The search for salvation

Written by David F. Wells Reviewed By Michael Burgess

David F. Wells, who lectures at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the USA, presents a selective survey of contemporary theological thought relative to soteriological issues. Four facets of soteriology are treated, i.e., the purpose, nature, appropriation, and results of Christ’s work. Wells represents the Evangelical viewpoint.

In his treatment of these concerns, the author first interacts with Conservative treatments of the subject. Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are given special consideration. Wells holds that in the New Testament, one discerns a theological completion or explication of the Old Testament. Theological Conservatism views salvation as both a past event (generally a combination of classical and penal motives), and present event—thus the Weslyan vs. Reformed debate over sanctification. Wells feels the gap between these two positions can be lessened. The future dimension of salvation concerns not only eschatological issues, but also the eternal-security debate. The cultural contexts of the Christian faith are discussed, with differences between the British and American approaches being duly noted. At this point, Wells posits his understanding of the task of theology. A proper understanding of culture and context must be related to timeless biblical truth. Wells concludes that while theologies can change, doctrines remain inviolable.

Second, Wells considers Neo-orthodoxy’s interpretation of salvation. Under Barth, Neo-orthodoxy dichotomized—the one school being represented in Barth, Brunner, Nygren, and Aulen, the other, represented by Tillich, Bultmann and the Niebuhrs. The issue of ‘divine-initiative’ is discussed, wherein Wells considers, amongst others, Barth’s christomonism and Brunner’s peculiar view of the imago-Dei. Christ’s place in the atonement, as posited by Aulen, Barth and Brunner, with their preferred motifs, is treated, as is Neo-orthodoxy’s push for reformulation of traditional themes. Wells feels that while Neo-orthodoxy has awakened sleeping Conservatism, themes such as Aulen’s Christus Victor violate Scriptural truth. Logically, universalism increases in popularity.

Wells thirdly interacts with the existential theologies of Tillich and company. Barth’s objectivism in salvation is countered by the subjectivism of the Tillichian school. ‘Authentic-experience’ becomes the existential goal of theology. Bultmann’s and Tillich’s non-conservative critical view of Scripture is considered. Concerning salvation, Bultmann wants to contemporise soteriological aspects in an existential direction, and Tillich works his symbolizing process in accordance with the ‘ground-of being’ notion. Wells indicates how these thinkers similarly misappropriate Scripture and develop incongruent systems.

Fourthly, Wells considers modern Secularism, which involves an evolutionistic, anti-metaphysical approach. Religious optimism and humanism serve as vehicles for Secularism’s intrusion into theology. Bonhoeffer’s secular maturity notion is discussed, as are the views of Cox, Robinson, and Altizer on the supernatural, Christ and salvation. The transcendent God has vanished, Christ’s deity is denied, and salvation becomes secularization, ‘ultimate-concern’, or denial of transcendent notions.

Fifthly, Liberation theology’s interpretation of salvation is analyzed. Universalistically oriented groups have outlined strategies wherein salvation becomes economic and social improvement, and political liberation (or common destiny a la Moltmann). Wells focuses on Latin America, considering thinkers such as Gutierrez and Segundo. Segundo offers his four stage theologizing technique, apparently seeing it paralleled in Cone. The emphasis is upon a theology of ‘praxis’, wherein theological and interpretative premises can be formulated on the basis of one’s culture and experience. Wells rightly criticizes Liberation theology for ideologically subjugating Scripture—rather than allowing Scripture to subjugate ideology.

Sixthly, Catholicism is considered (cf. the Author’s earlier book, Revolution in Rome). Modern Catholicism has retained the nature-grace dichotomy, but has reinterpreted this in terms of grace being immanentalistically universal, rather than to its being supernaturally disclosed. On this basis, Rahner posits the ‘supernatural existential’, which becomes a precursor to universalism. Salvation is for all—within or without the institutional Catholic church, with or without atomistic awareness of it. Wells discusses Küng’s contribution, showing how in actuality, Küng denies Protestant notions. The above, along with the re-emphasis of divine initiative, seems to have followed the tradition of Schleiermacher.

In conclusion, Wells draws a three-fold summary of the leading issues, namely: is God immanent or transcendent is salvation subjective or objective, and is it personal or corporate? This reviewer feels that Wells has ably and neatly encapsulated relevant issues and various positions, and has offered a sound conservative critique. Wells has successfully produced a work which will competently assist the theological student or Christian worker to wend his way through the contemporary academic ‘melting-pot’ with reference to soteriological issues.

Michael Burgess

Africa Evangelical Fellowship