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Is There Any Salvation Inside the Church?

By Leander Harding

St. Cyprian’s dictum (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, or there is no salvation outside the church), is now in danger of being turned on its head. Does anyone think the church is in any way essential to salvation? Do we not secretly share with an unbelieving world a conviction that one can be saved and come to the fullness that God intends for humanity without any necessary involvement in the life of the church? Unlike Cyprian, it is characteristic of much of contemporary Christianity that we believe that the church is not necessary and perhaps not even very important in the drama of salvation.

This ecclesiastical indifferentism takes many forms. There is the familiar trope of the parishioner who is more often absent than present at services that he or she can worship God just as well anywhere. Both evangelicals and progressives have minimal use for the life of the church in their schemes of salvation. For both the locus of salvation is elsewhere. I am going to paint with a broad brush, knowing that I am not describing the best examples of these movements. I am trying to describe things as they exist in the main and for the most part, on the street, at the local level, and to draw out the implications.

For the evangelical pietism which dominates the pop theology of North America, salvation is a matter of a personal relationship with the Savior. Salvation is a matter primarily of inner assurance, and the acquisition of this assurance can be had anywhere and is notoriously unlikely to be had in churches, and especially liturgical churches, with their rote ritual. The locus of salvation is interior and the geography of salvation is where the revival is located or where the gospel is presented in a small group setting or in a one-to one conversation with a believing friend.

The late Billy Graham, whom I long regarded as a man of great faith, integrity, and fruitfulness in the Lord, had as something like an evangelical litany, “You may be very faithful at your church week by week, you may even be a pastor, but are you saved?” Clearly there is no essential connection between the drama of salvation and week-by-week worship of the church. Baptism is not necessary, and Eucharist is not necessary. What I call soteriological urgency is not a characteristic of the ordinary liturgical life of the local congregation. The church has no indispensable role in the drama of salvation.

For liberal or progressive Christians (labels fail but are an unavoidable shorthand), Christianity is a way among many ways of salvation. There is nothing indispensable about Jesus and nothing indispensable about the life of the local worshiping congregation. There is no soteriological urgency with regard to either baptism or Eucharist. The locus of salvation is in the world. Salvation is primarily a this-worldly reality. An overemphasis on heaven and hell and the last things, which practically means any emphasis at all, is wicked and a sin. After all, a loving God will send most people to heaven.

The Christian can get some moral and spiritual energy from the worship of the church to go forth and engage in God’s agenda for justice and reconciliation in the world. The church can help perhaps by the re-education of consciousness, providing some antidote for the false consciousness that results from the patriarchy and other structures of oppression, but the actual experts of this liberation are all external and the liberation they offer can be had quite apart form any involvement in the life of the church, including her sacramental life. As in the evangelical view, the weekly Eucharist is not a matter of soteriological urgency. The whole point is to get out of the church and into the world. The money and energy we spend on buildings and music and liturgy is very likely a form of idolatry.

The Pentecostal does see a somewhat more efficacious role for the worship of the church. The great thing is to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, and this can happen anywhere, but it is the case that the Spirit is poured out on particular congregations at particular moments, as has happened most recently in Asbury, Kentucky. Then the obvious thing is to leave your local congregation behind and go to where the Spirit is. Perhaps you may be able to bring the Spirit back with you, but you cannot depend on the agency of the Spirit week by week, and you are likely to be on an unending search for a really Spirit-filled church.

Even in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church of my childhood, the locus of salvation was not essentially in the liturgy, but in the interiority of the individual. You attended the liturgy to get grace, and then if you maintained the grace, when you died you would be saved. In some ways the confessional was more important than the Eucharist. The church and its sacraments were certainly more central and important than they were for my Protestant friends, but it was more important to be in a state of grace than to be in Mass. If you missed Mass you missed an opportunity to enter a state of grace, and you incurred a loss of grace through sin, but the actual moment of salvation would come at the moment of death, and a sincere act of contrition could save what had been lost by decades of missed Masses. The soteriological urgency in this scheme is not urgency about participation in the liturgy but urgency about maintaining a state of grace. My salvation was no less portable than that of my Protestant friends.

I have been criticizing good things. It is good to seek a personal relationship with the Savior, to seek liberation from the oppressor mindset, and to become an agent of justice and reconciliation in the world, to desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit and thus sanctified. Indeed, I hope to die in a state of grace, but the most popular stories that contemporary Christians tell themselves about salvation all have this modern characteristic of utilitarianism or instrumentalism. The liturgy is good insofar as it helps you achieve a salvation whose locus is elsewhere. The liturgy is not good just for its own sake and because it is precisely the place where we are being saved and where the primary and defining experience of salvation breaks upon us and God calls to us out of the burning bush.

In his book Deification Through the Cross, Khaled Anatolios (a Byzantine Catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame) lucidly engages the issues I have been describing. His aim is to address what he calls churches’ “soteriological befuddlement.” He writes in the style of Alexander Schmemann, and begins with the experience of the glory of God in the liturgy. Through a careful exposition of the Byzantine liturgies of Lent and Easter, he brings out the experience of salvation that is enacted and conveyed in the liturgy. It is the experience of “doxological contrition.” In the liturgy generally and in the Eucharist especially, we encounter the one who perfectly reveals the glory of God and perfectly returns that glory in an act of perfect worship, which includes a perfect repentance for the sins of the world. He gives himself to us so that we may be taken up in his perfect doxological contrition.

Repentance and contrition come from the encounter with divine glory in the liturgy. It is the experience of glory that is the active presence of the living God that brings one to a consciousness of sin and a sincere repentance and contrition and amendment of life. This is, I think, the fundamental plan of Thomas Cranmer in the classic Anglican prayer books as evidenced by the General Thanksgiving and the Prayer of Humble Access.

This experience of salvation as doxological contrition is the experience of being actually remade in and through the liturgy into the image and likeness of the new Adam. To miss out on the weekly liturgy is to miss out on salvation and to absent yourself from the one place where the new life in Christ is actually given and received and where the human person and the human community are being remade by the one true and living God.

This book is worthy of a more detailed review than I can give in this essay. It is, I think, a very important book and worthy of more discussion. Anatolios gives us a way of thinking about salvation that is both biblical and liturgical and that makes participation in the whole liturgical life of the church, and especially the weekly Eucharist, a matter of the greatest soteriological urgency. The liturgy is presented as the place where the true life of the human person and the true life of the human community are revealed and given. The liturgy is presented as the place where your life, which is hid with God in Christ, is revealed to you in glory and received in joyful contrition and repentance. It is a vision of the liturgy that prepares you not for something else but presents the liturgy as in itself the saving encounter with the Lord of Glory, who is himself the heartbeat of this world and the life of the world to come.

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