Saturday, December 20, 2008

Know your stuff

A new Pew survey was recently released, and the results are very strange. Apparently, a large number of Christians (half in evangelical churches and more than that in other Christian groups) believe that there is more than one way to heaven. The link leads to Dr. Mohler's analysis of the story, and he has some more details as well as links to the Pew data.

Furthermore, in this data is that these people who say that there are other ways to heaven say that the groups of non-Christians who get to go to heaven will do so by their good works.


I realize it can be a little awkward to tell somebody, "I believe that you'll go to hell if you don't change your faith," but this clearly isn't the answer. I can understand this coming from mainline Protestant groups, as they have been trending away from respect for the text for some time now. I can understand this from Catholics, as their theological leadership often seems more inclined to play politics with the other faiths of the world than actually stick to their guns.

But evangelical churches? This is oddball stuff for evangelical Christians. So where is it coming from? A desire to be "polite" in mixed company and not be "offensive?" Poor teaching from the pulpit? A trendiness in taking the title of "evangelical" without actually caring about the beliefs?

It's hard to say. But I will offer this to any of the Christians out there who want to say that there is more than one way to heaven: You can only reach this conclusion by actively ignoring the Biblical text. If you're going to believe as you do, then you either have to offer up a compelling reinterpretation of those verses or explain why those verses can be ignored.

11 comments:

Ryan said...

Hal, you're trying to lump together Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with Catholic ecumenism?

The Church must be missionary. Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church ... Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ - who is God himself made man - in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ ... (Dominus Iesus)

I would be happy to have a real talk about soteriology, but since it's irreducible to sound bites, I wonder if a blog is a tough medium?

-Ryan.

Hal said...

I guess I stand guilty of doing theology by soundbites myself. My understanding of Catholic theology is that, at least with the religions of the "Abrahamic tradition," i.e. Judaism and Islam, the gates of heaven are considered open to them so long as they are sincere and devout followers of their faith. Do correct me if I'm wrong. I realize blogs make a poor medium for such things, but for what it's worth, all comments go to my inbox, so you can write as much as you want and it'll end up in my email either way.

The thing is, if my interpretation of the Catholic Church's position is correct, it's always struck me as being a "political" stance (that is, it's really awkward and uncomfortable to tell people they're going to Hell for their faith). I don't think such views can be reconciled with scripture. I realize that might end up being an authority debate (scripture vs. tradition), but I'd argue it directly contradicts scriptural edicts. Again, though, I'm open to correction if my understanding is wrong. If I'm going to disagree with you, I may as well disagree with what you actually believe.

Ryan said...

Hal, first, Merry Christmas! I hope that you, your family, and your friends are doing well.

There's more than one way to answer the question, "What do Members of Religion X believe?" Two types of answers include the doctrinal and sociological.

Doctrinally, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is grossly incompatible with Catholicism. Sociologically, MTD is the American religion, unfortunately - and that includes Catholics.

Let's proceed from the doctrinal perspective, rather than the sociological. And before thinking about non-Christian religions, let's think about Christianity.

On Wednesdays, in St Peter's Square, the Pope gives a general audience, preaching briefly on a topic. Since July, he has been primarily preaching on Paul. The November 19th audience is on Paul and justification.

So Hal, would you read that general audience? (It's less than 2,000 words.) I'd like to discuss this question of the Pope's, to see where you and I agree and disagree: "So what does the Law from which we are liberated and which does not save mean?"

Ryan said...

Sorry to flood your comments, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I predict that we’ll end up talking past each other if we don’t back up further. Before we can talk about the How of salvation, we probably need to talk about the What.

When I googled “what is salvation,” the top hit I got was a page from carm.org, a site that I think you’ve referenced in the past.

That page begins, “Salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God upon the sinner.” I don’t disagree with that, or with anything on the page. But I do think that the page is incomplete.

That page presents most of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish.” But, that page sells short the closing: “but have eternal life.”

Salvation is not just being saved from, but being saved for - Christ saves us for Himself. He is not merely the means of salvation, but also the end. That’s the big picture perspective to keep in mind here. Hope that helps.

Hal said...

Hey Ryan, sorry to take so long in getting back to this. I'm sure you can understand how busy things are around the holidays.

First, I apologize if I conflated all Catholicism with the moral therapeutic deism (a term I've actually heard before, since it turns out a majority of American teens adhere to it). I think I specified in my first comment, but I just want to be clear on that.

I read the Pope's address, and I guess I'm curious what your questions are for me. I don't see anything objectionable about what he wrote, though he seems to almost (almost) go too far in conflating faith and love/charity. But I'm curious where you're going with this.

Hope you've had a merry Christmas.

Ryan said...

Thanks Hal. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this! Or rather, I know where I’m going, but I don’t know the path to take to get there together.

I’m going to try changing directions again. Maybe we can start at the end and try to work backwards. Ultimately you want to know from me whether Catholics believe that non-Christians can get into heaven. Well, take a look at Catechism paragraphs 1257 through 1261 (under 500 words total.)

Does this excerpt prove your points? Is Catholic doctrine just like “the Christians out there who want to say that there is more than one way to heaven”?

Ryan said...

I read the Pope's address, and I guess I'm curious what your questions are for me.

