Essay / Theology

Saved by Word and Spirit: Bloesch on Salvation

Here’s a link to an article I recently published on the doctrine of salvation in the theology of Donald Bloesch: Saved by Word and Spirit: The Shape of Soteriology in Donald Bloesch’s Christian Foundations, in Midwestern Journal of Theology, Spring 2014 (13.1), 81-96.

Bloesch’s  system of theology, Christian Foundations, doesn’t actually have a separate volume on salvation: the seven volumes are on method, scripture, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, and eschatology. Nevertheless, salvation is central for this evangelical theologian. To pull together his soteriology, you have to read several chapters from the book on Jesus and several chapters from the book on the Spirit. As I say in the article,

This in itself is highly significant: in order to study Donald Bloesch’s soteriology, you have to spend time in both his Christology and his pneumatology, because salvation, for Bloesch, is equally located in Word and Spirit. That salutary dispersion of the doctrine across two more fundamental loci pretty much says it all about Bloesch’s soteriology…

–because Bloesch’s entire system is “A Theology of Word and Spirit,” as the programmatic first volume is entitled.

Click through for a pdf of the full article from the Midwestern Journal, if you’re interested in coming to terms with one of the most important evangelical theologians of the past century, or at least seeing what I learned form him. And if you’re only a little bit interested, here are a couple of key paragraphs from the article.

On how soteriology affects an entire doctrinal system:

Every fully-elaborated Christian theology finds its coherence and the key to its articulation in a vision of salvation. That vision of salvation is the secret center to which the theologian recurs and refers in locus after locus of the entire range of doctrine. When you become a good student of a theological writer, you begin to develop a sense of what he’s about, how he makes decisions, and how he can be expected to proceed into the territory ahead. There’s no better indicator of the particular contours of a theological project than the soteriology expressed in it and presupposed throughout it. In literature, a good character has been described as a personality so well portrayed that you have ideas in advance of how that person will behave in new circumstances. This need not be deterministically predictive, except in bad novels. But it does provide insight into the character, the kind of insight that gives the reader confidence that he is coming to know the character’s personality. The personality of a theological character shows through most clearly in his soteriology.

On the role of the theologian’s experience for theology itself:

Theologians must experience salvation, hear God’s word, and reflect on it: “Unless it has a perduring experiential ingredient, theoretical theology becomes unnervingly abstract and speculative…the theological task can be carried out only by believers and that the only right theology is a theology done by regenerate persons (theologia regenitorum)” But it is not their own experience or their Christian consciousness that they reflect on. Adamantly, Bloesch insists that it is the transcendent word of God, above our experience and producing our experience, which is the subject of theology.

On Bloesch’s handling of the objective-subjective tension in theology:

This is what I take to be Bloesch’s great contribution to evangelical theology: he has tried to combine the subjective, lived reality of experienced salvation with the objective, revealed, mind-informing, concept-generating self-revelation of God. He has been at work on a project that bedeviled the Pietists, Schleiermacher the archetypal modern liberal theologian, and Barth. His recommended way forward is to focus our attention on the gospel itself rather than on our experience of salvation, to start with the almighty living Word of God rather than the collection of texts that bear witness to him.

And on several historical examples of theology shaped by the doctrine of salvation:

Can the articulation of an entire theology be deducible from a vision of salvation? I believe it both can and should be. But there are right ways and wrong ways to proceed here. Bloesch is an advocate for the right way, taking up a basically Pietist concern to center our knowledge about God on that knowledge of God which is our salvation.

There is a very ancient tradition of framing theological arguments according to soteriological vision: even classical conciliar Christology was hammered out with the tools of soteriology. Athanasius knew that Christians had been saved with a salvation only God could have accomplished, and concluded that the savior Jesus Christ must therefore be of one essence with the Father who sent him. This soteriological insight led the Nicene theologians through the Scriptures and gave them advance notice of what testimony to expect from the Scriptures. A generation later, Gregory of Nazianzus argued that however God might have considered saving us, what he actually did was to assume human nature into hypostatic union with the Son of God, healing what he took on. Therefore what is not assumed is not healed, therefore everything essential to human nature was assumed, therefore Jesus Christ is fully human. This must be true, or it would follow that God has not saved us, and he has.

These classic theological arguments are soteriological visions which generate theological conclusions, and examples could be multiplied. Schleiermacher represents a paradigmatic modern misuse of the classic method. Bloesch, for his part, intends to stand not in that modern line but in the classic one. The difference between classic soteriological theologizing and the kind of faith-subjectivism generated by 19th century Bewusstseintheologie is the extent to which a vision of salvation is normed and formed by the actual content of God’s work in Christ. The difference between a bad Pietist and a good Pietist is that good Pietists take their religion to heart, recognizing that salvation is something deeper and greater than new ideas, new codes of conduct, or new feelings. Bad Pietists are locked up inside their own consciousness and cannot hear a word from the Lord.

Bloesch has staked his system on the paradox of Christian salvation, of evangelical Protestantism’s proclamation of free grace that puts us on the highway to holiness. And he has done so with a keen eye on the danger of lapsing into subjectivism, non-cognitive approaches to truth, or denigration of the Scriptures into a dead letter. Under the banner of salvation by Word and Spirit, Bloesch has been fighting all these years to expound the experience of the Gospel, rather than the gospel of experience, which is not good news at all.


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