extra ecclesiam nulla salus?

Tony Sig

As one reads and thinks one begins to get interested in particular rabbit holes in theology.  Feeling called to Ecumenism, Ecclesiology is one such rabbit hole of mine.

I wish to propose some brief propositions that have swum around in my mind.  I realize that they are not positions that the Church has traditionally agreed with but I’m trying to follow out some logic that stems from good Catholic theology.  Mostly, I want to locate the Church.  If one cannot do such, even if in a provisional way, it seems difficult to speak at all about it.  Tell me what you think.

  • I am, along with at least the RCC, a religious inclusivist.  That is to say I trust that there will be many from different faiths who “find salvation.”
  • Karl Rahner called these people “anonymous Christians”
  • Catholicism is concerned with the locatability of the Church as opposed to Protestant spiritualizing and volunteer’izing of the Church.
  • A “Christian” is someone who in faith is baptized into the Church and prayed over to receive the Holy Spirit
  • A so-called “anonymous Christian” has not been baptized nor prayed over to receive the Spirit and even if their ‘faith’ is truly toward God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit it is not shaped in this way.
  • If such a person can be “saved,” and if “there is no salvation outside of the Church,” then by this logic A) People can be “saved” without the Sacraments B) People can be part of the church without knowing it…
  • There seems to be a tension to me.  Now, if the Sacraments are necessary to become part of the Church (as I would argue), AND “there is no salvation outside of the church,” THEN “anonymous Christians” (or their souls?!) must be baptized post-mortem.
  • This is just plain silly to me.
  • Would it not make more sense to use the old dictum (was it Luther?):  “There is no salvation outside of Christ?”
  • This would allow us to locate the Church, which is absolutely necessary for witness, fellowship, worship, evangelism, discipline, etc…
  • AND it would allow us to remain religious inclusivists who acknowledge, no, Rejoice!, that God is at work in the whole world?
  • This also makes sense of some otherwise puzzling passages in the New Testament

So how ’bout it?  There is no salvation outside of Christ but there is outside of the Church?


  1. Pope John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold,” 140: “People are saved ‘through’ the Church, they are saved ‘in’ the Church, but they are always saved ‘by the grace of Christ.'”
    He said a few pages earlier (136): “There is salvation only and exclusively in Christ” and with regard to the Church, “inasmuch as it is the body of Christ, is simply an instrument of salvation.”
    People are diversely related to the church. “it is not unconditionally necessary for salvation that one be incorporated in the Church through formal membership” (Avery Dulles).
    For what it’s worth.


  2. That’s worth a lot Johanjoubert, thank you! I was wrong I guess. I was under the impression that the traditional position was one of needing to be formally included in the Church itself.

    I love learning.


  3. It’s worth noting that when the RCC says “the church” they mean their church (and kinda/sorta the Orthodox church). While they affirm that grace and salvation exist in protestant communions, protestants do not have the fullness of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church of Rome.

    Why do we have to assume Rahner is right? One is no more an anonymous Christian than an anonymous father, son, or daughter. There is no salvation outside of the church because it is the body of Christ, entrusted with his revelation, gifted through the Spirit with the sacraments. Salvation is essentially relational – if God in his mercy chooses to save some of those outside of the Church, it will only be by working through the Body of Christ. As it is with Israel, so it is with the Church – the election of the few is to be blessing for the many (thanks be to Barth!).

    Of course, we should also say that salvation is both eternal and temporal. We believe that Christians experience a foretaste of the Kingdom here and now (especially at the Lord’s Table) – and thus, while those outside the church may be “saved” in the sense of fire insurance, they most assuredly will not enjoy any part of the salvific relationship with God this side of the second coming.


  4. pastormack,

    Certainly the RCC considers itself the full manifestation of the one, holy, apostolic and Catholic church; but that is also what makes their reflections on “the church” so pertinent, so universal (ie-‘catholic’).

    I assumed Rahner was right mostly for an easy and shorthand way to describe the line of thinking I’ve been exploring. And I think that “religious inclusivism” is right so it fills in for that entire paradigm.

