From eschatological demarcation to doxastic soteriology

Sorry about all the $2 words in the title. Even if that didn’t make sense, I hope the rest of the post still does.

The End Is NearA couple years ago I wrote a post titled “Reconciling the Crucified Messiah“, where I summarized a naturalist perspective on the origin and ascent of a religious sect that was centered around a crucified leader; which is admittedly a bizarre turn of events. That post briefly discussed the development of Christian atonement theology as a consequence of the crucifixion and how that reconciliation was critical to transforming a seemingly insurmountable setback into a hallmark of the faith. But this new atonement theology did not entail that the salvation afforded by the atonement is only available to those who believe, and so here I would like to consider another curious yet synergistic development of the Christian movement: the introduction of doxastic soteriology (doxastic = “related to belief” and soteriology = “doctrine of salvation”, so a doxastic soteriology is a doctrine in which salvation is in some sense dependent on belief). I propose that this was largely driven by eschatological concerns (i.e., related to the end of the world \ final judgment).

Despite my Christian bubble having been popped almost four years ago, it only recently occurred to me that belief in Jesus (as messiah, lord, savior, etc…) might not have been viewed as a requirement for salvation in the earliest days of the movement. A doxastic soteriology certainly doesn’t appear to have been part of the mainstream Judaism to which Christianity owes its roots and, from a naturalistic perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus himself taught that people had to believe in him to be saved, despite what the Gospel of John portrays.

So what happened?

There are several points of contact which show that the Nazarenes (early Christians) shared some influences with the Qumran community (whether directly or indirectly). Among these is an eschatological perspective in which the demarcation between the elect and the damned fell not along ethnic boundaries, as was implied by traditional Judaic eschatology, but rather around ideological boundaries. To the Qumran community, the elect were those who aligned themselves with the community lifestyle and ideology. It appears that this perspective was in part driven by a perception of religio-political corruption (e.g., the “wicked priest”) and the wish to exclude undesirable religious figures from Yahweh’s kingdom – a theme that is mirrored by the gospel narratives and was quite possibly an element of Jesus’ teaching. A similar shift was also occurring throughout greater Judaism in the second temple period. Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews had been trying to figure out how to deal with the diaspora and cultural intermingling. The rise of decentralized worship in synagogues and the need to accommodate cross-cultural relationships spurred a decline in the traditional ethnocentric eschatology that the earlier prophets sought as they lamented the conquests of Israel. As a whole, the Judaic quest for future justice was gradually transitioning from an ethnic foundation toward ideological foundations.

Combining this with the widely accepted understanding of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, we can imagine that Jesus and his followers considered themselves to be bearers of the gospel, where the good news was not that Jesus was going to die for your sins, but rather that the end of days was imminent – perhaps even facilitated by Jesus’ prophetic ministry – and that you too could be part of the eternal kingdom if you repent and adopt the lifestyle and ideology of their sect. This message may have even neglected ethnic boundaries. From this we can see that the seeds of a doxastic soteriology were present in Jesus’ message, but were only germinating. After the crucifixion, more changes came into play.

crackFirst, we have the Nazarenes continuing to proclaim their eschatological message despite their messiah having been killed and, furthermore, cursed by Yahweh as a consequence of having been hung and left exposed on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Though the Nazarenes appear to have wanted to remain Torah observant, their message became increasingly disagreeable and divisive as they continued to exercise midrashic liberty in defense of Jesus as messiah. As a result, the gulf between their sect and mainstream Judaism grew and they were, as a whole, steadily pushed and pulled away from participation in Jewish communities.

Then, as we consider the growing chasm between the Nazarene sect and mainstream Judaism we can turn back to the Qumran example to see what happens – namely, an eschatological evolution in which the opposing party is excluded from salvation (that is, participation in the eternal kingdom). As a close relative of Judaism, the early Christians had very few distinctions that could be used to draw that eschatological line in the sand. However, above all else, there was one thing that separated them from mainstream Judaism: belief that Jesus was the messiah. And so Christianity’s doxastic soteriology was born. As that chasm continued to grow so also did the prominence of belief as a central dogma of the Christian soteriology, reinforced by the synergistic coupling of a new atonement theology that was dependent on the object of that belief and independent of the temple sacrifices. Going one step further, the adoption of this eschatologically motivated doxastic soteriology also served to emphasize the significance of Jesus and so was perhaps instrumental in his eventual elevation as coequal with God.


12 thoughts on “From eschatological demarcation to doxastic soteriology

  1. well said!

    several things come together from various ends to suggest things about belief, from history and philosophy and psychology to scripture, culture, and language.

    1) pistis is faith.
    2) pistis not belief (episteme).
    3) no one can choose what to believe; what is believed is always what one thinks the case is.
    4) all exceptions to 3 are when the case admittedly cannot be known and choice is of the “benefit of the doubt” variety and chosen because we must, given that
    5) belief is action, an attitudinal disposition toward some state of affairs.
    6) there can be no evidence for deity, only abductive inferences about the world.
    7) logic doesn’t entail truth and its predicate, from premise to conclusion, is reasonableness.
    8) sound arguments for or against god are easy to make and are accepted outside of logical arguments.
    9) god-talk cannot be about god since we have no frame of reference to conceive of god but the reality he transcends; all such talk is speculation and projection.
    10) there is no moral compulsion in christian life exclusive to the christian that the rest of humanity lacks or disavows.
    11) belief (episteme) cannot be a requirement of atonement or any soteriology.
    12) belief (basic, persuasion, disposition) is a gift from god; this is pistis but it is not about beliefs at all related to god in terms of soteriology.
    13) belief, pistis, is requirement for both atonement and salvation.

