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Synergistic Soteriology: Rereading the General Epistles in Asia

In the late 1960’s the Mennonite ethicist John H Yoder looked at the
The Biblical foundations of the Reformation doctrine “Salvation by
grace alone” found principally in Pauline literature are readily apparent
when those books are read from the standpoint of the 16th century Protestant
reformers who were reacting to abuses found in the Church of their time. The
contextual needs of those reformers caused them to overlook a message of
synergistic participation by human beings in salvation which can be found
when one reads the General Epistles (not the Pauline ones) with eyes open to
Asian realities.
This paper first lays hold of the method of re-reading the Gospel
According to Luke to discern a social ethic (proposed by John H. Yoder in
The Politics of Jesus). Yoder contended that the social ethic of Jesus was
neglected by “mainstream” Euro-American ethicists and theologians
because of cultural and theological presuppositions that prevented them from
seeing it. Proceeding from that method, the General Epistles are read to
discern a synergistic soteriology, and connections are made to Asian
religious traditions. The paper concludes with suggestions for further work.

Euro-American mainstream Christian world (Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran,

Roman Catholic and Non-radical Anabaptist) and concluded that things had

gone terribly wrong in the area of his specialty. He found the mainstream

lacked concern for the Mennonite traditions of social ethics, economic justice

and pacifism, often entirely contradicting that which had emerged from

Mennonite tradition and struggle. Yoder saw Jesus as a social critic, an

agitator, a drop out from the social climb and the spokesman of a

counterculture.1 He found these same characteristics among Mennonites, but

not in the mainstream. Analyzing the work of a group of scholars whom he

designated as “Biblical realists”2, he sought to apply their insights to

Christian ethics.

His approach was an interdisciplinary bridge between ethics and New

Testament studies, disrespectful of the boundaries and axioms of each

discipline.3 He pled necessity for such breaking of boundaries because the

“experts” themselves have not even attempted to make the connections.4

Accordingly, Yoder found Mainstream Christian ethicists to have

avoided using Jesus as a model of ethical behavior or of radical political

action visible in the New Testament. He credits their shyness to the

tremendous distances that have to be traveled to bring Jesus to bear on

contemporary social ethics. The first of these distances is between exegesis

John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) p. 5
Ibid. p. 5.
Ibid. p. 13.

and contemporary theology that must be bridged by hermeneutics. The

second is between theology and ethics which is bridged by secular sociology.5

Biblical scholars and interpreters, he says, usually develop vast systems of

crypto-systematics that people outside of their field cannot fathom. Ethicists,

consequently, go away from the Bible to find source material.6 Yoder

contended that Bible reading should not be restricted to experts or scholars.

In this mode, though not himself Biblical scholar, he sought to bring Jesus of

the gospels to the present.7

He first took case with mainstream ethics, where Jesus is not the norm

but is considered irrelevant for six reasons: 1) Jesus’ ethic was for the short

interim before his return. That interim has gone on for too long. 2) Jesus was

simple and rural, out of touch with modern urban life. 3) Jesus and his

followers had no control over the world, but we now have some of it. 4)

Jesus’ message was a-historical, symbolic, mythical, spiritual, and not

practical. 5) Jesus was so heavenly minded that his ethic has no earthly

practicality. 6) Jesus legacy was the sacraments or the soul identification, not

a plan for daily living.8

He makes further case against mainstream ethics for its foundation in

modern life, rather than on Jesus’ teaching, and therefore based on natural

Ibid. p. 14.
Ibid. P. 15
Ibid. pp. 16-19.

law, not on Jesus. The result, he contended, was that Jesus’ teaching is read

with eyes that cannot see his social ethic.9 The New Testament pattern for

social life is taken from the writings of St. Paul, which emphasize grace and

disregard works. This, according to Yoder, is a reinterpretation of Jesus to

make him more palatable to institutions, economics and patriarchy.10

Ethics, therefore, had become a science apart from Christianity. Any

“Christian ethic” had disappeared, and Jesus became irrelevant for both

ethics and humanity. Yoder’s aim was to understand and demonstrate Jesus’

relevance to social ethics, and apply this relevance in a manner to make it

normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic. To do this he re-read the

Gospel According to Luke to discern Jesus’ social ethic.11 He found this in

the concepts of Kingdom and Jubilee, proclaimed by Jesus in the synagogue

at Nazareth. He also demonstrated Jesus’ harmony with the Mennonite

pacifist ethic in Jesus’ trust that God to fight for him and resistance to any

naked expression of power that was available to him.

