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Are Non-Christian Faiths Ways of Salvation?


James I. Packer

Suppose that when the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul had said, ÒBe diligent in your present religion, whatever it is,Ó would this have been an adequate answer? Luke, at any rate, would hardly have thought so, for the speeches and sermons which he records in Acts link salvation exclusively with the name of Jesus and faith in his person and lordship (cf. Acts 2:38; Acts 4:12; Acts 5:31; Acts 10:43; Acts 13:23, 38-39; Acts 16:31; Acts 26:15-23; Acts 28:23-28). Nor could Paul have said this without inconsistency, for though in the next chapter we find him allowing that in a real if remote sense polytheists ignorantly worship the true God, he goes on to make it plain that unless they repent of their idolatry they will be in jeopardy at the judgment (Acts 17:23, 29 ff.). Yet many today seem to think that such a reply would have sufficed. From Schleiermacher to Troeltsch and from Hocking to Tillich and Toynbee, liberal Protestant thinkers have canvassed the notion that there is in all religion a common essence; that all adherents of all faiths are climbing the same mountain and will meet at the top; that ideal Christianity would include insights taken from non-Christian religions, and would in that sense be more than Christianity; and that the missionary task is to enrich indigenous faiths with Christian insights rather than to

EditorÕs Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles entitled ÒThe Way of Salvation,Ó which were the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures given by James I. Packer at Dallas Theological Seminary on Apr 11-14, 1972. Scripture passages are translated and/or paraphrased by the author.

call those faiths in question in any fundamental way.(1) Furthermore, current Roman Catholic thought highlights the idea that non-Christian faiths may be a way of salvation in circumstances where the Christian writ does not run -which is so striking a change of front as to merit a little documentation.

Roman Catholic Views

The slogan, stemming from Origen and Cyprian, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) has always been a Roman axiom, and still is, but its interpretation has changed. From the third to the sixteenth century it was held to mean that salvation comes through sharing directly in the sacramental life of the one fold (from which the Eastern churches were excluded by excommunication in 1054), and without this there is no hope for anyone.(2) Trent opened the door an inch, however, by teaching that baptism could be received not only in re (baptism of water) but also in voto (baptism of desire) where circumstances made water baptism impossible.(3) Then in 1863 Pius IX opened the door further by affirming of pagans, Protestants, and Eastern Christians that Òthose who labour under ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincibleÓ - i.e., dominant and incurable, yet due wholly to conditioning, not to negligence or ill-will or any intention, direct or remote, to disobey God - Òare not held guilty in this respect in the LordÕs eyes.Ó(4) Link this with what Trent said, and the possibility at once emerges that a person may in good faith through invincible ignorance reject the true (Roman) church at conscious level, believing it to be false and idolatrous, and at the same time unconsciously belong to it by desire (in voto). This is the line which Roman Catholics pursue in order to explain how non-Roman Catholics can be saved.

When in 1949 a certain Father Feeney of Boston taught that all non-Roman Catholics are doomed to damnation, the Holy Office sent Cardinal Cushing a letter condemning this teaching as heretical and excommunicating any who held it, and that was the end of

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FeeneyÕs public ministry.(5) And in 1964 the second Vatican Council declared:

But if some men do not know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet acknowledge the Creator, or seek the unknown God in shadows or images, then God himself is not far from such menÉ Those who, while guiltlessly ignorant of ChristÕs gospel and of his Church, sincerely seek God and are brought by the influence of grace to perform his will as known by the dictates of conscience, can achieve eternal salvation. Nor does divine providence deny the assistance necessary to salvation to those who, without having attained, through no fault of their own, to an explicit knowledge of God, are striving, not without divine grace, to lead a good life.(6)

If we ask what has made modern Roman Catholics ready to allow that non-Romans can be saved, where before they denied this, the answer is that instead of tying grace exclusively to the sacraments Catholic theology now views it as permeating all human life. Grace is conceived as a power perfecting humanity by strengthening us to actualize our natural Godward tendency, which sin has robbed of energy. Fallenness is a matter of weakness through deprivation rather than of badness through depravity; between sin and grace there is no radical directional antithesis, only the difference between want and supply. Since the supply of grace is universal (so an increasing number maintain) salvation may be universal too.(7)

