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What are the distinctive elements of the Christian understanding of salvation, and how can these be effectively articulated and communicated in the particular cultural circumstances in which the Church finds herself at the beginning of the 21st century?


These are the principal questions which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith endeavors to address in its recent document, Placuit Deo, a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation. The Letter’s opening passage quotes the words of Dei Verbum to express the distinctive element of Christian salvation: “In his goodness and wisdom God chose [placuit Deo] to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will (cf. Eph 1:9) by which, through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (cf. Eph 2:18; 2 Pt 1:4)."! In this passage, Dei Verbum gives voice to the unanimous witness of the Christian tradition that the triune God desires to share the communion of trinitarian life with persons who are not God. This is the great truth of the Christmas festivities which have only just concluded. God sent his only begotten Son who takes our nature in order to share his nature with us. Assuming ourhumanity unto himself and sharing his divinity with us, Christ makes it possible forus to participate by adoption in the divine life that belongs to him, with the Fatherand the Holy Spirit, by nature. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of his boundless love became what we are the he might make us what he himself is."[1]

Only the sinfulness of the human race could block the participation in the divine life that God desires for us. Christ our Savior, who is without sin, allows himself to be regarded as a sinner in order to free us from sin and death. He removes all that would block us from participation of the life of the all holy God.

As Placuit Deo affirms, the Christian faith proclaims the “salvific work of the Son incarnate without ever separating the healing dimension of salvation, by which Christ redeems us from sin, from the elevating dimension, by which He makes us sons and daughters of the God, participants in his divine nature (cf. 2 Pt 1:4)."[2]

But, according to Placuit Deo, two recent cultural changes make it difficult for people to understand certain aspects of Christian salvation: first, the rise of individualism “centered on the autonomous subject tends to see the human person as a being whose sole fulfilment depends only on his or her strength;” and secondly, “a merely interior vision of salvation marked by a strong personal conviction or feeling of being united to God [that] does not take into account the need to accept, heal and renew our relationships with others and with the created world.”[3]

These developments, though they appear in a markedly modern profile, resemble the two ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism. In noting these resemblances, Placuit Deo follows Pope Francis who, “in his ordinary magisterium, often has made reference to these tendencies.” In neo-Pelagian individualism, “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures,” while “a new form of Gnosticism puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior.”[4] Against these distortions of the understanding of Christian salvation, Placuit Deo reaffirms “that salvation consists in our union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, death and Resurrection has brought about a new order of relationships with the Father and among human persons, and has introduced us into this order, thanks to the gift of his Spirit, so that we care able to unite ourselves to the Father as sons of the Son, and become one body in the 'firstborn among many brothers’ (Rom 8:29).”[5] Moreover, “both the individualistic and the merely interior visions of salvation contradict the sacramental economy through which God willed to save the human person. The participation, in the Church, in the new order of relationships begun by Jesus occurs by means of the sacraments, of which Baptism is the door, and the Eucharist is the source and the summit.”[6]


The final paragraph of Placuit Deo begins by affirming that “the awareness of the fullness of life into which Christ the Savior introduces us propels Christians onward in the mission of announcing to all the joy and light of the Gospel. In this work, Christians must also be prepared to establish a sincere and constructive dialogue with believers of other religions, confident that God can lead 'all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way’ [Gaudium et spes, 22] towards salvation.”[7] For very good reasons, Placuit Deo refrained from a discussion of the alternative doctrines of “salvation”—or all-encompassing aims of life—as they occur in other religions. But, in secularized western countries and certainly here in Asia, in addition to the challenges posed by neo-Pelagianism and neo­Gnosticism, Christian communities must also face fully realized alternative religious accounts of the ultimate aim of human life and the means to pursue it. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, in all of their cultural and geographic diversity, have a great deal to say about these matters. This is the situation that you, as bishops and theologians on this great continent, face every day.

The “sincere and constructive” dialogue about the nature of salvation that Placuit Deo commends to the Church poses significant and distinctive challenges. It is one thing to encounter people who have only an implicit or ill-developed understanding of the meaning of life and the direction it should take, but something else entirely to encounter communities with sophisticated and well articulated religious views on these issues. In the past the Christian mission met with most of its success among peoples of indigenous religions (in the Americas, in Africa and in parts of Asia). But as its focus shifts increasingly to the adherents of major religious traditions, the context of mission alters dramatically.

