Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Anonymous Christians

In a previous post, I concluded this:
The dispute over UR [the doctrine of universal reconciliation] is not unique in this regard. One can gather both Pro and Con lists [of Biblical verses] for each of the five Solas, for instance. The conclusion that I would draw about each is the same as I drew about UR: there is ample room for disagreement, and one ought not simply dismiss one's opponents out of hand. It might well turn out that you are wrong.
I wish now to draw a certain inference from this conclusion. It is this:
If, as is the case with UR and the five Solas, Scripture provides ample room for disagreement, one's salvation cannot in all cases depend upon knowledge of what in fact is true.
How do we reach this conclusion? We say that if non-culpable error about a certain matter is a real possibility for us, our salvation cannot require that we have true belief about it. By "non-culpable", I mean an act for which we cannot be held responsible, and we cannot be held responsible for an act, I assume, when it was done with as much care as we could muster. An example will make what I mean clear. We heat our home with natural gas. Every year when the weather begins to turn, I have our unit inspected. What if (God forbid) it were to malfunction and explode? I would not be responsible, for I had exercised proper care in the matter. (If I had not had it inspected, then possibly I am responsible. I need not be - an inspection might not have been able to identity the risk of explosion - but if I'd failed to have it inspected, we must at least consider the possibility that I was responsible.)

Now, the argument of the previous post was intended to establish the claim that, in the case of UR (and the five Solas too), error is a very real possibility, even for those who exercise proper care in the interpretation of the relevant texts. If that argument succeeds, we must conclude that a mistake to do with UR (and the Solas) cannot by itself be a reason to deny salvation. For if error persists even though proper interpretative care was taken, it is not culpable error; and if it is not culpable error one cannot be held responsible for it.

Arguments such as this make a certain kind of religious non-cognitivism attractive to me. By this I mean that our salvation cannot depend upon the beliefs that we have about religious matters. I am attracted to this view because I've come to think it clear (because of - among other reasons - arguments like the above) that non-culpable error about religious matters is a very real possibility.

Think of it this way. God is merciful, and so cuts us slack wherever appropriate. But as regards religious belief, there is much non-culpable error, and thus God does not (indeed cannot if he is perfectly merciful) hold that against us.

Arguments such as this also point in the direction of what before I called "practical Christianity". The purpose of the Christian life is not to hold certain beliefs (though I do not doubt that these can be helpful). Rather it is to act in a certain way, and if you act as you ought, the rewards promised to Christians, though you may never have heard the name "Jesus", are yours too.

I know that this will strike many today as absurd, but I think it a view entailed by what Christ told us of the law. The law does not command belief. Rather it commands action. We are told that the essence of the law is the command to love God with heart, mind and soul, and to love the neighbor as the self; and the love Christ here means is not mere emotion, but is rather essentially action. What do we say, then, of those who act as Christ commands but do not believe as Christians believe? We must say that they have grasped the essence of the law. They are, to use Rahner's term, "anonymous Christians". They live the law, but do not know Christ for who he was. They are saved.

1 comment:

C Grace said...

Nice post.
"By this I mean that our salvation cannot depend upon the beliefs that we have about religious matters."

It has long been a contention of mine that it is relationship with a person-Jesus Christ, not belief in a certain set of ideas that saves us. This is a little different from what you are saying here but I think I can tie it in.

In Matt 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, it is to the nations (vs 32)not the church that Christ says "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world."

And what was the difference between the sheep and the goats? "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

In II Cor 2:15-16 Paul says "15For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?"

I think that anonymous Christians love a Christ they may not consciously recognize but when they come across the 'aroma of Christ' given off by one of Christ's true brothers they cannot help but love that person. Therefore in loving the essence of Christ as seen in the people around them they are loving Christ.

To echo Paul's argument in Rom chapt 2-3 (which deals with precisely this issue) What advantage, then, is there in being a (Christian), or what value is there in (baptism)? (Paraphrase of 3:1)

The one who does not know Christ consciously is crippled in their ability to grow and attain to the fullness of knowledge offered in Christ. It is not just a matter of loving but of knowing that we are loved and the latter is not available to the anonymous Christian until after they die.