Salvation of The Modern Individual

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There is a trend in evangelical thinking to a turn from the highly individualistic self of the enlightenment, where salvation is a matter of the individual finding herself in relationship with God alone, to communal sort of thinking where one is part of the tribe as in identity politics. "This culture [of the enlightenment individuality] has also deeply affected the Church of the West. All of our songs are wrapped in the language of me, rather than us. Our taking of the Eucharistic table of the Lord (communion) is highlighted by each one making sure they have no unaccounted for personal sins before taking..."[1] Of each one making sure he or she has no uncounted sins is in the New Testament.

An example of the trend in the church is found in the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien. [2] They argue that most of the time when Paul writes "you" it should be read as a collective second person address,such as our southerner "you all," (that's not it, it's really "Yall") "you guys" as you Yankees say. Direct application is found in passages such as 1 Cor 6:19 "do you not know that your bodies are Temples of The holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God, you are not your own." Our modern translator has made the individual's bodies into each a temple so we have multiple temples. This new collective understanding sees that the Greek for temple is singular and You is plural.So you all are the temple not individual temples. Does that mean smoking is not a sin? where was this passage 40 years ago when I needed to show my Mom? 

Another such passage is 2 Cor. 5:17 "therefore if any one is in Christ he is a new creature." NASB. The NIV says "New Creation has come" giving it a more collectivist potential. One has joined the collective of the new creation (the Church itself is the new creation).  The problem is the Greek is individualistic. "Ei Tis en Christo" --if anyone is in Christ...It's not plural, anyone is a highly individual word, It does say old things are passed away all things have become new, Or could be "the new has emerged" --yeyonin  kina, the new has emerged, The passage ends "Moreover, all things are of the one God." de ponta ek tu theou tou. Sort of summing it all up with a reassuring reference to God's all pervasive originating creativity, This all things implies a collective but it includes the individual as part of the new things.

That's all fine and good, Individualist  mentality is too acquisitive. We need more socialism in the Gospel. We need more emphasis upon social cohesion in  the modern church and we need more understanding of the cultural perspective of the first century in reading the New Testament,But salvation itself is and  always will be an individual  matter. We cannot be saved by following orders or being part of the heard or by letting others decide our actions for us,Paul's sense of membership did not exclude personal relationship with God nor did it exclude personal responsibility. First Paul's metaphor of the body of Christ does assume coordination and that requires unity, yet it also recognizes the individuals and their differences that make up the body. That's the point of the gifts,each has a different gift according to her function. Individuals and their individual functions make up the body and their coordination and cooperation make it a functional body.

We see Paul Himself acting as an individual when he stood up to Peter for giving preference to the delegation from James over the Gentile members. Lest we think this is only because he was an apostle there were cultural influences behind him from both his Hebrew and  Greaco-Roman upbringing, that made his individualism possible. First there is a scholarly move to see individualism as predicated upon the Hebrew faith as well as the Greeks. Even though the Hebrews were tribal and collectivist, nor did they manifest a primary value of individualism many scholars now feel that their culture contained in the law and it's moral nature the basic elements that made individualist possible in Christianity. Moral philosophers understand personal morality to be a prerequisite for individuality. Ilan Wurman Makes this argument, He uses two other books,which are come from opposing ends of the spectrum, to illustrate.[3]  

Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture,  . Joshua Berman argues the Pentateuch was written to be read as a whole and in order.[4][5] What both agree upon is the notion of a coherent whole. Berman in Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, argues the egalitarianism of the Pentateuch is communitarian, while Hazony's ideal is more Hierarchical. What it looks like Hazony has done, from the description by Wurman is to take the old Prophet vs Priest split that can be traced back to Nietzsche, and either reading into or re-discovered in the Pentateuch (Nietzsche got it from someplace). Wurman combines the two views to argue that Hebrew ethics made individualism possible.[6]