I was wanting to see how you felt about this:
First, we must explain what is this "Law" from which we are freed and what are those "works of the Law" that do not justify. The opinion that was to recur systematically in history ... consisted in thinking that it was a question of moral law ... It is obvious that this interpretation is wrong ... For St Paul, as for all his contemporaries, the word "Law" meant the Torah in its totality, that is, the five books of Moses. ... Against [Hellenistic] cultural pressure, which not only threatened the Israelite identity but also the faith in the one God and in his promises, it was necessary to create a wall of distinction, a shield of defence to protect the precious heritage of the faith; this wall consisted precisely in the Judaic observances and prescriptions. ... [Paul] understood that with Christ's Resurrection the situation had changed radically. With Christ, the God of Israel, the one true God, became the God of all peoples. The wall ... between Israel and the Gentiles was no longer necessary ... our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just.

In other words, works of the law refers specifically to the Mosaic law, and Paul’s context is the first century debate on whether a Gentile must become a Jew to become a Christian. Paul answers no: the Gospel is for everyone, it is universal (“catholic.”) Paul’s context is not sixteenth century debates about sola fide. What Paul has to say is of great relevance to those later debates, but we misunderstand Paul if we completely strip away the original context.

Hal said...

Hey Ryan: First, let's address the Catechism. It's not that I'm not familiar with the Church's position on baptism (as outlined in 1257-61). It's just that there are other references made which seem to contradict it (I know you'll say they seem to but don't, but as an outsider to that, it might be good to have such things explained to me). As I said before, it was the catechism's references to Jews and Muslims which left me with the idea that salvation might be available to non-Christians. Specifically 839-848.

Regarding Paul and the Law, we have to understand that the Law encompasses the Moral Law as well. I know the context places "the Law" as meaning, "being a 'good' Jew," but if we're saying that "the Law" encompasses all of the Torah, then that does have to include the Moral Law as well. Are we both in agreement that it is not following of the Moral Law which saves?

Ryan said...

Are we both in agreement that it is not following of the Moral Law which saves?

Yes.

The Pope continued in his next audience :

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the Catechesis last Wednesday I spoke of how man is justified before God. Following St Paul, we have seen that man is unable to "justify" himself with his own actions, but can only truly become "just" before God because God confers his "justice" upon him, uniting him to Christ his Son. And man obtains this union through faith. In this sense, St Paul tells us: not our deeds, but rather faith renders us "just". This faith, however, is not a thought, an opinion, an idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord gives to us, and thus becomes life, becomes conformity with him. Or to use different words faith, if it is true, if it is real, becomes love, becomes charity, is expressed in charity. A faith without charity, without this fruit, would not be true faith. It would be a dead faith.
(Emphasis added)

Regarding CCC 839-848, I will have to get back to you. The footnootes indicate that they are quoting Lumen Gentium, a Vatican II document. I'd like to read that document in its entirety to understand its context and intent. (I intended to read it this weekend, and didn't.)

Hal said...

Hey Ryan, sorry to spring the "other" section of the catechism on you. The catechism came up in the discussion and it seemed like as good a time as any to mention it. After all, it's where my original statements stem from.

I'm not sure I follow the Pope's meaning in the second letter you quote from, specifically the portion you emphasized. What does it mean to say that faith is not a thought or an idea, but communion with Christ?

Ryan said...

Hal, sorry for the long delay. Actually, when I get into occassional religious conversations on blogs, I often obsess over them - and, that doesn't mix well with the fact that I've been overwhelmed and overloaded at work and home, so I had to make a conscious effort to stay away for awhile.

There wasn't any problem with you bringing up CCC 839-845. That section concludes by saying that God wants everyone to be Catholic, so I wouldn't cite this as an example that Catholic leaders are "more inclined to play politics with the other faiths of the world than actually stick to their guns." With that said, I have to admit that a phrase in there ("The plan of salvation also includes ...") could easily be misinterpretted. I haven't read yet the original document that's being quoted there, but I can say this: both the document and that section of the catechism are about ecclesiology, not soteriology (not that these things can really be separated.)

What does Catholicism teach about who's in heaven? Catholicism is conservative in claims to know with certainty which persons are in heaven, and even more conservative in claims to know with certainty which persons are in hell. The only persons that the Church officially says are in heaven for sure are the canonized Saints. B.C., this includes Jewish patriarchs. A.D., all canonized Saints are Catholics. Everybody who's in heaven is saved by Christ alone - this includes those Jewish patriarchs, and any other non-Christian persons who may possibly be in heaven. The Church says that Hell is real, but has never officially named any particular persons as being there for sure. (It would be very difficult for a Catholic to argue that Judas is not in hell, but this wouldn't be automatic heresy. On the other hand, asserting that hell does not exist, or that hell is certainly empty, would be automatically heretical.) So, what does Catholicism teach about the way to heaven? That there's only one way: Christ. Yes but what does Catholicism teach about non-Christians and heaven? There are two answers: what is normative, and what may be possible. What's normative? The Catholic answer is actually more narrow than yours: Catholics in a state of grace enter heaven. What may be possible? The Catholic answer is broader than yours: Some non-Christians (and not just of the Abrahamic faiths) may be able to enter heaven.

Regarding my last pope quote: I'm glad you asked about the part I bolded. You asked, "What does it mean to say that faith is not a thought or an idea, but communion with Christ?" My answer to this fundamental question is insufficient, but it should give us something to start talking about:

Faith (not specifically Christian faith, or even religious faith, but faith in general) is trust in a witness. To have faith in Christ, to trust Him in His witness, is to accept His invitation to follow Him - which is to enter into communion with Him.