On salvation through Jesus only

Acts 4:12 and Article XVIII

I have long wondered about the theological influence of the conventional requirement that a doctoral dissertation make an ‘original contribution’ to scholarship.  The requirement for originality implies a bias towards novelty.  Orthodox religious views, in contrast, have a bias against novelty, originality, and innovation.  Traditionally the appropriate term for a truly new and original theological opinion has been, often, ‘heresy’.  Of course, it is perfectly possible to be orthodox and also creative and original.  Theological reflection can grow and expand, historical research can produce new knowledge, and creative minds can make new connections and cast helpful light on the objects of theological reflection.  Nonetheless, it is arguable that the importation into English-speaking universities of the Germanic degree of ‘doctor of philosophy’, with its requirement for originality, brought a concomitant bias against orthodoxy.

It is with this thought in mind that I consider the meaning of Acts 4:10-2 and, in particular, the famous assertion by Saint Peter in 4:12, after a healing worked through the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, that ‘there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’  I have no ambition to say anything original about this text:  only to understand it correctly.

It is a common tactic in theological exposition to frame a matter under consideration so as to put one’s own view in the position of the reasonable, moderate middle between two less appealing extremes.  While this may, on one view, be a debating tactic designed to persuade and to win an argument, it on another view may be an understandable and helpful way to explain something:  ‘Here is what my position is not, and here is what my position also is not, and this is why my position is preferable.’

With this explanatory goal in mind, it may be helpful to begin an interpretation of Acts 4:12 by presenting two positions that I do not intend to defend and with which I do not intend to conclude.

The first position that I do not hold is classically known as ‘indifferentism’.  An indifferentist maintains

That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature.  (Article XVIII)

In other words, indifferentism holds that the particulars of a given religion or philosophy or way of life are secondary, and that the primary thing is sincerity.  What I believe and do is a matter of comparative indifference, while how I believe and act is primary.  How I must believe and act is conscientiously, sincerely, and diligently.  My subjective effort to do the best I can is the main thing.  From a Christian point of view, given this position, such subjectively sincere, conscientious diligence is sufficient for salvation.  And that sufficiency for salvation, it seems, would exist even if the person in question does not believe in salvation at all.  The assumption is that God only expects us to follow our own lights, and that such following will lead to salvation.  God will save the sincere, and the protective merit of invincible ignorance atones for all faults.  This first position, indifferentism, holds to a theological sola:  men and women are saved by sincerity alone.

The second position that I do not hold is that Acts 4:12 requires explicit Christian belief, and perhaps also baptism, as essential for salvation.  There are different possibilities, given this starting point, concerning the precise nature of the necessary essentials and the exact extent of the beliefs and subsequent actions required for salvation.  For instance, some might hold that something close to the content of the Apostles’ Creed must be believed if one is to gain salvation.  Others might argue that it is enough to believe that Jesus is Lord and that his resurrection brings eternal life.  Some might hold that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation or, again, that baptism and a godly life are needed.  Some kinds of Augustinians, for instance the medieval theologian Gregory of Rimini, believe that unbaptized persons, even infants, necessarily go to hell and cannot be saved.  Others might hold that a catechumen who is preparing for baptism but then is martyred as a Christian, can be saved through the ‘baptism of blood’.  Still others hold that a desire for baptism, even without martyrdom, suffices as equivalent to baptism itself if opportunity for baptism does not arise.  For the moment these variations are less important than the basic idea:  that salvation requires explicit Christian belief and perhaps action on the basis of that belief.

I think that the first position, indifferentism, must necessarily be rejected as contrary to Acts 4:12.  Article XVIII contains two sentences.  The bulk of the first sentence is quoted above, but that sentence begins sternly with clauses not yet quoted:  ‘They also are to be accursed that presume to say, That every man etc.’  The second sentence reads, ‘For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.’  That is, indifferentism is, according to the Article, disproved by Acts 4:12 as understood always by the Church.  And in this judgement the Church that produced the Articles of Religion is not eccentric or alone.

Indifferentism is, nonetheless, attractive to many people.  Why?

