Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 10, 2000
Scholar explains salvation by Jesus
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Is Jesus salvific despite his death or because of his death?
Father John Calvin, an author and professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, pondered this question during a lecture on Jesus' death at Newman Theological College March 29.
His conclusion is that "the crucifixion is the decisive revelatory salvific event."
Calvin analyzed various theological positions on the crucifixion, including one that maintains Jesus' execution in apparently total abandonment called into question the validity of his preaching and his claim to speak on behalf of God, and led to the dispersal of his disciples - a state of affairs which was overcome only by his resurrection and its manifestation.
The alternative position, which refers to the traditions of the martyrdom of the prophets and the suffering of the righteous, notes the continued adherence of many to John the Baptist even after his execution and argues that Jesus' death did not imply the illegitimacy of his claims.
Calvin was the guest speaker at the annual Jordan Lecture Series at Newman March 28-29. Some 120 people attended each of his three lectures.
He said it is the task of Christology to articulate the significance of Jesus Christ in such a way that neither Jesus' historical particularity nor his universal significance is compromised.
He suggested there are four possible points of reference for locating more precisely Jesus' salvific significance: incarnation, public life, death and resurrection.
Salvation may be seen simply in the fact of the incarnation - the assumption of a human nature by the divine Logos, with immediate consequences for the whole of humanity.
Salvation may also be located in the words and deeds of the historical Jesus, teacher and model. Or it may be specified with regards to Jesus' death or it may be related to his resurrection, understood as Jesus' exaltation as Lord.
Separation of these points of reference in such a way that salvific value is attributed to some in isolation from others is "ultimately unattainable," said Calvin, because the four elements are too tightly intertwined.
"The simplest example is the observation that since Jesus' way of life led to the cross, either both are salvific or neither is," he said.
"I would suggest that interpreting the crucifixion solely as a negative factor is ultimately unacceptable, given the unity of Jesus' life and death."
Care must also be taken lest reflection on the resurrection lead to devaluation of Jesus' public life and death, and thus of earthly existence as well, Calvin said.
He stressed that a conception such as Karl Rahner's, which accentuates the unity of death and resurrection and insists that neither be evaluated separately, "is on very sure Christian soteriological ground."
"The implications of a given theology of the cross for the assessment of both Jesus' life and his resurrection from the death provide an important criterion for evaluating that theology's contribution to Christian life and thought," he said.
Also, in order to develop a theology of the cross, attention must be paid to the active dimension of Jesus' death, noted Calvin. He agrees with the International Theological Commission's statement: "A death that is merely passively tolerated would not be a 'Christological' event of salvation."
The specification of four possible reference points for locating Jesus' salvific significance (incarnation, public life, death and resurrection) and the interrelationship of these elements invite reflection on a unifying focal point for Christology, Calvin said
Somewhat apprehensive of the repercussions of other choices, he proposed that the unifying function might best be fulfilled by the cross.
"Inseparable from both Jesus' public life and his resurrection, the crucifixion is the decisive, if paradoxical, revelatory and salvific event - not only identifying, for the first time who and what Jesus is, but also prescribing a manner of life."