The Biblical foundations of the Reformation doctrine “Salvation by

grace alone” found principally in Pauline literature are readily apparent when

those books are read from the standpoint of the 16th century Protestant

reformers who were reacting to abuses found in the Church of their time. The

Ibid. p. 20.
Ibid. pp. 21-22.
Ibid. pp. 23-4.

contextual needs of those reformers caused them to overlook a message of

synergistic participation by human beings in salvation that can be found when

one reads the General Epistles (not the Pauline ones) with eyes open to Asian


Some Asian Religious Traditions

Though Buddhism takes many forms, for the sake of brevity only that

manifestation known as Pure Land Buddhism is chosen for discussion here.

Pure land is widespread around the world and has done a good job of

promoting and explaining itself both in the East and in the West.

Amitabha Buddha assists sentient beings on the path to liberation.

Amitabha does not "save" beings per se, but assists them while at the same

time not weakening them in the process. Beings who have established a

resonance with this Buddha are reborn into the Pure Land. Amitabha is not a

"savior" per se, nor is the Pure Land a "heaven" because the Pure Land is not

one's final destination. The Noble Eightfold Path assists us in this endeavor.

If the Path is followed diligently, one can eventually escape the conditioned

realm of cause-and-effect and become one with all things, transcending

samsara (the conditioned realm of existence) and ending its attendant

suffering for all time.12

12 Accessed 11 August 2008

In Hinduism a person realizes that he is not the body, but the immortal

soul (Adman) within. Hindu salvation, therefore, is self realization. The

identity of the soul is lost when it attains salvation. This is comparable to a

pinch of salt trying to find the bottom of the ocean. When a person seeks after

God according to Hinduism, he or she becomes One with God when

salvation is attained. In Hinduism an atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Moslem

can attain salvation irrespective of whether they read any Hindu scriptural


Shang-qing is a Taoist movement founded by Tao Hong-jing between

456 and 536. It is based on scriptures revealed between 364 and 370 which,

with later texts were adopted with later texts by southern Chinese aristocrats.

The movement’s doctrines are a synthesis of a southern Chinese native

ecstatic tradition, with late-Zhou and Han traditions of immortality seekers

and the religion of the Celestial Masters imported from North China. Its ideas

of salvation are based on a conception of the human being as: 1) a complex

individual needing unification of his/her spirits and animating elements; 2)

inextricably bound to the merits and sins of his/her ancestors regarding

salvation; and 3) needing to become one with the universe to be saved.

Salvation is a privately pursued immortality achieved through meditation. It

What is Salvation according to Hinduism?

Accessed 11 August 2008

aims toward a saved person’s dwelling dwell in emptiness, attainment of

supernatural powers and enjoyment of eternal youth through becoming divine

or unraveling the mortal knots that humans are born with.14

Rereading the General Epistles:

Pure Land Buddhism adjures its practitioners to diligently follow the

eightfold path in order to achieve salvation. Hinduism urges all who would be

saved towards self-realization by means of seeking to become one with God,

and Shang-qing Taoism to meditate one’s way to salvation alone. All three

require the believer or the “adept” to do something to contribute to his or her

own salvation. These three religious traditions are common in Asia, and their

understandings of salvation are part of the background culture with which

Christian evangelists and apologists must interact when seeking to speak a

gracious word on this continent.

Participation of the believer to his or her own salvation can be found in

the New Testament outside of the Pauline corpus. Excluding Pauline

literature from the paragraphs that follow is not intended to shorten the canon

(any more than Yoder’s reading of Luke was intended to exclude the other

three gospels). Neither is it intended to negate the doctrine of salvation by

grace alone. It takes up with the image of Jesus Christ as pioneer and

The Encyclopedia of Taoism
Accessed 11 August 2008

perfecter of our faith found in Hebrews 1:10 and 12:2. The author of

Hebrews implies that the faith of the Hebrew people was not erroneous, but

was imperfect and in need of what Jesus brought. The doctrine of salvation

by grace through faith is not wrong, but is incompletely “Biblical” without

the information that we find in the General Epistles.

