Friday, May 9, 2008

What is Necessary for Salvation?

A clergy colleague and friend – the Rev. Zabron “Chip” Davis, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS – sent me some reflections today which I share with his permission. (This piece is also posted at The Anglican Centrist with more comments there.)

At a recent gathering of diocesan clergy and General Convention deputies, Bishop Gray led us through a brief study of the Draft Anglican Covenant using, among other resources, the study guide prepared by the Executive Council. I must admit to hearing many of the same conversations I’ve been hearing since I was on the diocesan sexuality study committee mandated by the 1991 General Convention.

In my work as a conflict resolution consultant and consultant with vestries and other governing boards, I find that differences, misunderstandings and misconceptions about process, procedures, mission and the core governing principles of any organization are at the root of many conflicts. Often clarity around these basics will help to reduce tension and anxiety. But, try as I may, I’ve not been able to see how clarity about polity, ethics, or even basic Anglicanism has served to reduce the anxiety and tension I experience in the Church today. Something about essentials seems to be missing in our conversations. (See paragraphs 38 – 39 of Section A and paragraphs 87 – 96 Section B of The Windsor Report.)

Is it possible that we are divided by one of the (if not the) core beliefs of Christianity? After conversations with several of my most theologically educated and articulate colleagues, I am convinced that the time has come to ask a question I haven’t heard asked and that we seem unable to discuss in polite circles. My hope in asking the question is not to divide us further but to see if we have a hope for restoration to unity. Here it is: What is necessary for salvation?

Also, what is the meaning of the second sentence on p. 298 of the BCP: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble?”

My hope is that answers will include a discussion of how the norms and principles of behavior (or departures from those norms) impact salvation. In other words, what difference does it make to individual salvation and/or the “soul of the Church” that The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion (or any Christian tradition) would ‘license’ behaviors that seem to be departures from what sound like clear teachings of Holy Scripture?


Another way of asking the question may be, “What is at stake?” When I was a Southern Baptist I was clear, as one who sat in the pew at least 4 times weekly up until my 18th birthday, that my condemnation to Hell was assured if I unrepentantly committed certain well-defined, scripturally prohibited sins. Is the same true of The Episcopal Church? Anglicanism? If so, what are those sins?

Based upon my colleague’s reflections, there are three questions I’d like to put on the table:

  1. What is necessary for salvation?

  2. What is the meaning of this sentence at the top of page 298 in The Book of Common Prayer: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”?

  3. Are there certain behaviors or sins which, if committed without repentance, can condemn a baptized Christian to hell? If so, what are those behaviors/sins?

I am especially interested in responses that reflect the theology of Anglicanism in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular.

10 comments:

Fr. Reich said...

What is necessary for salvation?

Salvation (soteria) is understood as liberation from something- generally undesirable things such as suffering, hardship, oppression etc. In the New Testament soteria generally is applied to liberation from sin and its consequences (eternal death).

So then, salvation is liberation from death. Salvation begins with God’s grace touches at the heart of man, calling him to repent of the sin that binds him. Through that grace man is thusly disposed for salvation. Traditionally understood (through sacred scripture and Tradition, the man must then come to believe in the revelation of Almighty God, posses holy fear of the judgment of God, posses Hope and Trust in the Mercy of God, posses a love for God, and have a sorrow or hatred of his sins. (these things are then seen as necessary for salvation- see the questioning and Baptismal Covenant)

This act of free will brings about a justification of the man, in which the man is counted as being righteous before God. The act of salvation wherein all of these things are brought together and celebrated is commonly understood as the sacrament of Baptism.

2. What is the meaning of this sentence at the top of page 298 in The Book of Common Prayer: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”?

Lasting, indestructible…not possible to dissolve, disintegrate or break-up (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/indissoluble)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans VIII.xxxv-xxxix)

I understand the indissoluble bond to mean that no outside forces (such as evil and most especially death can break or dissolve this bond). So the Christian can be of good hope and fully trust in the Love and Mercy of God- or there is no force of more power than God and we can trust in that fully and never fear that something or someone can separate us from Christ.


3. Are there certain behaviors or sins, which, if committed without repentance, can condemn a baptized Christian to hell? If so, what are those behaviors/sins?

Classically understood, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can condemn a baptized Christian to Hell. It is important to note that it is not on God’s part that this condemnation comes about, rather it is man who condemns himself.

Despair- is the willful act of completely abandoning any and all hope of eternal life, while possessing the means and intellect to cooperate with the saving grace of God.

Final impenitence (obstinacy)- A final refusal to be sorry for one’s sins.

These are closely related to the conditions for salvation, and I think a good argument could be made that a willing denial or refusal of the other points could be understood as blasphemy against the Holy Ghost as well.

