Salvation for All: God's other Peoples

O'Collins SJ, Gerald
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One of the questions which has most deeply concerned Christianity ever since its encounter with the 'innocent' peoples of Latin America, as opposed to the Moslem 'Infidels', is whether non Christians can be saved. Because Protestantism was much more concerned with which of its own number could or should be saved, this doctrinal concern has been largely a matter of Roman Catholic interest and, because of the nature of the centuries in which it was discussed, the debate was almost entirely dogmatic, with very little reference to Scripture. The climax of this enterprise was reached in the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) when the careful but often deeply suspected ground work of theologians such as Karl Rahner resulted in a positive affirmation that salvation is for all.

Gerard O'Collins, in a Scriptural tradition itself given much impetus by Vatican II, has set himself the task in Salvation for All of seeing if the doctrine stands up to Scriptural evidence. He uses his customary technique which might best be described as matrix analysis: first, he takes each relevant book of The Bible, listing it on the vertical axis, and sees what it says about universal salvation, throwing up such themes, on the horizontal axis, as "God's universal benevolence", "Jewish outsiders in the Old Testament" and "The Spirit; secondly, he takes each theme on his horizontal axis and works his way down all the books of The Bible on the vertical axis; thus, all the material is covered twice.

There were moments when I was tempted to skip a chapter and others when I feared he was going to be the exegetical Grand Old Duke of York, but his general conclusion is that all humanity has been saved by the death and Resurrection of Jesus. In the words of Saint Paul: "We are all in Christ and the Spirit is in us". Using Paul, O'Collins defines four characteristics of Christian faith as: obedience to God; accepting God's self-disclosure in Christ; entrusting our future to God; believing it is made possible through the power of the Spirit. So all sorts of good people, including Abraham and Sarah, are fine, except on the second count; he never says how many you need out of four! The crux of his argument is that because the presence of the risen Christ in the Spirit seeks people out, they are all the recipients of God's self-communication. This might sound like an argument that everyone is a Christian whether she knows it or not but O'Collins is careful to distinguish between the bilateral relations between God and non-Christians and the mission of The Church.

O'Collins is only incidentally clear on the saved status of those who lived before Christ but his unequivocal conclusion that the Jewish people are all saved because of God's promise, is heartening.

As I approached the end, I found myself wishing I was reading a slightly different book. O'Collins frequently mentions "The Church" as the full embodiment of the risen Christ, with its central identifiers of Baptism and the Spirit but frequently that list expands to include The Eucharist and I began to wonder, reading a passage on Epiclesis, whether he was falling into the assumption that "The Church" actually means the Roman Catholic Church. We non-Catholic Christians just about manage to be saved, deprived, as we are, of the 'authentic' Eucharist. Perhaps I was reading too much into the text but I concluded with the thought that most Christian denominations find it easier to talk and write constructively about other faiths than about other denominations.

A solid piece of work which should put an end to ideological wrangles over an issue which rightly should not be settled without due reference to Scripture.