Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

“Outside the Church you cannot be saved” was a view first propounded by Tertullian; it was the start of the ironing out of diversity since “church” was coming to mean “orthodoxy”, consigning the heterodox to the anathemas that later were to conclude the Creed of Nicaea in 325 C.E. The creed that has been used liturgically since around the ninth century is not that of Nicaea, but of Constantinople, promulgated around 381 C.E. (I think that it is technically Constantinople II). The 325 Creed has an alarming addendum of curses on the heterodox which usually only church historians read.

Salvation only in the (R.C.) Church still Dogma

In time, not all that much of it, the Church (in the West, that is) came to mean the vast religious-political organism centered on the Roman papacy, and the dire consequences of being ‘outside the church’ can be seen in the threats of excommunication of whole nations. It is not a phrase that is heard all that much in Roman Catholic circles today, having been taken over in an even more virulent form by conservative evangelicals. This should not lead us to assume that it is no longer relevant to the R.C. position; it is, though several great R.C. theologians (e.g. Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx) of the 20th century have tried to soften its implications. However, just as the invalidation of all Anglican ordinations by Pope Leo XIII still stands, so does the extra ecclesiam nulla salus doctrine. (Why we get so fussed over the authority of Canterbury and the antics of Peter Akinola seems strange since in the eyes of the “only true church”, we are neither real Bishops nor real Priests!).

Posting recent Sermon

The essays I put on this Blog are almost entirely of a theological/historical kind, though some sermons clearly relate to contemporary society and current affairs. A week ago on the fifth Sunday in the season of Easter (it is a season, not just a single day) the fourteenth chapter of the Fourth gospel was the reading set for the day; the reading contains a tendentious verse (6) - “no one comes to the Father except through me”. I debated whether to take on this controversial text and decided it was worth it. More than that I approached the whole issue as a matter of “context”, looking briefly at the equally controversial Leviticus verses (18.22; 20.13).
I was interested, therefore to note that a question about this very verse was given to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in one of his several controversial TV appearances recently; I am not sure that his reply, quoting John 10.16, really answers the question. After all, the “other sheep” are to become “one flock”, and it is still Jesus as the shepherd who alone is to lead them to God.

My Easter (Sunday V) sermon tried to give a very different answer and so I decided to post it, but with caveats. This is not the 16th century, and 25 minutes, perhaps even no more than twenty, for a sermon in Episcopal circles is the maximum that is regarded as “proper”; mine often go longer because the written text is a sort of template to which I add footnotes and excursuses as I preach (not read) the sermon. Even so the time constraint means that issues tend to be over-simplified and qualifications are not made.

Contrast Christian Right with Wright

In closing this introduction, I have been interested to note that in the dozens of journalistic “analyses”, magisterial statements and often inaccurate (or ignorant) theological musings, not a single one has touched on what seemed to me to be of significance about Pastor Wright’s position. It is that he is light years from a conservative evangelical position, and this came out most clearly in his address to the NAACP. How you think, he said, of God, theology, will determine how you think of humanity, anthropology, and that in turn will influence how you think of society, sociology.

It is not possible from the limited things he said to determine precisely what his position is on the ways the Bible can be read, or how important he thinks is the massive biblical scholarship of the last two centuries. I do not know whether he would accept the distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”; antiquated as this distinction is now held to be by post moderns, I think it is still a useful one. I do not know, either, how he would react to the litmus test I used to use with theological students who were sent to me for tutoring after doing poorly in final exams: how do you understand the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel?
One thing, however, is pellucidly clear; he does not adhere to some of the central dogmas of Conservative Evangelicalism: he advocates inclusiveness against exclusiveness; he implicitly refuses to endorse the current evangelical strategy of using homosexuality as a means to power in various branches of the church, particularly the Church of England; and he rejects the extra ecclesiam doctrine. All these positions and many more are dear to the Christian right as is the interpenetration of the political sphere by the religious, which, it seemed to me Pastor Wright explicitly rejected.

