Thursday, May 23, 2013

Did the new pope just say even atheists are saved?

This week Pope Francis's Wednesday homily made the headlines. Since the press, most Protestants, and lots of other people are prone to mis-hearing and misunderstanding Roman Catholics, it is no surprise that his topic caused a stir.

Here are the touching points:

1) Everyone is redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.
2) Everyone can do good, even non-Catholics or non-Christians
3) Pursuing that which is good is a a place of encounter... do good and we will meet each other there.

Here are two key quotes from the homily:

“They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation” 
"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

So let me come out in full agreement with the general line of his thinking. I'll illustrate why I agree with him in what follows. Then I'll also try to illustrate why so many people will persist in misunderstanding his and my theological approach.

Caricatures Hurt, Listening Heals

Here's the rub. The reason why the pope's sermon is big news has mostly to do with outsiders to Roman Catholicism failing to listen to the subtlety and distinctions of Roman Catholic thought, and instead doggedly persisting in caricatures of Roman Catholicism.

The first misunderstanding tends to be this one: "Now the pope is saying you can be saved by good works rather than saved by Christ. It's the Reformation problem all over again. Here we stand. We can do no other. Draw our line in the sand. By faith alone!"

Except that is patently not what the pope is saying. Justification/salvation/redemption is still accomplished "through" or "in" Christ, both for people of faith and for those who lack faith in Christ. The pope is not saying good works save. He is saying those who do good works, even those outside the Catholic faith, are saved through Christ. We would need to enlist Thomas Aquinas to flesh all of this out in detail, but essentially, the good we do is itself already participation in the good that is Christ, so in the Roman Catholic theological system there is simply not a conflict between salvation through good works and salvation through faith in Christ. It's all "in Christ."

Now, this presents its own kind of problem I will come to in a bit, but for the time-being, let's consider it. What the pope is arguing is in alignment with a concept popularized by the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, that of "anonymous Christians." This is to say, some people (atheists, for example) in doing good are living life in Christ even though they do not (yet) know this. In this sense they are still anonymous Christians. There remains the possibility that at some time they might become overt Christians, but it is not required.

Protestant theologians have often argued something similar. Karl Barth is the premier example. For Barth, there is a difference between our cognizance of being saved, and our salvation. You can be saved without knowing it. The truth of your salvation is, in this sense, not dependent on your awareness of it. For Protestants of a Barthian stripe, then, the proclamation of the gospel is still an imperative, because it is a great gift to bring people to awareness of the salvation already accomplished for them in Christ. But their salvation is not dependent on their finally coming to awareness of their salvation in Christ.

So, returning to the Pope's sermon, it is fairly clear he is operating with the "anonymous Christian" concept in his sermon. As I mentioned, this does present one problem. What if the atheist he said is being redeemed by Christ doesn't desire to be redeemed? What if the atheist responds, "No thank you, I don't want to be a part of your eschatology." The model the pope is espousing is in this sense at least mildly presumptive. It assumes that his vision of the ends of humanity is wider or more true than the atheist vision. We'd need another blog post to cover this territory, but I raise it here just to note that not all peoples of the world are going to be reassured by the pope's sermon that ALL are redeemed.

But what else is the pope (or any Christian, for that matter) to do? If we believe Christ is the salvation of the world, it's rather hard for us to not at least hope that salvation in Christ is extended not just to believers but the whole of humanity, even the whole of creation.

But returning to the Christian perspective, I offer two additional insights that I hope will help readers understand more fully why this matters so much to us as preachers of the gospel, why Lutherans and Protestants can faithfully embrace the pope's viewpoint, and why it does require some creative thinking.

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus

So there's this really old Latin phrase, "outside the church there is no salvation." The most recent Roman Catholic catechism interprets it to mean, "All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body."

So, you could, if you wanted to, interpret the phrase to mean that you are only saved if you are in the church. But again, this is a failure of imagination. What the phrase really says is that salvation comes through the church, which is the body of Christ. In other words, the church is an instrument of salvation, perhaps the preeminent one, essential to the economy through which God is redeeming the whole world in Christ. Nevertheless, the church is for the sake of the world, not a bounded set all the insiders of which are guaranteed salvation.

So many people seem to interpret it in this second sense, and in so doing lack grace, and imagination.

Faith in Christ, Faith of Christ

In this last part, please bear with me as we get a little technical with some Greek grammar. Protestants have tended to put a lot of emphasis on salvation through our faith in Christ. The emphasis here is on our belief. You have to believe.

However, in the New Testament, the phrase often translated as faith in Christ can be with equal integrity translated as the faith of Jesus Christ.

For those who want all the fancy terminology, here's the opening paragraphs of a great blog post on the topic...

The interpretation of Iesou Christou as an objective genitive (faith in Jesus Christ) in Galatians 2.16 and 3.22 (cf. Php 3.9) is the overwhelmingly pervasive reading of that construction. Fairly recently, however, scholarship has had to come to terms with the work of many scholars such as Richard B. Hays, who argues most strenuously that our modern fixation on the freedom of the individual conscience distorts Paul’s concerns. In his article, “Jesus’ Faith and Ours” (Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin, 7 No. 1 [S-O 1983], 2-6), Hays argued that nowhere in Galatians 3 does Paul place any emphasis on the salvific efficacy of “believing,” and nor does he speak of Jesus Christ as the object of human faith. Paul insists that we are redeemed/justified by Jesus Christ’s faithfulness (pistis Iesou Christou) on our behalf, not by our believing.

