The context of salvation

Posted Jun 12, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Monica A. Coleman


Note: In the past month, the six New Media Research Fellows have been blogging about their newly posted theological essays. Look for the link to Monica’s essay below.

"How are we saved?"

At first glance, this seems like a simple question for Christians.

“Through Jesus.”

Right?

Well, generally....

How are we saved? From what? To what? And exactly how does Jesus do it? There are no universally agreed upon answers to these questions.

Each year for the last several years, I have taught an introductory theology class to students preparing for or engaged in ministry. As I teach the history of Christian beliefs, I inevitably come across the various creeds of the Western church tradition.

In the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Apostles Creed, orthodox councils laid out accepted beliefs about who God is, and, in a decent amount of detail, who Jesus is. These creeds describe belief in God, a Holy Spirit, a fully human and fully divine Jesus, and the importance of the church. Yet how and why salvation happens is noticeably absent.

As a theologian, this excites me. It suggests that our understandings of salvation have not always been and do not need to be uniform. After all, the Christian tradition has various names for salvation: redemption, reconciliation, atonement, wholeness (to name a few).

Likewise different Christian traditions emphasize different aspects of salvation. Medieval Catholics described salvation in the feudal and judicial terms of their time using words like “honor,” “lord,” “satisfaction,” and “substitution.” During the Protestant Reformation, the justification aspect of salvation was emphasized. That is, salvation is described in terms of what God does for us in Jesus. In Wesleyan and Holiness traditions, salvation was increasingly described as a process of sanctification. Pentecostal traditions often speak about “Spirit baptism” in conjunction with salvation. Ideas about salvation change in content and emphasis over time, place, and Christian tradition.

I can’t help but wonder if the digital age affects our understanding of salvation just as major religious, political, and economic shifts changed the language we used to describe this key Christian concept in the past.

  1. As executions of criminals no longer happen on a cross, is that still the most appropriate symbol to hang in the front of a church?
  2. If the primary way that Jesus saves us is through mediating God and humanity, does new media save us when it helps to mediate our relationship to the divine?
  3. Or is salvation about confessing particular statements about Jesus and no media—pigeon carrier, rickshaw, nor Internet—can change the content of Christian faith?
I explore these questions in my essay, “New media: A savior for a digital age.” I look at some major ways that Christianity has thought about salvation over the last two millennia and the ways that churches in the New Media Project case studies have engaged new media. Sometimes it seems that new media is doing some of the things that our theological ancestors have attributed to Jesus. Other times, I call us to be mindful and flexible in our language about our faith.

Every tradition, every era, and perhaps even every church will respond to this question differently: How are we saved?

Will we have to reflect back three hundred years from now before we are able to see how our context affects our understanding of salvation—like we do with other Christian soteriologies? Or can we think now about how new media may change how we answer?

Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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