Orthodox soteriology

There’s a headline that just pulls you right in, huh? Nothin’ but readers, as Ben Bradlee used to say.

Anyway, as soteriology (the study of the doctrine of salvation) is not a word I get to us everyday, I just want to savor its appearance for a moment.

Moving on: In the days leading up to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s investiture, the Anglican right made a great deal of noise about interviews she gave to Time magazine, and to Robin Young of NPR’s show Here and Now.


Q. Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?

Bishop Jefferts Schori: 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.


Robin Young: So you’re saying there are other ways to God.

Bishop Jefferts Schori: Human communities have always searched for relationship that which is beyond them…with the ultimate… with the divine. For Christians, we say that our route to God is through Jesus. That doesn’t mean that a Hindu doesn’t experience God except through Jesus. It says that Hindus and people of other faith traditions approach God through their own cultural contexts; they relate to God, they experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships

* * *

I am not going to transcribe the voluminous and frequently vitriolic responses that these interviews prompted in the usual quarters. Nor am I going to dispute that many evangelical Christians believe, in good faith, that salvation requires an explicit embrace of Jesus Christ as your personal savior. But that view is not normative outside evangelical precincts, and I think many of those shooting spitballs at our new presiding bishop know that.

For instance, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says as follows:

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

“Those who no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

Pope John Paul II said something similar in Dominus Iesus (2000):

“Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors'”. Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.”

“Theology today, in its reflection on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God’s salvific plan, is invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation. In this undertaking, theological research has a vast field of work under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council, in fact, has stated that: “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source”.”

“With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself”.”

Some of the most interesting thinking on the issue of “salvation outside the church” was done by the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who developed the notion of the “anonymous Christian,” which he described as follows:

“Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity… Let us say, a Buddhist monk… who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.”

For a fuller explanation of Rahner’s thinking go here and here. He and Hans urs Von Balthasar (whose own thinking on the question of universal salvation is so complex that even his admirerers can’t agree on what it says) had vigorous debates on this issue, so I am not suggesting that Rahner’s view is beyond dispute, but it is not “unorthodox” and neither is Bishop Jefferts Schori.

I have no quarrel with people who want to believe that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior is the only way to heaven. But it simply is not the case that those who disagree with you are in rebellion against some long-settled and universally accepted issue of Christian doctrine.

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