“The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”
When you see this passage, what does it make you think of?
For many of us raised in an evangelical household, “salvation” is a key word that means something along the lines of, “a spiritual conversion experience whereby you accept Jesus as Lord of your life and, in exchange, your sins are forgiven and you will not go to Hell when you die, but instead will receive the joys of Heaven that Jesus earned on your behalf.”
But the passage I quoted above is from Exodus 15:2. It is the song that the Israelites sing after crossing the sea and being delivered from the Egyptians. Salvation in Exodus 15:2 is neither a spiritual experience nor a conversion nor are Heaven nor Hell involved. It is a historically concrete deliverance from an actual oppressor.
In Judges 15:18, Samson refers to the “great salvation you have granted by the hand of your servant,” by which he means the event where he held a pass against a thousand Philistines by himself – Philistines who were rulers over Judah. In Deuteronomy 32:15, God is called the Rock of [Jeshrun’s] salvation, which does not mean that God provided a spiritual conversion experience for them, but rather led them out of the wilderness and protected them.
My point is this: the word “salvation” does not have a uniform referent in Scripture; it means whatever the context dictates. If we read every passage in the Bible that talks about “salvation” as describing a spiritual conversion experience that lets you go to Heaven when you die, we actually miss the meaning of a rather large amount of passages.
Well, perhaps the Old Testament is an earthly picture of spiritual realities. By the time we get to the New Testament, surely everywhere it talks about salvation, it means saying the prayer and accepting Jesus, right?
Well, in 1 Peter 1:3-12, Peter writes to people already converted about a salvation that is to be revealed in the future, when their faith results in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. He’s not saying that, in the future, they’ll accept Jesus into their hearts. He’s saying in the future, Jesus Christ will be revealed, and the faithful on that day will be saved as the outcome of their ongoing faith.
In Revelation 12:10, a loud voice in heaven proclaims that the salvation of God has come because Satan and his angels were cast out of heaven. There’s no conversion. There’s no accepting anyone as lord of anyone’s life. There’s the objective, transhuman event of Satan being defeated, and this is the “salvation of God.”
My point isn’t that “salvation” never means something individual or spiritual, my point is that if we begin with a concept of what salvation means in our heads and we take it to the Bible, we’re going to see our concept everywhere whether it’s what the passage means by it or not, and by doing so, we are simply going to see a reflection of our own brains rather than listen to what a passage is saying.
Let’s take another example – the Word of God.
Recently, I read an article (on addiction recovery, no less) that used Psalm 119 – which talks extensively about God’s Word, and also talks about salvation in verse 41 – as an exhortation to use the Bible to guide us in all of our decisions. The capstone verse is, of course, 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.”
However, it is impossible that Psalm 119 is referring to the Bible. None of the New Testament had been written, yet, nor was most of the Old Testament. No canons existed of any kind. If the psalmist was referring to a written scripture, then they are referring to the Law (which features heavily in Psalm 119), and if David wrote Psalm 119, he’s referring to the version of the Law that predated the existence of the Temple, so something a little more like Exodus and a little less like Deuteronomy.
So, the irony here is that the one thing Psalm 119 most likely means when it talks about God’s Word is the one part of the Bible that Christians no longer think is applicable.
Likewise, in Acts 19, mention is made twice of “the word of the Lord,” but it cannot mean the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist when Acts 19 was written. It appears that in both 19:10 and 19:20, the “word of the Lord” is the message that Paul is proclaiming about the kingdom having come with Jesus as king and the ramifications of that for the audience.
If I can tread a little bit into choppy waters, 2 Timothy 3:16 cannot mean the Bible. At best, it means the Old Testament, and that doesn’t even get us started into the assumptions we import into “inspired by God” or “useful for.”
Once again, my point is not to deconstruct evangelical notions of biblical authority (although I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at that), but my point is that we read these texts with pre-existing ideas in our head about what the text has to mean. We read it, we see the meaning we bring to it, and instead of the text communicating to us, it is instead confirming what we already thought to begin with.
I picked on two examples, but you can certainly come up with your own. Virtually any topic that has ever been a chapter heading in a systematic theology textbook is a prime candidate, not to mention our pet pseudo-theological categories like “the Antichrist” or “the Rapture.” We already have a theological understanding of these topics, so when we look at passages that mention them, we assume that they mean what we mean. The meaning we have in our heads is what we see in the text. In this way, the Bible becomes about our questions, our concerns, and our theological understanding. Without even consciously meaning to, we find ourselves going to the Bible – not to hear what it has to say, but to find new locations for what we already think we know.
Our theology is often our meta-narrative for making cohesive sense out of the Scriptures. However much we like to pretend that our theology is a product of the Scriptures, this is rarely the case. Our theological understanding usually precedes our reading of the Scriptures, even if that theological knowledge was obtained through cultural osmosis. I’ll bet most American non-Christians could recite for you key tenets of Christianity, whether those tenets actually came from any Scriptures or not.
This even colors our ability to critique theology against the Scripture, because even if we go to the Bible to see if a teaching is true, we already have the teaching in our heads. We are now looking in the Bible for the areas that, we believe, speak to the notion in our heads, and 9 times out of 10, if our bias is to confirm the idea, we’ll find it in the Bible, and if our bias is to reject the idea, we won’t, or at least we will relegate those passages to “less clear” texts in favor of the texts that contain our view, which are “clear texts” and thus to be given greater weight.
Some of my friends have heard me suggest (and have been greatly disturbed by it) that we should take the Bible out of circulation for a while, then bring it back when it has become an unknown book, again. I don’t really think we ought to do this, but it is the fact that we think we know what the Bible teaches that is often our obstacle to hearing it. If the Bible were some strange, ancient work we were all seeing for the first time without any preconceived ideas about its nature or authorship or content, would we ever get out of it our current evangelical commitments? Perhaps some, perhaps not others. I doubt any would go completely unchanged.
At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to ignore centuries of theology as if everything anyone has ever said was wrong. The church has, over time, tried to make sense of the Bible in her own day and age, and those efforts are worthy of respect and attention.
The history of theology brings us into a great cloud of witnesses – elders who have gone before us wrestling with the Scriptures and bringing their own voices into the testimony. But we also have to understand that all such activity is also a product of history and culture and debate, as is our current theological activity. There are no parts of our modern theological story that represent some unbroken line of pure teaching straight from the mouth of Jesus, and this has never been true in the history of theology, even with the people who heard Jesus directly. In fact, it is our belief that what we have in our heads does come straight from Jesus that impairs our ability to hear Jesus – we just assume he means what we mean.
Perhaps, as a thought experiment, we might assume that a passage in the Bible doesn’t mean anything like what we think. Perhaps, instead of assuming we have basically got everything straight and just need to fine tune our beliefs, we should allow God the freedom to oppose every belief we have. Maybe instead of looking at biblical teaching as a familiar landscape we like to hang out in, we should look at it as uncharted territory that has strange and beautiful features to yield that we overlook because we aren’t looking for them.
Maybe then, just maybe, we will quit telling the Bible what it says and what it has to be and what it has to do for us and let it tell us.