More on Episcopalians and Salvation: Presiding Bishop on the Great Commission

For those who seem bound and determined to leave the Episcopal church over sexuality, it seems important to emphasize that "It is not about the sex." Point one on the list of grievances about the Episcopal church is the allegation that the Presiding Bishop does not believe in orthodox Christian doctrine on salvation. As I pointed out in previous posts, this misstates what the Presiding Bishop has said--and it also distorts true orthodox doctrine.

The Presiding Bishop has once again elaborated her beliefs on salvation, and once again they seem fairly orthodox--unless you think that the current Pope is also not orthodox. Here are some highlights. First, she addresses a core issue--canthe unbaptized of other faiths be saved:

Yet the ancient question remains: Is baptism necessary for salvation? Theologians have wrestled with this in a number of ways and made some remarkably gracious and open-ended responses. Vatican II affirmed that salvation is possible outside the church, even though some statements by Roman Catholic authorities in years since have sought to retreat from that position.

Karl Rahner spoke about "anonymous Christians," whose identity is known to God alone. John MacQuarrie recognized the presence of the Logos or Word in other traditions.

But the more interesting question has to do with baptism itself. Like all sacraments, we understand baptism as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (Catechism, BCP, p. 857). It is an outward recognition of grace that is both given and already present through God's action.

When we look at some of the lives of holy people who follow other religious traditions, what do we see? Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama both exemplify Christ-like lives. Would we assume that there is no grace present in lives like these? A conclusion of that sort seems to verge on the only unforgivable sin, against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:30-32).

If I believe that God is more than I can imagine, conceptualize or understand, then I must be willing to acknowledge that God may act in ways that are beyond my ken, including in people who do not follow the Judeo-Christian tradition. Note that I include our Jewish brothers and sisters, for Scripture is very clear that God made a covenant with Israel. That covenant was not abrogated in Jesus. Scripture also speaks of a covenant with Abraham that extends to his offspring, including Ishmael. Our Muslim brothers and sisters claim him as their ancestor. In some way, God continues to act in the tradition we call Islam.

This answer, by the way--that God may save the unbaptized--is almost identical to what a Catholic theological body (the International theological Commission) reached on the same issue with regard to the salvation of unbaptised infants. See my blog post on this here. As I said in that post, God can certainly choose to offer salvation outside the sacraments, and it is hard to imagine that the loving God that I know from the Gospels through the person of Jesus would deny salvation to unbaptised infants. It seems to me that the same logic would apply to Gandhi.

Next, she asks the question--if God will save non-Christians, why bother to evangelize:
Well, if God is already at work in other religious traditions, why would we bother to teach, make disciples or baptize? The focus of our evangelical work can never be imposing our own will (despite the wretched examples of forced conversion in the history of Christianity), but there is a real urgency to sharing the good news.

Can you imagine not saying to another, "Let me introduce you to my best friend. I think you would enjoy getting to know him"? We are certainly not loath to do that when it comes to the latest movie or book or restaurant we've enjoyed, and unless we are leery of sharing, we will not stay silent long.

. . .
The evangelical question has to do with free will. Should we, shall we, impose that on those who do not fully desire it? Maybe it would be helpful to recognize that baptism is not the goal, but rather relationship with God (or discipleship). We understand that to be a relationship in God's Word, whom we call Christ.

Our evangelical work has more to do with the gracious recognition of God already at work in the world about us than it does with imposing our will on others. When Jesus says "make disciples," that has a great deal to do with inviting others into relationship with the God we know, particularly as we know God in Christ. I do not believe it has anything to do with forcible or manipulative conversion.

It has more to do with showing and telling, through word (Word) and deed, what it is like to know the gift of that relationship -- to demonstrate the unutterable attractiveness of that relationship so that another can not imagine anything more desirable. I do not believe it has anything to do with instilling or playing on human fear (which is, after all, one of the things we renounce in baptism).

How might our evangelical work be different if we began with the disciple-making part (the befriending we know in Jesus) rather than counting coup in numbers of baptisms achieved? It is the latter that has given evangelism a bad name through the ages. My sense is that our evangelical work is likely to be more gracious if we focus on how our own lives exemplify the actions we claim in baptism -- washing, forgiving, welcoming, demonstrating Holy Spirit, entering into communion, living as a holy one of God.

Our very lives can be baptism, living water, new life born out of death, to those around us, even though they may not yet consciously claim membership in the body of Christ. Our understanding of eschatological hope is that, in the end, God will make right what is wrong or broken in this world. We are meant to live as though it is already happening.

Read it all here.


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