by Dr T. F. Jemiriye. Department of Religious Studies, University of Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria


Definition and Limits.

Salvation, the doctrine of salvation or soteriology is an age long theological issue and this concept is found in Christian religion as well as in many other world religions. This concept has been defined and re-defined from time to time in the different religions, and it seems that today there is no clear understanding, even within a religion – like the Christian religion, of what it means or should mean. This paper is not attempting to give a world-wide definition anyway.

In the Christian faith, the concept of salvation has been comprehensively studied by many theologians and hardly can any other theological concept enjoy the amount of volumes on it. Terms under which the concept of salvation has been considered within the Christian faith by many writers include:

“Reconciliation1, Atonement, Redemption, Grace, Paying Ransom to the Devil, Sacrifice, ‘Covering Price,’ Sanctification, Propitiation, Regeneration, Justification, Adoption2, Repentance and faith as conditions for salvation. The work of Christ3, ‘The death of Christ’4, ‘The Christ-event’5, ‘Saving work of God in Jesus Christ6, ‘The history of Salvation’7, Christ as Saviour’8, ‘Universal problem of mediation’9, ‘Reconciliation as in Jesus10, ‘Economy of Salvation’11, ‘The mercy of God’ as source of salvation12, ‘Conversion’13, ‘The basal conception’14, ‘The reality of Revelation’15, ‘Existence’16, ‘The new birth’ and ‘Instantaneous conversion’17 are also included.

Salvation as a topic can be considered from almost inexhaustible view points, goal, cause, mode of appropriation, historic, Biblical, contemporary, modern and others. For this paper, only cases raised by Kung in his book “On being a Christian” have been treated. This is to limit the scope of this paper in an apt way.

Salvation is defined as “The act of saving, preservation from destruction, and death.”18 In an amplified form, the Webster international dictionary gives the same definition as:

(1) The saving of man from the powers and effects of sin:

(a) his deliverance from the condition of spiritual isolation and estrangement to a reconciled relationship of community with God and fellow men, redemption from spiritual lostness to religious fulfilment and restoration to the fullness of God’s favour.
(b) Redemption from ultimate damnation through divine agency.
(c) The deliverance of the soul from sin or the spiritual consequences of sin: the saving of a person’s soul from eternal punishment and its admission into heavenly beatitude.

(2) Liberation from ignorance or illusion, deliverance from clinging to the phenomenal world of appearance and final union with ultimate reality in Hinduism.

(3) Christian science: the realization of the supremacy of infinite mind over all, bringing with it the destruction of the illusion of sin, sickness and death.

(4) Preservation especially from destruction, disintegration or failure: final deliverance from danger, difficulties or deficiencies ………19.

This dictionary definition opens up the problem of levels in salvation.

Saved from what level to what level?

Is it from physical level of another physical level?
Is it from physical level to a spiritual level?
Is it from spiritual level to a physical level?
Is it from spiritual level to another spiritual level?
Or is it from a combination of levels – physical and spiritual to another single level or to another mixed level?

If salvation is to be defined strictly as spiritual deliverance, then questions on sin, earth, heaven, death as levels arise. A simple definition of any of these is just not easy.

In most of the old world religions, and in the Old Testament, the concept of salvation included a physical requirement on the part of man – like sacrifice, and a periodic, repetitious performance of that requirement – like yearly sacrifice or atonement as in Passover. In New Testament time, the idea has developed, following the Greek philosophy, from emphasis on the repetitious physical involvement of sacrifice, to a highly conceptualized mental level of “faith” and “grace” with no required physical (animal) sacrifice. At this time salvation was still on the individual level, in a large dimension.

Today, especially as from the 1990s, salvation is largely being defined in universal terms – more as socio-economic well being of man on earth, and with declining emphasis on levels like individual, heaven, sin, death, etc.

This reflects how the different levels in which salvation had been considered in the past have changed over the ages. This change, in focus, level and emphasis, has made a re-evaluation of what salvation means necessary at every age. It is to this changing context that Kung addresses his concept of salvation. Kung as a 20th century writer thus provided a starting – point for a present consideration of this vital concept.

Since Kung’s work “On being a Christian” is religious, the focus in this writing is on the religious use of the word salvation. In this paper, Kung’s concept of salvation as stated in the book “On being a Christian” is presented and this has been compared with very few prominent positions as to limit the length of this outing.


Kung is 20 a Catholic theologian who sets out to write a critical and detailed explanation on vital issues in the Christian faith21 in order to call the Church (Catholic or Protestant) to proper consideration of faith rather than to an unrealistic (senseless) defence of old dogmatic views and position.22 It should be noted here also that Kung as a theologian, is in the school of “theology from below” which puts more emphasis on human framework as against divine incarnation and position of people like Karl Barth which is “theology from above”. This will help (in some little way) in understanding why Kung sees salvation as he does.