The case for the subjective genitive interpretation (faith/faithfulness of Christ Jesus) is grammatically the most obvious. BAGD notes that translating the genitive as “in” is possible with reference to pistis, but acknowledges that pistis is usually found without an object. Moreover, translating the genitive as “of” is most commonly preferable with most other words. Noteworthy among the arguments for the subjective genitive view is that when pistis takes a personal genitive it is almost never an objective genitive (cf. Matt 9:2, 22, 29Mark 2:5; 5:34; 10:52;Luke 5:20; 7:50; 8:25, 48; 17:19; 18:42; 22:32; Rom 1:8; 12; 3:3; 4:5, 12, 16; 1 Cor 2:5; 15:14, 17; 2 Cor 10:15Phil 2:17Col 1:4; 2:5; 1 Thess 1:8; 3:2, 5, 10;2 Thess 1:3Titus 1:1; Phlm 6; 1 Pet 1:9, 212 Pet 1:5). Douglas Campbell, an advocate of the subjective usage, has been accused of being too dogmatic or dramatic by Brian Dodd, who has sympathies with the subjective camp, because Campbell makes the statement that how we take Paul’s usage of pistis Christou Iesoumight “open up the possibility of a major reevaluation of Paul’s . . . theology as a whole.” However, Hays in both the article mentioned above and his dissertation,The Faith of Jesus Christ, highlights the significance of this alternative translation when he makes the statement that in Galatians, Paul insists we are justified by Christ’s faith/faithfulness, not our believing.

Steve Douglas concludes in his blog post, "The case is, then, rather strong for the belief that the faith that we stand upon is not our own, but that of Jesus, upon whose merit alone we may hope to be justified."

In other words, perhaps it is the Protestant tradition that has been in error all of this time, placing such strong emphasis on a misinterpretation and failed translation of a key concept in Paul. If we are indeed saved by the faithfulness of Christ rather than our faith in Christ per se, this frees us up for all kinds of things, including...

Do Good and We Will Meet One Another There

I love this line of the pope's sermon. He is seeking common ground between people's of various religious commitments. In the strict theological universe that sees stark lines between Catholic and Protestant thought, the job of the faithful is to draw lines in the sand, illustrating why the pope is so wrong, so troubling. But if indeed Christ's faithfulness is our salvation, then we are set free to go meet the other in the common ground we share in creation, in Christ.

Jesus broadens the horizons. Indeed. Jesus broadens the horizons to such a degree that we can no longer even see them. There is, in the famous lines of U2, No Line on the Horizon. The expansiveness of Christ's grace is so immense, it leaves us reeling and unsettled, until we stumble into our neighbor, whoever they are, and then we meet each other there.


  1. Dear Clint,

    Thank you for these reflections!

    As an evangelical catholic I hope to respond in full when the current crisis settles.

    Dave Buehler

  2. Like in 2050? :)

  3. Excellent. It's all very like the proper (he said, realizing others disagree) subordination of Faith and Order to Life and Work.

    It's a hard nut to wrap one's mind around if one isn't thinking Catholic. It does point people back to the universalism problem without suggesting a solution.

    I've heard Reformed folk reading this sermon saying "well, yes, it's a universal atonement, but not a universal salvation," but I think Francis is making a different statement. It's a universal redemption, the total redemption of all humanity in time, already accomplished. There's no eschaton in sight. Nor, in Catholic thought, is this a set of statements that necessarily affects the doctrines connected to human judgment and eternal fate.

    I would say that in Barth it does—that Barth is willing to follow that insight of universal election and reconciliation in Christ, effected already in time and being realized in all by the Spirit, into a universal eschatological redemption (meaning by that word something Francis doesn't). But Barth can go there; the Pope cannot.

    But in both cases, this universal reality of humanity in Christ wholly apart from individual volition is the motivator of moral behavior, both for those who are consciously in Christ, and towards those who are not—as though they were, because they in fact are.

    Rahner went for eschatology, and hung onto the necessity of choice, and left us with problems that can be avoided by not trying to make the redeemed somehow Christian. Tom Greggs, in his book "Theology Against Religion," makes a nice case for viewing the salvation of humanity this way, divorcing it from Christendom and the group-dynamics inherent in the idea that salvation is bound up in the individual's choice of God and therefore necessarily of Christianity. (And so on down the chain into sectarian squabbling, of course.)

  4. And this is why I consider any comments on my blog from Matthew Frost an immense blessing. Thanks for the reflections, man.

  5. Thank you for doing this. It is very helpful.

  6. I appreciate your response, Greg. I did try to head off some of your concerns with this paragraph:

    "The model the pope is espousing is in this sense at least mildly presumptive. It assumes that his vision of the ends of humanity is wider or more true than the atheist vision. We'd need another blog post to cover this territory, but I raise it here just to note that not all peoples of the world are going to be reassured by the pope's sermon that ALL are redeemed."

    Clearly, another blog post on a Christian approach to religious pluralism is needed.