Saturday, January 19, 2008

Who can be saved?

In response to the question, "Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?" Presiding Bishop Katharine Jeffert Schori commented in an interview in the July 17, 2006 issue of Time magazine about the role of Jesus in salvation:

“We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”

Her statement remains a subject of controversy. Fr Fred Barber at Trinity Church, Fort Worth did a good job recently of trying to defend it (see "The Way to the Father: The Word" in the January 2008 Parish Paper). I think the problem in his analysis was in sometimes confusing the issue with the question about the role of the Church in salvation. However, Schori was asked about the role of Jesus in salvation. Ironically, Barber goes to great length to defend the indispensable role of Jesus (i.e., "the Word") in salvation, while Schori says that puts God in "an awfully small box." And while they are closely related questions, there are careful distinctions. Of course, it is possible that Schori also confused the same two issues in her answer.

I think there is a problem with Fr Barber's distinction between the pre-incarnate, incarnate, and what we might call his description of the "post-incarnate" Word. Furthermore, his reasoning makes sense about salvation through the Word before the incarnation (before the Word was made flesh), but not after. Barber writes, "In Jesus the WORD becomes flesh, but the WORD had been before, and will be after the fleshly Jesus." But is that the case? Not in classical Christian theology. You can no longer draw a distinction between the Word and the incarnate Christ. The Chalcedonian definition expresses it as the human and divine natures being forever joined "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" in the one person of Jesus Christ (BCP, 864).

On that question of salvation apart from the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, professor at Fordham Univerity (and son of the house, Nashotah D.D. class of '96) has an excellent paper on the subject in the February 2008 issue of First Things. His essay, worthy of careful study, is titled "Who can be saved?" Fr Dulles begins with the faith assumption that Jesus is Savior and Lord, the one Mediator between God and man, and examines how the question of the salvation of those who have not known the gospel of Jesus as Savior and Lord has been treated in Christian history. Here are some highlights (emphases mine):

Nothing is more striking in the New Testament than the confidence with which it proclaims the saving power of belief in Christ. . . . Paul is the outstanding herald of salvation through faith. To the Romans he writes, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Faith, for him, is inseparable from baptism, the sacrament of faith. . . .

The Book of Acts shows the apostles preaching faith in Christ as the way to salvation. Those who believe the testimony of Peter on the first Pentecost ask him what they must do to be saved. He replies that they must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and thereby save themselves from the present crooked generation (Acts 2:37-40). When Peter and John are asked by the Jewish religious authorities by what authority they are preaching and performing miracles, they reply that they are acting in the name of Jesus Christ and that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). . . . From these and many other texts, I draw the conclusion that, according to the primary Christian documents, salvation comes through personal faith in Jesus Christ, followed and signified by sacramental baptism. The New Testament is almost silent about the eternal fate of those to whom the gospel has not been preached. . . .

Christian theologians, however, soon had to face the question whether anyone could be saved without Christian faith. They did not give a wholly negative answer. They agreed that the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, because they looked forward in faith and hope to the Savior, could be saved by adhering in advance to him who was to come. The apologists of the second and third centuries made similar concessions with regard to certain Greek philosophers. The prologue to John’s gospel taught that the eternal Word enlightens all men who come into the world. . . .

The saving grace of which these theologians were speaking, however, was given only to pagans who lived before the time of Christ. It was given by the Word of God who was to become incarnate in Jesus Christ. There was no doctrine that pagans could be saved since the promulgation of the gospel without embracing the Christian faith. Origen and Cyprian, in the third century, formulated the maxim that has come down to us in the words Extra ecclesiam nulla salus
Outside the Church, no salvation.” They spoke these words with heretics and schismatics primarily in view, but they do not appear to have been any more optimistic about the prospects of salvation for pagans. Assuming that the gospel had been promulgated everywhere, writers of the high patristic age considered that, in the Christian era, Christians alone could be saved. . . . In the West, following Ambrose and others, Augustine taught that, because faith comes by hearing, those who had never heard the gospel would be denied salvation. . . .

On one point the medieval theologians diverged from rigid Augustinianism. On the basis of certain passages in the New Testament, they held that God seriously wills that all may be saved. They could cite the statement of Peter before the household of Cornelius: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). . . . If faith in Christ was necessary for salvation, how could salvation be within reach of those who had no opportunity to learn about Christ? . . .

Luther, Calvin, and the Jansenists professed the strict Augustinian doctrine that God did not will to save everyone, but the majority of Catholic theologians rejected the idea that God had consigned all these unevangelized persons to hell without giving them any possibility of salvation. A series of theologians proposed more hopeful theories that they took to be compatible with Scripture and Catholic tradition. The Dominican Melchior Cano argued that these populations were in a situation no different from that of the pre-Christian pagans praised by Justin and others. They could be justified in this life (but not saved in the life to come) by implicit faith in the Christian mysteries. Another Dominican, Domingo de Soto, went further, holding that, for the unevangelized, implicit faith in Christ would be sufficient for salvation itself. . . .