There is a much more pronounced individualism among the Greeks, even though they too had their collective spirit. Some have argued that the Greeks had no individualism that view (a manifestation of 20th country anthropology) is ably refitted by Gary W. Burnett, in this work, Paul and The Salvation of The Individual [7] Writing against and extreme form of this view he warns that anthropological approaches that attempt to emphasize the difference in ancient world and ours smother the humanity of the people of antiquity to overplay the dominance of the social.
The trends in modern anthropology, which recognize the importance of self consciousness, an cognitive models of culture combined with the classical scholarship just reviewed, indicates strongly that human beings of early and classical Greece, and the inhabitants of the Greaco-Roman world of the first century CE were human beings fully in the sense in which we understand the modern person--self aware, conscious of himself or herself as a unique person pro-active in the world, making sense of the culture ad world around and contributing to the continual change of their era...there can be no doubt that these societies were much more collective in outlook than our own, Western individualistic society, but individuals were persons in this important self conscious sense.[8]

Paul benefited from both the Hebrew law and the Greaco-Roman individualism,  Having grown up in Asia minor he would have exhibited the cosmopolitanism sophistication and Greek cultural ferment for which Jews of Asia minor were known.  Larry Siedentop argues that Pauline thought overturned the established assumptions of natural inequality. It's that understanding of leveling between us and the stranger that enables us to see ourselves in them.[9]
...[Paul's] understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection introduced to the world a new picture of reality. It provides an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’, through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group …For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour and the unthinking application of rules.For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. This is how Paul turns the abstracting potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it with an almost ferocious moral universalism. The Greek mind and the Jewish will are joined”[10] 
We can see these effects of individualism on Paul. Everything Pal says is about him,He boats of his background and education, he's constantly referring to his experiences and what he's been through,He boasts of his relationship with Jesus, He acts as an ethical lone individual in the face of controversy and moral conviction (in the conflict with Peter and with James). He  is willing to stand up against the authority of the church in Galatians 2:11 "I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong." This upstart who never met Jesus in the flesh was not there when Jesus was crucified and who actually imprisoned Christians is willing to stand up to Jesus' no.1  side kick, to his face and tell him he's wrong. Yes that is being an individual.

Salvation is still about a personal 1x1 relationship with God. We see that on the cross where Jesus tells the thief "you will be with me this day in paradise," (Luke 23:43). Unless we are willing to think He was saying all thieves are now saved he's speaking to an individual not to a collective. Then one of the foundation passages in the OT establishing the fact of a new covenant puts it in very personal individualistic terms. Jeremiah 31:

 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
32 32 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to[d] them,[e]
declares the Lord.
33 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
34 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

The reason the new covenant can't be broken is because it's not predicated upon merely obeying law but is actually internalized by the individual. He says "you will all know me from the greatest." That is a clear statement of individuality and personal relationship with God that supersedes orders from church authorities, or government, or anyone else. While we need to take solidarity seriously and work together to spread the gospel,we need to be sensitive to the leading of the spirit and to cultivate our relationships with God 1x1. that passage (Jer 31:31-24), is quoted in full in Hebrews (8:8-12). I read a good article by Daniel J.Harrington  on the overall use of the passage in NT.[11]

The great irony is that at a time when the church is moving away from the individual of modern Western thought and towards a collectivism,the secular world of scholarship is waking up from Marxist collectivism and beginning to recognize Christianity as the origin of modern enlightenment individualism. We've seen an allusion to this already in the quote above by Burnett. His reference to new trends among anthropologists (en 8). Ian Burkitt points out that it was the Greeks who first used the concept of the persona, which shows up again in the Trinitarian doctrine. He points to Stoicism and the development of  biography as hallmarks of individuality.[12]  Charles Taylor  starts reckoning the dawn of the modern self with St Augustine, (that's ancient Rome).[13]