Kung’s discussion of the concept started early in the book but in an informal way. In discussing Christianity and the challenge of modern humanism Kung said: “Christianity and humanism are not opposites” ……. Christianity can not be properly understood except as radical humanism”23

To Kung, there are no chemically pure secular humanisms. This start is important, because the goal of Christianity is indirectly being defined as the goal of humanism. If this is true then Christianity and humanism could be interchangeablely regarded as the same. This will also affect the interpretation at salvation. Christians have in common “Love” with humanism, but the two have different goals. If Christianity is equivalent to humanism then why the duplication? This same question is asked by Kung in his section on “Christianity for sale?24

The first major point in the concept of salvation that King addressed himself to is the issue of “salvation outside the church”. Here, Kung evaluated prominent world religions briefly and pointed out that there are many things that are true in the different religions and also that, like Christianity, they have a concept of God, salvation and other doctrines. Kung contended that Christianizing other religions is not necessarily the goal of mission.25 He wrote:

“The conclusion must be that the tree of a Hellenized Christendom cannot simply be uprooted from Europe and replanted in the “Swamp” of Japan, which has a completely different culture”26. Kung takes Christianity as of the West – European, American, Latin, Roman - West and evangelism as propagation of this West’s religion and culture. He reacted to this position (which he claimed the church has taken for long) by saying that the attitude of Christianity today is changing from propaganda to study and dialogue.27

Kung concluded this section by saying that there is salvation outside the church and that all religions are ways of salvation. 28 This Kung built up thus:

that God is creator and conserver of all men, that God operates everywhere, that god has made a covenant with all men (the “cosmic covenant” with Noah). That God wills the salvation of all men without respect of persons and that Non-Christians too as observers of the law can be justified, that there is salvation outside the church and there can be seen a general, universal salvation history. 29

Kung said, the other religions were regarded formerly as lies, works of the devil and at best – restigial truth but now they count as a kind of relative revelation through which innumerable individuals of ancient times and of the present have experienced and now experience the mystery of God.

Kung pointed out that “all religions seek to interpret the world, to find in practice a way of salvation out of the misery and torment of existence.”30

Kung said that, in considering these “ways of salvation” the common properties in the religions should be considered – like goodness, mercy, divinity, freedom, fear, prophets, etc.31 He said it is unfair to compare simply the great founders and reformers of the world religions with Christianity. In this connection Kung treated the concept of “salvation by work” that is found in the religions as very acceptable. This “work” included obedience to the law, profession of faith, prayer etc.32 He gave the five pillars of Islam as example of salvation by work.

In the section “Anonymous Christianity?” Kung gave the old church position in which all those outside are considered as “massa damnata” – an abandoned heap,33 excluded from salvation but he said, this view is no more true. The Church, he says, is all men of good will who all “somehow” belong to the Church.34

Kung reacted to Karl Barth’s position by writing: “Not the arrogant domination of a religion claiming an exclusive mission and despising freedom. This danger, although unintended, arises as a result of the dogmatic repression of the problem of religion by Karl Barth and dialectical theology.”35 Kung gave a good summary of his view by writing:

What we must strive for is an independent, unselfish Christian ministry to human beings in the religions. We must do this in a spirit of open- mindedness which is more than patronizing accommodation, which does not to lead us to deny our faith, but it also does not impose any particular response, which turns criticism from outside into self-criticism and at the same time accepts everything positive, which destroys nothing of value in the religions but also does not incorporate uncritically anything worthless. Christianity therefore should perform its service among the world religions in a dialectical unity of recognition and rejection as critical catalyst and crystallization point of their religions, moral, meditative, ascetic, aesthetic value36.

It is easy to think that because Kung advocates so strongly for other religions he is confused on what Christianity itself is. But Kung in other parts of the book, discussed faith. This he presented as radical trust, as justifiable knowledge, as action active in struggle, love, justice; as transcendence forgiveness of God, as daring into the unknown and as entrance into the whole reality.37 Also, an examination of Kung’s view of Christianity as “the truth” shows that Kung accepts Jesus as the Christian way to salvation. A belief (faith) in Jesus is the means of salvation.

It is particularly interesting to see how Kung ended the book by answering the question “why should one be a Christian?” He wrote: By following Jesus Christ, man in the world of today can truly humanly live, act, suffer and die in happiness and unhappiness, life and death sustained by God and helpful to men.” 38

This is a great change in tone and concept of Christianity from what Kung started with in the book.

While Kung believes that Christianity is the best, and Jesus is the means of salvation in Christianity, Kung is not prepared to go on to recommend Christianity to others. This poses some contradiction to their being truly loved in the reckoning of conservative Christians. Kung is happy to be a Christian but he is not willing to regard other religions as outside his salvation mode, and this is disturbing. This is where Kung parts company with Barth.39

Even though Kung interpreted mission as concern and is interested in dialogue, Barth’s position is better than Kungs. Barth’s position is more consistent to just one point – defence of Christianity only. Paul Tillich in “courage to be”40 defines faith as “involvement of a person”. Although Tillich was not addressing himself to the concept of salvation, he had a contribution to the development of Kung’s present position.

In a way, this is Kung’s presentation on salvation. Although different parts of the book could be related to the topic in one form or the other, the scope has been minimized as to reduce the length of the paper.


