A Comparison of Catholic and Reformed Views on the Salvation of Non-Christians

“God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right, is welcome to him.” — Acts 10: 34-35

Author Robert J. Hutchinson in Rome

In Lumen Gentium, the Decree on the Church in the Modern World, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council forever committed the Roman Catholic Church to a belief in the possible salvation of non-Christians — even, apparently, of non-theists.

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“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, yet, sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is know to them through the dictates of conscience,” the Fathers declared. “Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace.”

Many evangelicals, and not a few conservative Catholics, believe this teaching of Vatican II represents a dramatic change in official Catholic doctrine — a concession, perhaps, to the liberal theology of Karl Rahner or to an ecumenical movement gone berserk. They may be surprised to learn, however, that the roots of this teaching are entrenched in magisterial (that is, “official”) Roman Catholic pronouncements, go back through Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics to Justin Martyr (c. 150) and ultimately to the New Testament itself.

Put simply: Centuries of reflection on the Biblical testimony as a whole gradually led the Catholic Church to develop a theory of salvation (explicitly rejected by the early Reformers) in which persons are saved or lost depending upon whether they trust in God (whether consciously acknowledged or not) and follow the dictates of their conscience to the best of their ability. Incredible as it sounds, the rudiments of this teaching are explicitly stated in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.

The New Testament clearly and explicitly teaches that those who have faith (“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” Acts 16: 30) and/or are baptized (“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you,” 1 Peter 3: 21) will be saved. And the New Testament also clearly teaches no human being will be saved apart from the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. But does it necessarily follow from these texts that those who do NOT have faith and are not baptized are damned? Does the New Testament teach that? Some careful readers of the New Testament are doubtful.

While it’s true that if you rob a bank you’ll be rich… it doesn’t follow logically that if you refuse to rob a bank you’ll end up poor. In other words, while it’s true that no person may be saved apart from the redemptive work of Christ, it doesn’t follow that every person must be aware of that work and have explicit faith in it. And while it’s true all those who are baptized and believe in Jesus will be saved, it’s doesn’t follow logically that all those who are not baptized and do not believe will not be saved.

Nevertheless, as a result of numerous scriptural texts that seem to emphasize the necessity of the sacraments (“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” John 6: 53), the early Fathers of the Church believed that a person could only be saved within the context of the Christian community. It was only within the body of the church that a person had access to the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist), true doctrine based on the unbroken Tradition of the apostles, and knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus.

For that reason, the early Fathers of the Church believed that membership in the body of the Church was quite obviously necessary for salvation. Augustine, ever willing to follow the “hard sayings” of the Gospel to their logical conclusions, believed that there was no salvation for unbelievers — even for those who had never had a chance to hear the Gospel preached. Augustine was aware (unlike many Christians) that there were, as he put it, “countless barbarian tribes among whom the Gospel has not been preached,” yet he believed (as would John Calvin centuries later) that a strict adherence to the teaching of the New Testament (particularly Mark 16) required the belief that all unbaptized persons were lost. Later, Augustine sought to justify this seemingly harsh view by appealing to his interpretation of the doctrine of Original Sin: All human beings stand justly condemned, even infants; and so God is not unjust if those who die without having had a chance to accept the Gospel are punished.

Medieval scholasticism and the official decrees of the Catholic Church, however, had a more nuanced view. St. Cyprian’s slogan extra ecclesiam nula sallus was given dogmatic force by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and Pope Boniface VIII’s bull Unam Sanctam (1302), but various “loop holes” were proposed for how an all-merciful God, whom scripture teaches desires “all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3),” could save even those outside the “visible” boundaries of the church and therefore who did not have access to the sacraments. Among these theoretical proposals were the concepts of “implicit faith,” “invincible ignorance” and “baptism by desire.”

St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) comes very close to Karl Rahner’s idea of the anonymous Christian in discussing the “implicit” faith of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who is saved (Acts 10). Thomas taught that belief in Christ is necessary for salvation, but, because of God’s universal salvific will, God would somehow ensure that all persons had the opportunity to believe. St. Thomas wrote: “If anyone were brought up in the wilderness or among brute animals, provided that he followed his natural reason in seeking the good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him, by an inner inspiration, what must be believed, or would send a preacher to him, as he sent Peter to Cornelius (De Veritate, q. 14, a. 11, ad 1.)” What is more, St. Thomas and later Catholic magisterial teaching would affirm that, while “without baptism there is no salvation for anyone” (Summa III, q. 68, a. 1), that baptism does not have to be the literal sacrament of water. There is a “baptism of repentance” just as there is a “baptism of blood” as well:

Consequently, a man may, without Baptism of Water, receive the sacramental effect from Christ’s Passion, in so far as he is conformed to Christ by suffering for Him. Hence it is written (Apoc. 7:14): “These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In like manner a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called Baptism of Repentance. Of this it is written (Is. 4:4): “If the Lord shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall wash away the blood of Jerusalem out of the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.” Thus, therefore, each of these other Baptisms is called Baptism, forasmuch as it takes the place of Baptism (Summa III, q. 66, a. 11).

