Salvation History (Heilsgeschichte)

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The view of history as found in the Bible is called salvation history because the events that are recounted in the Bible are regarded in it as God's acts for the salvation of the world. Since the fact that history in the eyes of the inspired writers of the Scriptures is basically religious history was primarily recognized by German Biblical scholars, the German term for salvation history, Heilsgeschichte, was adopted and became the technical term even among English-speaking scholars. After considering the strictly Biblical aspects of salvation history, this article will discuss its import from a viewpoint both of dogmatic and of moral theology.


The ancient Israelites were interested in history, not so much for the sake of the events themselves that took

place as for their why and wherefore. Their thinking, however, was entirely colored by their religion, so that for them there was no merely profane history; for them all history was religious history. They therefore saw the hand of God in the historical events that affected Israel throughout the OT period, and they thus prepared the way for the full revelation of man's salvation as wrought by God in the NT period.

In the Old Testament. The notion of salvation history is rooted in the experience of the Mosaic period. Israel remembered the Exodus as Yahweh's great saving act (Ex 15.118; Dt 5.15; Jos 24.17; Am 9.7; Os 13.4; Mi6.4; and many Psalms). If Yahweh led His people out of Egypt, it was to make His covenant with them (Ex 19.16) and to bring them to the land promised to the Patriarchs (Dt 4.1). As Israel contemplated these events, it recalled its ancient traditions and realized that even its prehistory unfolded under Yahweh's guiding hand. Yahweh had called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, made a covenant with them and promised them land and posterity (Gn 1250). Creation and man's earliest experiences of guilt and grace were the prelude to Yahweh's call of Abraham (Gn 111).

The deuteronomists and the Biblical chronicler tell how God permitted the establishment of a monarchy and made a covenant with the Davidic dynasty (2 Sm 7; 1 Chr 17). When the kings failed Him, God punished His people with exile and loss of national independence. He restored them when they were purified.

The Prophets upheld belief in the divine guidance of history. But more important is their eschatology [see eschatology (in the bible)]. They look beyond earthly history to the climax of salvation history: the old covenant will be fulfilled in a new eternal covenant (Jer 31.3134; Ez 37.2628); David's kingdom will be reestablished by the messiah (Is 9.56; 11.15; Am 9.1115; Hos 3.5; see messianism); the Mosaic period of salvation will be renewed (Hos 2.1617; Is 11.1116; 52.1112; Jer 31.26; Ez 20.3338); paradise will return (Hos 2.20; Am 9.13; Jl 4.18; Is 11.69; Ez 34.2529). But only a remnant will be saved (Is 6.13; Jer 23.3). Salvation will come by way of vicarious suffering (Is 52.1353.12; see suffering servant, song of).

Beginning with the prophetic books and continuing through Daniel and apocryphal writings, apocalyptic literature develops the eschatological viewpoint and introduces new elements. The tendency to divide history into fixed periods (Dn 2.3745; 7.114), to present a detailed picture of the end of the present evil aeon (Ez 3839; Dn 12.1), and to calculate the end of the world (Dn 9.2427;12.7) are typical. Belief in resurrection (see resurrection of the dead, 1) gives a strong impulse to the hope of salvation [Dn 12.23; see hope of salvation (in the bible)].

In the New Testament. Jesus sees His work as the fulfillment of the prophecies (Mt 11.4l5) and of the whole hope of salvation (Mt 13.1617). He places Himself at the end of OT salvation history (Mt 23.3738) and announces that the eschatological kingdom of god is near (Mk 1.15), and is in fact present in His activity (Mt 12.28). Still, salvation history awaits its final completion in the parousia, resurrection, and judgment. Meanwhile Jesus summons men to repentance and total commitment.

This is precisely the way the early Church understood its Lord: for it, too, salvation has already come in Jesus (Heb 1.2; Jn 5.25), yet remains in the future (Acts3.21); the present evil aeon still exists, but is, to the extent that Christ rules, compenetrated by the coming aeon (Gal1.4; 1 Cor 7.2631).

