The term “salvation history” (Ger Heilsgeshichte)—alternatively translated as “revelation history” or “revelation in history”—refers to an approach to biblical theology that focuses on particular “saving acts” or “revelatory acts” in the history of Israel or the early Christian community. Central to this view is a series of connected, intentional actions by which God reveals his nature and covenantal relationship to humanity. In the Old Testament these acts include Israel’s election, the Exodus, covenant, exile, and restoration. In the New Testament the critical events are Jesus Christ’s life and ministry, his death and resurrection, the church’s formation, and the expansion of Christian faith to all peoples. In both testaments large narratives or narrative units carry the most weight. The main proponents of this view were G. Ernest Wright, Gerhard von Rad, and Oscar Cullmann.

Salvation History and the Biblical Theology Movement.

Salvation history is best understood as part of the biblical theology movement of the mid-twentieth century, which itself was in part a reaction against earlier liberal theologies and the narrowly descriptive task of historical criticism. The biblical theology movement arose alongside a renewed interest in theology occasioned by the various impulses of neo-orthodoxy. Salvation history identified God’s activity in critical events of faith communities as the “kernel” of theological reflection and interpretation.

G. Ernest Wright.

Wright (1952) took issue with those who saw the focus of biblical theology on God’s words. Instead, he understood God’s self-revelation in Israel’s history as central to Old Testament theology. He pointed to three key elements: (1) “The Old Testament betrays a peculiar attention to history and to historical traditions as the primary sphere in which God reveals himself” (p. 55); (2) God chose a people, first through Abraham and subsequently through Moses, by whom to accomplish God’s purposes; and (3) that election was clarified by means of a covenant ceremony at Sinai, which presented legal expectations of Israel. Wright regarded Jesus’s ministry and death as the central element of the New Testament, connected to the Old Testament by means of a carefully controlled typology.

Gerhard von Rad.

In what many consider the preeminent Old Testament theology for the latter half of the twentieth century, von Rad (1962) developed a “consistently heilsgeschichtlich approach” (Barr, 1999, p. 32). Rejecting a systematic description of Israel’s faith, von Rad focused instead on the formative influence of certain events on Israel’s reflection on its relationship with God. While focusing on the narrative of God’s “saving events,” von Rad critically viewed the ways in which traditions about these events developed over time. For him, Israel developed its unique self-consciousness, especially in opposition to Canaanite religions, through normative confessions (“credos”) closely linked to covenantal or liturgical acts. This focus on the interpretation of the events in successive confessional situations allowed for an emphasis on both God’s activity and the growth in traditions over time. Based on the historical–critical methods of scholarship, von Rad’s interest lay in the dynamic ways by which Israel reused traditional materials to assert a coherent theological self-definition.

Oscar Cullmann.

For Cullmann (1951–1967), a key feature of the Bible’s presentation of God’s intervention in human activity is a series of events, organized in a linear progression across time. He argued that this linear concept of redemptive time stood in sharp contrast to a Hellenistic view of time that is circular or repetitive. For Cullmann, the Christ-event—Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection—constitutes the central historical fact that forces a new conceptualization of how God acts with humanity. All biblical history is redemptive history because it both moves toward, and lays a foundation for, the Christ-event; from that event salvation history then flows out, influencing subsequent actions within the church.

This progressive movement in history is similar to the Jewish concept of history, but Cullmann asserts that the Christ-event transforms a purely future orientation to one in which history has reached its culmination. Christ has become the critical point—the midpoint—of all time: all subsequent events are reinterpreted in terms of that singular event. As a result, the New Testament regards all time as having reached its culmination in Christ. Future expectation is not thereby ended but transformed: Christians live now in an intermediate period. Opposing a purely existential view of the Christ-event or a purely eschatological view, Cullmann argued that “eternity” is not something outside of time but is, rather, the full comprehension of that historical time in which God works redemptively.

While each of these examples of a salvation-history approach to biblical theology has unique features, some common elements bind them together.

  • 1. All share a perception that God interacts with humans primarily through events or actions. Usually these are summarized in a short list of key turning points in Israel’s history or in the history of Jesus and the church.
  • 2. All recognize a strong unity across the entire Bible based on God’s activity. While the main arguments for salvation history have been made from the perspective of either the Old Testament or the New Testament, Wright, von Rad, and Cullmann agree that the concept of salvation binds the testaments together. All are committed to a larger project of biblical theology.
  • 3. Against many systematic approaches, these scholars share the belief that such theology cannot simply describe elements of Israel or Christianity’s faith. Salvation history seeks to understand God’s unfolding engagement with the world.

Critiques of Salvation History.

There have been numerous critiques of salvation history. Here are some of the most important.

