How God Saves
A third fundamental strand of NT theology has to deal with human salvation. The presupposition of all religions is that humans need God, above all to save them from the dangers of natural calamity and human folly, of war and disaster, of disease and death. Here again the NT writers inherited a whole theological schema embodied in cultic ritual from their Jewish forebears. The starting-point was, as above, the divine initiative: God had chosen Israel to be his own people, and had instructed them in the ways of worship and sacrifice to express their gratitude and their repentance and as a means of atonement and forgiveness. All this forms a massive backdrop to NT theology, a huge taken-for-granted presupposition in determining key features and emphases in Christian soteriology (teaching on salvation), without which large tracts of NT teaching would be meaningless and metaphors would lose their power to evoke new insight. Apart from anything else, the temple in Jerusalem and its cult provide an extensive subtext running through the accounts of Jesus' mission and the writings of the first generation of Christianity and beyond, without which so much of the NT text cannot be adequately understood.
Over against all this, but also understood as the climax to it, stands one central feature of the NT and its theology: the death of Jesus. As Jesus is what made the NT necessary and provides the central, defining distinctive of NT theology, so it is the death of Jesus which marks the distinctive feature of the NT understanding of salvation. The cross of Jesus, Christ crucified, became the symbol for Christianity because from the first and throughout the NT the cross of Jesus is the key that unlocks the mystery of how God saves for the NT writers.
A standard definition of the Gospels is of ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’. That definition catches the character of the Gospels well. For however much they are interested in the pre-passion mission of Jesus, as of course they are, it is nevertheless the steady drive towards and mounting anticipation of Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion which provides the connecting thread and motivation for the whole: so, for example, in the early foreshadowings in Mark 2: 20; 3: 6, 19; and 6: 14–29, 41; prior to the turning-point of 8: 27–33 (‘the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected …’), from which time on the shadow of the cross becomes ever clearer. In Luke a similar effect is achieved by the prophecy of Simeon (‘a sign that will be opposed’), the final prophecy of the birth narratives (Luke 2: 35), and the long travel narrative which enfolds so much of Jesus' mission within the fateful last journey to Jerusalem (9: 51–19: 28). More effective is John's reference to the salvation climax of Jesus' mission by the several-stranded theme of ‘glorification’ and ‘being lifted up’ (most notably John 12: 23–33), and the steady drum beat of the approaching climax in his talk of his coming ‘hour’ (2: 4; 7: 30; 8: 20; 12: 23, 27; 13: 1; etc.).
Somewhat surprisingly, the sermons in Acts focus on the death of Jesus more as a foil to Jesus' vindication than as a saving act (Acts 2: 23–4; 3: 15; 4: 10; etc.), but there are echoes of Jesus seen as the suffering servant of Isa. 52: 13–53: 12 (Acts 3: 13, 26; 4: 27, 30), as well as the explicit exposition of Isa. 53 in 8: 32–5, and 20: 28 includes a powerful, if somewhat obscure reference to the church of God ‘obtained through the blood of his own’. The suffering servant of Isaiah 52–3 certainly had a powerfully explanatory force for the first Christian contemplation of the death of Jesus, as clearly evidenced in the NT—most notably in 1 Pet. 2: 22–5. And at the heart of the Revelation of John stands the lamb slaughtered to provide a ransom (Rev. 5: 6–12), and as such, the key which both unlocks and effects the saving purpose of God.
It is in Paul's letters that the centrality of the cross of Jesus to the new Christian gospel becomes most clear. We were enemies to God, but reconciled by the death of his Son (Rom. 5: 10). Despite its blatantly counter-intuitive and shocking character (that God has worked his saving purpose through an executed felon), Paul's preaching centres four-square on ‘Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1: 23–4). His urgent compulsion is motivated by the conviction that ‘one has died for all, therefore all have died’ (2 Cor. 5: 14). For Paul salvation is secured by becoming identified with Christ in his death (Rom. 6: 3–4; Phil. 3: 10), and he lives his life now by faith in the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him (Gal. 2: 20). God's purpose was ‘to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his [Christ's] cross’ (Col. 1: 20). The confession of Jewish monotheism is now supplemented by the confession of ‘one mediator between God and human beings, the human being Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Tim. 2: 5–6).
