Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

"No Salvation outside the Church" in Light of Luther's Dialectic of the Hidden and Revealed God

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

"No Salvation outside the Church" in Light of Luther's Dialectic of the Hidden and Revealed God

Article excerpt

Ralph W. Klein has been a seminary professor for four decades. A great deal of his scholarship and teaching has intentionally addressed the life and mission of the church as well as the academic context. This exploration of Martin Luther's theological insights and their contemporary implications is intended to celebrate Klein's commitment to the gospel, his sensitivity to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and his conviction that theological scholarship can focus on practical questions of faith and of the church's calling in the world.

The claim that there is "no salvation outside the church" has been an integral part of the Christian tradition since the time of Cyprian in the third century. While it continues to be affirmed within the Christian community, it also has inspired substantial debate. Its theological, missiological, eccle-sial, and ecumenical implications are varied, and it presents the contemporary church with complex challenges as the church strives to carry out God's mission in the world. The assertion is consistent with Luther's evangelical perspective. At the same time, Luther's dialectic of the deus revelatus and the deus absconditus provides contemporary theologians with resources to amend and reinterpret this assertion.

Luther clearly affirms that there is no salvation outside the church. It is either explicitly or implicitly articulated in much of his theological corpus. Nowhere is it stated more clearly than in a normative text of the Reformation movement, a text that ultimately was included among the Lutheran confessional writings, namely, the Large Catechism. In his discussion of the third article of the Creed he makes a variety of statements that clarify his position. While criticizing the Roman church for fostering human works as a means of obtaining grace and salvation and thereby obscuring Christ's redemptive activity and the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification, Luther asserts:

Where he [the Holy Spirit] does not cause it [the Word] to be preached and does not awaken the understanding of it in the heart, all is lost....For where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church, apart from which no one can come to the Lord Christ.(1)

Stressing the necessity of forgiveness in the lives of sinners, he warns: "Outside this Christian community, however, where there is no gospel, there is also no forgiveness, there is also no holiness." (2) However, his clearest statement occurs in the conclusion of his explanation of the Creed where he praises the Creed as a careful explication of the essence, will, and work of the Holy Spirit. He points out that

we could never come to recognize the Father's favor and grace were it not for the LORD Christ, who is the mirror of the Father's heart. Apart from him we see nothing but an angry and terrible judge. But neither could we know anything of Christ, had it not been revealed by the Holy Spirit. (3)

The saving self-revelation of God occurs only within the community of faith. Hence, Luther concludes:

These three articles of the Creed, therefore, separate and distinguish us Christians from all other people on earth. All who are outside this Christian people, whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites--even though they believe in and worship only the one, true God--nevertheless do not know what his attitude is toward them. They cannot be confident of his love and blessing, and therefore they remain in eternal wrath and condemnation. For they do not have the LORD Christ, and, besides, they are not illuminated and blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (4)

It is not surprising that Luther makes this bold assertion, for it is clearly consistent with the chief articles of his evangelical theology, namely, his Christology and the related doctrine of justification. The very heart of his theology therefore informs his thinking. …

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