Collectively then, it is also possible for a church body to so deviate from the revelation of God (by “‘licensing’ behaviors that depart from what appears the clear teaching of scripture”) that they could fall into a state of unrighteousness or blaspheme against the Holy Spirit (apostasy- to abandon or renounce received religion)

I won’t get any more detailed than this for now…but I thought I would throw my two cents in.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your response Jeff. This is a well-written, carefully thought through expression of an Anglo-Catholic response to the questions raised in my posting.

I do have some questions for you.

First, if the bond established by God in baptism is “indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298), doesn’t that imply that no matter what the individual baptized Christians does or fails to do, God remains faithful to “the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism” (BCP, p. 496)? IOW, does not the Prayer Book’s language of an “indissoluble” bond suggest that, for the baptized Christian, there is always the possibility of following the example of the prodigal son: coming to one’s senses and returning to the Father’s house? If there are instances in which that is not possible, does it make sense to speak of an “indissoluble” bond at all? Would it not rather make more sense to speak of a “contingent” bond – a bond, IOW, which is contingent on the individual baptized Christian’s faithfulness and behavior? And if so, what behaviors in particular are we talking about?

And second, would you be willing to offer examples of what you think it would take for “a church body to so deviate from the revelation of God” as to constitute apostasy? And would that, in your view, mean that anyone who continues to be a member of such a church body has thereby placed their salvation in peril? More strongly, would it mean that such a person is damned to hell?

Fr. Reich said...

1. First, if the bond established by God in baptism is “indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298), doesn’t that imply that no matter what the individual baptized Christians does or fails to do, God remains faithful to “the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism” (BCP, p. 496)? IOW, does not the Prayer Book’s language of an “indissoluble” bond suggest that, for the baptized Christian, there is always the possibility of following the example of the prodigal son: coming to one’s senses and returning to the Father’s house?

Before I begin, let my state clearly that I am no judge, rather I will face judgment before the Almighty…and that I write this with a deep sense of humility and fear.

The bond established by God in Baptism is indissoluble- meaning no outside force can remove that bond, and that God Himself is trustworthy and merciful. It can also be said that man is regenerate or born again at baptism and becomes a new creation “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (II Cor V.xvii).

But I think one would be very hard pressed to find scriptural warrant, proof within the corpus of the Church Fathers or Tradition that would say that this new creation is devoid of free will.

So then, a man may be baptized at infancy, and then reach an age of reason and make an act of the will to be an enemy of God…spending the entirety of His life refusing to act on the Grace of God, performing thoughts, words, and deeds that are carried out with the purpose of hurting God or disrespecting God, and finally that man could die, refuse to be sorry for his sins, refuse to accept what God in Christ offers and want nothing of God. If we are truly free creatures, and if God truly is just, then I understand that God will honor the will of the man. So, while the man still has within him the mark of baptism, the man also has the opportunity to forfeit the benefits of that mark.

2. And second, would you be willing to offer examples of what you think it would take for “a church body to so deviate from the revelation of God” as to constitute apostasy? And would that, in your view, mean that anyone who continues to be a member of such a church body has thereby placed their salvation in peril? More strongly, would it mean that such a person is damned to hell?

One hypothetical example would be that a church body begin to teach and received enthusiastically the doctrine that repentance of sins is not necessary and in fact undesirable for a “true Christian.” I think on all sorts of levels this could constitute apostasy. (looking back to my first answer on what is necessary for salvation) I would also say that this would place the soul of the believer in peril.

But, I think there is always the opportunity for repentance and it is not mine to say that the person could not repent before the Seat of Judgment…so I could not say with any degree of certainty or integrity that that would condemn a person to Hell. I believe Christ came to earth to save us from death and hell, and wishes for us to live forever. So perhaps it is best to look at judgment as a celebratory act and not a condemning one…perhaps it is best to look at judgment as the realization of God’s justice and give thanks for that.

This is probably not a detailed or a ‘juicy’ as you would like, but hopefully it gives you some part of an answer to your questions. If you desire, I can give you a more technical answer looking at the western notion of ‘mortal’ sin and the effects that sin has on the soul of a person. Perhaps that would generate some little amount of discussion.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Jeff. And please feel free to add more detail if you would like to.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

1. The question is ill-posed. It presumes that what is necessary is the same for everyone. Moreover, showing that something is necessary for salvation doesn't make them sufficient. So let's assume that the question is "what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation?" Even then, we are on spiritually shaky ground. There is no "enough" when it comes to the things of God. One is always subject to the danger that, having done the things on the list, one need not do more. The solution to the wrinkle is to stop focusing on individual subjectivity. This all-too-modern disaster, brought about by Luther's own inability to stop thinking of his own individual subjectivity, does not have profitable answers. But if we take the question as being about what is objectively true, then the answer becomes clear, and the inadequacy of any other answer becomes manifest.

So: the one thing necessary and sufficient for salvation is the saving death of Jesus Christ.