Within the variety of images used to describe the effectiveness of Jesus' death, the metaphor of cultic sacrifice stands at the centre. The Last Supper, foreshadowing Jesus' death, is understood as a passover meal, his blood ‘poured out for many’ (Mark 14: 24), the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (John 1: 29). One of the earliest Christian confessions is that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15: 3), where the sacrificial overtones are almost self-evident. Paul speaks of ‘the redemption which is in Christ Jesus' as an ‘expiation (hilastērion) in his blood’ (Rom. 3: 25), where the reference is to the ‘mercy seat’ within the Holy of Holies where the blood of the sin-offering was sprinkled on the day of atonement (Lev. 16). The theme of Jesus' death as the day of atonement sin-offering, taking away sin once and for all, dominates the Letter to the Hebrews (climaxing in Heb. 9: 23–10: 18).
One of the tantalizing features of NT theology at this point is the degree of ambiguity which remains in the attitude of the NT writers to the cult. Jesus is not explicitly recalled as denouncing the cult, though many assume that a super-sessionist inference should be drawn from the Last Supper and from the report that the curtain shutting off the Holy Place to all but priests, or the innermost Holy of Holies to any but the High Priest, was torn in two from top to bottom at the death of Jesus (Mark 15: 38). But Luke evidently had no qualms about reporting Peter and John going up to the Temple at the time of, and presumably to attend, the evening sacrifice (Acts 3: 1). And presumably Paul could only invoke the Day of Atonement as a means of understanding the efficaciousness of Christ's death if he had believed the Day of Atonement to be efficacious (Rom. 3: 25). It is Hebrews which puts the issue beyond doubt in its sustained argument that the old cult only foreshadowed the new, that the old sacrifices were inefficient (they had to be repeated), and that since Christ's sacrifice was effective for the forgiveness of sins, there was no further need of sacrifice (Heb. 9–10).
Here again the enterprise of NT theology has to take stock. Does it regard the author of Hebrews as the spokesperson for NT theology on this issue? Does it attempt to resolve the tensions between the variety of metaphors and attitudes by detecting a selective or eclectic consistency? How, for example, does an Abraham being justified by faith prior to and independent of the cult, or a prodigal son finding re-acceptance by the Father without the intervention of a Jesus figure, fit with a soteriology of redemption through sacrificial blood?
The potential anomalies stretch further. Christians soon seem to have turned their backs on the Jerusalem Temple; for the seer of Revelation there was no need for a temple in the heavenly Jerusalem, since the presence of God and of the Lamb made a temple unnecessary (Rev. 21: 22). And there is a consistent tendency in the NT to spiritualize the old insistence on ritual purity, necessary if one was to enter the Temple (e.g. Mark 7: 14–23; 1 Cor. 6: 11; Titus 2: 14; 1 Pet. 1: 22). But there is also a clear recognition that the priestly role of offering sacrifice has been transmuted into the obligations of the gospel (Rom. 12: 1; 15: 16; Phil. 2: 25), and that, given the immediate access to God now opened up, there is no further need for a special order of priesthood (Rom. 5: 2; 1 Pet. 2: 5; Rev. 5: 10; Heb. 9–10). And yet a trend began in the Apostolic Fathers to reclaim the structures of priesthood and sacrifice for Christianity, at just the time that rabbinic Judaism resolved the problem of the Temple's destruction by transferring the central religious role from the priest to the rabbi (teacher). Ironically, Judaism pursued the logic of the NT writers at this point more closely than did the direct heirs of the NT writers. Here, more than anywhere else, NT theology finds itself caught uncomfortably between an OT theology which it has left behind and a Christian theology which has left it behind.