by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
An existential approach to Soteriology should start, I believe, by asking, “What did Jesus think he was doing when he devoted himself to the work of man’s Salvation?” It is less clear, perhaps, how to go about answering that question, particularly where to begin the inquiry. An obvious place to start is with the Gospels. For my part, however, I would prefer a bit of preamble.
The reason is simple: I did not discover the Gospels on my own, and my effort to understand them has never been, over the years, a private endeavor. Even before I was able to read, I was first “catechized ” in the Christian faith, so that I would properly understand the Gospels when the time came to read them. Catechesis, a process of oral instruction, literally means “according to the echo.” It consists in deliberate memorization. From the very beginning, catechesis has been a common form of instruction in the Christian Church, and I cannot divorce my mind from the faith of the Church as taught in the Tradition of catechesis.
In short, I feel the need for at least a brief indication of what to expect in the Gospels relative to Salvation; I crave a summary of the thing.
For that summary, I have chosen a text from an eighth century Christian writer who is, as far as I can tell, universally recognized as “a scribe in Israel,” the sort of man Holy Church refers to as an “ecumenical teacher.” His name was Yuanna Mansour; most Christians remember him from the place of his birth: Saint John of Damascus.
In his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, John of Damaskos speaks thus of the salvific intention of Jesus:
“Whereas our Lord Jesus Christ was without sin—for he that took away the sin of the world committed no sin, nor was there any guile found in his mouth—he was not subject to death, and death came into the world through sin. He dies, therefore, because he took on himself death on our behalf, and he makes himself an offering to the Father for our sake, for we had sinned against Him. And it was proper that He should receive the ransom for us, and that we should thus be delivered from condemnation” (De Fide Orthodoxa 3.26).
In this dense text, John Damascene speaks to the faith of the Church on several points:
First, the goal of Christ’s redemptive work was our deliverance from the death we deserve as sinners.
Second, Jesus accomplished this deliverance by freely dying “for our sakes.”
Third, his death was a sacrificial offering made to God the Father, an oblation conceived in the biblical category of the sin offering. Now in the sacrificial system of Israel, the purpose of the prescribed sin offering was the removal of contamination and,consequently, the restoration of communion with God. That is to say, the biblical sin offering was directed entirely to its effects in man. In the setting of this text, the contamination is death.
Fourth, this self-offering of Christ for the removing of our sins was received by the Father as a “ransom” (antilytron) for us.
Fifth, because of this ransom, we are delivered from condemnation. In the context, the condemnation is the death we deserve as sinners. In the mind of St. John Damascene, in short, the sacrificial death of Christ was directed to man’s liberation from death.
In addition to these points, we observe the author’s allusions to certain biblical texts by way of explanation. Thus, we note his assertion that Jesus
“committed no sin, nor was there any guile found in his mouth.”
This portrayal comes from 1 Peter 2:22 and Isaiah 53:9. The description of Jesus as
“taking away the sins of the world”
is based on the Baptist’s words in John 1:29. The reference to the “ransom” (antilytron) comes from 1 Timothy 2:6.
Earlier in the same work, St. John Damascene explicitly contrasted the obedient Jesus with our disobedient first parent. Unlike Adam, he wrote,
“he who is like us becomes obedient to the Father and finds a remedy for our disobedience in what he had assumed from us, and he became to us a pattern of obedience, without which it is impossible to obtain Salvation” (3.1).
This latter text, by introducing the Incarnation into the structure of Salvation, steps beyond the explicit salvific intention in the human mind of Jesus. Nonetheless, this consideration, essential to a full Soteriology, is derived from the Nicene Creed, on which John Damascene bases his entire schema.
According to the Creed three things happened
“for us men and for our Salvation”:
First, God’s Son
“came down from heaven . . . and was made man.”
“he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried.”
“rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
These three components to our Salvation—Incarnation, sacrifice on the Cross, and Resurrection—will provide the outline for a systematic treatment of Salvation.
Guided by that brief preamble, then, let us begin with “the mind of Christ.”