Friday, April 18, 2014

A Replacement Hermeneutic & An Individualist Soteriology: Parts I & II

Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land 

The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” This article is a contribution to the project's literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the third of three articles (see the first and second) written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

by Isaiah Boronka

In the Literature Review two biblical/theological themes surfaced in an attempt to explain the bifurcation of faith and justice, especially in contemporary North American evangelicalism. These two themes are:
  1. An individualist soteriology 
  2. A replacement hermeneutic for the Old Testament 
The first theme, an individualist soteriology, suggests a view of salvation where the focus is on the individual and their relationship (often construed as legal - condemned or acquitted) with God. Here Jesus dies and rises again to save individuals as individuals from the consequences of sin. This kind of soteriology makes all sorts of social issues - stretching from church community, neighbourhood, civil society or the international community - not only secondary but incidental or even accidental.

It could be pictured like this:

In this view human community and the relationships therein are not intrinsic or essential to the gospel. Because of this, concerns about social justice, even when taken seriously, are always then treated as less important or as a peripheral issue precisely because of the way we think about the nature of the gospel.

The second theme, a replacement hermeneutic for the Old Testament, concerns how the relationship between Old and New Testaments is talked about. This hermeneutic suggests that the New Testament’s ‘Spiritual Message’ (salvation from slavery to sin, by grace apart from works) replaces the Old Testament’s ‘Social Message’ (salvation from actual slavery, exodus from egypt, jubilee and sabbath year, prophets).

It could be pictured like this:

Thus a replacement hermeneutic furthers a bifurcation between faith and justice by suggesting that the New Testament message of salvation is opposed to and replaces the Old Testament concerns for social justice (which are central to its presentation of YHWH as saviour and deliverer).

By its very structure the replacement hermeneutic also furthers an individualist soteriology, for, when a social message is exchanged for a spiritual message, then individual salvation replaces social salvation. This kind of connection may not be spelled out systematically or in detail but it is implied.

Replacing Replacement: A Different Hermeneutic for A Different Soteriology

Christopher Wright, in his book The Mission of God, deals extensively with this replacement hermeneutic. The exodus is key to his discussion. That event was “actual deliverance out of real, earthy injustice, oppression and violence” (Wright, pg. 276). Unfortunately Christians often play loose with this reality and instead use the story typologically - Israel’s freedom from actual slavery foreshadows our freedom from spiritual slavery, as if this exhausted its meaning.

We need to affirm what this foreshadowing affirms - the importance of freedom from sin offered through Christ. Yet we must omit what it omits when it disregards “the actual deliverance out of real, earthy injustice, oppression and violence.”

Wright powerfully negates this use of typology. He argues “it is not that the New Testament exchanges a social message for a spiritual one but that it extends the Old Testament teaching to the deepest understanding of and the most radical and final answer to the spiritual dimension of our human predicament” (pg. 279). This freedom from the slavery to sin becomes the root of freedom from actual slavery, and spiritual wholeness becomes the foundation for social wholeness.

This does not mean that social wholeness and social liberation are only incidental, by no means. They are still integral but integral in an odd and peculiar way, one not easily grasped by imaginations dominated by the binary opposition between the spiritual and the social, between faith and justice. We are so used to thinking of these things as separate, as different, that it might be difficult to hold social and spiritual concerns together.

Wright quotes Walter Brueggemann, who urges against choosing one side over the other, especially in our interpretation of the Bible: “Either side of such dualism distorts true human bondage and misreads Israel’s text” (pg 288). Thus human beings are oppressed - both by each other, unjust structures, and by sin and death.

This extension hermeneutic could also reframe an individualist soteriology that contributes to the bifurcation of faith and justice. If social concerns are recovered alongside a recovery of the Old Testament, so too a social dimension of the gospel can be recovered. All this could be pictured this way:

This understanding of salvation, based in part on a new appreciation for the Old Testament, only begins to answer questions. Despite this new integration, questions remain concerning how to frame this extension hermeneutic in a more theologically robust way, and how, realistically, to put it into practice.

Isaiah Boronka is doing an internship at the Centre for Community Based Research in Kitchener. He is a graduate of Emmanuel Bible College, lives in Waterloo, and is completing a Masters of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel, University of Waterloo.

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