Sermon Preached at St. George’s Chapel
Indian River Hundred
In the Parish of All Saints and St. George’s Rehoboth, Delaware

[The passages set for the day to which I referred explicitly are Acts 7.55-60 and John14.114. In referring to the Acts passage, in one of the many interpolations into my written text, I quizzed the congregation about who had done their homework, who had read Acts 7.1-54 since it was not possible to make much sense out of the final five verses without the context? No one had, and most laughed at themselves.]


A great deal of rather unpleasant public discourse has been going on for months now in the name of informing us about the relative merits of aspiring presidential candidates. As I have listened to the so-called debates and to the snippets of speeches that news editors suppose to be as much as a dim-witted electorate can deal with, I have been struck again and again by the absence of context. Yet most of the volleys of invective from all sides can easily be seen to be mere politicking and point scoring as soon as the offending sentence is put in context.

I was thinking about this at the same time as I was pondering the readings for today, and it struck me that it is not only in politics that context is important. Indeed, the more I thought about it, it seemed that in almost any sphere of discourse, context is essential for true understanding. A classic example of not knowing the context is, of course, a common dramatic technique: a half-heard conversation can lead to tragic or comic consequences; a misdirected letter can cause chaos.
And, by now, I suspect that you are beginning to think where is this ramble leading us? I said at the beginning that it was while I was pondering today’s readings that this detour to context began, and it is the context of the biblical story that I want to look at.

Context, context, context

Firstly, there is the context of the whole collection of books; a context composed of a myriad of factors: geographical, political, economic, cultural to mention but a few.
Then, there is the context of a particular book within its particular collection: was it an early or a late production in the collection as a whole? Was it the product of a particular sect or party with a specific agenda? Again, the list could go on.
Thirdly, is the context of an individual verse in the book as a whole.
Finally, and in many ways by far the most important consideration when it comes to applying the biblical text to contemporary issues, is to consider the book in the context in which we, in the 21st century read it.
There is, of course, one central contextual fact that everyone knows, but which is often ignored or misunderstood: it is the division which, from the second century, has named the Hebrew writings as the Old Testament, and the writings of the sect that sprang from Judaism as the New. One of the striking ways in which this major division is ignored is the practice of conservative commentators to use quotations from the O.T. in such a way as to suggest that every single passage of that collection of books has exactly the same status as the recorded words of Jesus. As a result, such commentators insist that every verse of the O.T. is still definitive for 21st century Christians.

Collecting ‘Proof’ Texts as Missiles

One glaring example is the way in which verses from the Book of Leviticus (e.g. 18.22; 20.13) have been bandied about in the discussion of the status of Christians who do not have the same sexual orientation as the majority of the population. If the context is carefully considered, it is clear that Leviticus takes for granted that polygamy is the norm, and many of the injunctions which today are read as a code of sexual morality are in fact to do with the rights of a husband over multiple wives. So presumably if you want to use these verses, torn out of context, to exclude homosexuals, you should logically allow polygamy.
Another example of failing to differentiate the two collections of holy writings is the way in which disasters are taken by some to be God’s punishment for sins: quite reasonable in an Old Testament context, but totally unacceptable in the context of the New Testament.

Contrasting Context of New Testament

When we turn to the N.T., we are in another context. It would be impossible to make much sense of the N.T. without knowing that one important element in its context is Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. However, when we look at the collection of books that make up the N.T., it is clear that the central context is the world of the Roman Empire with its pervasive Graeco-Roman culture: all the books and letters were written in Greek, and although a background of Judaism is evident, the majority seem to be addressed to converts who were outside the faith of Israel. All these factors are crucial in reading the Fourth Gospel, and I want to focus now on today’s reading.