A basic conception of the originally single work of Luke and Acts seems to be that Jesus' earthly activity stands between the time of Israel and the time of the Church. Luke foresees a period of time for spreading the gospel (Lk 24.47; Acts 1.8) and a later Parousia (Lk 21.24; Acts 1.11). He clearly delineates epochs of salvation history (Lk 16.16; Acts 10.3643). His concept, however, is essentially that of the early Church and other Synoptics.

For St. Paul, to be "in Christ" is eschatological existence (Gal 2.20; 6.15; 2 Cor 5.17) in the "now" of the hour of salvation (2 Cor 6.2; Rom 3.21; Eph 2.13), obliging to an eschatological "unworldly" conduct in this passing world (1 Thes 5.410; 1 Cor 7.2935; Rom 12.2; Col 3.511) in order to attain the eschatological goal (Rom 6.22; 1 Cor 1.8; Phil 3.1214). From the viewpoint of Christianity, all previous history was a time without salvation, but now Christ, as the new Adam, has redeemed humanity (Rom 5.1221; 8.29; 1 Cor 15.22, 4549). Nevertheless, Abraham shows to advantage as the prototype and spiritual father of believers (Rom 4), the one who received the promises fulfilled in Christ (Gal3). Moses is mediator of the Law, which brings an increase of transgressions (Gal 3.19) and greater recognition of sin (Rom 3.21), though even in this the divine plan of salvation is forwarded (Rom 5.2021; Gal 3.22, 24). In the new era of salvation, the unbelief of most of Israel does not nullify God's fidelity; rather, God's fidelity inspires hope for the future conversion of all Israel (Rom 911). God has called all, Jews and Gentiles, to be united in Christ (Eph 2.1122).

In the Gospel of St. John the earthly life of Jesus is the time of eschatological revelation and salvation (6.47;8.51), but history will reach its goal only in the resurrection and final judgment (6.3940, 44).

The book of Revelations teaches that even in the messianic era there will be fearful tribulations, but finally there will come the cosmic revelation of eschatological salvation, the destruction of the forces of evil (Rv 1920) and the establishment of God's rule in a new world (Rv 21).

Bibliography: r. schnackenburg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 5:148153; God's Rule and Kingdom, tr. j. murray (New York 1963). g. e. wright and r. h. fuller, The Book of the Acts of God (Garden City, N.Y. 1957). e. beaucamp, The Bible and the Universe, tr. d. balhatchet (Westminster, Md. 1963). c. h. dodd, History and the Gospel (London 1938).

[h. kistner]


The term salvation history became established in theology chiefly through the influence of J. C. von Hofmann, a German Protestant Biblical theologian of the 19th century. Salvation history designates both a principle of scriptural interpretation and a theological affirmation.

As a principle of interpretation, salvation history asserts the fact that God has made a progressive revelation of Himself and His will in Scripture. The interpreter, therefore, must expect an organic growth in the deposit of Biblical faith. The principle expresses the axiom of St. Augustine, "Distinguish the times and you will harmonize Scripture."

As a theological affirmation, salvation history proposes two interrelated theological conceptions. Since language is the sign of understanding, the two nouns in the term signify a unity in conception of two realities: salvation and history. Salvation is the divine act, revealed and accomplished by God, which delivers man from evil and reunites him in grace with God. When the purpose only of deliverance from evil is considered explicitly in the divine act, the noun redemption, or the adjective redemptive is adjoined to make "Redemption history" or "redemp tive history." History refers both to the actual course of human events and to the interpretative memory and record of what happened in the past. Salvation history, as a theological conception, affirms that salvation is historic and that history is salvific.

The historicity of salvation includes three assertions.(1) The salvific act of God is directed toward the course of human events so that salvation begins in time through the actual happenings wrought by God in mankind. (2) God's salvific act begun in time is brought to completion within the historic processes of human activity. (3) The saving act of God, as performed in time, has past, present, and future realizations.

Wrought by God. God's saving activity is retained within the context of the act of creation, which brings man and his history into existence. God made man right and his world good. Man, by the abuse of his freedom, introduced evil into his person, into his world, and consequently into his history. The fundamental revelation of Scripture is God's purpose to save man from this evil.

