Thursday, July 07, 2016

John Donne: Can the Heathen Be Saved?

One of the questions that pesters Christian consciences every now and then is whether or not God has made any arrangements for the salvation of those who live and die outside the communion of the Church.

On one hand, it seems reasonable that a just and loving God would make such arrangements.  Why should a virtuous pagan be excluded from Heaven, when so many miserable wretches are allowed in simply by virtue of a little water splashed on their head?  On the other hand, what are we to do with Acts 4:12, and the proposition that "there is no other name by which we must be saved"?

The disagreement is by no means a creation of our globally-connected generation.  St. Cyprian laid down the glove by declaring that extra eccesiam nulla salus, a remark which remains a rallying cry for some and a target of attack for others.  But many of the Church Fathers admired the spiritual wisdom of this or that pagan philosopher, and argued for the salvation of a Plato or a Socrates, claiming that they grasped by reason those truths which most of us can only apprehend by revelation.  This latter argument was restated in modern times by a variety of missionary-minded Jesuits, notably Karl Rahner, who rather than "righteous pagans" spoke of "anonymous Christians."

John Donne, characteristically, offers a thoughtful and broad-minded answer to the question.

On Easter Day of 1622, he took to the pulpit of St. Paul's to deliver a variation on his customary Easter theme of the two resurrections, spiritual and bodily, to which a Christian might look forward. In the midst of that sermon, he laid out for his listeners the question of whether those who did not know Christ could still be saved, discussed the different theories floated by various theologians, and then offered his own position:
To me, to whom God hath revealed his Son in a Gospel by a Church, there can be no way of salvation but by applying that Son of God by that Gospel in that Church; nor is there any other foundation for any, nor other name by which any can be saved but the name of Jesus.   
But how this foundation is presented and how this name of Jesus is notified to them amongst whom there is no Gospel preached, no Church established, 1 am not curious in inquiring. I know God can be as merciful as those tender Fathers present him to be, and I would be as charitable as they are. And therefore humbly embracing that manifestation of his Son which he hath afforded me, I leave God to his unsearchable ways of working upon others without further inquisition.
This is an approach to warm a Lutheran's heart. It is personal and local -- pro me, pro nobis -- but also humble. It takes into account both Scripture and tradition. It refuses to claim knowledge it does not have about the inner workings of God's mind, and makes allowance for the possibility that God's mercy -- Donne speaks of "liberality" -- is greater than we know.

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