Reading the Bible

Before I do that, however, I think it is important to emphasize that it is quite possible and entirely laudable to read the Bible directly and simply for spiritual sustenance. Today’s first lesson, for example has a great deal of contextual material that would have be considered if one were going to use it to make historical or doctrinal statements. But it can be read with immense benefit as an inspiring guide to the indomitable faith of one of the early followers of Jesus, and applied in many ways to our own situation; we could meditate on the presence of Jesus in the word, or on the way in which Stephen echoes his Lord in forgiving his enemies. The fact that this is the only place in the N.T. where someone other than Jesus himself uses the title Son of Man, requires contextual knowledge and suggests that such might add to the fruitfulness of our mediation and repay the study required.

Only through Jesus

Finally, I think the contextual approach can help us to read today’s gospel, particularly Jesus’ answer to Thomas, “No one comes to the Father except through me”. This and one or two similar verses lie behind the prevalent conservative conclusion that if you don’t believe in Jesus you are damned. John Hick notes a statement of the Congress of World Missions in (as late as) 1960, which said that since WW II, “more than a billion souls have passed into eternity and more than half of these went to the torment of hell fire” because they had never heard of Jesus. (Metaphor of God Incarnate 2nd Ed. P 86). This, though not so crudely stated is also the position of the R.C. church, and was articulated in the third century by Tertullian in a phrase that became a central dogma– “Outside the church, that is no salvation” – Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It was of course taken for granted that Church meant the one centered on Rome ruled by the Pope.

It is true that there are a few N.T. verses that suggest such a view, but again the context is crucial. Some of the passages merely reflect the thinking of Judaism – what was true for God’s chosen people must be true for the new Israel. The case of today’s passage is more complex; in a contextual approach we need to see the verse in relation to the book as a whole, and, more importantly, we need to take into account our context reading a very late first century book in the 21st century.

The Synoptic Gospels & the Fourth Gospel

We need to recall that the fourth Gospel is very different from the first three. It is dealing with philosophical issues of the Hellenistic world that Jesus was not concerned with. Thus, John’s opening, “In the beginning was the Word” refers to Greek ideas of the centrality of order and reason in the universe – that is why it is called a universe and not a multiverse. For John, to be ‘in tune’ with the principle of creation is to come to know God and Jesus is the embodiment of this rational principle.
A series of sermons would be needed to deal with the 4th Gospel in today’s context, but the central factor is the vastly increased knowledge of the world, including an understanding that other faiths also offer ways to salvation. The author, we are fairly sure, knew nothing of Buddhism and did not fore-see the rise of Islam, and so it is hardly legitimate to apply the verse directly into our 21st century context.
I close with a quotation from John Hick (op. cit. P 149)

There may indeed well be a variety of ways in which Christian thought can develop in response to our acute late-twentieth-century awareness of the other world faiths, as there were of responding to the nineteenth-century awareness of the evolution of the forms of life and the historical character of the holy scriptures. And likewise there will no doubt be a variety of ways in which each of the other great traditions can rethink its inherited assumption of its own superiority. But it is not for us as Christians to tell people of other traditions how to do their own business. Rather, we should attend to our own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Reading Simon's Blog this morning was timely in that the daily lectionary has led us through the historical writings of such awesome luminaries as Origen, Basil the Great and Joseph Butler. It is difficult for a rational modern mind to fathom the meaning of Jesus’ statement in John 14: 6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Similarly, as Simon points out, Tertullian charged that “Outside the Church you cannot be saved.” Fortunately, as Butler pointed out, Origen anticipates reasonable critics with his own sensible view: "Those who believe the Author of Nature to be also the Author of Scripture must expect to find in Scripture the same sorts of difficulties that they find in Nature." We are left to speculate as to whether the Creator is truly revealed through the gospels and other inspired writings, through prophets and preachers, and, in today’s modern world, through the miracles of science and medicine. Will there be inconsistencies and contradictions in what we know and continue to learn about God? I think there will always be, but being faithful means hanging in there, accepting that these, too, are part of the revelation of who God is and what God means in today’s changing world.