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Erich S. Gruen

The Sibylline Oracles had a long life. The Sibyl was in origin a single Greek prophetess, renowned for the accuracy of her forecasts, divinely inspired, but portrayed as mad or raving, and regularly spewing forth dire forebodings. Additional Sibyls gradually sprang up in a variety of locations in the Mediterranean world, including the renowned Cumaean Sibyl whom Aeneas reputedly consulted. Sibylline prophecies were eventually collected in written form in Rome and used by Roman authorities to provide interpretation of unusual prodigies or natural disasters or to offer advice on significant matters of foreign entanglements and wars. Although that collection (insofar as it is historical) has long since disappeared, the voice of the Sibyl was reproduced in literary form. The extant Sibylline verses, composed in Homeric Greek hexameters, constitute twelve books of oracles, fashioned over a period of several centuries by numerous different and no longer identifiable hands. They constitute a motley assemblage of grim forecasts, historical references, apocalyptic visions, and denunciations of various peoples, especially Romans, for their abandonment of piety and indulgence in evil. The genre was appropriated by anonymous Jewish authors, speaking through the voice of the Sibyl, and employed to convey condemnation of cities and nations for the sins of idolatry, licentiousness, and a range of vices. Vivid portrayals of the end time and eschatological conflagration feature many of the texts. Subsequent Christian writers interpolated verses, added exaltations of Christ, and appropriated Sibylline pronouncements for their own ends. Others manipulated the oracles to record historical personages and events in the framework of prophetic pronouncements. The result was a complex and unsystematic compilation of reconstructed or fabricated prophecies ascribed to Sibyls but largely representing the ingenuity of Jewish and Christian compilers.

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Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas, imply that human life as it is ordinarily lived has been diverted from its true good or distorted from its proper form. Taken together, these paired ideas thus imply a narrative of human transformation, a redemptive process that recovers human life from erroneous ways and reorients it toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled. Narratives of redemption from sin have taken many forms in the course of American history, but in considering any specific example it is useful to recognize its relationship to two especially common patterns. In some cases, the redemptive narrative is organized around a decisive personal experience, and autobiographical accounts of “conversion” that describe such transformative events are common in American religious literature. In other cases, the redemptive narrative accentuates the gradual process of shaping a way of life that incorporates an individual into the ongoing social practice of a community, through spiritual disciplines ranging from meditation and prayer to acts of public witness and compassion. In either of these versions, redemptive narratives frequently hinge on the reconciling work of a transcendent power, in which salvation represents the event or process that incorporates individual persons into a society or a natural order of existence that is itself the subject of a larger, even cosmic history of redemption. In all of these variations, American narratives of redemption have interacted with broader cultural ideas of human nature and the possibilities for human psychological and societal change.

Article

Baptism opens a window to the heart of Martin Luther’s 16th-century theology. It offers a perspective for how Luther understands the impact of grace and its channels, as well as the nature of justification in an individual’s life. In his teaching about baptism, Luther demonstrates the vital working of the Word and lays a foundation for a Word-centered and faith-oriented spirituality. With baptism, Luther articulates his vision for the purpose of the Church and the rationale for sacraments. Baptism reveals different sides of the theologian: one who argues with a zeal on the “necessity” of baptism and its meaningful God-mandated practice in Christian communities and another who imagines God’s saving grace too expansive to be limited to any ritual. The apparent tensions in Luther’s articulation can be understood from his overlapping agendas and different audiences: in his baptismal talk, Luther is both processing his own Angst about salvation and negotiating his developing position in relation to the medieval sacramental theology and other emerging reform solutions. While feistily refuting his opponents, he is also speaking from his personal religious experience of being as if reborn with the encounter of the Word of grace and passionately extrapolating his most foundational conviction: God’s unconditional promise of grace as the ground of being for human life, given to humanity in the Word. The matter of baptism leads to the roots of different Christian “confessional” traditions. The format of the ritual has generated less anxiety than differing theological opinions on (1) the role of faith in the validity of baptism, and (2) the effects of baptism in one’s life. Whether infant or adult baptism is favored depends on whether baptism is primarily understood as a sign of faith, a cause of forgiveness and transformation, or an initiation into the Christian community—or all of the above. Baptism is at the center of Luther’s theological nervous system; it connects with every other vital thread in the theological map. Baptism is a mystery and a matter of faith; it calls for a philosophical imagination and mystical willingness to grasp the questions of reality beyond what meets the eye. “I study it daily,” Luther admits in his “Large Catechism.” “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life. Christians always have enough to do to believe firmly what baptism promises and brings.”