The Jesuit Francisco Suarez, following these pioneers, argued for the sufficiency of implicit faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation, together with an implicit desire for baptism on the part of the unevangelized. Juan de Lugo agreed, but he added that such persons could not be saved if they had committed serious sins, unless they obtained forgiveness by an act of perfect contrition.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Jesuits of the Gregorian University followed in the tradition of Suarez and de Lugo, with certain modifications. Pope Pius IX incorporated some of their ideas in two important statements in 1854 and 1863. In the first, he said that, while no one can be saved outside the Church, God would not punish people for their ignorance of the true faith if their ignorance was invincible. In the second statement, Pius went further. He declared that persons invincibly ignorant of the Christian religion who observed the natural law and were ready to obey God would be able to attain eternal life, thanks to the workings of divine grace within them. In the same letter, the pope reaffirmed that no one could be saved outside the Catholic Church. He did not explain in what sense such persons were, or would come to be, in the Church. He could have meant that they would receive the further grace needed to join the Church, but nothing in his language suggests this. More probably he thought that such persons would be joined to the Church by implicit desire, as some theologians were teaching by his time.

In 1943, Pius XII did take this further step. In his encyclical on the Mystical Body, Mystici Corporis, he distinguished between two ways of belonging to the Church: in actual fact (in re) or by desire (in voto). Those who belonged in voto, however, were not really members. They were ordered to the Church by the dynamism of grace itself, which related them to the Church in such a way that they were in some sense in it. The two kinds of relationship, however, were not equally conducive to salvation. Those adhering to the Church by desire could not have a sure hope of salvation because they lacked many spiritual gifts and helps available only to those visibly incorporated in the true Church. . . .

The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and its Decree on Ecumenism, made some significant departures from the teaching of Pius XII. It avoided the term member and said nothing of an unconscious desire for incorporation in the Church. It taught that the Catholic Church was the all-embracing organ of salvation and was equipped with the fullness of means of salvation. Other Christian churches and communities possessed certain elements of sanctification and truth that were, however, derived from the one Church of Christ that subsists in the Catholic Church today. For this reason, God could use them as instruments of salvation. God had, however, made the Catholic Church necessary for salvation, and all who were aware of this had a serious obligation to enter the Church in order to be saved. God uses the Catholic Church not only for the redemption of her own members but also as an instrument for the redemption of all. Her witness and prayers, together with the eucharistic sacrifice, have an efficacy that goes out to the whole world.

In several important texts, Vatican II took up the question of the salvation of non-Christians. Although they were related to the Church in various ways, they were not incorporated in her. God’s universal salvific will, it taught, means that he gives non-Christians, including even atheists, sufficient help to be saved. Whoever sincerely seeks God and, with his grace, follows the dictates of conscience is on the path to salvation. The Holy Spirit, in a manner known only to God, makes it possible for each and every person to be associated with the Paschal mystery. “God, in ways known to himself, can lead those inculpably ignorant of the gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him.” The council did not indicate whether it is necessary for salvation to come to explicit Christian faith before death, but the texts give the impression that implicit faith may suffice. . . .

In 2000, toward the end of John Paul’s pontificate, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the declaration Dominus Iesus, which emphatically taught that all grace and salvation must come through Jesus Christ, the one mediator. Wisely, in my opinion, the popes and councils have avoided talk about implicit faith, a term that is vague and ambiguous. They do speak of persons who are sincerely seeking for the truth and of others who have found it in Christ. They make it clear that sufficient grace is offered to all and that God will not turn away those who do everything within their power to find God and live according to his law. We may count on him to lead such persons to the faith needed for salvation.

One of the most interesting developments in post-conciliar theology has been Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians.” He taught that God offers his grace to everyone and reveals himself in the interior offer of grace. Grace, moreover, is always mediated through Christ and tends to bring its recipients into union with him. Those who accept and live by the grace offered to them, even though they have never heard of Christ and the gospel, may be called anonymous Christians.

Although Rahner denied that his theory undermined the importance of missionary activity, it was widely understood as depriving missions of their salvific importance. Some readers of his works understood him as teaching that the unevangelized could possess the whole of Christianity except the name. Saving faith, thus understood, would be a subjective attitude without any specifiable content. In that case, the message of the gospel would have little to do with salvation. . . .

We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:7). If non-Christians are praying to an unknown God, it may be for us to help them find the one they worship in ignorance. God wants everyone to come to the truth. Perhaps some will reach the goal of their searching only at the moment of death. Who knows what transpires secretly in their consciousness at that solemn moment? We have no evidence that death is a moment of revelation, but it could be, especially for those in pursuit of the truth of God.

Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the obligation to share it with others. Christian faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

4 comments:

Jon said...

Remind me, did she say Jesus or Christ? Academics distinguished between the two words in order to be able to talk about history without it being confused as making statements about the faith.

Jon

Timotheos Prologizes said...

Good point. She uses the word "him", but the question put to her is "Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?" I have added that to my post for more clarity.

As I see it, her answer is essentially, "No."

First Apostle said...

I'm a fan of Rahner's "anonymous Christian" idea. Actually, I'm a big fan of Rahner altogether.

The idea of a Christian bishop referring to Jesus as our vehicle to the divine is truly alarming. It is as if she thinks of Jesus as a prophet rather than the second person of the Trinity - God himself.

Timotheos Prologizes said...

If a prophet is a vehicle (or, if a vehicle is a prophet).