Prioritism and Holism: The Contribution of Acts (7)

This post is a contiuation from a previous post. Read up on this series here: Prioritism and Holism: The Contribution of Acts

Range of Meaning of Salvation Terms

The range of meaning of “salvation terms”: nouns—sōtēr (“savior”); sōtēria (“salvation”); sōtērion (as a substantive, “deliverance”); and verb—sōzō (“I save”) encompasses two distinct frames of reference and this is most relevant to the prioritism-holism discussion.  Using the verb (sōzō) to illustrate, BD3 says sōzō can mean “to preserve or rescue from natural dangers and afflictions, e.g., peril, illness, death” (Bauer, Danker 2000:982).  Barnett terms this “a this worldly, mundane rescue” (Barnett 1997:1072).  And it would fit the physical and social concerns interest of holism.  Acts 4:9-10 refers to being saved from illness; Acts 27:31 to being saved from physical death.  Indeed, this is the basic use of “salvation terms” in ancient pagan religion (Asklepius, god of healing, is commonly called sōtēr [“savior”], Inscr. Cretiae I, 171, no. 24) and in the LXX and Jewish Literature (LXX 1 Kingdoms 18:40; 19:17 points to escaping impending physical death using, sōzō; Josephus, A. J. 1.76, notes Noah’s preservation from physical death; B. J. 1.27, he relates Titus’ desire to preserve Jerusalem and temple; Witherington 1998:148, 165).

“Salvation terms” can also refer to salvation from “transcendent death or destruction” (Bauer, Danker 2000:982).  And this is the primary way Luke uses the vocabulary.  Witherington summarizes, “For Luke, salvation at its very core has to do with God’s gracious act of forgiving sins through Jesus which causes the moral, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical transformation of an individual” (Witherington 1998:160).  Barnett concurs.  He labels this use as a metaphorical appropriation of the term’s normal use in ancient times.  The result is a reference to “eschatological salvation.”  “In short, we learn from the ministries of Peter and Paul in Acts that salvation in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy has become a present but exclusive reality in the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the descendent of David, and is apprehended by receiving the apostolic message” (Barnett 1997:1073).  Paul’s proclamation at Pisidian Antioch well illustrates this kind of salvation (Acts 13:23, 26, 38-39).  Jesus is a “savior” brought to Israel—salvation accomplished, about whom a word of “salvation” is sent out.  That message declares forgiveness of sins to all who believe, a transcendent, eschatological salvation.  Such salvation is spread by evangelism.

The Use of Salvation Terms in Acts Gives Priority to Transcendent, Eschatological Salvation. A quantitative look at the evidence reveals an emphasis on transcendent, eschatological salvation.  Only two instances of “salvation” nouns refer to “this worldly,” physical salvation (Acts 7:25; 27:34).  All others point to transcendent salvation (sōtēr [“savior”], 5;31; 13:23; sōtēria [“salvation”], 4:12; 13:26; 13:47/Isa 9:6; Acts 16:17; sōtērion [as a substantive, “deliverance”], 28:28).  The same is true for the verb, sōzō (“I save”).  There are three uses for “this worldly,” physical deliverance (4:9-10; 14:9; 16:30), while seven times sōzō refers to transcendent, eschatological salvation (2:21, 40, 47; 4:12; 11:14; 15:11; 16:31).   Not only does this consistent emphasis on transcendent, eschatological salvation point to a priority for evangelism in Luke’s presentation of the church’s mission.  There are a number of times when Luke engages in word play with salvation terms starting with “this worldly deliverance” and climaxing with transcendent, eschatological deliverance (Acts 4:9-10, 12; 16:30-31; cf. 2:21, 40, 47).

Acts’ profile of salvation terms is the reverse of what occurs in the Gospel of Luke.  There, for example, sōzō refers to transcendent, eschatological salvation five times (Luke 7:50 [cf. v. 47]; 8:12; 13:23; 18:26; 19:10), but to “this worldly,” physical salvation ten times (six related to physical healing or in a healing context, 6:9; 8:36, 48, 50; 17:19; 18:42; four in mocking of Jesus on the cross, 23:35 [2X], 37, 38).  Again, there is a word play passage where transcendent, eschatological salvation “trumps” physical salvation (9:24). 

Since holistic understandings of Christian mission often rely on the Gospels’ profile of Jesus’ ministry to make their case, it is necessary for any who would propose the prioritist alternative to account for this difference.  It is probably due to the significance of the place of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the early church’s mission in the Salvation History framework.  Jesus’ earthly ministry declaring and demonstrating the arrival of the kingdom in the arrival of the king, even a miracle working king, occurs before the decisive salvation accomplishment events of his death, resurrection, exaltation, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  The early church’s mission takes place after these events.  AS the period of “Salvation Applied,” it is when the transcendent, eschatological salvation blessings can be embraced.  As Witherington (1998: 154) characterizes it, “. . . in Luke’s way of thinking salvation in the fuller, more spiritual sense comes about because of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the means of receiving the benefits of these climactic events is, through the Holy Spirit, who is not sent before Pentecost to be and convey God’s eschatological blessing.”

Dr. William Larkin
Professor of N.T. and Greek, Columbia International University

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