Theology and religious studies

In his article “Who Can Be Saved?” Avery Dulles reflects on the development of views in the Church about whether explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. Write a 300-350 word post answering the following questions in a way you think makes the best sense of Christian doctrine. Draw from Dulles’ article to aid your discussion:1. How do salvation and faith in Christ relate to each other?2. How might God’s grace be able to save non-Christians who don’t have explicit faith in Christ?

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Who Can Be Saved?
by Avery Cardinal Dulles
February 2008
Nothing is more striking in the New Testament than the confidence with which it
proclaims the saving power of belief in Christ. Almost every page confronts us with
a decision of eternal consequence: Will we follow Christ or the rulers of this world?
The gospel is, according to Paul, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who
has faith” (Rom. 1:16). The apostles and their associates are convinced that in Jesus
they have encountered the Lord of Life and that he has brought them into the way
that leads to everlasting blessedness. By personal faith in him and by baptism in his
name, Christians have passed from darkness to light, from error to truth, and from
sin to holiness.
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. By baptism, the Christian is
immersed in the death of Christ so as to be raised with him to newness of life (Rom.
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). Paul and his associates bring the gospel first of all to the Jews because it is the
fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. When the Jews in large numbers reject
the message, Paul and Barnabas announce that they are turning to the Gentiles in
order to bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 13:46-47).
A few chapters later in Acts, we see Paul and Silas in prison at Philippi. When their
jailer asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” they reply, “Believe in the Lord
Jesus and you will be saved.” The jailer and his family at once accept baptism and
rejoice in their newfound faith (Acts 16:30-34).
The same doctrine of salvation permeates the other books of the New Testament.
Mark’s gospel ends with this missionary charge: “Go into all the world and preach
the gospel to the whole of creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved;
but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
John in his gospel speaks no less clearly. Jesus at one point declares that those who
hear his word and believe in him do not remain in darkness, whereas those who
reject him will be judged on the last day (John 12:44-50). At the Last Supper, Jesus
tells the Twelve, “This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God,
and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). John concludes the body of his
gospel with the statement that he has written his account “so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ and that believing you may have life in his name” (John
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. It seems apparent that those who became believers did
not think they had been on the road to salvation before they heard the gospel. In his
sermon at Athens, Paul says that in times past God overlooked the ignorance of the
pagans, but he does not say that these pagans were saved. In the first chapter of
Romans, Paul says that the Gentiles have come to a knowledge of God by reasoning
from the created world, but that they are guilty because by their wickedness they
have suppressed the truth and fallen into idolatry. In the second chapter of Romans,
Paul indicates that Gentiles who are obedient to the biddings of conscience can be
excused for their unbelief, but he indicates that they fall into many sins. He
concludes that “all have sinned and fall short” of true righteousness (Rom. 3:23). For
justification, Paul asserts, both Jews and Gentiles must rely on faith in Jesus Christ,
who expiated the sins of the world on the cross.
Animated by vibrant faith in Christ the Savior, the Christian Church was able to
conquer the Roman Empire. The converts were convinced that in embracing
Christianity they were escaping from the darkness of sin and superstition and
entering into the realm of salvation. For them, Christianity was the true religion, the
faith that saves. It would not have occurred to them that any other faith could save
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. Justin Martyr speculated
that philosophers such as Socrates and Heraclitus had lived according to the Word of
God, the Logos who was to become incarnate in Christ, and they could therefore be
reckoned as being in some way Christians. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and
Origen held that the Wisdom of God gave graces to people of every generation, both
Greeks and barbarians.
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
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 East, this view is represented by Gregory of Nyssa and John
Chrysostom. The view attributed to Origen that hell would in the end be evacuated
and that all the damned would eventually be saved was condemned in the sixth
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.
They would be eternally punished for original sin as well as for any personal sins
they had committed. Augustine’s disciple Fulgentius of Ruspe exhorted his readers
to “firmly hold and by no means doubt that not only all pagans, but also all Jews,
and all heretics and schismatics who are outside the Catholic Church, will go to the
eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The views of Augustine and Fulgentius remained dominant in the Christian West
throughout the Middle Ages. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reaffirmed the
formula “Outside the Church, no salvation,” as did Pope Boniface VIII in 1302. At
the end of the Middle Ages, the Council of Florence (1442) repeated the formulation
of Fulgentius to the effect that no pagan, Jew, schismatic, or heretic could be saved.