2. The question seems confused, for this one is really quite simple. It means that baptism cannot be "undone". That doesn't mean at all that there are no baptized people in hell. Hell is not a place where people cease to be loved by God or where they are cut off from God. God is present in hell just as much as in heaven, indeed, it is God's very presence in hell which makes it so aweful for those who may be there: the one thing a damned person wants is to be rid of God and God's love.

3. The church has never taught that any particular person is damned. The question seems to presume that there is some dynamic where sins (or at least some sins) must be repented to be forgiven. While that's a valuable spiritual insight, it's odd for Anglicans who supposedly reject the Tridentine character of this assumption. It is not repentance which forgives sins.

A Christian does not repent sins in order to be forgiven them. There are many good reasons for repentance, but this one is not one of them.

To conceive of salvation as the forgiveness of sins could be taken in two ways. If we mean that one consequence of salvation is sinlessness, then well and good.

But if the idea is that salvation is nothing more than the forgiveness of sins, then it's nowhere near true. Salvation is about our transformation, and not just a legal clearing of an account. Where there is no transformation, there has been no salvation: one of the things I must be saved from is myself.

For one person, an attachment to chocolate might be the cause of their great spiritual downfall and perhaps even damnation. And, for another person, salvation might be realized despite the most objectively heinous sins, unrepented. (A note there: repentence is always an effect of salvation, but here we are talking about it as a cause.)

Bryan+ said...

Thanks so much for your reflections, Thomas. This is a helpful contribution.

When you say that the first question is "ill-posed," do you also find the statement found in the 39 Articles and reaffirmed in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral that the Holy Scriptures "contain all things necessary to salvation" (a statement given even more normative force in the 1979 BCP ordinal) to be problematic? Just curious.

Also, another question (not just for you, but for anyone interested in this thread): What exactly in scripture is necessary for salvation? Everything? (How could that be?) Bits and pieces? (If so, which bits and pieces, and why those and not others?)

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

the 39 articles are not problematic, because their statement is negative in form, not positive. that is, the statement is identical to, "if X is not taught in the scriptures, then X is not necessary to salvation." since it makes no attempt to answer the ill-posed question, it doesn't fall into the trap.

there is still a different problem, namely, that some X's assuredly are necessary, or it seems so, even though not taught in scripture. the problem is the worry about local particulars. John Wesley's heart is strangely warmed, but if he had (sadly) perished earlier his heart would not have been, and perhaps his salvation would have been in jeopardy. He didn't perish earlier because, say, he avoided a fatal accident due to good luck on June 14. It was necessary for his salvation that he avoid that accident by turning left instead of right--and certainly the Scriptures don't teach that John Wesley should avoid John should have turned left on June 14.

This is the kind of philosopher's tangle that is bound up with talk about "what is necessary for..." when we are talking about particulars.

So the 39 articles must be read in a restrictive way. That is, we must read the statement as follows:

"If X is not taught in the scriptures, and X is not of special-kind-Y, then X is not necessary for salvation."

"Special-kind-Y", the necessary restriction of scope, is not spelled out in the 39 articles, and there is thus some danger in application. Presumably it includes matters of doctrine, since those are mentioned in the article. But some matters of practice are presumably also intended--the sacraments. And, other matters of practice are not inside special-kind-Y: the things left to individual national churches to work out as they see fit.

So the idea was a decent one, but it turns out that upon further poking, it's not really clear just what the article means, or, more precisely, it's not clear just what it is supposed to rule out.

bls said...

"What exactly in scripture is necessary for salvation? "

All that is necessary, I'd think, is that the nature of God be accurately revealed.

Fr. Reich said...

To piggy back on one of Thomas' comments- his answer to question 2...I was looking at Marion Hatchet's Commentary to the American Prayerbook this morning, seeing if he had anything more to say about the indissoluble bond, to which he said much the same as Thomas- it can not be undone- I think he actually said that it meant one baptism was all that was necessary- so perhaps that particular language is not meant to insist a definition of Salvation- but rather it is a defense of the catholic practice against traditions that encourage re- baptism after falling away (I have a neighbor who has been baptized nine times!)
Anyway, Thomas I like most of what you wrote (except maybe the part where you say the Christian does not repent of sins to be forgiven them) and especially like your commentary on the transformation/relational aspects...

Bryan+ said...

There's something relevant to the discussion of question #2 in a book (now out of print, I think) by Beverley D. Tucker and William H. Swatos, Jr. The book is entitled Questions on the Way: A Catechism Based on The Book of Common Prayer, Revised Edition (Forward Movement Publications, 1995). Here's the relevant question and answer (from pg. 78):

Q. Does being baptized mean we will automatically be saved?

A. No. Baptism is ordinarily required as the first step on the way to salvation, placing ourselves in God's hands in a saving relationship of love. If we are to receive the promises of God, then we must keep our side of the covenant by faith and following Christ in his way of love (1 Cor. 10:1-15).