The early Reformers — including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin — were not impressed by these scholastic subtleties. They all taught that non-Christians were predestined for eternal damnation. For the Reformers, saving faith by its very nature includes an explicit acknowledgement that Jesus Christ is one’s personal Lord and Savior and a firm commitment to him. For Calvin, there mere fact that someone has not had the opportunity of hearing the Gospel is proof that God has predestined him or her for eternal damnation:

“Those, therefore, who He has created for dishonor during life and destruction at death, that they may be vessels of wrath and examples of severity, in bringing to their doom, he at one time deprives of the means of hearing his word, at another by the preaching of it blinds and stupifies them the more (Institutes III, 24, 12).”

The Reformation doctrine of total depravity meant that human beings were incapable, without an explicit faith in Christ, of fulfilling even the minimal requirements of the moral law. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther taught that the works of the righteous are, in fact, mortal sins. “Human works appear attractive outwardly, but within they are filthy, as Christ says concerning the Pharisees in Matt 23,” Luther wrote. “For they appear to the doer and others good and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances but searches ‘the minds and hearts.’” (Cf. Timothy F. Lull, editor, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p. 34.) Luther added that “the person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” (Ibid., p. 41)

It was precisely this view of human nature — that human beings are utterly incapable of doing anything good before justification — that the Council of Trent explicitly rejected. In Canon 7 of the Sixth Session, the Council Fathers declared: “If anyone says that all works done before justification, in whatever manner they may be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins, let him be anathema.”

Of course, both Trent and the Reformers affirmed that human beings are saved by grace through faith, and they agreed that there is nothing human beings can do to “earn” salvation from God. As the Council of Trent put it, “the sinner is justified by God by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Decree on Justification, Session 6, Chapter 6 ) The Council added that “we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. For, ‘if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise,’ as the Apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace.’” (Ibid., Chapter 8) Where the Catholic Church differed with the Reformers was on the question of whether it is by faith in Christ “alone” that that human beings are saved. In the Catholic view, faith was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for salvation: There was also, as St. Paul taught, hope and love.

Not all the figures of the Reformation, of course, subscribed to the Lutheran/Calvinist view of sola fide and double predestination. James Arminius (d. 1609), and his Remonstrants followers, rejected Calvin’s views on predestination and the damnation of the unevangelized. How could a just God condemn people who had no opportunity to hear the Gospel? he asked. Later, John Wesley (d. 1791), the founder of Methodism, was even more forceful in his rejection of Calvin’s “double predestination,” which he even called a “blasphemy.” “I would sooner be a Turk, a Deist, yea an atheist, than I could believe this,” Wesley wrote.

The Tridentine teaching on justification, that it is ultimately a “cooperation” with divine grace, ultimately led the Catholic Church to adopt the view that non-Christians can be saved. This view is hardly “new” or the result of ecumenism. All this explains why, nearly 900 years after St. Thomas, and 20 years before Vatican II, the Catholic Church would officially condemn the teaching of Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J. in the 1940s in Boston. Feeney, who left the Jesuits and was officially excommunicated, taught a rigorous literal interpretation of extra ecclesiam nula sallus that insisted on the damnation of all non-Catholics. In rejecting Fr. Feeney’s interpretation of this dogma of the Church, the Vatican’s Holy Office (now renamed the more politically correct Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) declared that “this dogma is to be understood as the Church itself understands it.” That understanding, the Holy Office declared, is this: “To gain eternal salvation it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is required that he belong to it at least in desire and longing…. When a man is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good dispositions of soul by which a man wants his will to be conformed to God’s will.”

This remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).” In his encyclical Quuanto conficiamur moerore, promulgated in 1863, Pope Pius IX simultaneously affirmed the doctrine extra ecclesiam nula sallus (“outside the church, no salvation”) and taught that those “invincibly ignorant” of the Christian religion, but who cooperate with divine grace, can arrive at justification and eternal salvation. More than 100 years later, the current pontiff, Pope John Paul II, would make the identical point in his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to know or accept the Gospel revelation or enter the Church…. For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the church… This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.”

In conclusion, it is apparent that the teaching that non-Christians can be saved is not an innovation in Roman Catholic theology, the result of radical ideas adopted by the Second Vatican Council or a misplaced ecumenical zeal. The roots for this teaching lie deep in Catholic tradition and go back all the way to the New Testament. It took centuries for the Catholic Church to think through the implications of its teaching on grace, freedom and the role of faith in the journey of salvation, but ultimately Catholicism affirmed a quite liberal understanding of how God’s grace works in the world. This view is quite opposed to the Reformation teaching on sola fide, which is that only persons with an explicit faith in Jesus Christ can be saved.

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