Paul Knitter has documented a shift in Catholic dogma from what he terms exclusive to inclusive ecclesiocentrism. The Catholic church has gone from saying that no one outside her communion can be saved to saying that ever so many men, women, and children outside her communion can be saved, whereas if anyone at all is damned, it is mostly likely to come from within rather than without—a heretic or apostate.
It’s safer to be outside the church. The less you know the better. Ignorance is your best defense. By contrast, the most dangerous place in the world, spiritually speaking, is inside the Catholic church!
Knitter goes on to trace out this trajectory a few steps further:
This most recent shift in Roman Catholic theology of religions incorporates a clearly theocentric perspective. It is both distinct from and yet continuous with the ecclesiocentrism and Christocentrism of earlier Catholic views. While continuing to affirm Jesus as a savior for all peoples of all times, together with the church as the community by which Jesus’ presence and message is embodied through time, these Third World theologians see all religions as partners in a salvific dialogue in which not the church or Jesus, but God, the "mystery of salvation", is the final ground and goal and norm.
In tracing the radical changes throughout the history of Catholic attitudes toward other religions, one detects a certain evolution from ecclesiocentrism to Christocentrism and, most recently, to theocentrism.
Knitter, P. "Roman Catholic Approaches to Other Religions: Developments and Tensions", International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 8 (1984).
But this paradigm shift or theological evolution is by no means limited to Catholicism, for it also infects Evangelicalism and Evangelical missiology. Consider the Manila Declaration, issued by the World Evangelical Fellowship
Against pluralism, we affirm that God has acted decisively, supremely, and normatively in the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In his person and work, Jesus is unique such that no one comes to the Father except through him. All salvation in the biblical sense…comes solely from the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In our modern pluralistic world, many Christians ask: “Is it not possible that there might be salvation in other religions?” The question is misleading because it implies that religions have the power to save us. This is not true. Only God saves…all salvation stems solely from the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ, and this salvation can be appropriated solely through trust in God’s mercy.
The question, therefore, should be rephrased as: “Can those who have never heard of Jesus Christ be saved?” OT saints, who did not know the name of Jesus, nevertheless found salvation. Is it possible that others also might find salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ although they do not consciously know the name of Jesus? We did not achieve a consensus on how to answer this question. More study is needed.
H. Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (IVP 2001), 49.
This calls for several comments:
1.It may sound very pious and Christ-honoring to say that no one is saved apart from Christ, but that is a highly deceptive form of words, for the key question is whether anyone is saved apart from faith in Christ.
2.This general question can be answered without answering the particular question with reference to special case of the mentally incompetent. However we answer the second question, that turns on a set of conditions not in place in the first case.
3. In dropping the faith-condition, one unstated assumption is the presumption that disbelief in Christ is a necessary condition of damnation. But that is unscriptural.
Original sin as well as actual sin is a sufficient condition of damnation, irrespective of the aggravating circumstances of disbelief in Christ. Put another way, unbelief, not disbelief, is a sufficient condition.
4.Another unstated assumption is the presumption that it’s just a historical accident if some men and women are born outside the pale of the gospel. This fails to acknowledge the providence of God. It also fails to reckon with the consideration that to live and die outside the saving knowledge of God is, itself, a divine judgment. By withholding the knowledge of salvation from multiplied millions, God is already judging them for their sins. Their epistemic deprivation is not a historical accident, through no fault of their own, but a preemptory judgment of God against sinners.
5.How were OT Jews saved? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that they were not saved by faith in Christ. That still leaves open the question, were they saved by faith in general revelation, or special revelation? To say that Jews were saved is not to say that pagans were saved. The Jews were the chosen people, set apart from their pagan neighbors, and graced with special revelation. Hence, Jews would be held to the same standard as men and women living after the cross—which is faith in special revelation.
6.Inasmuch as revelation is progressive, an OT Jews need not believe as much as a Christian, but his faith must be commensurate with the stage of progressive revelation in which God has put him.
7.This is not limited to a contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. An OT Jew who lived in the time of the latter prophets was responsible for believing the latter prophets as well as the former prophets.
8.As a matter of fact, however, an OT Jew was saved by faith in Christ—by his faith in Messianic prophecy and typology. By covenants—Mosaic, Abrahamic, and Davidic--that fostered the Messianic hope and expectation.
9.Even we, who live on the other side of the cross, in the time of fulfillment, must still live by faith rather than by sight. If a Jew was saved by faith in OT oracles regarding the first coming of Christ, we are saved, in part, by faith in NT oracles regarding the second coming of Christ. So although our historical position is enhanced, our epistemic situation is not fundamentally different from an OT Jew.
10.Once you drop the faith-condition, you soon drop the Christ-condition, followed by the God-condition, and slide into practical atheism—moving from Christocentrism through theocentrism to androcentrism.
If faith in Christ is inessential to salvation, then, noetically speaking, Christ might as well be nonexistent as far as you’re concerned. And, really, God might as well be nonexistent. For what you know and believe no longer matters. It may still matter, in some metaphysical sense, whether there is a God, but whether you believe in him or not is irrelevant.
11.Someone may object that it does matter, for you must still live according to the light you have. Yet the very “light” in question would be the “light of nature.” But apart from the external check of a verbal revelation, we are unable to distinguish the light of God from the darkness of our fallen heart. We can’t live up to the light we have, even if we wanted to—which we don’t, left to our own devices (cf. Jn 3:19-20; Rom 1; Eph 4:18)--because we don’t know where the darkness ends and the light begins. Is what I take to be the light of nature the truth of God? Or my suppression of God’s truth for a lie? Inner light or inner darkness?