The past, present and future of salvation. In context.

Koinōnia is a very serious collective biblical-theological blog hosted by Zondervan Academic and Friends. Today’s post by Bill Mounce looks at a technical issue of translation, but he frames the problem in a way that brings out rather sharply the contrast between a mainstream evangelical and a narrative-historical reading of Paul.

Mounce considers the two main options for translating sōzesthe in 1 Corinthians 15:2: “you are saved” or “you are being saved”. Is it an “aoristic present” or a “continuous or even a futuristic present”? In view of the future tense of salvation elsewhere (cf. Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 5:9-10), the parallel with 1 Corinthians 1:18 (“to us who are being saved”), and the conditional clause attached (“if you hold fast to the word I preached to you”) he opts for the ESV’s “you are being saved”—which is just as well, as Mounce was New Testament chair of the ESV Bible translation. So the verse supports the idea of “times” of salvation: “past (on the cross), now (as we walk the path), and the future (Day of the Lord)”.

The translation seems to me to be correct and for the reasons given, but Mounce’s attempt then to explain—as a pastor—what a Christian is in the light of this incomplete or progressive notion of salvation is to my mind misleading:

For me, it is Jesus’ gate and path analogy. Being a Christian is a being a follower of Jesus. You start following at the gate, continue following as you walk along the path, and at the end of the path of perseverance is life. So for me, it is easy to say that while I celebrate the finished work of Christ on the cross and the underserved, grace-filled, regenerative work of the Holy Spirit at my conversion, there is a very real sense in which my salvation is an ongoing process culminating in glorification, provided of course that I hold fast to the gospel.

Isn’t that what Paul is saying?

Well, Paul is no doubt saying something like that, but the narrative context established in 1 Corinthians as a whole sets the argument in a very different light.

 

  1. The “saints” in Corinth are waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7-8). You may not agree with me that this language points to a historical “day” of vindication for the faithful community following persecution, but the apocalyptic framework to the “salvation” of these people has to be taken into consideration.
  2. The parallel between “those who are perishing (apollumenois)” and “us who are being saved” in 1:18 brings into view a larger narrative than the story of personal salvation that Mounce describes. The quotation of Isaiah 29:14 in verse 19 underlines this: God will “destroy (apolō) the wisdom of the wise” who cannot save the inhabitants of Jerusalem from destruction. Jesus’ story of the two roads is not a metaphor for personal salvation but speaks of the many in Israel who are on a road leading inexorably towards national destruction (apōleian) and the few in Israel who will find the difficult way leading to life.
  3. The reference in 2:6 to the “rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” points to a historical frame. “Age” does not refer to the whole of human history but to a particular period—in this case, I think, the period of the direct subjection of the people of God to pagan empire.
  4. When the Old Testament speaks of a coming “day” of judgment, it is always a historical event that is in view—judgment on Israel, judgment on Babylon, etc. So when Paul speaks of a “day” that will test the character of the Christian communities by fire (3:12-15), I suggest that he has in mind coming persecutions that the churches will survive only if they have been built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and from durable materials (this is the apostles’ responsibility). The passage makes “salvation” on a day of judgment a corporate matter—and the survival of a community is necessarily a historical circumstance.
  5. Paul voices very clear concerns in chapter 7 about an impending time of “distress”—of massive social conflict and change—that will put the community under great strain. Much of his teaching here and elsewhere in the Letter is geared towards ensuring that as a community they will hold fast to the gospel, that they will stand firm in the face of affliction, so that when the day of “salvation” and vindication comes they will be found guiltless before the judgment seat of Christ.
  6. The “gospel” which Paul preached to the Corinthians is not a gospel of personal salvation. It is an announcement about what God has done for his people by raising Jesus from the dead, making him king over renewed Israel and judge of the pagan oikoumenē (cf. Rom. 1:3-4; Acts 17:31).
  7. Finally, I would suggest that Paul’s argument about the inheritance of the kingdom of God (15:50) presupposes a narrative found widely in the New Testament about the victory of the faithful community over extreme pagan imperial aggression.

This has been a hurried and messy highlighting of a number of passages in 1 Corinthians that locate Paul’s statement about salvation in 15:2 in an apocalyptically conceived story about the future of the Corinthian community. It is the Corinthian church, as a fragment of the wider people of God in the pagan world, that faces the dangerous and frightening circumstances of a period of what is biblical termed the “wrath” of God—tumultuous historical events through which the God of Israel will demonstrate his sovereignty and “justify” himself in the ancient world. Individuals find their own “salvation” in the context of this apocalyptic narrative—including the hope of resurrection for those who directly participate in the story of Jesus’ suffering and death (cf. 15:20-21). But the progressive translation points to the fact that this all has to be worked out over time in the context of the experience of the community.

So Paul may be saying that “my salvation is an ongoing process culminating in glorification” (italics added), but he is also saying a lot more than that—and a lot prior to that—which modern (pastorally and evangelistically motivated) constructions simply fail to assimilate.

Submitted by Paul D. on  Tue, 01/11/2011 - 15:54

Thanks, this is incredibly insightful. I find without understanding the context that you've described, Christians arrive at somewhat shallow and contradictory notions of salvation.

Submitted by Rob on  Tue, 01/11/2011 - 23:48

Andrew - Bill lives here in Spokane.  Don't know him except by acquaintance.  Seems like a pretty cool guy and very bright.