“Come now and let us reason together,” saith the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you be willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is: “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.” Recently, in the comments section of a website that I frequent, there was a rather unedifying discussion—argument, really—over the meaning of the claim that there is no salvation outside the Church. Basically, it was an internecine squabble amongst Roman Catholics, with the occasional Protestant injection.
On the one hand, a few posters adopted what I would call a strict Cyprianic interpretation—though I’m not sure if Cyprian would’ve called it that—namely, that the Church, in this case the Roman Church, is a walled garden. You are either in it or out of it, and, if you are out of it, you are damned.
Others took a more nuanced approach, what I shall call an Augustinian interpretation, arguing that even though the Church is, in one sense, a defined reality, we cannot know for sure who is saved and who is lost. “How many sheep without, how many wolves within?” is a popular saying taken from one of Augustine’s homilies on John.
Amidst this back and forth, there was a Protestant objection, namely, to the fact that any human institution—and the Church of Rome is a human institution, even if it was founded by divine command—could claim a monopoly on salvation.
I’m not going to reproduce the whole argument, but needless to say, this argument could have been constructed just as easily, and just as fruitlessly, amongst Orthodox as among Roman Catholics. For this reason, I want to talk about the phrase: “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.”
However, I do not intend to define the limits of the Church. Fr. George Florovsky has a famous article on that topic, one which has attained near canonical status at St. Vladimir’s. You can hunt it down if you are interested. Frankly, there are huge problems with that article, but I don’t want to get into that today. Rather, I want to explain why being outside the Church—and here I shall define the word “Church” as the recognized canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church—leads to destruction rather than to salvation.
One of the constant themes of these podcasts is that Orthodoxy is not an intellectual system or a set of doctrines, but a way of life, a Lebensform, a culture. It is the way of the prophets and apostles, indeed, the way of Christ himself. It is the way that leads to life everlasting, because it is the way of sacramental and ascetical death and rebirth. “That which is corruptible must put on incorruption.” I have said, time and again, that doctrine is designed to do one thing: to keep us on this path.
And surely, we all realize that it is possible to give mental assent to all of the doctrines of the Church, and yet live in a way that is contrary to those doctrines. The Last Judgment will not be a catechism quiz. We shall be judged, instead, on the basis of how we have treated Christ, that is, our neighbor.
This does not mean, however, that doctrine is somehow optional or unnecessary. We humans are great do-it-yourself-ers, and it is unsurprising that people would seek to save themselves. But if self-medicating is a dangerous pursuit in regard to physical health, so self-spiritual direction is doubly dangerous in regard to the health of the soul.
Doctrine provides the parameters within which we, as a community, work out our salvation. This process of working out our salvation is the life of the Church, what we call Tradition. So you see, doctrine is not so much Tradition itself, as the necessary safeguard which makes Tradition possible.
Let us remember what “tradition” means: “that which is handed down.” There is a very important temporal dimension to this topic. We must not only hold fast to what has been handed down to us, we must also impart that treasure, that pearl of great price, to the next generation, intact.
When people leave the Church, whether over something political, like a schism, or doctrinal, a heresy of some sort, or simply because of boredom and sin, they take a little of the Church with them. That is to say, they take some elements of tradition with them. A person who leaves the Church to live a life of dissolution and debauchery takes very little. But even little things, saying a Kyrie now and then, which are insignificant in the eyes of the world, may provide the basis for repentance one day later. God does wonders with things the size of mustard seeds.
Even a person who leaves, or is kicked out of the Church over heresy, will take much with him. The problem is that as time goes on, without the proper doctrinal and canonical framework, there will be nothing to hold his way of life together. Sooner or later, his way of life will change, and then the changes will become progressively bigger.
For example, the Arians continued to baptize in the name of the Trinity. You see, they changed little, if any, of the outward Church traditions. And yet, as the Orthodox repeatedly pointed out, their practice was inconsistent with their belief that the Logos was a creature. As time went on, and as Arianism became more radical, liturgical changes followed.
The point I want to stress, however, is that this did not happen overnight. This is a mistake that many people make, in thinking that when a schism or a heresy occurs, everything goes to hell all at once. The fact is, it doesn’t. Indeed, for most lay people caught up in such schisms or heresies, their daily lives may not change at all—at first.
But changes will come. It just may take a generation, or two, or even three. However, the way of life of the fourth generation will be absolutely unrecognizable to the first. That is the way of heresy.
Let me give another example. All Protestants that I have ever known subscribe to the “invisible Church” theory in one form or another. This is the idea that the real Church, the Church with a capital “C,” is invisible. It is made up of all the saved, whoever they are, and is ultimately known only to God. Particular churches, with a little “c,” are essentially human organizations, though almost all Protestants think that theirs is closer to the original model than the others.
This is essentially Nestorianism applied to ecclesiology. The earthly Church and the invisible heavenly Church are conjoined in some sort of moralistic way, but they are not one and the same, to use one of Cyril’s favorite phrases.
Sooner or later, this ecclesiological Nestorianism begets Christological Nestorianism, which is rampant in the Protestant world, including the most conservative Evangelical circles. Eventually, this Christological Nestorianism begets soteriological Nestorianism, whereby salvation is understood, not as the deification of man, but as a matter of external morality, conceived, conservatively, as the forensic imputation of righteousness on account of a substitutionary atonement, or, more liberally, as mere moral similitude with a first-century rabbi named Jesus.
All you have to do is look at the history of any Protestant denomination from its founding to the present to see what I mean. Would the Wesleys recognize either the Episcopal or Methodist churches of today? What would John Knox have to say about your typical Presbyterian church?
We’re now seeing something that I predicted over a decade ago. Acceptance of homosexual relationships is now becoming widespread in Evangelical circles. Indeed, we are already starting to see Evangelicals claim that the traditional Christian proscription of such activity is intolerant and even un-Christian.
There is a great irony here. Churches are spending millions of dollars on various youth initiatives to keep their kids interested in church, and yet, they are not “traditioning” to these children the unchanged faith and life of the apostles, but an ever-changing set of ad hoc beliefs and bourgeois mores. Even if the kids do remain in church, the Church itself will not be the same one as their grandparents attended, even if the building and the name on the marquee remain the same.
You see, when we say “there is no salvation outside the Church,” we mean that the way that leads to life is found within the Church, within her dogmatic and canonical boundaries. These boundaries are the tools the Lord uses to keep this way of life intact—for us, and for future generations.
To be sure, Orthodox youth may leave the Church, lured by secular society or glitzy pop religion, but if, by God’s infinite grace, they return, they will return to the Church of their fathers, grandfathers, forefathers, indeed to the Church of the apostles. What Protestant can say that?
If you have the chance to talk religion with your Protestant friends, please don’t tell them that they are going to hell because they are not members of the Orthodox Church. You don’t know any such thing, and they certainly won’t believe you. But ask them what sort of religion their grandchildren will have. Perhaps there is enough traditional Christian piety left in the Protestant world for those who wish to be saved to be saved, but I am 100% certain that it will not last another generation, and then where will their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children be?
And now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.