Washed in the Blood? A Search for Relevant Symbols of Salvation
by Peyton L. Palmore III
Peyton Lee Palmore III was a fourth generational missionary to the United Church of Christ in Japan for over twenty years. He has done graduate work at Yale Divinity School,, Union Theological Seminary, and McCormick School of Theology in Chicago. He presently enjoys being self employed as a home repairman and lives with his wife in Arlington, Va. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 23-30, 1997, pp. 408-412. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Have you ever found yourself in difficulty when you tried to explain to someone why being "washed in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14 ) should make one "whiter than snow" as that old gospel hymn puts it? A Japanese church member once complained to me that not only was the concept confusing, but that all this talk about blood was repugnant to the Japanese mind. Even for one who has been brought up "in the faith" a bit of reflection makes one admit that the shades of difference between propitiation and expiation or between redemption and ransom are rather vague in one's mind. In fact, most of these symbols of salvation, growing out of a different time in history seem rather distant or even irrelevant to us today.
This has bothered me through the years because when we try to communicate the experience of salvation we can only use analogies, symbols and poetic images. Unfortunately, most of the traditional ones come from another era, another culture, a time a place and a context which seem only distantly related to us in these modern days whether we have been brought up in the West or the East. How can we find more relevant ways to communicate the Gospel?
Perhaps the best way to start is to look at the symbols of salvation used in the Bible. I have noted many of them and tried to categorize them under various themes and patterns in the following chart. You will note the Dramatic Stories are like little vignettes with fairly clear plots. The Metaphorical Statements are shorter word pictures, and the Direct Sayings are simple statements of witness to the experience of being saved by God through Jesus Christ.
There is talk about a slain lamb, freed slaves, a high priest offering himself as a sacrifice on the altar, the canceling of a bond and nailing it to a cross in public, - - all of this and more can seem quite bizarre today. And yet these are obviously the efforts of people who have found themselves so caught up in a "happening" that they have searched all areas of their personal experience and their religious and cultural background to find ways to somehow communicate this great event in their lives to others.
Look at the following chart and then we can analyze it further:
SOME SOTERIOLOGICAL SYMBOLS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Peyton L Palmore, III, February, 1999
I. DRAMATIC STORIES
II. METAPHORICAL STATEMENTS
III. DIRECT SAYINGS
THE THEOLOGY OF SOTERIOLOGY
As people wrestled with these stories and symbols down through the years, key theological terms have developed to describe the different concepts. These terms are not ordinarily used these days but they can be helpful to clarify our own thinking.
Propitiation puts the emphasis on what happens to God. It is based on the Old Testament concept that a sacrifice must be made to appease the anger of God before we can approach Him. In Hebrews 2:17 and 4:14-16 the Jewish cultus of the temple is brought to mind and Christ is seen as the supreme sacrifice which assuages God's anger and enables us to come before Him.
Expiation puts the focus on what happens with us in a legal context. As sinners, we have violated God's law and must pay a penalty before we can come before Him. The many passages listed under I-2 in the chart show that this is one of the most used soteriological symbols in the scriptures. Christ has been punished instead of us, an atonement has been made, a reconciliation with God has been achieved for us and we can once more come before Him.
Ransom and Redemption describes the process by which we have been saved within the context of the slave system so prevalent for so long in most societies. A price has been paid on our behalf and we have been freed from our bonds of slavery and can now walk as new men. (see Chart I, 3-4)
Reconciliation is best illustrated by the poignant story of the returning Prodigal Son. (see Chart I, 7 and Chart III, 3)
SOTERIOLOGICAL SYMBOLS FOR TODAY
Each of us within our own personal context find a language to express our relationship with God in existential terms. This may involve the creation of new words and phrases such as Paul Tillich who originated and popularized the term for God as "The Ground of Our Being" in this ever shifting and unstable life in which we find ourselves. But even this is rooted in the many Old Testament references to God as being the rock of our salvation and evokes memories of the words in that old Gospel hymn: "On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand..."
At-One-Ment: For myself, a reinterpretation of the term "atonement" has come to be the most helpful metaphor. Although it originated from the context of the Jewish Temple Cultus (see Chart I, 1 above) the term can also be used as a symbol for the story of the Prodigal Son if it is broken up into its constituent parts: At-One-Ment: the state of being at one with the father. Many of us find ourselves estranged from others or the society around us, drifting rootlessly through life. But through the recognition that God is the Lord of all life who awaits my return to this "ground of my being" and who relates me in a reconciling way to the world around me, I am made whole again. I feel "at one" with myself and with the world.
Thus, although some of these old soteriological symbols can seem confusing, it can be helpful to look at them once more with an eye to finding more relevant metaphors for ourselves and for communicating the Good News to others today.
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