The Coming of Jesus Christ in the Flesh
I’ve recently been exchanging emails with a correspondent who inquired into the Catholic Church’s official stand on the possibility of salvation for Muslims. I explained that the Church teaches that any person who, responding to the grace he has been given, seeks to know God and do His will (or if he has no opportunity to know God, at least seeks to know the good and to do it) may be saved. Obviously, access to all the goods given to us for our salvation through Christ and His Church constitutes a sort of high road to union with God. Yet the possibility of salvation remains for those who do not know Christ and the Church.
But let us suppose, he replied, that we have a Muslim who seeks to know God and do His will but denies that Jesus Christ the Son of God has come in the Flesh. Can he be saved? I answered that, if we suppose that the Muslim in question has had no real chance to know Christ and so erroneously accepts what he has been taught, namely that Christ was a prophet and not God Incarnate, then on that account his salvation is not impossible. But my correspondent could not accept this because a number of passages in Scripture assert that those who refuse to acknowledge “the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” are to be rejected; they are even described as antichrists.
So I tried to take him in a bit deeper. He must not assume, I said, that he understands perfectly the meaning of various passages of Scripture, but must look to the Church for guidance so that he might understand properly. All that the Holy Spirit has inspired both in Scripture and Tradition must be taken as a unity, and each point or passage must be understood in such a way that the truth of all is upheld. Christ, I reminded him, built His Church on Peter, gave Peter the power of the keys, and prayed for Peter that his faith might not fail, precisely so that he could confirm the faith of his brethren. This Petrine power was recognized by the first generation of Christians to be an essential power of the Church, passed on to Peter’s successors, and exercised through what we call the Magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority.
Here, however, he has thus far missed my point. He responded that he can hardly accept the Church’s authority when there is such an obvious difference between what that authority teaches and the clear sense of Scripture, especially on a point so central as the necessity of Christ to salvation. He reminded me of Acts 4:12 which, referring to Jesus Christ, states: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
But now we are starting to go around in circles, for I had stated clearly from the outset that my answers did not mean the Catholic Church doubted the absolute necessity of Christ for salvation. Before tackling these questions, I had urged him to read Dominus Iesus, the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000 “On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.”
The question we were discussing was not whether Christ is essential for salvation. That goes without saying. Rather, the question was what steps must a person follow, in the wake of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, to appropriate Christ’s saving work to himself, so that the work of Christ actually becomes efficacious in his own particular case. That is a very different question, and the answer does not depend on saying “Lord, Lord”, for not all who say it will enter the Kingdom Heaven (Mt 7:21). Rather it depends—as suggested by the parable of the talents—on how we respond to whatever grace we are given, whether we ignore it or multiply it through love.
Unfortunately, the Protestant typically attempts to discern the “rules” of salvation by reading Scripture as if it is an unusually reliable contemporary newspaper, perfectly clear in the context of our own contemporary concerns. But, in fact, when Scripture warns against those who deny the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh, it is not talking about pagans or others who have not yet had the benefit of the light of Christian teaching. The reference is rather to members of the Christian community who became Gnostics and began teaching a different way of salvation than what the apostles had handed on.
Consider the key passage in 2 John:
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is a deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward. Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. (vv. 7-9)
Those who abandoned apostolic teaching for Gnosticism claimed that a certain secret knowledge of Jesus Christ was essential for salvation and that, once one had this knowledge, it did not matter whether one obeyed Christ’s commandments, whether one acted out of love. Part of this so-called secret knowledge was the teaching that Christ did not become the Son of God until His baptism and He ceased to be God’s son before His Passion. In other words, the defining characteristic of the Gnostics was their refusal—after having initially embraced the Faith—to “acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh”, that is, to acknowledge the Incarnation, the inseparability of the divine nature and the human nature in the one Christ. John is warning against Christians who subvert the Gospel.
And what is John’s warning? Abide, he says, in the doctrine of Christ. Remain steadfast in the apostolic teaching, the Faith that was given to you not from clever and learned writings but by the authority of the apostles themselves. And here John includes himself, describing himself in the opening verse as “the elder”, the one in authority over them. And by this apostolic authority, what does he teach?
And now I beg you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love. (vv. 5-6)
Thus the very passage which my correspondent thought challenged the authority of the Church is actually part of an argument in favor of both apostolic authority and the need to hold fast to the law of love. In closing, then, let me restate that argument: It is not possible to understand the Gospel apart from the apostolic authority of the Church.
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Jan. 21, 2010 7:12 PM ET USA
I'll permit the link though I don't regard the St. Benedict Center as a reliable source. This is their hobbyhorse; their founding hero, Fr. Leonard Feeney, was excommunicated for a time for holding the same view on this that some of them still advocate. Mr. Kelly must ignore many magisterial statements to cling to this interpretation. I have addressed this many times over the years, most recently in a mid-2007 commentary, The Church: Who's In and Who's Out?.
Posted by: Justin8110 -
Jan. 21, 2010 5:26 PM ET USA
Brian Kelly, who writes for the St. Benedict Center, wrote a wonderful commentary on your own that I think you ought to check out. Here is the link: Commentary on Dr. Jeff Mirus' Commentary.
Posted by: jjen009 -
Jan. 18, 2010 11:57 PM ET USA
Tangentially—because the real topic is the fact that you cannot properly understand revelation except by thinking with the Church—it has always seemed to me that the great graces available to Catholics mean that we not only have available a "high road to union with God"—we also have a potential lower road to Hell than others. To whom much is given, from him much is required. Corruptio optimi pessima