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Salvation Theology 101

Updated: May 3

Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr, an award-wining theologian and historian has created two mini-courses on Salvation Theology, Salvation Theology 101 and Salvation Theology 102. Below is an excerpt from Salvation Theology 101  a mini course created to help us better understand the main options in Christian theology regarding the salvation process.


Salvation is a big topic. Arguably, it is The Big Topic, the central theme of the Bible as it is the fundamental issue of human existence. We human beings are in mortal peril and we are manifestly unable to escape that danger on our own. We need help. We need salvation. That is our most basic condition.

By way of prolegomena—a useful theological term of art that means, roughly, “things we should say before we say the things we are going to say”—let’s consider what ought to be our objectives in the theological quest.

Sometimes we can hope to arrive at solid, unequivocal truth. But sometimes we have to prepare ourselves to settle for something else.

There is only one God, and that God is Yhwh. Such an affirmation is at the heart of the Jewish and Christian religions, and Jews and Christians declare it as simply, vitally true.

Human beings must choose to trust and obey God, but God must empower them to do so. Christians generally affirm this statement, but we disagree somewhat on what it means.

God elects those who will be saved according to his mysterious decrees without regard for their intentions, preferences, or actions. This claim is one with which many Christians have flatly disagreed, even as others have defended it as straightforward Biblical teaching.

In this Series, we’ll encounter all three kinds of statements: those all (orthodox) Christians understand and confess; those all such Christians affirm but understand variously; and those embraced by some Christians and rejected by others. I’ll try to ensure that we’re clear each time about which sort of statement is being made. I particularly promise not to sneak in John Stackhouse’s Special Personal View of Things as if it is just the sober truth of the matter.

The theological situation, however, is more complicated still. As I argued in the Mini-Course on universalism, Christians must beware deductive theology, and especially perfect being theology: reasoning about God from first principles we hold to be true but without inductively drawing on and later subjecting our reasoning to the full counsel of God, the testimony of the whole Bible. Arguing this way too easily lends itself to confirmation bias, toward reinforcing our preferred ideas while ignoring or twisting any scriptures we find inconvenient to our interpretations.

In any given theological quest, that is, we might well be able to arrive at a clear, complete, coherent, and cogent construal of all the relevant data. But we also might well not—particularly because theology deals with the ways of God with humans, the world, and the heavenly realms. This is subject matter not just likely, but certainly, to transcend our intellectual and imaginative powers.

When we study difficult theological topics, therefore, we should expect anomalies: scriptural phrases and verses and stories and ideas that don’t neatly fit our paradigms and confirm our doctrines. Given the profound subject matter; the nature of the various revelatory sources comprising the Bible; and the limitations of human beings through the centuries and in ourselves, we should expect things not always to add up perfectly. We should expect this Bible verse or that theological implication to stick out awkwardly or perhaps not fit at all in our scheme.

Just because we can’t fit everything into a neatly wrapped package, therefore, doesn’t mean we should abandon our theological conclusions. Instead, those anomalies should remind us to be humble: not to claim more certainty than we have and to be ready instead to change our minds if we encounter good grounds to do so.

That’s what scholars do in every field of serious human inquiry. We look hard at all the facts we think are pertinent. We come to the best conclusions we can. We formulate them carefully. And we argue for them with others to test them, refine them, and then adopt them if they hold up to scrutiny.

We don’t have to expect, much less insist, that our doctrines will handle every Bible passage easily. The Bible is a very strange book, inspired by the living God, so we should expect instead not to fully understand everything in it. But we can come to conscientious, responsible conclusions and proceed to live accordingly, and we should. (What else can we do? Wait around for certainty that might never come?) And we can also be open to arguments for other views as they come our way.

Theology is very much a human undertaking—versus God’s careful supervision of the scriptural materials such that the Bible presents his very Word to us, what we call inspiration in the technical sense. Theology is just our best attempt to understand what in the nature of the case eludes our conceptual grasp.

Theology is thus ever and always contextual, approximate, and provisional. Whether it is Augustine writing a treatise, or the Nicene council issuing a creed, or Pope Innocent III promulgating a bull, such work is occasioned by a particular context (a particular need of a particular group of Christians facing a particular challenge); simply the best the theologians can do in that circumstance (and thus approximate); and by the grace of God adequate to provide what is needed for those people of God along their way (and thus provisional in both senses of the term: “temporary” and “nourishing”).

Only Scripture is infallible. Theology, what we produce, is open always to question and to improvement as the human art (or science, depending on your view of theology and your use of those words) it is.

I hope you’ll stay with me, then, as we think better about some of the more vexed questions in theology—and some of the most important.

After this mini-course, you will understand the main options in Christian theology regarding the salvation process, with an introduction to the following:

  • 3 Views on Original Sin and Human Capacity

  • Does God Do It All? Monergism vs. Synergism

  • What does Faith have to do with salvation? Restrictivism vs. Inclusivism

  • 3 Views on What Is to Come: Sorting Out Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Universalism—and Earth 2.0 Enrol here to dive in now.

Salvation Theology 102 outlines the fascinatingly complex economy by which the great God deigns to rescue, renew, rehabilitate, and prepare us for the life to come.

To gain access to both these courses and our entire library of other courses subscribe as a Companion or Sustainer!


 Mini Courses 


Understand key ideas in important Christian theology, ethics, and history in 30 minutes (or less!) in ThinkBetter Media's mini-courses, created by award-winning theologian and historian Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. 

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