Many years ago I was struck by a passage in an essay by the English theologian John Milbank: “every major religion is already the result of confronting the fact of religious differences and an attempt to subsume such differences. By comparison, genuinely local [indigenous] religions may scarcely have had to confront the question of whether their beliefs and practices are relevant beyond the confines of their own society; this is presumably why they are so liable to conversion by or accommodation with the terms of a major religion, which is in part the result of such a confrontation. The major religions are notoriously not so susceptible to conversion or accommodation, precisely because they already embody a more abstract, universal, deterritorialized cultural framework, although they do not usually succumb to the temptation of trying to found this universality in a reason independent of all particularized memory.”[8]

Milbank’s observation captures precisely the reality that the Church faces every day here in Asia and elsewhere, whether the topic under consideration is the Christian faith in salvation, or the doctrine of the Trinity, or the principles of the moral life. The implication is that it is only through interreligious dialogue that Christians can relate to the major religions and in this way realize the Church’s evangelizing mission in the context of societies within their ambits—India (Hinduism) or Malaysia (Islam) or Sri Lanka (Buddhism), for example. What is more, interreligious dialogue is different from the forms of dialogue with which Christians have become familiar in the West—ecumenical dialogue or dialogue with non-religious people. In interreligious dialogue, the Church encounters, not disagreements about a shared Christian faith or about common philosophical assumptions, but massive and enduring bodies of religious wisdom and highly ramified systems of doctrines derived from ancient scriptural canons.[9]


How to communicate the Christian faith in salvation in this situation is a challenge you face daily in your preaching, teaching, and research. The Congregation hopes that Placuit Deo will be of some assistance in this task. To that end, allow me to suggest one way in particular that it might be.

Placuit Deo affirms that “every person, in his or her own way, searches for happiness and attempts to obtain it by making recourse to the resources one has available”[10] Thus it is clear, in the first place, that our faith in Christ’s unique role in human salvation does not entail a devaluation of the world’s religions. The religions of the world are monuments to the human search for God and salvation.

As such, they are worthy of respect and study because of the immense cultural richness of their witness to the desire for God planted in every human heart. But the Christian faith attests not only to the human search for God, but principally to God’s search for us.

As Placuit Deo has reaffirmed, what God wants to share with us is nothing less than a communion of life, a share or participation in the divine trinitarian life. It is at this point that Placuit Deo can be of great assistance. For it is precisely with this distinctive understanding of Christian salvation in view that we can grasp the unique role of Jesus Christ in the salvation of the human race. For the idea that God wants to share the communion of his life with persons who are not God cannot come from anyone but God himself. The initiative here comes from God’s side, both to reconcile us because of sin and to make possible a kind of life that would not only be impossible for us but unthinkable as well.

Salvation in this comprehensive sense is not something that can be arranged or organized by human beings. It is not within the power of human abilities or interiority to accomplish, as neo-Pelagians and neo-Gnostics seem to suppose. Nor is salvation something that one creature can achieve for another, as is supposed by neo-Arians (to mention another ancient heresy that is very much alive). The created order by itself has neither the resources to achieve nor the imagination to conceive such a destiny for human persons.

Given that salvation in the Christian sense of the term involves both reconciliation of sinners and the elevation of creaturely persons to a new kind of life, it cannot come from within this world. Saviors are a dime a dozen when one fails to grasp what’s really at stake. We need to be delivered not just from error, or suffering, or desire, or injustice, or poverty. To understand what the Christian faith means and promises by salvation, we must grasp the true peril of the human condition as well as the glory that is human destiny in the economy of salvation. God desires nothing less than to share his life with us. If the salvation that the triune God wills for the entire human race entails communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then the creaturely and sinful obstacles to this communion must be overcome.

Without embarking upon a comparative study of competing religious doctrines about the ultimate aim of life, I think we can say with some assurance that it has never been claimed of anyone but Jesus Christ that he could and did overcome these obstacles, and that he could and did make us sharers in his divine life. Through him we are both healed of sin and raised to an adoptive participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity—and nothing less. The obstacles to this participation are either overcome or not. If they are not overcome, then Christians have nothing for which to hope, for themselves or for others. In that case, they will hawk an empty universal salvation on the highways of the world. If Christians abandon the proclamation of Christ’s unique mediatorship as the divine, only- begotten Son of the Father, they will have no other mediatorship with which to replace it. We need the Savior who is not just any savior.

How persons who are not now explicit believers in Christ can actually come to share in the salvation that God desires for the human race and that Christ alone makes possible is a topic for another day. But surely it must be evident that if Christians—in the wholly admirable desire to be respectful of non-believers and optimistic about their chances of salvation—no longer confess Christ’s unique mediatorship in making ultimate communion with the Blessed Trinity a real possibility for created persons, then the problem of how non-Christians can share in it is not resolved: it simply evaporates. For Christians to have a truly universal hope and confidence in the salvation of persons who are not Christians, they have to affirm the unique role of Christ in bringing this salvation about, not just for themselves but for others as well. By stressing the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrine of salvation, Placuit Deo helps us to make this point forcefully. “Christ is Savior inasmuch as He assumed the entirety of our humanity and live a fully human life in communion with his Father and others. Salvation, then, consists in our incorporation into his life, receiving his Spirit (cf. I Jn 4:13). He became, 'in a particular way, the origin of all grace according to his humanity.’ He is at the same time Savior and Salvation."[11]


[1] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, preface.

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo, § 9.

[3] Placuit Deo, § 2.

[4] Ibid.§ 3.

[5] Ibid. § 4.

[6] Ibid. § 5.

[7] Ibid. § 15.

[8] John Milbank, “The End of Dialogue,” in G. D’Costa, ed., Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 180.

[9] See J. A. Di Noia, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

[11] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, 2.