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).
The First Letter to Timothy, moreover, declares that God “desires all men to be
saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). These assurances made
for a certain tension in Catholic teaching on salvation. If faith in Christ was
necessary for salvation, how could salvation be within reach of those who had no
opportunity to learn about Christ?
Thomas Aquinas, in dealing with this problem, took his departure from the axiom
that there was no salvation outside the Church. To be inside the Church, he held, it
was not enough to have faith in the existence of God and in divine providence,
which would have sufficed before the coming of Christ. God now required explicit
faith in the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. In two of his early works
(De Veritate and Commentary on Romans), he discusses the hypothetical case of a
man brought up in the wilderness, where the gospel was totally unknown. If this man
lived an upright life with the help of the graces given him, Thomas reasoned, God
would make it possible for him to become a Christian believer, either through an
inner illumination or by sending a missionary to him. Thomas referred to the biblical
example of the centurion Cornelius, who received the visitation of an angel before
being evangelized and baptized by Peter (Acts 10). In his Summa Theologiae,
however, Thomas omits any reference to miraculous instruction; he goes back to the
Augustinian theory that those who had never heard the gospel would be eternally
punished for original sin as well as their personal sins.
A major theological development occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. The voyages of discovery had by this time disclosed that there were large
populations in North and South America, Africa, and Asia who had lived since the
time of Christ and had never had access to the preaching of the gospel. The
missionaries found no sign that even the most upright among these peoples had
learned the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation by interior inspirations or
angelic visitations.
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. Their contemporary, Albert Pighius, held that for these
unevangelized persons the only faith required would be that mentioned in Hebrews
11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to
God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” They
could therefore be saved by general revelation and grace even though no missionary
came to evangelize them.
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.
Mystici Corporis represents a forward step in its doctrine of adherence to the Church
through implicit desire. From an ecumenical point of view, that encyclical is
deficient, since it does not distinguish between the status of non-Christians and nonCatholic Christians. The next important document came from the Holy Office in its
letter to Cardinal Cushing of Boston in 1949. The letter pointed out “in opposition to
Father Leonard Feeney, S.J., and his associates at St. Benedict Center” that,
although the Catholic Church was a necessary means for salvation, one could belong
to it not only by actual membership but by also desire, even an unconscious desire.
If that desire was accompanied by faith and perfect charity, it could lead to eternal
Neither the encyclical Mystici Corporis nor the letter of the Holy Office specified
the nature of the faith required for in voto status. Did the authors mean that the
virtue of faith or the inclination to believe would suffice, or did they require actual
faith in God and divine providence, or actual faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation?
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 allembracing 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 nonChristians. 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 nonChristians, 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.
Vatican II left open the question whether non-Christian religions contain revelation
and are means that can lead their adherents to salvation. It did say, however, that
other religions contain elements of truth and goodness, that they reflect rays of the
truth that enlightens all men, and that they can serve as preparations for the gospel.
Christian missionary activity serves to heal, ennoble, and perfect the seeds of truth
and goodness that God has sown among non-Christian peoples, to the glory of God
and the spiritual benefit of those evangelized.
While repeatedly insisting that Christ is the one mediator of salvation, Vatican II
shows forth a generally hopeful view of the prospects of non-Christians for
salvation. Its hopefulness, however, is not unqualified: “Rather often, men, deceived
by the evil one, have become caught up in futile reasoning and have exchanged the
truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or, some there are
who, living and dying in a world without God, are subject to utter hopelessness.”
The missionary activity of the Church is urgent for bringing such persons to
After the council, Paul VI (in his pastoral exhortation “Evangelization in the Modern
World”) and John Paul II (in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio) interpreted the
teaching of Vatican II in relation to certain problems and theological trends arising
since the council. Both popes were on guard against political and liberation
theology, which would seem to equate salvation with formation of a just society on
earth and against certain styles of religious pluralism, which would attribute
independent salvific value to non-Christian religions. 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.
A …
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