  • 1. The linear recital of “saving events,” even if dynamically conceived (von Rad), seems to point to a progression of God’s revelation in a series of positive events. But the Bible’s historical narrative may also be seen as a story of problems in the elect communities’ understanding of God: as much unheilsgeschichte as heilsgeschichte. This critique raises questions about how useful the concept of salvation history is for a unified theology of the Bible. In particular, Ulrich Luz (1968) argues that Paul’s view of history is primarily one of faithlessness, containing only occasional indications of positive revelation in history. Luz’s view, however, primarily adopts the perspective of human action and reception, not of God’s activity.
  • 2. Perhaps the most serious questions about salvation history concern the precise role that historicity and historical reconstruction should play in theology. It has been suggested that Wright, and perhaps Cullmann, operated with a naive or innocent view of the relationship between the biblical narrative and history. For both scholars, the problem of historical reconstruction was not seriously engaged. This is not surprising, given the relationship of salvation history to the biblical theology movement and the latter’s origination as a reaction against the excesses of the historical–critical method. Von Rad’s approach to the biblical text is better nuanced, acknowledging the ongoing process of traditioning: Israel’s core confessions were reworked in subsequent historical situations.

But how secure is our understanding of what actually happened? Since the core events contained in both Wright’s and von Rad’s “recitals” of tradition come from early in Israel’s history, any reconstruction of what happened during Israel’s formative period is less than secure. The critical period of the Exodus and conquest, usually considered central in salvation history, is contested by historians. What happens to “salvation in history” if historical confirmation remains uncertain or if there is evidence that undermines one or another event? In the New Testament “the acts of God” are sketched in a minimal way. Historical Jesus research offers support for the main outlines of the Christ-event. But how dependent is the theological enterprise on the teaching of Jesus or the historicity of Acts? At issue is whether a theology based on history is dependent on factual reconstruction.

  • 3. Gilkey (1961) challenged the use of texts in constructing salvation history, arguing that biblical theologians were not consistent in how they used evidence of “revelation by the special activity of God.” How do proponents of salvation history imagine that God speaks or acts: audibly and physically, or metaphorically? Rather than offering examples of God’s self-revelation by direct actions, salvation historians have often drawn on naturalistic explanations for “what God actually does”: acts subsequently understood to be mighty acts. Gilkey argues that this proposal becomes circular or ontologically confused: Does revelation come through the events themselves, or does it rest only on the events’ faithful interpretation, without which God’s activity could not be so recognized? If events can be interpreted only through the prism of a prior understanding of God’s nature, then such acts are not revelatory but in fact subjective.
  • 4. Equally perplexing is the nature of history as a literary activity. Even if various biblical documents are intended to be “historical,” what is “history” and how is it constructed? Postmodern historians have emphasized that authorial subjectivity and subjective interpretation of events are essential aspects of historiography. Historical writing, like all discourse, is linguistic and inherently relativized. Anticipating postmodern objections to a foundationalist approach to biblical history, Barr argued that the “long narrative corpus of the Old Testament seems … to merit the title of story rather than history” (1976b, p. 1). To use Frei’s term, biblical narrative is not historical but “history-like” (1974).
  • 5. Cullmann’s emphasis on linear time, especially as reflective of a uniquely “Hebraic” perspective, has suffered extensive criticism. Barr (1961, pp. 11–20) raised serious questions about this entire characterization of time and history, with respect to both Hebrew and Greek thought. Barr argued that such proposals, based on an inadequate understanding of how languages work, were focused too narrowly on individual words rather than larger semantic units. Barr’s semantic argument undermined the distinguishing feature of biblical history asserted by Cullmann.
  • 6. A fundamental challenge for any biblical theology is the ability of its organizing principle to explain the coherence among the Bible’s disparate documents and genres. Many have questioned the degree to which salvation history meets this challenge. For example, the emphasis on a basic narrative of God’s actions on behalf of Israel tends to minimize some important Old Testament material: it is difficult to fit wisdom literature into a salvation-history framework. Although Sirach (ca. 200 B.C.E.) offers historical examples of wise people, wisdom in general emphasizes nonhistorical explanations of humanity’s relationship with God. Likewise, creation and law are largely left out of a salvation-history approach to theology.

Similar concerns may be raised of salvation history’s scope in the New Testament. Because this approach focuses primarily on narrated events, priority is given to the Gospels and Acts. Does salvation history do justice to the concerns expressed in the Pauline and Catholic Epistles? While they certainly reflect on Jesus and the kerygma about his ministry, death, and resurrection, the epistles develop interests and themes quite distinct from the Gospels’ core narrative. How well does salvation history address Paul’s concern for inclusion of Gentiles, questions about the law’s value, or ecclesiological concerns such as the nature of the church and its unity? Luke–Acts has strongly influenced constructions of salvation history in the New Testament; yet many contend that precisely this construction, along with that in the Pastoral letters, represents a later, “early catholic” approach that is in fundamental tension with Paul and an earlier Gospel like Mark.