In 1961 the distinguished Roman Catholic divine Karl Rahner put forward the following line of argument:(8) The exclusive claims of Christianity operate only where Christianity is known; non-Christian faiths, which are the combined products of grace and sin, function as ÒlegitimateÓ and saving religions where Christianity is absent; their adherents should be classed as Òanonymous Christians,Ó having ÒimplicitÓ faith (that is, a disposition to believe what the Church believes); and the ChurchÕs missionary task is to make explicitly Christian the faith of the anonymously Christian world, as Paul did in Athens by introducing the God who was already being worshipped,

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though in ignorance (Acts 17:23). Much thinking along these lines, positing a vast saving work of God outside the ChurchÕs fold, appears in modern Roman Catholic theology,(9) starting, with Rahner, from the assumption that fallen man not only feels need of God but actually inclines Godward. Given this assumption, the development is natural. But is it scriptural? Our answer is no, for the following reasons at least.


1. RahnerÕs idea is a speculation, and has a thrust quite different from that of PaulÕs Athenian speech, which condemned idolatry without in any way justifying idolaters.

2. It appears to assume that God is bound to open a door of salvation to the majority of men, or his goodness is flawed. But the Bible, with its stress on universal wrath and Òrighteous judgmentÓ as GodÕs reaction to universal ill-desert, speaks differently. Rahner could, if he wished, draw support from Tillich, who condemned the idea that God saves only a minority as Òabsurd and demonicÓ and affirmed that Òit cannot be that there is no saving power apart from Jesus as the Christ;Ó(10) but these are not biblical thoughts. B. B. Warfield found the New Testament wave length more accurately when he wrote: ÒIt is not difficult to understand why a just God does not save all sinners; the difficulty is to understand how a just God saves any sinners.Ó(11) The New Testament perspective is one of wonder and praise that some are saved, and there is no thought that God would let Himself down did He not provide salvation for most or all.

3. It is a stubborn fact that non-Christian religions are radically different from Christianity. On RahnerÕs view, one would expect to find some fundamental correspondence or convergence; but Owen C.Thomas seems to be correct when he writes: ÒThe modern study of the religions has made it extremely difficult if not impossible to

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demonstrate that an ideal essence lies at the heart of all of themÉ. The so-called higher religions do not stand closer together than the earlier or lower forms, but are in fact more sharply divided from each otherÉ. The adherents of the other religions honestly cannot see their deepest intuitions fulfilled in ChristianityÉ. There are in fact decisive differences among the religions in regard to the nature of the divine and of human fulfillment.Ó(12) The facts do not fit the theory.

4. If non-Christian faiths are ways of salvation till Christianity comes, but not after, then, as Thomas pointedly observes, Òit might be safer for the adherents of the other religions if the Christian message was kept a secret.Ó(13) Quite so! The Christian mission would then be less a service than a disservice to the world, and the missionary would have to choose between either the dishonesty of concealing or the lunacy of admitting that the first effect of his bringing the gospel is to destroy the possibility of salvation that was there before. This is surely a reductio ad absurdum of the whole theory.

5. RahnerÕs speculation disregards and in fact contradicts the biblical view of non-Christian faiths, which we shall now examine.

The Biblical View of Non-Christian Religions

Rahner agrees with liberal Protestants (Schleiermacher, Tillich, Troeltsch, Hocking, et al.) in viewing non-Christian religions as being basically right, though disfigured by errors; but the New Testament, echoed by the older Protestantism and such neoorthodox divines as Barth, Brunner, and Kraemer, sees them as basically wrong, though embodying some truths. They are idolatry, not divine but demonic,(14) corruptions of the awareness of the Creator which general revelation gives. As such they are forms of apostasy, psychologically and sociologically determined in each case. World-religion is thus an ambiguous phenomenon, and Emil BrunnerÕs dialectical formula that Jesus Christ is both its fulfillment and its judgment seems to fit it well. BrunnerÕs analysis of what Romans 1:18-23 implies in this regard merits quotation.

