Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Individualism and Soteriology

Robert Bellah states that “most Americans see religion as something individual, and prior to any organizational involvement.”[1] I think Bellah has understated the problem and I would extend this further to include salvation being prior to and outside any organizational involvement. Dennis Hollinger helpfully notes that “one of the hallmarks of Reformation theology is salvation by faith on the part of the individual.”[2] One is able to approach God, through personal faith in Jesus. These points are essential but Hollinger reminds us of the corporate nature of salvation. Individualism tends to reduce election to individuals rather than corporate body of Christ and its effects beyond.

If the individual is given priority in our hermeneutics it is no surprise then that the “us” or “we” of Paul’s letters in regards to the church are still conceived of as a collection of individuals. Miroslav Volf is right to point out that “several I’s together…do not yet constitute an ecclesial we.”[3] At one end, where salvation is made a personal matter between the individual and Jesus, there is a narrowing of interpretation of what the church is and is for. At the other end of the spectrum the church can be eliminated all together for lack of need because a personal decision about Christ has been made by the individual. While the original referent of “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus,” is the ark of the Catholic Church, I doubt that many American Evangelicals would even consider such a statement as it is an utter affront to their individualism. For the individual, salvation is through “personal faith in Jesus.” A radical individualist may well ask what do faith and Christ have to do with the Church? Such a question would seem to ignore Paul’s metaphor of Christ’s body: the church. Perhaps the subjective personal relationship with Jesus that Evangelicals champion can come only through a personal relationship with Christ’s body the church.[4]

Our individuating tendency separates us not only from fellow humanity but also from physical creation; salvation becomes mental or spiritual decision making only concerned with humanity. Yet Romans 8.22-23 suggest that creation too groans for rescue. This inward or privatizing tendency of individualism only fosters another plague upon Christianity: Gnosticism. Salvation does not bring about new relations for that would acknowledge or relegate persons as individuals prior to salvation. Rather, salvation transforms all existing relations with fellow humanity and creation.

[1] Bellah, 226.
[2] Dennis P. Hollinger, Individualism and Social Ethics: An Evangelical Syncretism (New York: University Press of America, 1983), 242.
[3] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 10.
[4] This raises a host of other questions about baptism and church membership that I will not go into here.