    As to the rest of your comment I agree with bits but parts I feel repeat what I have been trying to overcome. You said “There is no salvation outside of the church because it is…” But for the sake of my argument, I assumed that there would be “non-Christians” who “would be saved.” How do these “saved” “non-Christians” become part of the church, which would be foundationally necessary in order to be saved; at least if that is what you meant by your statement.

    But you’re totally right that salvation is relational and our taste of it here partial.


  5. Wonderful book! (Hint: Lofhink says, ‘Yes!’)

    No salvation outside the church doesn’t necessarily imply membership in the visible community. It could be that those saved outside the church are still saved due to/because of the faithfulness of God’s covenant people.

    Additionally, such people would not be members of the church militant, but may indeed find themselves as part of the church triumphant.


  6. pastormack,

    But that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid! To say that “they” will be part of “the church” (either triumphant or militant is rather moot) is to say that we become part of “the church” without passing through baptism.

    I simply don’t think this to be the case. There are plenty who have faith and “who will be saved” (so to speak) but who are not in the church. Unless being in the Church bi-passes the Sacraments.


  7. Just another thought.

    Is it possible to perceive, study or look at the “Church” as the “ekklesia” in relation to Christ? In other words, can we appreciate it from God’s perspective instead of our fragmented interpretation? Before it became RCC, Protestant, or Pentecostal, etc., was it not “Ekklesia?”

    Some in history pointed out that the Church is a mixed body (corpus permixtum), comprised of people (saints and sinners/believers and non-believers/saved and unsaved) whose motives and status can be known only by God, who will be their judge. As someone said,”For mere mortals to presume to judge is the height of pride.”

    For what it’s worth.


  8. johanjoubert,

    I appreciate the interaction, there’s no need to “soften the blow” so to speak by ending with “for what it’s worth.”

    I’m absolutely there with you on the “mixed” Church. The church will contain faithful, unfaithful and all of us in between. And I’m in no way affiliating “the church” with a specific branch of the Church, however historic and venerable the institution.

    I am sympathetic to the idea that “the church” is just “out there” and composed of many peoples of many faiths and traditions, etc… But ultimately that is not something I agree with and I don’t think it lines up with the New Testament where believers are all baptized in water to receive the forgiveness of sins and the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

    So I’m not a) saying anything really that different than the NT b) judging who is “saved” and who is “not” or who’s a “believer” and who’s not; what I am saying is that since the Church is a place of reconciliation, both between Humanity and God and Man and Woman, and if our pattern of conversion necessarily includes faith AND baptism, then it seems fair to “locate” (as best we can) the boundaries of the Church within the Sacraments and not without.

    And again, this does not at all close off the reality that God is working in the whole world and saving it.

    Do you still disagree?


  9. Firstly, no blow was intended at all, just a thought!

    Secondly, I did not intend to disagree either. The point is only to throw in basics that are sometimes easily forgotten, ignored or overlooked.

    To understand, are you saying the church is where the sacraments are?


  10. That sounds pretty close. I’d say that there is “redemption” and/or “salvation” wherever Jesus is, but “the church” is bound to the sacraments.


  11. Your stance reflects the “ex opere operato” principle from a traditional RCC perspective. The apparent notion is that the effect of the sacrament emanates from its own operation. It accords attributes to the sacrament which, according to others, reside only in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as One in the Divine Trinity, cannot possibly be encompassed or contained within sacramental rituals or material things, or its operation taken for granted just because one has followed or performed certain prescribed actions.

    For what it’s worth!


  12. Rowan Williams argues in Tokens of Trust that the Church, as the body of Christ, is the place where Jesus is active in the world, therefore, wherever Jesus is active in the world, there is the Church. You could argue that this raises more questions than it answers, but then Williams seems to see Jesus (and by extension the Church) as ineffable and always surprising.

