbairn offers an alternative that he has gleaned from his years spent with the Church Fathers. Here is what he has written:

To spell this idea out a bit more, I suggest that in our discussion of election/predestination, we should not place such priority on God’s choosing particular people that we imply he has nothing to do with those he will not ultimately save. Conversely, I suggest that we not place such priority on God’s universal desire to save that we imply that he deals exactly equally with everyone and all differences between people are due to their own responses to God (responses that God foreknows). Rather, I suggest that we place the priority on God’s eternal decision to honor his own relationship with his beloved Son and his Spirit by bringing people into that relationship. God’s eternal will was, first and foremost, a will to accomplish human redemption through the person and work of his Son and his Spirit. That eternal will included within its determination all that God ordained to happen, all that he knew would happen, all that both he and we would do. This means that when a person begins to trust in Christ or a believer prays for the salvation of others or someone proclaims the gospel, these people are privileged to share in what God has from all eternity determined that he would do. We are not merely the means by which he achieves his purpose, we are somehow privileged to be a part of the determination of that purpose, the establishment of the will of God in connection with his Son Jesus Christ. Such a way of looking at the relation between election and human action may help to ease the logjam the Western discussions of this issue have created for a millennium and a half. But even if it does not succeed in doing that, such a way of looking at the issue does place the emphasis where Scripture indicates it should lie–not on a seemingly arbitrary decree or on allegedly independent, free human action but instead on Christ the beloved Son of the Father, the one in whom we are chosen to participate.[1]

This will be too vague of an alternative for the scholastically Reformed mind among us, or even the evangelical mind. We want all of our theological “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed a certain way. But if a person is willing to live with some revelational dialectical tension, then what Fairbairn suggests from his reflection on the writings of the Fathers, will be resonant.

Interestingly, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both Western theologians (Barth is even considered ‘scholastic’ by many) would affirm Fairbairn’s suggestion; but with further nuance and development. George Hunsinger writes on Barth, this:

[…] To say that Jesus Christ is the “pioneer of faith” (Heb. 12:2), Barth suggests, is not to say that his faith is merely the exemplar of ours, but that it is the vicarious ground and source of our faith. “There is vicarious faith,” writes Barth, “… only in the form of the faith which Jesus Christ established for us all as the archegos tes pisteos (Heb. 12:2), who empowers us for our own faith, and summons us to it, even as he stands there in our stead with his faith. Through his faith, we are not only moved but liberated to believe for ourselves” (IV/4, 186). Our faith may be said to exist “as a predicate” of his in the sense that whatever is real and true “in this Subject” is the foundation for whatever is correspondingly real and true in us (cf. II/2, 539). In short, our subjective apprehension of God does not exist independently, but only insofar as its source, mediation, and ground are found in the humanity of Jesus Christ.[2]

Barth represents someone who works, as a theologian, within the domain offered by the Patristics and noticed by Fairbairn where he makes his ‘suggestions’ from. If the focal point of salvation starts with God’s Triune life, and his Revealed life in the Son, Jesus Christ, I conclude that it will sound something like Fairbairn’s suggestions and proceed something like Barth’s (as described by Hunsinger) locution.

Passion

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father except through him! This is where the heart of God is at for us, in the Son. Salvation constructs that don’t start and end here, in the Alpha & Omega of God, in my view, are not worth their salt in theological discussion. Salvation constructs that orbit around a psychologized self, or work from the bottom up (i.e. start in a frame that is concerned about ‘my salvation’ and how it relates to God’s salvation) are not commendable. Wherever we start the discussion, is where we will end up. If we start talking about salvation in Christ, then we will end in Christ; if we start the discussion with ourselves, we will end up with ourselves.

 

 

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 197-98.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 96, Nook.

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