Siedentop is scoring great apologetics points to make reviewers like Nicholas Lazard of  the Guardian change from a life time of witting off Christianity as having nothing to do with modernity and turning to it as the major source of the modern self:
It comes towards the end of this remarkable book, which made me rethink a great deal. Like many, I had assumed that notions of individual liberty didn’t come into play until the latter end of the Enlightenment. It was something to do with Voltaire, perhaps, or the second sentenceof the American Declaration of Independence. If the Church had anything to do with individuality, it was as a brake on it, or a countermeasure. We were all just anonymous units before the power of God...
it is Christianity we have to thank, and particularly the Christianity that was being formed in the dark and early medieval ages, for our concept of ourselves as free agents. He starts in ancient Greece and Rome: there, the faculty of reason was only to be found in the ruling elite, which, in effect, meant men of a certain class in a city state. If you were a woman, merchant, or slave, all you could really use your brains for were, respectively, gossip, mercantile calculation, and unthinking obedience. (A glance at newsagents’ shelves these days may make you suspect that civilisation has gone retrograde in these respects, but let us pass on that for the moment.) Even philosophers, who had no direct alleƧgiance to a specific place, were for a while suspect. However, seeds were sown, and things got interesting when Greek- and Latin-speaking urban dwellers around the Mediterranean started encountering the Jewish diaspora...But the book is, once you get past the superficial difficulties, not too hard to grasp, and its basic principle – “that the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for what became an unprecedented form of human society” – is, when you think about it, mind-bending.[14]


[1] J. Scott Lencke, "Misreadimg Scriptire with Western Eyes (4) Idividualism and Collectivism," The prodigal Thought.  (May 4, 2013) blog, URL:  (accessed 6/9/17)

J. Scott Lencke: Candidate in Doctorate of intercultural studies and missology  at Fuller Theological Seminary MTS from Fuller Theological Seminary. 

[2] Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Downer's Grove Ill.: IVP, 2012 no page indicated.

[3] Ilan Wurman, "Individualism, Community, and Moral obligation in The Hebrew Bible," Public Discourse, The Witherspoon institute, Ryan T. Anderson Editor, On line Resource, UTL:
(accessed 6/10/17)

[4] Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, Cambriodge, Lodom:
Cambridge University Press,  2012.

[5] Joshua Berman  Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011

[6] Wurman, op cit.

[7]  Gary W. Burnett Paul and the salvation of the individual, Leiden, Boston,Koln: Brill, 2001, 45-46

Dr. Burnett (Ph.D.) Taught New Testament at Queens University Belfast.

[8] Ibid. 

Larry Siedentop, Inventing The Individual" The Origins of Western liberalism. Cambridge Mass.:Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014, 60.

[10] Ibid., 63-640.

[11] Daniel J. Harrington, "Jeremiah 31:31-34 and the New Testament," Bible Odyssey, (2017 no other date given) On line resource URL:
(accessed 6/10/17)

[12]  Ian Burkitt , Social Selves : Theories of Self and Society. London:Sage Publications Ltd. second edition, 2008, aoriginally 1992, 5.

[13] Charles Taylor, Sources of The Self:The Making of The modern Identity. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992,127-143.

[14] Nicholas Lezard, "Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism By Larry Siedentop--review," The Guardian (Jan 27,2015) on Lime addition accessed 6/10/17)URL
(accessed 6/10/17)


Kristen said…
Interesting read! Individualism and collectivism in Christianity, I think, actually stand in balance. We must see ourselves as individuals in terms of personal morality and accountability before God-- but it's also important to see ourselves as part of a culture and society, particularly when we take responsibility (as we should) for cultural and societal sins, such as racism and sexism, and act as individuals to changes these social ills.

Some Christians today seem to want to see themselves as part of a tribe in an us-vs-them mentality when it comes to beliefs (the world is against us Christians), but then to turn around and view themselves only as individuals when it comes to social sins (I personally am not racist and therefore need take no responsibility for the racism in our culture). They seem to want to have their cake and eat it too.
Thanks Kristen, I agree good observation.
Jason Pratt said…
Good article! -- that famous quote from Jeremiah is used by Jesus (tacitly putting Himself into quote as YHWH, as usual, by the way), in GosJohn 8 when talking about the result of the general resurrection to come, too.

Your paragraph where you introduce Hazan's book seems to be missing the end of the first sentence, after his book title, though, apparently where you meant to describe how he regards the Pentateuch before the contrast with Berman's argument in the next sentence.


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