Saturday, August 29, 2009

Translating Paul (part three: soteria, apolytrosis)

What Paul MeantAgain I return to the appendix of Garry Wills' book "What Paul Meant" to discuss some of his ideas of how to translate Paul's letters in ways that land on our contemporary ears with the same force and intention that Paul originally meant for them. (Here are parts one and two of the series.)

In today's entries, Wills takes aim at the reduction of God's mighty acts to personal commodities: namely, our obsession with our own salvation and feeling content with having "got ours." Wills is trying to awaken us to God's greater purpose in defeating death and liberating the whole of humanity from imprisonment to sin.

So often the mental image we have for salvation is that the world is the Titanic, sinking slowly — even if some don't believe or see it — and that God is out in a lifeboat, waiting to take us to safety and sail away from the wreckage to a new paradise. He is out there taking people one by one onto his raft as they learn that danger is at their heels. But our motivation in this scenario is our own helplessness and our own survival instinct. The image that the Bible presents would be more like this: God is raising Titanic from the depths of the ocean, freeing it from the clutches of the icy water, and restoring it to a place of beauty and strength and safety. We are invited on board to be part of the glorious reinvention, to play our part in restoration. Our rescue is just not about the saving of our skins, but an invitation to a purpose, to play a role in God's mighty acts.

Wills suggests that the word Soteria, usually rendered "Salvation," be translated as Rescue:
"Salvation" has become something we think of as a condition of the individual, something he or she gains, loses, or feels sure of ("Brother, are you saved?"). ... Paul did not think of the person's own sense of himself, but of God's activity as the rescuer. Rescue was for him a divine initiative, God's raid on enemy territory, bringing the people out from captivity ... the whole of creation is to be rescued and restored to God. ... "God initiates it all by rejoining us to himself through Messiah and by making us active in this rejoining—as we profess that God is rejoining the world to himself through Messiah ..." (2 Cor 5:18-21).
Wills likes the image of prison gates flung open (which probably makes more sense than my lifeboat metaphor, since the opened prison is a Biblical chord ready to be struck). In suggesting that the Greek Apolytrosis be translated as Release rather than the usual "Redemption," he says:
Apolytrosis means, literally, "ransom." But its translation into Latin redemptio, "buying back," has been caught up into Anselm's notions of paying off God the Father by sacrifice of his Son, a concept foreign to Paul. Paul means by the ransoming of the whole world a release of it from thralldom to the evil order he personified as Satan. It is a massive liberation act, like the breaking open of every prison, and only God's energy can accomplish this.
An emphasis on personalized salvation conveys more of an idea of God bartering with Satan for particular souls, like God is cashing in his chips one at a time as he "buys back" individuals. Whereas the idea Wills is getting at is that the doors have been blown off the hinges by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and we are all free to walk out. The work has been done. The reason this distinction is important, I believe, is that is changes the nature of the sales pitch: It's not a matter of "life is terrible, you are suffering, but God will set you free from evil," but something more like "come and join us in this amazing mission, this commitment to love — God has already cleared the way for you to walk right into new life." Our churches must reflect the celebration of the prisoners freed, not the dour survivors at sea, adrift, waiting for tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment