Robin RYAN. Jesus and Salvation: Soundings in the Christian Tradition and Contemporary Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015. Pp. xxiv + 248. $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8253-1. Reviewed by Benjamin J. BROWN, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560.
Jesus and Salvation has succeeded in offering a well-rounded and thoughtful examination of soteriology in the Christian and especially the Catholic tradition. Robin Ryan’s text deals with the major issues related to salvation in a way that is generally clear, fair-minded, and wide-ranging.
Ryan’s project is primarily descriptive and somewhat evaluative rather than constructive. That is, he presents key figures of the tradition and some contemporary theologians and documents as well, rather than attempting to develop a soteriology of his own. He offers some analysis and evaluation along the way, but focuses primarily on accurate presentation. He strives to describe fairly the positions of all of the figures whom he discusses, looked at in context and with an eye to what authors truly intend, and in this he succeeds quite well.
The first two chapters examine salvation in the Old and New Testaments. The next two chapters focus on patristic, medieval and Reformation soteriology, especially Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, Abelard, and Aquinas. A variety of other Church Fathers are discussed, too, and Luther, Calvin and Trent also get a few pages at the end. Chapter five studies Rahner, von Balthasar and Schillebeeckx while chapter six considers liberation and feminist soteriology, especially Gutierrez and Elizabeth Johnson. The following two chapters switch from historical theology to a more systematic approach, examining the questions of the salvation of the material world in evolutionary perspective and the universality of salvation, particularly the question of the salvation of non-Christians. In the final chapter, Ryan describes several key principles for soteriology, towards which he has been building subtly throughout the book, and offers the concept of communion as a model for soteriology.
Ryan is generally very good about treating the theologians he discusses fairly, looking at their soteriology in the context of both history and their whole theological corpus. I typically skip to a new soteriology text’s section on Anselm to get a sense of the author’s research, fairness and handling of key ideas; Jesus and Salvation mostly passed that test. R. W. Southern’s work was especially helpful for Ryan in providing a foundation of an accurate reading of Anselm, who is so often misread. Regarding Calvin’s soteriology, he had little positive to say, in which case he chose to remain silent, only evaluating Calvin indirectly through his critique of penal substitution theories in general (which he correctly recognizes is not a position that Anselm holds).
Ryan finds things to appreciate and critique in nearly every one of the theologians he examines. This fits well with one of his major principles, namely that we need a diversity of images and approaches to salvation in order to appreciate the fullness of what God has done in Christ. Another related principle is that soteriology needs to integrate all the aspects of Christ’s life and appreciate the salvific value of each of them, especially Christ’s everyday life and public ministry, not just the incarnation, cross and/or resurrection. Theologians which emphasize one aspect or another are critiqued, but at the same time Ryan makes sure to appreciate their particular insights regarding the element(s) they focus on.
Ryan insists that we must have a unified theory of salvation which doesn’t pit the Father against the Son, nor justice against mercy. The plan of salvation begins with God, Father, Son, and Spirit. And it encompasses the whole world and the whole of history in some fashion. However, we are not in a position to be able to see the whole, so evil will continue to remain mysterious for us. In fact, Ryan follows Schillebeeckx, his soteriological hero, if one had to pick a single such figure, in seeing salvation being “won” despite the cross more than because of it. Schillebeeckx is appreciated in part because he conceives of God as “Pure Positivity,” emphasizes the life and ministry of Christ, and treats the cross as simply the result of Jesus’ mission faithfulness (otherwise, God seems to desire suffering and death). He receives only one sentence of gentle criticism for not giving quite enough attention to the incarnation, which would have allowed for “more ontological depth to the notion of God’s solidarity with humankind in Jesus” (125).
However, Ryan’s thought is not without its difficulties. His emphasis on positivity is good, but at times it undermines his recognition of the importance of justice; punishment, satisfaction, and sacrifice are at one point or another appreciated by Ryan in their Christian transformations, but then later he seems to want to marginalize them as misleading at best. Secondly, his emphasis on the life of Christ at times militates against the strong New Testament focus on the cross and resurrection. Like Schillebeeckx and other more progressive thinkers, Ryan seems to want to have the resurrection without the cross, but this departs from the New Testament and the Christian tradition. Suffering is not a positive value in itself, to be sure; we look for it to be conquered along with death. But given the reality of sin and redemption, suffering is necessary and can have value. Christ’s suffering and ours transforms us into self-giving lovers. Of course, Ryan rightly acknowledges the somewhat mysterious and ambiguous nature of suffering and death in the divine plan, especially given what evolutionary science shows us, but we will not find a resolution to the issue by minimizing the cross or negating the value of self-giving through co-suffering and taking up one’s cross.Despite these downfalls, Ryan has put together a strong text which examines the issues fairly and in a generally balanced manner. Ryan draws upon solid scholarship (his favorite secondary source is by far Gerald O’Collins) to help in analyzing each figure and topic, and the notes are strong as are the two indices. Jesus and Salvation would be an appropriate text for a graduate Christology course or a strong upper-level undergrad class.