Sunday, August 22, 2004

Cosmic salvation

Both John and Paul describe the atonement in "cosmic" terms, using the Greek word kosmos.

When an Arminian reads this usage, he concludes that the Calvinist is obviously wrong. After all, doesn’t Scripture say that Christ died to save the "world"?

But a universalist concludes that the Arminian is obviously wrong: if Christ died for the whole world, then the whole world will be saved.

And a Calvinist concludes that the universalist is obviously wrong: if the whole world will not be saved, then he never died for the whole world.

Each of these positions is logical. The Calvinist and the universalist simply reverse the antecedent and the consequent, while the Arminian affirms the one, but denies the other.

I mention this, in part, to show that none of these positions is obviously right or wrong. It is obvious that two of these positions are wrong, but which two are wrong is not obvious—not as a matter of mere logic.

It is important to make note of this at the outset, for all too often one side assumes that it has the inside track on the cosmic language, such that the burden of proof is on the opposing side. But in terms of simple logic, none of the opposing positions has an additional onus to overcome.

But who is right? And why are the others wrong?

The issue is over more than bare logic. It is about the meaning of words.

We come to the Bible with a mother tongue. And, for most of us, our mother tongue is not the language of Scripture.

Words often have more than one meaning. And the job of a translator is to find a word in the receptor language whose semantic range overlaps the semantic domain of the word in the original.

Most of us don’t learn our vocabulary from reading the Bible. We come to Scripture with a preconception of what the words must mean.

Take a world like the "world." As native English speakers, we’ve all heard this word used countless times, often in idiomatic phrases, viz., world war, world peace, world trade, one-world government, the world court, the world community, the world council of churches, "the thick rotundity o’ the world," the "shot heard round the world," "ten days that shook the world," "the hand the rocks the cradle rules the world," "workers of the world unite," "make the world safe for democracy," &c.

We’ve seen spinning globes of the world in public libraries and school libraries. We’ve seen the world from outer space.

So when we come to our English Bibles, and when we run across the cosmic usage of Scripture, we are not a blank slate. We bring to this usage our subconscious expectations of what that wording must mean.

And this is only natural. But it is natural for us. Yet we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that this is not natural for a Greek speaker. The Greek word has a different history than the English word. Its semantic range may intersect with the English world, but does not coincide with the English word. The Greek word has its own set of denotations and connotations.

In classical or secular Greek, kosmos means "order." It is the antonym of chaos. And it is a short step from the natural order to the social order, which is characterized by etiquette, decorum and an honor-code. To dress a certain way is decorous; to dress another way is gauche or indecent. To act a certain way is honorable; to act another way is shameful. And this, in turn, shades into the moral order of one’s reputation, whether creditable or scandalous.

The classical or secular semantic range carries over into the Septuagint as well (e.g. Gen 2:1; Prov 20:29; 28:17; Sir 26:16), from which the NT derives a number of its loan-words.

So when we read the cosmic language of St. John or St. Paul, we need to remember that "kosmos" has a different semantic stream feeding into it than the English headwaters and tributaries. Indeed, some of this has rubbed off on English usage.

The science of cosmetology is directly derived from one of the original meanings of the Greek, in its ornamental sense of outward adornment. The word is used this way in 1 Pet 3:3.

Likewise, forms of the word, such as "worldly," or "worldliness," in contrast to "otherworldly," are vibrant with moral overtones. These play of against each other, like Bunyan v. Congreve.

But when people read the Bible, they often forget all this. On the one hand, we have a decline in Bible literacy and pious idioms. On the other hand, our imagination is colored by modernity, by globalism.

When an Arminian or universalist comes across the "world," or even the Greek word (kosmos), he takes that to signify "everyone." But if you run through a concordance, even in English, you will begin to see that Johannine and Pauline usage are by no means synonymous with "everyone." Indeed, their usage is at times ironic and antonymous. To take a few examples,

"If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, since I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (Jn 15:19).

"The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (Jn 17:14).

"Don't love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it, but whoever does the will of God will live forever" (1 Jn 2:15-17).

"We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the lap of the evil one," (1 Jn 5:19).

"Hasn't God made foolish the wisdom of the world" (1 Cor 1:20).

"For the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor 7:31).

For John, the "world" (kosmos) is like a leaky battleship. The devil is at the helm, directing his sailors (the reprobate). He has fought and lost a naval battle with God. His cruiser is taking on water. But there are POWs (the elect) trapped below deck in the brig. They must be rescued before the ship goes under. And for Paul, the world is no less a burning and sinking ship.

What the Bible really teaches is not cosmic salvation, but comic salvation. In classic drama, a comedy traces out a perfect curve, for a comedy is a redeemed tragedy. In this respect, the story of redemption is a classic comedy whereby the fall represents the downward motion, and redemption the rebound. And there is, likewise, a parallel with the life of Christ whereby the Incarnation and crucifixion represent the downward motion, while Resurrection and Ascension represent the upward motion.

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