Article

Crucial for Luther’s theology and his own experience was the question of whether one’s salvation was certain. And the security of the truth which underlay doctrine was complexly related to that question. Luther thus received and developed notions of certitude and security. The concepts as Luther inherited them have a long and somewhat complicated history that can be traced back to ancient Greece. These terms were often distinct throughout antiquity and up to contemporary times. The term “security” has referred to the realm of the political; namely, the security or tranquility of the city state or “nation” both in terms of physical security in times of conflict and also in the history of law. Certitude has a more complex history. For example, Aristotle often understood certainty or akribeia to mean precision, especially in mathematical terms. Those sciences that had the most properties removed (aphaeresis) were the most precise and consequently the most certain. Most prominent in the history of certitudo was the issue of epistemic certainty. Thus we find in Augustine’s doctrine of illumination that uncreated, immutable exemplars were the guarantors of certainty. It was in the later Middle Ages that the issue of epistemic certainty, in the form of mental representation, became a controversial topic. Scotus criticized Henry of Ghent’s views of human cognition and contended that certainty could be had only of self-evident propositions, knowledge of contingent acts, repeated occurrences ordained by God, and sense knowledge of the external world. Ockham argued for epistemic certainty on the basis of self-evident propositions and, most importantly, the reliability of intuitive cognition of individual external objects. Certainty also had a long history in Christian theology and most often referred to the certainty of faith. Certitude was the conviction of the truth regarding the contents of the faith. Frequently the issue referred to the relationship between faith and reason. Certainty referred primarily to definition of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, throughout the Christian tradition, certainty was related to the problem of heresy. The early church Fathers tried to establish orthodox doctrine over and against various heretical groups. Everyone agreed that the foundation for Christian truth was Scripture. However, different people interpreted the Bible in ways that were judged to be contrary to Christian faith. Around the year 434, Vincent of Lérins provided a rule that distinguished Catholic truth from heresy. This “Vincentian Canon” required that Christian truth be that which was believed everywhere, always, and by all (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus). These criteria guaranteed the certainty and stability of doctrine. One target of Vincent’s was probably Augustine, because he could be quoted against himself. Due to the many conversions in his life, Augustine made many pronouncements he later retracted, and such retractions were not meant to contribute to uncertainty about the faith. Medieval Scholastic inheritors of Augustine continued to define faith as a cognitive certitude. Their training in dialectic was crucial because it provided the certainty of doctrine against heretics. Luther was trained in dialectic, but in his Disputation against Scholastic Philosophy he opposed the use of Aristotle and logic in theology. Nonetheless, dialectic remained a subject in the university at Wittenberg. Dialectic could not answer the questions of certainty for which Luther sought answers. His questions were about the certainty of salvation and, for Luther, this certainty could only be found in Scripture and the experience of the Holy Spirit. Such certainty also required a redefinition of faith. As the various reformations continued to divide Western Christendom, controversies about the exegesis of Scripture multiplied both among various reformers and between reformers and Catholics. Throughout the course of the turbulent 16th century, the real source of certainty for all parties became the Holy Spirit. Throughout the late Middle Ages, certainty and security referred to the relationship between the individual and God. For Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers, these terms took on a meaning beyond the faithful knowledge of the contents of the faith. Any examination of Luther’s writings show that he used “security” and “certainty” synonymously to refer to the certitude of salvation whereby one experienced the security, assurance, and certitude of God’s benevolent will. Moreover, despite his lack of a firm terminology, Luther meant the same thing by “the certainty of forgiveness,” “the certainty of justification,” and “the certainty of God’s good will,” as well as the phrase, “the certainty of being in a state of grace.” All of these phrases referred to the certainty of salvation or the security of knowing that God’s benevolence was directed to one’s own individual salvation.

Article

The Islamist movement in Algeria and Islamist ideas (politicized/revivalist, Islamic reformism) date back to the colonial period. While Radical Islamist Groups (RIGs) and Salafi Jihadist Groups (SJGs) have demonstrated a high level of violence more noticeably in the 1990s, following the return of the so-called Afghans, who had trained and fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan, radical Islamism has emerged at different periods in Algeria’s history. In the 1960s, RIGs sought to intimidate Westernized youth and women. In the 1970s and 1980s, SJGs almost destroyed the state through a ferocious armed insurgency. The major SJGs in Algeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jund-el-Khalifa, are part of the transnational extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and, since 2014, the so-called Islamic State (IS), respectively. Political Islam in Algeria took different forms, from quietist groups to peaceful Muslim Brothers to sanguinary armed groups, such as the Armed Islamic Groups (GIAs) of the 1990s or the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which succeed the Salafi Group for Preaching and CombatSGPC. Whatever form the movement has taken more recently, one cannot understand Islamism without scrutinizing Algeria’s colonial history and the enduring crisis of identity it has engendered among Algerian Muslims. Soon after the colonial invasion, resistance to France was often expressed in Islamic terms, such as jihad, or holy war, against infidels. During the war of national liberation [1954–1962], the nationalist movement referred to the fighters as mujahideen (holy warriors). Algerian identity itself is often expressed in relation to Islam, which dominates social and cultural personality. Islam and Islamism have served as means of opposition to the successive incumbent regimes since independence. Indeed, opposition to the socialism of the 1960s and 1970s emanated from religious figures. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Islamic Salvation Front ak.a., FIS), a mass party, sought to seize power to establish a state in which Shari’a Law could be implemented. The cancellation of the electoral process resulted in bloody civil strife that pitted the security forces against SJGs of different denominations. The civil strife claimed the lives of perhaps 100,000 people, mostly civilians. However, Algerian Islamism also has elected representatives, with legal Islamist parties represented in the government. Islamism, or Islamist ideas, present during the anticolonial struggle are interwoven with the radical jihadi groups that exist in the region and country today. Algeria went through an almost decade-long, atrocious period of civil strife that abated by the end of the 1990s. The ensuing 2005 National Charter on Peace and Reconciliations provided a political framework for stability in the country.