An email list to which I belong recently drew my attention to this post by Fr Hunwicke on his blog: “Nostra aetate; its authority; Judaism; good news”
In this post, he reports the comments of one Archbishop Pozzo, “an official within the CDF”, about Nostra aetate.
“The Secretary for the Unity of Christians said on 18 November 1964 in the Council Hall about Nostra aetate ‘As to the character of the declaration, the Secretariate does not want to write a dogmatic declaration on non-Christian religions, but, rather, practical and pastoral norms’. Nostra aetate does not have any dogmatic authority and thus one cannot demand from anyone to recognise this declaration as dogmatic. This declaration can only be understood in the light of tradition and of the continuous Magisterium. For example, there exists today, unfortunately, the view – contrary to the Catholic Faith – that there is a salvific path independent of Christ and His Church. That has also been officially confirmed last of all by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith itself in its declaration Dominus Iesus. Therefore any interpretation of Nostra aetate which goes into this direction is fully unfounded and has to be rejected”.
Fr Hunwicke relates this comment to the December 2015 document from the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews ““The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29)“.
In response to this, I commented on the email list that “There is no necessary contradiction between the conviction that the covenant of God with Israel perdures and the teaching that apart from Christ and his Church there is no salvation.”
One correspondent asked me to explain how this squares with Hebrews 8:13 “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Another was more daring: he wanted me to answer the following question:
“Will a modern faithful Jews who does not confess belief in the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of our Lord, and received Baptism end up in Heaven or Hell?”
So, here is my attempt to answer both questions.
On the topic of Hebrews 8:13, the Vatican document “The Gifts and the Calling of God” devotes a short paragraph (para. 18) to this specific topic.
18. There have often been attempts to identify this replacement theory in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle, however, is not directed to the Jews but rather to the Christians of Jewish background who have become weary and uncertain. Its purpose is to strengthen their faith and to encourage them to persevere, by pointing to Christ Jesus as the true and ultimate high priest, the mediator of the new covenant. This context is necessary to understand the Epistle’s contrast between the first purely earthly covenant and a second better (cf. Heb 8:7) and new covenant (cf. 9:15, 12:24). The first covenant is defined as outdated, in decline and doomed to obsolescence (cf. 8:13), while the second covenant is defined as everlasting (cf. 13:20). To establish the foundations of this contrast the Epistle refers to the promise of a new covenant in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. Heb 8:8-12). This demonstrates that the Epistle to the Hebrews has no intention of proving the promises of the Old Covenant to be false, but on the contrary treats them as valid. The reference to the Old Testament promises is intended to help Christians to be sure of their salvation in Christ. At issue in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not the contrast of the Old and New Covenants as we understand them today, nor a contrast between the church and Judaism. Rather, the contrast is between the eternal heavenly priesthood of Christ and the transitory earthly priesthood. The fundamental issue in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the new situation is a Christological interpretation of the New Covenant. For exactly this reason, “Nostra aetate” (No.4) did not refer to the Epistle to the Hebrews, but rather to Saint Paul’s reflections in his letter to the Romans 9–11.
I admit that I have struggled with the explanation they give there. Perhaps a whole chapter would have been more helpful. But I think I understand it to be saying that what has been made “obsolete” is the priesthood and cult of the first covenant, not the promises of God to his people contained in the first covenant. Thus (paradoxically) the very passage which promises a “new covenant” is itself a promise of the “old covenant”!
To my mind, this perfectly matches what St Paul says in Romans 9-11. I passionately believe that God has not rejected his chosen people (cf. Rom 11:2) and that God does not repent of his gifts and promises (cf. Rom 11:29). Indeed with St Paul, we may say that
“as regards the Gospel, they are enemies for your sake [I take this as a reference to 11:25 – that without the “partial hardening” of Israel according to the flesh, the Gentiles would never have had a share in the Kingdom]; but as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” (Romans 11:28)
This is how St Paul understood the reaction of his people in his day to the Gospel. He wrote that “God has consigned all [Israel] to disobedience, so that he may have mercy on all [Israel]”? Thus he concludes that, by some mystery, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). For this reason, I am deeply uncomfortable with the challenge to make a call on the damnation/salvation of any member of the house of Israel, let alone Israel as a whole.
Of course, when I confirm that God’s covenant with the Jewish people remains valid, I am not saying that there are now two paths of salvation – one through Torah and one through Jesus. Paragraph 25 of the “The Gifts and The Calling” specifically rejects this idea. I am saying that the promise he made to Israel in his covenant with Abraham and at Sinai (ie. that they would be his own chosen people and that he would never take his love from them) remains forever valid and has not and cannot be rescinded. Jesus Christ does not abolish this promise, but fulfills it.
So can a person who does not explicitly confess the name of Jesus and hold the doctrine of the Holy Trinity be “saved”?
I believe firmly that the redemption of the world will be accomplished and can only be accomplished through the Lord Jesus Christ – ie. “In his name” – and in “no other name”. I am certain too that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). But I am not sure sure that this implies the opposite, ie. That whoever *does not* explicitly confess the name of Jesus and hold to the doctrine of the Trinity will not be saved.
I think the Athanasian Creed is partly the culprit here, when it says that
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
I am not so sure that we rightly understand this statement if we interpret it as saying that only those who explicitly confess the doctrine contained in the Athanasian Creed may be saved.
One could, for instance, make it say that Protestants are not saved because they do not hold “the catholic faith”. This would, of course, be incorrect, because in context, the Creed itself defines what it means by “the Catholic faith”, ie. not everything that the Catholic Church today teaches and professes to be true, but rather the particular doctrine concerning Christ and the Holy Trinity that is expressed in this Creed as opposed to some other of contrary version of the faith.
But also, taking it in its historical context, this Creed is clearly intended as a condemnation of the heresies of Arianism, and Unitarianism and other heretical variations of the Christian doctrines of Christ and the Trinity. It does not intend to damn to hell all individual human beings who have ever lived or ever will live who do not specifically know and confess the words of this creed. Not even the Church holds that, as the Church explicitly teaches the salvation of the Old Testament patriarchs of Israel – none of whom ever explicitly held or confessed the faith outlined in this Creed.
Recently a friend pointed out to me that the Letter to the Hebrews (11:16) describes the faith required to “please God” and “draw near” to him as 1) to believe that he exists and 2) to seek him. It is interesting to compare this to St James, who says that
“religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
Jesus himself describes the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 in such a way to suggest that “the righteous” are rewarded for their acts of mercy, even though they did not explicitly know Jesus himself. And then, even Jesus warns us that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 7:21).
I am also interested in the fact that when we begin to talk the language of salvation, we immediately begin to talk about “individual” salvation – when it is very common in the scriptures to talk of the salvation “of all Israel” (as Paul does in Romans 11:26) or “of the nations”.
All this is New Testament teaching, which for the sake of this argument I am just relating to the Jewish people (although of course it relates to Muslims as well, and for that matter to anyone who believes that God exists and who seek him!).
I know that others will quote to me passages such as Matthew 10:32-33 (but surely this is a promise/warning to those who already believe in Christ?), or Matthew 3:9 (I am not a “universalist” – I know that exclusion from the people and Kingdom of God is a real possibility), or Romans 9:6-8 (but Paul answers this himself in Romans 11).
I come back to what I said earlier: I believe that God has redeemed the world in and through Jesus Christ his Son, and that all salvation will be through him. – but I am prepared to see God working his salvation through the name of Jesus in individuals, and nations and places even apart from the explicit confession of his name. And honestly, I think I have the New Testament at my back on this issue.