Working through Kung’s concept of salvation and other books, one could come out with two clear positions – universal salvation (no matter how it is presented) and strict individual Christian’s salvation based on belief in Jesus. Many things are added to the second by people from different settings, like Baptism – water or spirit, confession, church membership, etc. Most of the older frontline theologians are in the second class, but, Barth seems to have considered the possibility of the first without admitting it.

Kung definitely is trying to accept both at the same time. Kung accepts salvation outside the church (universalism) and salvation in the Christian faith as “the truth”.

In considering this topic, extremes of the same issue must be wrestled with. These include:

1. Is there a need for the Christian evangelism and preaching if all are saved regardless of what they are or what they believe and do? To admit yes, is to define Christianity in terms of love as its goal. The goal of Christianity, however, is doing the will of God as it is understood through the (His) revelation. The means to this goal is love and faith. To reduce Christianity’s goal to love alone is to lose the essence of it and what will be left is humanism.

2. Where is the freedom of man if salvation is forced on him? Also, where is the justice of God if God is indifferent to a conscious acceptance of faith on the part of man? Man has a choice. That choice is the freedom to accept salvation. It will be wrong if any individual is condemned because such has not believed in a particular fashion. It will be equally wrong to claim the other soothing (pleasant) extreme that all are equally saved. Both positions are acting God, but man’s understanding of God is very much limited as to make such a pronouncement.

3. What is the issue in salvation?

The issue is not “judgment” saved or not – but “presentation”. As Christians, the task is to present the gospel message for the acceptance or rejection of individuals. To accept for them (without giving them a choice) is to say, they are already saved.

4. Syncretism is a result of the “Love as goal” approach.

How much of the different (unlike) beliefs could be really brought together? God is not a central pool (ocean) where all streams flow (the streams been ways of salvation). The analogy here is of “cups. The cups may be alike but if one contains tea and the other coffee, then they are not alike, and they can not cause the same effect on the same body. If the “content of God” in any two religions are very different for example if in one, God is wrath and justice, to be dutifully worshipped, and in the other, a “God of love” who saves all regardless of whatever and requires no response – as in universal salvation) then the two religions can not be said to mean the same thing. To say they mean the same thing is to have a god that is the addition of everything imaginable in the world. To the analogy of cups above, human language is the cup. Different religions form the content of the cups. Every particular content that is taken will cause a different effect on man both here now and hereafter. What the different effects will be is the business of God - judgment – not man’s to decide.

In relating many religions - Christianity, African traditional Religion, Islam, and others, it could be said that, in the modern attempt to have a dialogue, many in Christianity have made Christianity lose part of its essence by making every – body not professing Christ “an anonymous Christian” as in Kung’s language.


1. Forsyth P. T. The work of Christ. London. Independent Press Ltd. Pp 99- 100.
2. Ratz C. A. Bible doctrines of Salvation. The Students Handbook, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada pp 9-12.
3. Forsyth P. T. loc.cit.
4. Denney James. The death of Christ. London Hodder and Stoughton. Pp 313ff.
5. Brunner, Emil. The Christian doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Dogmatics Vol. II, Lutterworth Press, pp 271ff.
6. Kanfman D. Gordon: Systematic Theology. Charles Scribner’s & Sons. p 389.
7. Mckelway A. J. The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich. John Knox Pres. p 236.
8. Horton W. M. Christian Theology. Brothers Publishers, New York, p 169.
9. Ibid.
10. Denney James. The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation. Hodder & Stoughton, p 233.
11. Cullmann Oscar. Salvation in History. Harper and Row, New York, p 74.
12. Calvine John. Tracts and Treatises on Doctrine and Worship of the Church. Vol. II, Oliver and Boyd, London. p 142.
13. Strong A. H. Systematic Theology. Vol. III Doctrine of Salvation, American, Baptist Press, New York, pp 829ff.
14. Hearing Theodore. The Christian Faith. A System of Dogmatics. New York, pp 829ff
15. Tillich Paul Systematic Theology. Vol.1, University of Chicago Press pp 144-145.
16. Ibid. Vol. 2, p 85
17. Lee, Umphrey John Wesley and Modern religion Cokesbury Press. Nashville, pp 144-150.
18. Webster’s New School and office Dictionary Abridged, p
19. Webster’s Third New International dictionary of the English Language. Unabridged. Vol.2, p 2006.
20. The Catholic Church rejected Kung as a Roman Catholic Theologian in December ’79/January ’80 because of his statements of the Church. He has not been reinstated.
21. Kung Hans. On being a Christian Sheed and Ward. London, 1963 (Translated by Edward Quinn).
22. Kung Hans. That the World May believe. Sheed and Ward. New York, 1963, (Translated by Cecily Hasting).
23. Kung. On being a Christian. p 31.
24. Ibid. pp 31 – 33.
25. Ibid. p 90.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid. p 91
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid. p 92
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid. p 96
33. Ibid. p 97
34. Ibid. p 98
35. Ibid. p 111
36. Ibid. p 112
37. Ibid. pp 583ff.
38. Ibid. p 602
39. Barth, arl. Church Dogmatics Vol. 1 pp 218ff, Edinburgh, T & T Clark.
40. Tillich, Paul. The courage to be. New Haven. Vale University Press. pp 16ff.

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