Almost a year ago, Fr. John Heidt, Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth, posted a piece on his blog entitled “What Really Divides Us.” It touches on some concerns that a clergy colleague and I raised about a month ago when we asked the question, “What is necessary for salvation?” It seems to me and to my colleague that, beneath the surface of the issues which divide Episcopalians and Anglicans, there’s a deeper division whose origins go all the way back to the 16th Century Reformation.
Fr. Heidt agrees. Writing primarily about conservatives within the Episcopal Church, he offers this observation: “We are not divided simply by the women’s issue nor with others by the homosexual issue but by the same fundamental theological issues that have always divided Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals within our own Communion, and Protestants and Catholics throughout the world ever since the Reformation. The issues confronting us are theological rather than biological.”
I think that observation extends well beyond the differences between conservatives to include the center and the left as well. We’re not all on the same page when it comes to basic theological issues – like the question, “What is necessary for salvation?”
Speaking of which, here’s how Fr. Heidt summarizes Protestant Evangelical soteriology:
From the time of the Reformation, Protestants and their current Evangelical counterparts have built their theological edifice upon the foundation of human wickedness and the need for a reconciliation with God that we can never achieve by ourselves. We all deserve Hester’s “A” and can never wipe it out. We are judged by our obedience to the moral law and all of us fall short. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us by His suffering on the cross, and even this, though it changes God’s attitude towards us, can never wipe away our sins.
According to Fr. Heidt, this soteriology entails the view that “all moral behavior, and homosexual practice in particular, is a salvation issue.” In other words, if Christians engage in certain behaviors and do not repent before they die, they go to hell.
Fr. Heidt continues by noting the example of Bishop Robert Duncan, the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network. According to Fr. Heidt, Bishop Duncan is “so dedicated to the belief that not even God can make us worthy that in his criticism of a 1979 Eucharistic Prayer, based on the early Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus, he has no problem misquoting the prayer as saying that we are worthy to stand before God, when it actually thanks God the Father for ‘having made us worthy…’ – a concept probably just as anathema to the bishop.” So in spite of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we can never be good enough for God.
By contrast, here’s part of Fr. Heidt’s summary of Catholic soteriology:
Whereas the Protestant Evangelical starts with sin and atonement, the Catholic builds his theology upon creation and grace. The Catholic believes that we are sinful but we are not depraved; we are sick human beings but we are still human; we have lost our likeness to God but we are still made in His image. … Grace restores the divine image in man. Salvation comes through growth in grace, not through some kind of substitution deal between Jesus and His Father. Because grace saves us from the effects of our sins, we are no longer slaves but friends of God. Though our sins make us unworthy to come into His presence, by divine grace we are made worthy to stand before him.
This soteriology entails the view that “through the re-presentation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sacraments rather than morality are the primary means of our salvation.” This is what it means to say that the sacraments are “given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (BCP, p. 857; emphasis added).
As a consequence, the grace given by Christ through the sacraments makes us good enough for God. We don’t have to constantly second-guess ourselves. We don’t have to obsess over the question of whether or not we are saved. We don’t have to worry endlessly that God might change His mind and cast us away. We don’t have to look upon ourselves as unworthy, utterly depraved, and deserving of punishment. On the contrary, if we take seriously the 1979 Prayer Book’s insistence that “the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble,” then we have rock-solid assurance that we truly are “Christ’s own forever” (BCP, pp. 298 & 308).
When it comes to this dimension of the Anglican divide, I'll go with the Catholic soteriology.