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The God of the Òother religionsÓ is always an idol. The religious forms of the imagination always follow the law of secularization, either in the form of making finite-idolatry in the ordinary, polytheistic sense - or in the form of depersonalization, in which the idea of God is dissolved into an abstractionÉ. If the secularization, the blending of God with nature and man, is the first phenomenon, then the cor incurvatum in se, egocentricity, or anthropocentrism, or eudaemonism, that is, the failure to give glory to God, or self-seeking, is the deepest motive of all the Òother religionsÓÉ. The original sin of man breaks out first of all, and mainly, in his religion, the essence of original sin is manÕs apostasy and his inveterate tendency to be absorbed in himself.(15)

Exactly; and it was for this reason that the older philosophy of missionary work stressed the discontinuity between Christianity and other faiths, and saw the task as being, not to supplement ethnic faiths, but to displace them. Surely this was right.

Non-Christian Religions and Salvation

Does the Bible warrant the view that non-Christian faiths are a way of salvation? It seems not. The Bible says that GodÕs general revelation, even when correctly grasped, yields knowledge of creation, providence, and judgment only, not of grace that restores sinners to fellowship with God. And those who know the world-religions best report that they do not in fact possess this knowledge. Stephen Neill, for instance, comments thus on RadhakrishnanÕs 1959 edition of the Brahma Sutra: ÒIs it without significance that the index does not contain the world ÔforgivenessÕ?Ó(16) Paul told Agrippa that God had sent him to the Gentiles Òto open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance ÉÓ (Acts 26:18-19). Such a statement, against the background of unawareness of pardoning grace which the world-religions display, would seem to be decisive.

But the question is asked: What about the case of Cornelius? Peter comments: ÒIn every nation any one who fears (God) and does what is right is acceptable to himÓ (Acts 10:35). Does not this imply that God saves religious men the world over, whatever their faith? Not necessarily, for:

1. Peter is generalizing from the case of a ÒGod-fearer,Ó that

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is, a Gentile who had privately embraced the Jewish religion (Acts 10:2), and the generalization does not have in view adherents of other faiths.

2. Peter reported that the angel told Cornelius to send for him so that he might speak to Cornelius Òa message by which you will be savedÓ (Acts 11:14). To PeterÕs mind, therefore, CorneliusÕ salvation resulted from his coming to know the gospel, and all that preceded this was prevenient and preparatory grace. Cornelius had in fact been in a position parallel to that of the Jews who were saved on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:47):as Jews, hoping in GodÕs promises, they had been in the way of salvation, but were not in a state of salvation till they heard of Christ and turned to him. With Cornelius it was the same.

3. Professor J. N. D. Anderson asks concerning Acts 10:35, ÒDoes it not mean that the man who realizes something of his sin or need, and throws himself on the mercy of God with a sincerity which shows in his life (which would always, of course, be a sure sign of the prompting of GodÕs Spirit, and especially so in the case of one who had never heard the gospel) would find that mercy although without understanding it -at the cross where ÔChrist died for allÕ.Ó(17) Though, as we saw, the text is not actually speaking to this question, we need not hesitate to say yes to the suggestion itself - but then we have to add that neither the story of Cornelius nor anything else in the Bible entitles us to expect that God will bring persons ignorant of the gospel to the penitence and trust described. Whether God does act in this way, apart from the Word, we do not know. But Romans 10:13 ff. tells us that to be saved one must call on the name of the Lord, and to do that one must have believed in Him, and to believe in Him one must have heard of Him, and that none will hear without someone to tell them - in other words, that Christians must work on the assumption that salvation is only possible through hearing the Word (the principle which the story of Cornelius actually exemplifies).

It thus appears that the case for other forms of faith beside Christianity being ways of salvation is forlorn indeed. Without Christ, we are without God and without hope. Non-Cbristian religions exhibit much that is noble and many insights that are true, but they do not exhibit saving grace. So far as the way of salvation is concerned, Òbelieve on the Lord Jesus ChristÓ really is the last word.

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