Friday, August 7, 2009

Presiding Bishop: "The Whole World Has Access to God"

Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was recently asked the question, "Is the only way to God through Jesus?" Here is her response:

Christians – I among them – believe that Jesus died for the whole world. Right?

At the same time, Jews don’t claim Jesus as their Messiah, most Jews don’t anyway. But as I read the Bible, God clearly made promises to the Jews that have not been broken by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God also made promises to the ancestors of people who call themselves Muslim, to Ishmael and to Hagar. Those promises we don’t believe God has broken either. So clearly the other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus.

I also look around at people from other faith traditions, and there are some great examples out there like Mahatma Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, who … or Thich Nhat Hanh, who show us what look like fruits of the Spirit, who show us in their lives what we see as godly behavior. If I deny that that person has some access to God because of the evidence I see, I think I’m doing something pretty close to the sin against the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know how God does that. It’s not my job to figure that out, it’s God’s job. My job is to be the best Christian I can be, to share my understanding of good news and my experience of Jesus, and to live a life that shows that to the world and to let God figure out who’s going to be in the kingdom at the end of all time.

I believe that the whole world has access to God. I’m just not too worried about the mechanism. And yes, that does drive some Christians nuts. It does. It does, because, in some parts of Christianity, we have turned salvation into a work, that you have to say, “I claim Jesus as my Lord and Savior” in order to be saved. That turns it into a work. It denies the possibility of grace.

Crowd applauds.

Watch it here:

I find this response problematic.

The issue isn't about whether or not non-Christians have access to God. With some exceptions, the mainstream of the Christian tradition affirms the reality of general revelation as "the self-disclosure of God that all people can perceive by contemplating evidences of God's presence in the world of nature, history, and human life in general" [Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine Revised Edition, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 40]. This is sometimes called the natural knowledge of God.

At the same time, the mainstream of the Christian tradition also acknowledges that general revelation can only get us so far. There are things about God and what is necessary for salvation that we cannot ascertain by reason alone. And so the Church affirms the reality of special revelation as "the unique self-revelation of God through God's word and action (1) in the history of Israel and above all in Jesus Christ, (2) through the Bible, which tells us of the God who came to us in this way, and (3) through the Christian church, which preserves and interprets the biblical witness" [ibid.]. This is sometimes called the revealed knowledge of God.

So the issue isn't whether or not non-Christians have access to God. Christian tradition affirms that they do. The issue is whether or not such access is sufficient for salvation.

By invoking the examples of non-Christians like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Presiding Bishop appears to be saying that general revelation - the natural knowledge of God - is, indeed, a sufficient basis for salvation. In light of their exemplary conduct of life, special revelation is not necessary, since such non-Christians do not accept the substantive content of what Christianity claims to be the revealed knowledge of God (assuming that they know this content to begin with). And so the Presiding Bishop equates access to God via general revelation with salvation, thereby rendering special revelation superfluous.

Such a claim may be at odds with a solemn promise made by every person ordained in the Episcopal Church when each of us affirms before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly that "I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation" [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 526; emphasis added]. If all things necessary to salvation are available through general revelation such that special revelation is ... well, not so special, then the Prayer Book is making quite an unnecessary fuss about the uniqueness of Holy Scripture. For in truth, there are many other equally valid means of access to God's unique self-revelation apart from scripture, the history of Israel, holy tradition, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And finally, there's the Presiding Bishop's claim that requiring a confession of faith in Jesus - or, perhaps more accurately, responding to the gift of salvation in Jesus (which also takes the form of receiving the sacrament of baptism) - turns salvation into a work, thereby denying the possibility of grace.

This reminds me of a scene in the story of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in Acts chapter 16. After their miraculous release, the jailer asks them, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas respond: "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:30-31). If the Presiding Bishop is correct, however, Paul and Silas' response to the jailer turns salvation into a work (in this instance, the work of believing), thereby denying the possibility of grace.

There's also Jesus' proclamation to "repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Unlike Paul and Silas, Jesus is telling people to do two things instead of just one, thereby (if the Presiding Bishop is correct) doubly denying the possibility of grace.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul also exhorts persons to do two things when he affirms that "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Did Paul not understand the meaning of grace?