For one thing, the indifferentist emphasis on sincerity and diligent conscientiousness is attractive.  While sincerity and a good and diligent conscience may not suffice for salvation, if, say, the conscience in question is crassly and culpably mistaken, yet it seems unlikely that salvation comes without sincerity and diligence and a good conscience.  By emphasizing sincerity, indifferentism states a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for salvation.  The fact that indifferentism does value something necessary makes its position somewhat attractive and plausible.

For another thing, indifferentism is, I think, often attractive because it seems to many people the only alternative to the second position just stated.  That is, some people do not believe that only explicitly confessing and believing Christians can be saved, and then conclude that the only way to avoid that unpalatable position is by adopting indifferentism.

I would argue, however, that these two positions (indifferentism; necessary explicit Christianity) are not the only possibilities and, therefore, that to assert that they are the only possibilities sets up a false dilemma.  On the contrary, I think that it is false to assert that indifferentism is necessary if we are to avoid concluding that damnation (or a construct such as Limbo) is the only alternative to explicit Christian faith.  Likewise, I would argue that avoidance of the curse of Article XVIII on indifferentism does not require us to maintain the necessity of explicit Christian faith.  There is another option.

At this point, I should say that my goal here is fairly minimal.  I do not seek to prove that the second position (the necessity of explicit Christian faith) is false.  In fact, while I think this second, stringent position is unlikely, I do think it is possible that it is true.  My goal, however, is not to disprove the second position, but only to show the possibility of a third position that would be consistent with Acts 4:12 while avoiding indifferentism.

The essential content of Acts 4:12 seems to be that salvation is exclusively possible in and through Jesus Christ.  There is no source of salvation except Jesus Christ, and there is no way to salvation except by Jesus Christ.  Everyone who is saved is saved through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ.  To suggest that there is some other source or way to salvation is false.

Asserting the unique and essential source of grace in Christ, however, does not prove that explicit Christian faith is absolutely essential for salvation.  It is not, I think, possible to prove that salvation in Christ can be accessed by or applied to individuals only by explicit confession of Jesus Christ and by then using the normal means of grace, beginning with baptism.  One can distinguish the unique source of grace from the means by which that grace is given and received.  The second position – that salvation requires explicit Christian faith – asserts not only that Christ is the unique source of grace, but also that the grace of Christ can only be accessed, given, and received through conscious, explicit Christian belief.  In fact, while I think it is impossible to prove that explicit Christianity is essential in this way, I also think it is impossible to prove the contrary.

In other words, it seems possible that salvation through the Name of Jesus as the fruit of his merits and grace can be bestowed through the love of God upon persons who are ignorant of or who believe that they understand and reject the Christian dispensation.  God is almighty and gracious, and the Spirit bloweth where it listeth.  God clearly shows Christians the normal way to be saved.  God does not, however, tell us what extraordinary and uncovenanted grace can, and particularly cannot, do.  Again, therefore, while the second position above cannot be proved false, neither can it be proved certainly true.  Furthermore, the mercy and love of God seem consistent with the application of the merits of Jesus outside the explicit ambit of Christianity and the visible boundaries of the Church.

The possibility that the second position is true, even if to some it seems unlikely, impels Christians to remain active in mission and diligent in promoting the faith of the Creeds and the normal means of grace.  The possibility, or even likelihood, that the merits of Christ can benefit a wider – perhaps much wider – circle than the visible Church, may permit Christians to adopt a gentler view of the rest of mankind.  While it is, therefore, never safe to treat Christ or his faith as matters of indifference, neither is it necessary for Christians to behave as if God were unable to save whomsoever he wills howsoever he pleases.  God is great, and it is not safe for us to presume to know whom he cannot or will not save.

The foregoing considers primarily Acts 4:12 and Article XVIII.  By way of conclusion it might be useful to consider briefly Roman Catholic positions on these matters.