Hebrews: 5 Modes of Participation

A Christian contributes to his or her salvation (enters God’s rest)

through a) obedience to the law of God (Hebrews 4:11), by b) bold approach

to the throne of grace “so that we may receive mercy and find grace”

(Hebrews 4:16), through c) diligent work “so as to realize the full assurance

of hope to the very end” (Hebrews 6:10-11), through d) endurance, which is

needed “so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what

was promised” (Hebrews 10:36) and through e) pursuing peace with

everyone and holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews


James: 3Uunderstandings of Salvation, and 11 participatory modes

The Epistle of James, a piece of paranetic literature filled with

instruction and advice notes that one is saved through the implantation of the

word that has the power to save one’s soul (James 1:21) and this word comes

into those who “rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of

wickedness.” Salvation which comes by faith is validated by one’s works

(James 2:13-26) because “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith

without works is also dead.” If salvation can be termed “exaltation by the

Lord”, then it is attained through a) submission to God, b) drawing near to

God, c) cleansing of hands and purifying of hearts, d) lamentation, e)

mourning and f) dejection. The fruit of such attitudes and actions is salvation

(James 4:7-10). If salvation can be termed “escape from judgment”, then

James instructs his readers they can accomplish this through not judging

others (4:11-12). If salvation is found in having sins forgiven, this can be

accomplished by a) having someone else pray (5:15) or by b) bringing

sinners back from wandering (5:19-21).

Petrine Writings: A Sixfold Path

From I Peter we learn that God’s judgment of all people is impartial, but

is based on their deeds (1:17). Human souls are purified by “obedience to the

truth” which is an act in which humans ourselves engage (1:22). Our sins are

“covered by love” (4:8). The author of II Peter notes that entry into the

eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is richly provided to

those who: make every effort to support their faith with goodness, and

goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control

with endurance, and endurance with godliness with mutual affection, and

godliness with mutual affection with love. Those who lack these things are

nearsighted and blind, forgetful of the cleansing of past sins, and fail to

confirm their election (II Peter 1:5-11).

Johanine Epistles: Obey God and Serve the Poor

Even the Johanine epistles speak to synergistic soteriology. “Whoever

says ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a

liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his

word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we

may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk

just as he walked” (I John 2:5-6). Obedience to the commandments and

“walking just as he walked” seem to be required of the one who is saved. We

are further told that the evidence of a person’s salvation (having been born in

God) is that such a person “does right” (I John 2:29)

If salvation is to be understood as having passed from death into life

(3:14) then whether or not a person is saved or not is evidenced by how the

saved lay down our lives for one another and provide for the needs of those

who lack the world’s goods (3:17).

St John the Divine: Saved by Works

In the Revelation to St. John the Divine the church at Thyatira is told that

Christ knows the minds and hearts of each member and will “give to each of

you as your works deserve” (2:23). When the dead are finally judged, it will

be “according to their works, as recorded in the books”(20:12 & 13).

19th Century Missionary Protestantism

James M. Gray, who served as rector of the Reformed Episcopal Church in

Boston, Massachusetts, went on to become dean and then president of Moody

Bible Institute in Chicago. True to his Pauline theology, in 1905 he penned

the hymn, “Only a Sinner” (also known as Naught Have I Gotten), which

contains the following lyrics

Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it since I have believed;
Boasting excluded, pride I abase;
I’m only a sinner, saved by grace!

Once I was foolish, and sin ruled my heart,
Causing my footsteps from God to depart;
Jesus hath found me, happy my case;
I now am a sinner, saved by grace!

Tears unavailing, no merit had I;
Mercy had saved me, or else I must die;
Sin had alarmed me fearing God’s face;
But now I’m a sinner saved by grace!

Suffer a sinner whose heart overflows,
Loving his Savior to tell what he knows;
Once more to tell it would I embrace—
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!15

Though the theology of this hymn may sit very well in a Euro-American

James. M. Gray “Naught Have I Gotten” in Hymns for the Living Church (Carol Stream:

Hope Publishing, 1974) Selection # 293.

context, it creates problems in places where the background is more akin to

the current East Asian reality.

Suggestions for Further Work

The re-reading of the General Epistles (above) needs deepening. Several

of the passages cited may be otherwise explained, and it is entirely possible

that re-reading Pauline literature will produce material that balances out the

grace-alone position that has been set up here as a straw man. But the method

of re-reading proposed by Yoder (necessitated when the mainstream

overwhelmingly insists on any one position) remains a necessary tool for the

churches which are the legacy of 19th Century Euro-American mission work

in East Asia. This mainstream Christianity is neatly summed up in Gray’s

hymn. It is time for Asians to re-read and re-express the message of the Bible

from local cultural bases.