Those who never hear the gospel 3

Those who never hear the gospel 3 December 3, 2010

This series is being written by David Opderbeck, and he’s probing into what I think is one of the most significant issues Christians need to face today: religious pluralism.

This is the third post in my series on Gavin D’Costa’s book Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions.  The first two posts are here and here.

At the conclusion of my last post, I mentioned D’Costa’s emphasis on “participatory ontology” in his construction of a theology of the unevangelized.  This notion is an important part of D’Costa’s approach to how a person without explicit faith in Christ during this life might be saved.  I believe it is significant not only for the problem of the unevangelized, but also for soteriology in general – indeed, it may be the most significant aspect of the meaning of human nature and salvation routinely omitted from popular Christian teaching.

Questions for the day: What do you think of the notion of “participatory ontology?”  Can a person who does not know of Christ or who has not yet confessed Christ “participate” in Christ?  Do works of virtue in the lives of non-Christians suggest that God is already at work saving them?  Are these concepts Protestant Christians can adopt, particularly those of us who self-describe as “evangelical?”

“Participatory ontology,” in connection with the doctrine of salvation, is the idea that being “saved” involves participation in the life of the triune God.  The very being (the “ontology”) of people who are saved is joined in a real way to the being of God.  There are many scriptural warrants for this idea, including Romans 6:1-12, 1 Cor. 6:12-17 and 1 John 2:24-25 (which is but one instance of the theme of “abiding” or “remaining” in Christ throughout 1 John).  It is an important theme in the Christian Tradition, particularly in the Eastern concept of theosis, but also in the West, notably among the mystics.

This does not mean, of course, that human beings become co-equal members of the Godhead along with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But it does mean that humans were designed to partake in the perichoretic life of the Trinity, in way suited to our creatureliness, yet without the alienation caused by sin.  Indeed, all of creation was designed to participate in God’s life.  The eschatological conclusion of God’s entire plan of salvation is nothing less than the accomplishment of this goal:  upon the consummation of Christ’s Kingdom, “the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

How do we participate in God’s life?  The basic answer is that “by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).  But “faith,” in Biblical terms, is inseparable from the way we live: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:10)  And without grace and faith, it is impossible for anyone to live well.  “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).  Because of the alienation caused by sin, we are unable to participate in God’s life, which means we are unable in ourselves to do anything good:  “There is no one righteous, not even one . . . . There is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-18).

All good and all truth come from God.  Therefore, whenever a person experiences and practices true love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control – whenever real virtue is present – this is the result of the grace and faith that enable participation in God’s life.  (For the moment, I am glossing over some important distinctions between Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, and other theologies concerning the effects of sin on the will and natural human reason, and the extent to which human beings “cooperate” in their own salvation.  All agree, however, that grace and faith are required for true virtue).

For D’Costa, the link between grace, faith, and virtue suggests that virtuous non-Christians already have some degree of faith in the true God and thereby already are participating in Christ.  The belief that the unevangelized can hear the gospel in the “limbo of the just,” D’Costa notes,

Does not negate or downplay the historical lives lived by people and communities as building God’s kingdom in “inchoate” ways, in seeking goodness, truth, and beauty, as best they can.  It is precisely in these ways that such peoples already begin to participate in the life of the triune God.

This notion is consistent with Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian,” which influenced the inclusivism of the Catholic Church’s Vatican II documents.  In D’Costa’s proposal, when such people are confronted by Christ in the “limbo of the just,” their epistemic response completes the inchoate grace and faith they experienced and demonstrated in life.  Even for baptized Christians, he notes, the “Beautific Vision” – the eternal and direct knowledge of God — is available only in heaven, where all of the corruptions of sin are eliminated.  In other words, even baptized Christians lack full knowledge of God in this life and must meet Christ at death in order to complete their salvation.

If non-Christians can participate by grace and inchoate faith in the life of Christ, what is the purpose of the Church?

More on D’Costa’s perspective on this – with some important missiological implications – in my next post.

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