Within the context of the universal creative act, God's saving activity appears as a new creation, as a creation-saving. Just as from the first creational act there issued the very course of human events, so in the salvific act there issue real events. God interrupts the course of evil in mankind and intervenes to restore what man lost through sin.

Salvation is historic both because the salvific act is directed to the restoration of the historic condition of mankind and because this saving activity is productive of such events in time and place as will issue in the deliverance from evil and reunion with God.

In Human Activity. These saving events done at given times, in particular places, and in the lives of various persons pass to other times, places, and persons by means of the historic processes of human activity. These processes are fourfold. There is the process of continuity as the past becomes the matrix of the present. There is the process of causality as the past becomes the condition of possibility for the present. There is the process of immanence as the past becomes a determinant of the present. There is the process of transcendence as the present makes its unique contributions to what is given from the past. God's work, once done in mankind, both initiates these processes and is assumed into these processes and thereby becomes extended in time, expanded in place, and multiplied in the lives of persons.

Realizations. The salvific work, however, is not done only once. God's interventions are repeated, each deposited in the course of human affairs and taken up into the historic processes. Each creative-saving "Word" of God is sent to the world and produces its effects. The New Testament marks the "fullness of time" when God intervenes decisively and definitely by sending the Word made flesh to dwell among men (Jn 1.118).

For the New Testament writers, God's sending His Son is the Present, the Now. God's previous interventions are the Past. The Future is the fulfillment through the processes of human history of that saving event begun in and through Christ.

Theology also affirms that history is salvific. This means that the events wrought by God and the processes initiated by these events issue in a deliverance from evil and a reunion in grace. But this also means that the very memory and the record of these events are salvific.

The memory and the record (concretely, the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church) are salvific because the faithful, hearing in faith the recital of the remembered past experiences of God's saving acts, are led to understand in Christ the God who saves and their need of His salvation; and, inspired by the Spirit, they respond by accepting the salvation God offers (see biblical theology; kerygma; kerygmatic theology; soteriology).

Bibliography: a. darlapp, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 5:153156. h. ott, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:187189. p. blÄser and a. darlapp, Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, ed. h. fries (Munich 196263) 1:662680. j. baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York 1956). o. cullmann, Christ and Time, tr. f. v. filson (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1964). r. latourelle, Théologie de la révélation (Bruges 1963). j. mouroux, The Mystery of Time, tr. j. drury (New York 1964). e. h. schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God, tr. p. barrett (New York 1963). g. e. wright, God Who Acts (Studies in Biblical Theology 8; Chicago 1952).

[e. l. peterman]


There is no substitute for the forthright proclamation that in Christianity God's plan for the universe's perfection has been revealed and is being worked out. If all man's history from his food-gathering stage to the nuclear space age has full meaning only in Christ, His cross and exaltation, as Christians believe, then this must be proclaimed as the most important truth known to man. Peace and war, poverty and overpopulation, life and death, and anything else have only ad hoc meanings apart from the truth that the whole creation is groaning for "the glory to come that will be revealed" in the complete freedom that is enjoyed by God's sons through Christ (Rom8.1822).

Though the doctrine bears with it its own urgency, only witnesses who are utterly convinced of its value as the ultimate historico-human reality can transmit it properly. Mere humans are incapable of such witnessing; but the missionary or catechist is no mere human. He transmits Christ's message through the authority and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent to continue His teaching mission (Jn 14.1517, 26;15.2627;16.714). He must then be familiar with salvation history as it has been divinely recorded in the Bible, and yet he must not neglect that the Church in its own history, its theological growth, and its liturgical and sacramental life has continued and is now continuing to apply to mankind the fruits of God's salvation in Christ (see witness, christian).

Salvation is of the past; yet by its perdurance in the Body of Christ, the Church, it makes all the past vitally relevant to mankind at the present moment.

Bibliography: j. a. jungmann, The Good News Yesterday and Today, tr. w. a. huesman (New York 1962). m. c. boys, Biblical Interpretation in Religious Education: A Study of the Kerygmatic Era (Birmingham, AL 1980).

[j. e. fallon]