  • 7. Does the salvation-historical approach sufficiently address the hermeneutical need of biblical theology to bridge the gap, distinguished by Stendahl (1962, pp. 421–422), from descriptive explanation of the text to making normative sense of it for modern readers? Stendahl critiqued many such approaches for not treating seriously the descriptive task but granted that Cullman’s biblical theology well described how the categories of time and history are central to the world in which the New Testament arose. Stendahl, nevertheless, believed that Cullmann and the salvation-historical approach in general tended to remain locked within the descriptive task, without serious reflection on what their descriptive observations might mean for a normative understanding of God’s activity in the Bible.

A Possible Future for Salvation History.

Because of many of the preceding critiques, the concept of salvation history has fallen from favor in current biblical theology. But perhaps there is room to consider some renewed role for this concept in the Bible’s own project of describing God’s relationship with humanity.

It can certainly be asserted that, taken as a whole, the Old Testament does construct a “history-like” narrative that traces God’s involvement with humanity: beginning with creation, God is shown as interacting first with the patriarchs, then with Israel in the Exodus and conquest, and later with its development as a nation-state. This narrative continues to the Exile, followed by the nation’s restoration. Thus, there is a narrative arc that encompasses the various materials of the Torah, the Deuteronomistic history, the Chronicler, and Ezra–Nehemiah. The Old Testament offers a story of God’s election of a specific people, with covenantal initiatives that progressively impose responsibilities on God’s chosen people. By engaging the failures of covenantal obedience and speaking to renewed covenantal relationships, the prophets also participate in this grand narrative arc.

The “actions” of election, making covenant, judgment, and covenant renewal are the core elements in the story of God’s engagement with Israel. Features of this narrative arc can be seen in repeated confessions (von Rad’s “credos”), including a late instance in Nehemiah 9 that reaches back to creation and extends the recital of Israel’s vicissitudes through exile and return. Various prophetic critiques and interpretations of events during their lifetimes adopt this “history-like” perspective on God’s reaction to Israel’s observance of covenantal requirements.

In a similar way, the New Testament’s fourfold gospel—despite differences in details, timelines, and theological emphases—testifies to the centrality of the narrative of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. The centrality of this narrative arc is emphasized in Acts, which claims a direct “continuation” of that narrative (Acts 1:1–4), and can also be found in Paul’s letters and the Catholic Epistles, which demonstrate that believing communities continued to reflect on the core events of the Christ-event.

A crucial element in both history and narrative is temporal progression. Events are given importance within a temporal framework, sequences of events suggest patterns and trajectories, and characters develop across time. We make sense of events and characters within “history-like,” narrative contexts. This temporal progression in the Bible points to a future hope but also engages the past through interpretation and comparison as a means of creating meaning. Old Testament narratives often reflect on God’s involvement in past events as a way of understanding current events; they also anticipate God’s continued future involvement. Similarly, the New Testament links itself extensively back to the Old Testament, tracing temporal patterns and events that interpret Jesus; the New Testament looks forward as well so that a “historical” or “narrative” pattern is built into its expectation of continued activity. This temporal progression is central to a theology of the Bible.

Is this progression “history,” strictly speaking? The most substantive critiques of salvation history have focused on the difficulty of linking the theology of God’s activity with what “actually happened,” judged in accordance with modern historiography. Certainly, there are problems here; the use of the term “history” may itself be problematic. Nevertheless, central to the biblical “story” are the acts of God on behalf of his people. As Hengel (2003) notes, God’s actions in history are not obvious at the time: God is a deus absconditus. These “mighty acts” are not of the sort that can be historically objectified; rather, they are recognized as God’s doing, viewed through the eyes of faith. But they are central to the Bible’s theology.

In some ways a salvation-history model may still inform biblical theology. First, recognition of the Bible’s essentially narrative nature points to the importance of narrative approaches to theology. Continued work on how narratives construct meaning, by means of plot or character development, may enhance this perspective. Focusing on a “history-like” narrative instead of on “history” might also address Gilkey’s critique.

Second, postmodern approaches to history, which focus on the essentially subjective construction of narrative histories, serve as a critique of foundationalist approaches to history. On the other hand, many critiques of salvation history (e.g., that it is not truly “historical”) have themselves presupposed a foundationalist approach to history. Postmodern critiques may modify the tendency to place too much emphasis, positively or negatively, on historical data, highlighting instead the meaning that historians construct.

Third, the understanding of biblical narratives as “history-like” might be enhanced by attention to the role of “witness” or “testimony” (thus, Schuele’s [2008] review of von Rad’s theology). The concept of testimony links historical experience and tradition in a way that is not simply descriptive but focuses on the presence or reality of God in the narrative pattern.

Any biblical theology seeks to capture the essence of the Bible’s theological core. The diverse nature of the Bible makes that difficult. Salvation history found a means to explore helpfully much of the Bible’s central thrust. Perhaps there is a place for continued exploration from this perspective.




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Mark A. Matson