Monday, November 10, 2008

Thesis Thoughts - Historical Background

For my Master's thesis I will be researching and writing on the debate between Karl Rahner and Hans urs von Balthasar regarding their conceptions of Christology and the salvation of non-Christians. I shall attempt to post summaries of research, random quotes and the like on a somewhat regular basis. Please feel free to share your own thoughts, ideas, questions, sources, etc.

In our pluralistic society, what is the state of Christology and the Christian dogma that Jesus Christ is the universal savior of mankind and the cosmos? Before focus our efforts more directly on the above question and the specific theologians at hand, we would benefit from a brief historical overview of the topic.

From beginning of Christianity, throughout the New Testament we are confronted with seemingly contradictory passages on the universal or not so universal salvific will of God. Avery Cardinal Dulles, in his First Things article "Who can be Saved?" lists a series of Biblical texts which seem to indicate that salvation requires faith and belief in Jesus Christ. In this regard, he quotes St. Paul, “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” (Rom. 10:9) and St. Mark "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16), among others, and draws the
conclusion that
"according to the primary Christian documents, salvation comes through personal faith in Jesus Christ, followed and signified by sacramental baptism."

On the other hand, in his book Dare We He 'That All Men Be Saved'? von Balthasar convincingly shows that this conclusion is not so clear. He contrasts Jesus' statement of condemnation with statements of Jesus' or God's universal salvific will. We can here cite St. Timothy who writes, "This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:3-6). Balthasar, quoting St. Peter, adds that "God does not wish ' that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet 3:9).

What are we to make of this? Certainly we cannot expect a just and loving God to
condemn to hell those who have never even had the opportunity to hear the Gospel preached. But how can they be saved with belief in Christ, without Baptism, without being the Body of He who is life?

Dulles shows that some of the early Church fathers held exceptions to the necessity of explicit faith in Jesus for some of the ancient philosophers who seem to have found Christ in the truth of natural
wisdom and philosophy. On the other hand Augustine taught that those who had never heard the Gospel would be denied salvation because salvation comes this faith, which they clearly could not have had. They would suffer eternal punishment for original sin and their own personal sins. Dulles informs us that this Augustinian view held sway "throughout the middle ages."

In his Papal Bull Unam Sanctam, Pope Boniface VIII writes clearly and forcefully, "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human
creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
" Additionally,the Council of Florence mentions "pagans" (not merely heretics and schismatics) for the first time in this regard, teaching "The holy Roman Church…firmly, believes, professes and preaches that "no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans", but also Jews, heretics, or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the eternal fire."

However, starting in the 19th Century the Church's understanding of salvation "outside" the Church
begins to develop. In encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore (1863), Pope Pius IX writes matter of factly "We all know that those who suffer from invincible ignorance with regard to our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law which have been written by God in the hearts of all persons, if they are prepared to obey God, and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful
life, can, by the power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life." The Second Vatican Council affirmed Pope Pius' statement in Lumen Gentium which taught that Christ is the
sole mediator of salvation and the Church is necessary for salvation, but adds that "Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part,
have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life."

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council were allegedly strongly influence by the thought of Rahner and his "anonymous Christianity" in developing and formulating the relevant passages of Lumen Gentium. Therefore, in attempting to understand how non-Christians can be saved, theologians have often adopted and adapted Rahner's method and framework in order to discuss Christ as universal savior in a pluralistic society. However, after the Council, Rahner has been looked upon less favorably by the Magisterium, and Balthasar, whose thought Pope Benedict seems to especially appreciate, became one of Rahner's harshest critics.

Balthasar does not disagree with Rahner so much on the idea of salvation outside the [visible] Church (in Dare We Hope he comes closer to apokatastasis than Rahner ever did), but he is wary and harshly critical of Rahner's method, which has been termed, "Transcendental Thomism."

In my next post I shall explore some of the philosophical and historical influence which led Rahner to choose his method and led Balthasar his.


Balthasar, Hans urs von. Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? San Francisco:Ignatius Press, 1988.

Dulles, Avery Cardinal. “Who Can Be Saved?” First Things. February 2008

Dupuis, J., and J. Neuner. The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents
of the Catholic Church. Alba House, 1983.


Anonymous said...

in the question of christology, how much do balthasaar and rahner look to the gospel narrative in so far as presenting the minimum's for salvation as Christ understood them? As Christ forgave? By that I mean, do they evaluate the narrative as a whole, or work from a systematic position, using certain texts only?

One of my class lessons was in this issue earlier in the week, and I read an article by a certain Rick Brown, writing in the International Journal of Frontier Mission, on 'What Must One Believe about Jesus for Salvation', which is extremely important due to its missiological implication.


Henry Karlson said...

I would only say that the 19th century really wasn't so exclusive to discussing the question of how to interpret "no salvation outside of the Church." Since the time of Columbus, that question became quite important, and would be discussed by various sources.

JB said...


First of all, I do intend to get around to reading your Old Testament stuff, but I'm pretty swamped with thesis and other things at the moment.

That is a very good question. Rahner works from primarily a systematic position. A person need not believe anything about Christ to be saved. A person may, in his words, transcendentally respond positively to God's offer of salvific grace and live an implicitly Christian life without proclaiming himself a Christian, either due to invincible ignorance, or the weakness of the manner in which the Gospel was preached/exhibited to him, etc.

Balthasar...I'm not sure that he addresses it either. Although he may. For Balthasar, the Cross, martyrdom, Christian witness, etc. is intrinsic to being a Christian. Therefore he is not comfortable with Rahner's transcendental method or his terminology of "anonymous Christians." However, Balthasar's hope for the salvation of non-Christians may be more "radical" than Rahner's. He bases this hope on God's universal salvific will. He wills that all men be saved and on his theology of Jesus' descent into hell after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection. At which time, according to Balthasar, Christ preached to the damned.

It is interesting stuff, but I haven't done enough research yet to answer you fully. Hope that helps a little.

JB said...


Thanks for the nuance and clarification.