    explained, it is god’s active presence in the world (grace) that draws all humanity to himself; which is to say that god is the good, goodness. that draw is from our likeness to god and resonance to it and with it is the position to act toward it (pistis). it’s not a matter of faith versus works. there’s nothing to believe in this sense and nothing to do.

    because of grace and because of faith, both of and from god to all humanity, we choose to act and we act freely. when we act toward the good we are transformed by the experience of enjoining it, and less so when we do not and by varying degrees. atonement need no other sense to it than this, and indeed scripturally, there is no other statement about atonement that accounts for the point of existence, of choice, why judgement exists and why love stands as “that other tree” in the garden, and especially the idea that god is love and just.

    soteriology is left then, and to combine john’s gospel with abelard: jesus is the logos, hodos, alethea, and zoe. in plain english, jesus is the way (hodos) god intended (logos) all humanity to be in the world (zoe), and jesus is the truth (alethea) of what humanity is.

    it seems that whether or not one even knows of jesus the nazarene or even has god in his mind at all, out even disbelieves there are deity or even denies deity exist, he may indeed be atoned and have salvation even still. to deny this is to suggest that god is not the good or that goodness is apart from god, it’s to deny that the goodness we find in all people is not the result of god’s active presence in the world and, likewise to deny their actions toward the good are not a response to faith, a product of god’s grace, both gifts to all. to deny this is to deny the holy spirit too, which is the only sense in which god can be blasphemed; denying god is the good buy to see the good in other’s behaviors is to deny the work of the holy spirit in their lives; not whether or not some particularity claimed about god is propositionally rejected as false.

    • If there is a God then I hope it is something like you describe, even if I doubt that it is the same conception of God that was held by the early Christians.

  2. Hi Travis, I don’t think I have any comment on your main point, but it may be worth noting that it seems to be fairly established among first century historians now that Jesus began to be worshiped very soon after his death and alleged resurrection. Exactly what that implies about their belief about Jesus is much argued over, but the fact (if it is a fact) must surely be taken into account by any hypothesis about early christian origins. If it implies belief in Jesus’ divinity (which seems logical to me and to many scholars, though not to all) then that may be a factor for your discussion to consider.

    • Hi Eric,
      I did have that in mind and it inspired the last line of the post. The proposed development, if correct, might have happened pretty quickly if Acts and Paul’s witness are even moderately representative of the relationship between mainstream Judaism and the early Christians. So I suggest that the rise of Jesus worship could have been aided by this development – where salvation required more than just a commitment to Yahweh through Torah observance but also required faith in Jesus. This grants him a sort of salvific power that raises the bar well above the traditional messianic job description.

      • Yeah, you did too, I didn’t pick up the significance of that first time through. Perhaps it went both ways – the rise of Jesus worship could have been aided, and aided in return, the idea of the necessity of faith. Sorry I missed that before.

  3. Thanks for another illuminating post.

    F.F. Bruce in his commentary on the Gospel of John, notes in respect of John 9:22-23:

    “It is commonly suggested today that John, writing toward the end of the nineties, was influenced by a decision that had been taken by the reconstituted Sanhedrin a few years before. The Sanhedrin reconstituted with Roman permission in the period after AD 70 consisted exclusively of doctors of the law. One of these, Samuel the Less, reworded one of the blessings recited daily in the synagogues so as to make it impossible for ‘Nazarenes’ (Jewish Christians) to take part in synagogue worship. This blessing, which traditionally included a curse on the enemies of God (‘let all wickedness perish in a moment’), was revised so that the curse ran: ‘let Nazarenes and heretics perish as in a moment; let them be blotted out of the book of life and not be enrolled with righteousness.’ The revision was approved by the Sanhedrin and adopted in synagogues, so that Nazarenes, being forced to keep silent when the words were recited by the congregation, would give themselves away.”

    • Thanks Peter. I had somehow gotten it into my head that the curse was a much later addition, but it seems likely that this was instituted somewhere between 80 – 100 CE under Gamaliel II. See this article by Dr. Schiffman for a great review of the history of that curse. These types of details are really helpful at illuminating the authorial perspective. I was also drawn to the last paragraph of Schiffman’s article, where he made it a point to note that even though mainstream Judaism drew lines against the notzrim and minim, it was still an ethnocentric religion.

  4. Hi guys, thanks for that. You guys are obviously better read than I am on this, so reading this info by Bruce & Schiffman was very interesting and explanatory.

  5. Hi Travis

    You say:

    “A doxastic soteriology certainly doesn’t appear to have been part of the mainstream Judaism to which Christianity owes its roots and, from a naturalistic perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus himself taught that people had to believe in him to be saved, despite what the Gospel of John portrays.”

    It seems all of our earliest sources – I.e., the bible do indeed show this. We see this with beatitudes, and obviously with paul as well as the story of the good samaritan. etc. In all of these cases Christianity is teaching that being on God’s good side is not just due to race or the types of ceremony but the good that your believe and do.

    What sources can you draw from to draw the conclusion that it seems Jesus thought our beliefs were not relevant but rather being a certain race or conducting certain Jewish ceremonies was important?

    • Joe,
      I think you misunderstood – I was referring specifically to the belief in Jesus as messiah, not belief in a particular ideology. In the post I agree that Jesus probably didn’t adhere to the strictly ethnic ritualistic soteriology that is reflected by the Old Testament. However, the claim that salvation comes through belief in a particular figure as the messiah is, as far as I know, completely unprecedented in pre-Christian Judaism. That’s the innovation being discussed here.

What do you think?

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