If the Presiding Bishop is right, then the answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved?" would have to be, "You need do nothing, no response of any kind is necessary, for grace abounds." It's unclear if this means that everybody is already saved whether or not they accept the gift of salvation in Jesus, or whether they must also live good lives like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh. If the latter, then the Presiding Bishop performatively contradicts herself by making a work (living a life that shows the fruits of the Spirit) an integral part of salvation.

As I read it, the Presiding Bishop's response to the question, "Is the only way to God through Jesus?" is, "No, Jesus isn't the only way. Jesus is one of many valid ways to God. You have your way. We Christians have our way." (In an earlier posting, I noted the problematic character of affirming this kind of pluralism and the common-essence approach to religion it sometimes implies in the case of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, the former bishop-elect of Northern MI.)

Since the whole world already has access to God anyway, the Presiding Bishop concludes that special revelation is not so special, Jesus is not unique or necessary for salvation, and persons don't have to respond to the Gospel to be saved. Pushed to its limit, this line of reasoning denies the necessity of the Church itself in the economy of salvation. Even bearing in mind the fact that no mere mortal can ascertain with absolute certainty the eternal destiny of any particular person, the theological implications of this response signal a bold departure from the faith of the Church.


Anonymous said...

God being Sovereign he may act outside the normal means of Grace, that is outside the Church but to accept the Presiding Bishops view makes the Church and Christianity in general completely irrelevant.

Bryan Owen said...

You are quite right about God's sovereignty, tonidcali2701. The sacraments, for instance, are "sure and certain means by which we receive" God's grace (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 857). But that doesn't mean that God can't or doesn't act in other ways. This is yet another reason why mere mortals cannot, with absolute certainty, pass judgment on the eternal destiny of anyone.

Having said that, the theological and sacramental implications of the Presiding Bishop's response to this particular question take us in a direction that calls into question not only the uniqueness of Christian special revelation (supremely expressed in Jesus Christ), but also the very raison d’être of the Church.

Joe Rawls said...

As a young Roman Catholic, I was taught that God wishes the salvation of everyone and will save non-Christians who lead morally upright lives. However, this was presented as a loving exception to the norm, rather than proof of God's religious pluralism. This is still basically what I believe, although my respect for other religions (most of them, anyway)has grown with knowledge over time.

However, the more I get to know ++KJS, the more she comes off as a spiritual lightweight. Perhaps she would have been better off sticking to squid dissections.

plsdeacon said...

She sounds so reasonable and her voice is rather melodic and what she says is close to the truth. But like all heresy, it is true - just not true enough. I believe that God can and does bring people into relationship with Him who do not know Jesus in this life. But it is because of Jesus' death and resurrection that God does so. A good Buddhist is not saved by being a good Buddhist. He is saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is saved only if he wishes to participate in that by accepting it when confronted by it.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All truth finds its source in Him and a person who seeks the truth will, ultimately, find Jesus. A person who is searching for the Truth will, when confronted by Jesus, say "I know you! I've been looking for you all my life!"

So, it is our task as Christians to make Jesus known to as many people as possible - to give as many of them the chance to see Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, athiests, etc.

Phil Snyder

Lynn said...

I enjoyed reading all...much to ponder. Lynn Gaines

jason said...

I agree that ++KJS does often come off as a bit of a "spiritual lightweight," i.e., a bit too wishy-washy even for a liberal Episcopalian... the fact that she's the Primate of our church makes it rather apparent why I encounter so many nominal Episcopalians who, to hear them talk, I would have pinned as Unitarian Universalists.

++KJS's personal conviction (or lack thereof) aside, when I first heard this speech/discussion, despite being uncomfortable with her relativism/pluralism, I did have a more favorable interpretation with the last part, about certain segments of Christianity turning salvation into a 'work.'

I had assumed she was talking about the variety of evangelicals who have replaced baptism (as Christian initiation) with the 'altar call' (even though their churches generally lack altars...), and make salvation a matter of reciting the 'Sinner's Prayer.'

"Repeat these words, and you can avoid Hell."

If belief itself is a 'work,' then justification by grace through faith is out the window as well, I suppose... there's really no point in the Church existing... grace extends automagically to Good People, so just be a Good Person, and be saved, regardless of faith... And it comes back to works once again!

It's like the rule-worship or collapse problem with utilitarianism... don't turn theology into an undergrad philosophy course, please!