    As for salvation, I can’t help but think of Wright’s argument that Christ — through his death and resurrection — isn’t saving individual souls from hell, but rescuing the entire universe from dissolution. So the question isn’t “Who will be saved,” but “Who will take up the responsibility of joining in God’s work of salvation?”


  13. “The Holy Spirit, as One in the Divine Trinity, cannot possibly be encompassed or contained within sacramental rituals or material things, or its operation taken for granted just because one has followed or performed certain prescribed actions.”
    Yet isn’t that exactly what happens according to the Eucharist? Isn’t that what God as Son says God the Holy Spirit will do? In which case presumably we can assume that it will happen like that?
    The alternative is a Eucharist where you assume God isn’t faithful, and the Holy Spirit may or may not choose to operate according to Her whim. Which doesn’t seem to me to accord with any traditional theology of the Spirit’s relationship to the Son and Father.


  14. To find the early church one had to support a defined creed, have papers attesting to their beliefs from an orthodox bishop, and that orthodox bishop had to be in communion with either Rome, Antioch or Alexandria. Finally those three sees had to be in communion with each other.

    As time progressed clarity of issues which were gray became black & white. Hence there was division caused and one was either “in” or “out”. This didn’t place limits on how God’s operates, but clearly “The Church” believed it could place limits on man.


  15. Jordan,

    Do you happen to recall where that quote is? I’m pretty much convinced that I should agree with everything Rowan Williams says but I would point out that on
    p.117 of Tokens he seems to indicate that he understands that people coming to Communion are already baptized. I’ve not doubt that Jesus often “goes ahead” of the Church, preparing the soil as it were, but his bumbling servant and bride shows up eventually doing the work she’s called to.


    I’ve no doubt that the Holy Spirit can*NOT!* be ‘contained’ in any thing or action but I’m with the Archdruid that the Spirit can be trusted. Otherwise we are left with a capricious or moody Father who only shows up when we are doing things right; and since this is hardly at all I’d be terrified for the Church!


    Man those first centuries were a pretty confusing time to be a Christian I imagine.


  16. Well its not very practical method to find the church today but the early church use the “diptychs of the living” and “diptychs of the dead” as a method to demonstrate their expression of faith, of those in union with them and those to use as an example in life. You went to a church and the names in the liturgy gave you the information that you were in a Christian church.

    Striking a name for the diptychs was consider a drastic measure and was THE stumbling block for many years in schisms btwn the east and west. Not because they disliked a given individual but because that individual taught heresy and communion was not possible.

    As far as confusing times I think its more today then back then. It was certainly more deadly back then as you know.


  17. Unfortunately adhunt, I can’t remember where in the book it is, and I got it from the library so can’t check. I will clarify that he said it tentatively (although he seems to say everything tentatively,) and probably sympathizes somewhat with all sides of the issue (as he seems to do with every issue.)

    I suspect that if he knew about this blog and decided to comment, we would suddenly see lots of terms like “conversation” and “dialectic” and “mutual understanding” all over the place. This would be followed by general confusion, which would eventually give way to the consensus that things were more complicated than we thought at first, and we should really learn to listen to each other more.

    Then we’d break for tea.


  18. The point is simply; the sacrament is only meaningful for the person that participates in faith. It is through faith that we experience the working of the Spirit, through which we become aware of Christ, of all he did, and is still doing. It is in that sense that the sacrament becomes void of significance and power, without the Spirit, when Christ is not a reality in our lives. The Spirit uses the sacraments and not visa versa. It is only to the extent that the Spirit utilizes it that the recipients experience its true significance and power.
    For what its worth!


  19. “The point is simply; the sacrament is only meaningful for the person that participates in faith.”

    Something really bothers me about that statement, but I can’t quite put my hands around what it is.


  20. “‘The point is simply; the sacrament is only meaningful for the person that participates in faith.’

    Something really bothers me about that statement, but I can’t quite put my hands around what it is.”

    Probably because this view while trying to highlight the primacy of the Spirit inadvertently makes an individual’s faith the most important thing. If the person doesn’t believe then the sacrament loses all power.


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