Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go. This week’s edition is the final entry in a sub-series on theological terminology.
Next up in this theology sub-series is Soteriology, defined by Merriam-Webster as “theology dealing with salvation especially as effected by Jesus Christ”. Essentially, a theologian’s “soteriology” is their doctrine of salvation – how we are saved, what it means to be saved, who gets to be saved, what we are supposedly being saved from, and the like.
Even if we stay within the Christian tradition, this can be a dicey, divisive topic. At a basic level, most Christian theologians agree that we need salvation from our sins, redemption for our transgressions, and they agree that the way of salvation is Christ on the Cross. But they do not all agree on how we come to Christ. For some, we do so by confession, atonement, and repentance. For others, such a method comes dangerously close to putting salvation in our own hands, and argue that it is not through good works, but only through dedicating our lives to Christ that we can be saved. Still others think that our salvation is predetermined and thus totally out of our hands, while many others believe in universal salvation.
This often includes a thinker’s take on original sin, which itself comes with a range of interpretations. For some thinkers, our ability to sin is inextricably tied to our ability to reason, which sets the foundation for free choice. This, of course, gives rise to yet another debate: does “original sin” mean that we are born immoral, or that we are born with the potential for immorality – a potential which grows in accordance with our ability to be moral? Is it the foundation for free choice? Other interpretations view original sin less as a judge of our moral worth and more of a necessary component of our mortality, from which we must be saved as all mortal things suffer and fall away. A thinker’s attempt to pull all of these different elements together forms their “soteriology”.
But though Christianity is the primary religion in which salvation is the centerpiece, it does not have the market cornered on soteriology. In the interest of brevity, I will keep my focus to the Abrahamic religions, and only then on a very few points. Islamic salvation involves an adherence to a doctrine of active repentance, so that those who disobey God can find forgiveness rather than suffer punishment, though, of course, there is debate here among different sects and theologians as to what this means and how it works. Overall, though, the onus is more on the individual seeking mercy than on a salvific figure (like Christ). In Judaism one seeks salvation more in the present moment than in Islam or Christianity, and also focuses on the salvation of the collective, rather than on the individual. And of course, just as in Islam and Christianity, there are soteriological debates within Judaism also. This is, of course, completely insufficient as an overview of any particular soteriology, and is meant only to show some possibilities.
This term is broad, but useful, as it allows readers, scholars, and those seeking spiritual guidance a companion to theodicy. In many ways, a theologian’s soteriology is the other side of the coin; in theodicy, they seek explanation for the evils they suffer, and in soteriology, they seek a way to avoid (or make up for) causing evils, either intentionally or accidentally. Abrahamic soteriology is about freeing religious adherents from their own limitations and temptations, and a direct focus on how to do good, live well, and align with God.
This brings my sub-series on specifically theological terminology to a close. From here on out, I will likely be mixing philosophical and theological definitions in at random. I will also be mixing some Philosopher Fridays entries back into the rotation as well. There will be no regularly set schedule, so stay tuned to find out what’s coming up next.