Rahner, Rome, and Anonymous Christians

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic theologians, including most notably Karl Rahner, began to discuss publicly what Rahner at one point made bold to call the doctrine of anonymous Christianity.  This subject of ‘anonymous Christianity’ appears in many of Rahner’s writings from the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in works concerned with atheism, secularism, and non-Christian religions.[i]  Rahner seems to develop his ideas on the subject not primarily from New Testament data[ii] or from patristic or ecclesial authorities[iii] but rather from his fundamental theology.  In that fundamental theology Rahner asserts a natural orientation towards God (a ‘supernatural existential’) and a virtually universal, though ‘prethematic’, experience of God, which bring a general human orientation toward the infinite.  These universal elements of anthropology accompany and are the ‘horizon’ of all other human experience.  The theory of anonymous Christianity grows from such anthropological, epistemological, and philosophical roots, particularly when combined with belief in a universal, divine salvific will.[iv]  The use by Rahner and others of the term ‘anonymous Christian’ produced much controversy, but at least in modified form the theory, if not the term, seems now to enjoy official Roman Catholic Church approbation.

A typical formulation of subsequent official statements, suggestive of something at least approaching Rahner’s speculation, occurs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated under Pope John Paul II.  The Catechism repeats traditional condemnations of those who deliberately reject the Church despite ‘knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ’.[v]  The Catechism then asserts that ‘[t]his affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church.’  This assertion incorporates the beginning of a statement from the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which the Catechism then quotes more fully:

Those who through 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.[vi]

Subsequent papal teaching has similarly asserted that while acceptance of the authority and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is the fullest and safest way to saving truth, failure to accept that authority and teaching can be relatively free of culpability and does not necessarily preclude salvation.

This Roman Catholic position seems akin to what I have suggested above, but I only present it tentatively as a likely opinion consistent with Scripture and with our general understanding of God’s mercy and benevolence.

[i]  The terms ‘anonymous Christianity’ and ‘anonymous Christian’ occur often in Rahner’s writings and are presented as possible ways in which ‘individuals will find salvation’ (p. 177 in ‘Theological Considerations on Secularization and Atheism’, in Theological Investigations:  Volume XIConfrontations 1.  New York:  Crossroad, 1982 [1974];  the essay dates from 1968 and 1969).  Rahner’s 1961 essay, ‘Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions’ draws connections between the idea of anonymous Christianity and his general anthropology and theology.  It also goes so far as to assert that an adherent to a ‘extra-Christian religion…must already be regarded’ in certain respects as ‘an anonymous Christian’ who has already, before hearing Christian teaching, received revelation.  (This essay is in Theological Investigations:  Volume V.  Later Writings [New York:  Crossroad, 1983, 1966].  The quotation here is from page 131.)   In a 1964 broadcast Rahner reviewed a 1963 book by A. Rӧper called The Anonymous Christian.  In this review Rahner presents Christians as forming a kind of scale, with degrees of membership in the Church centered in baptism.  The scale leads upward to a peak in those who explicitly acknowledge ‘the visible head of the church’ and who seriously pursue holiness, but also it includes on the other side of baptism ‘a non-official and anonymous Christianity which can and should yet be called Christianity in a meaningful sense, even though it itself cannot and would not describe itself as such.’ (Page 391 in Theological Investigations:  Volume VI.  Concerning Vatican Council II.  [New York:  Crossroad, 1982, 1969])

[ii] Though Rahner is, of course, aware of, and makes reference to, passages such as I Timothy 2:4:  see, e.g., citation on page 391 of the final work cited in the previous note.

[iii] Though, again, Rahner in the same essay cited in the previous note (on page 397), writes that ‘this thesis of the anonymous Christian is actually also taught materially in the Constitution on the Church of Vatican II (no. 16).’  See the passage cited in the final note below for the text of Lumen Gentium, No. 16.

[iv] A ‘doctrine of God’s universal and supernatural salvific will’ leads Rahner to posit a kind of universal habitual grace, which seems to imply at least an initial state akin to that of baptized infants.  This grace is supernatural, unmerited, and presents a permanent ‘possibility of a salvific relationship of freedom to God’.  (‘On the Importance of the Non-Christian Religions for Salvation’, p. 291, in Theological Investigations:  Volume XVIII.  God and Revelation [New York:  Crossroad, 1983, 1978.  From a 1975 lecture in Rome.])

[v] Liguori, MO:  Liguori Publications, 1994.  Article 846.

[vi] Op. cit.  Article 847.  The quotation is from Lumen Gentium, 16.  For the full text of this part of Lumen Gentium see Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, Heinrich Denzinger and Huenermann (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2012).  43rd edition, bilingual and enlarged.  Page 875.

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