Salvation Outside the Covenant People

Grand Central NYC

My claims are simple: (1) the Bible teaches that there is a “natural” knowledge of God, and (2) the Bible teaches that the “natural” man is responsible and judged according to his knowledge of God, which entails a knowledge of his will. By “natural” knowledge and “natural” man, I do not mean “apart from God” or “apart from the supernatural.” On the contrary, all of creation is “infused” with the living God, known “in the heart” according to the moral (and aesthetic) order of creation. As such, God is known apart from his special revelation: his covenants, wherein salvation is promised and, in Christ, given. So, “natural” man is man outside of the covenant people (Israel-Church). Natural knowledge of God is, thus, not knowledge of the Law given to the Israelites and fulfilled by Christ; but, as we shall see, natural man is capable of a knowledge of God and his commandments (his will) for his creation. This knowledge is sufficient for the salvation of the natural man, even though natural man has not received knowledge of the means for his reconcilement with God. In other words, the Mediator (Christ) need not be known on this side of eternity in order for a person to be judged righteous by God and accepted into eternal life.

The first two chapters of Romans contain the most explicit statements of this so-called “natural theology.” Though it can be understood also from the Old Testament, such as the righteous judgment of Job, a non-Isrealite, in the OT, a judgment according to a faithful obedience — a righteousness — accepted by God. It should go without saying that the Bible is unanimous in teaching both a present and eschatological judgment of righteousness which includes a manifest righteousness in the person. Paul could not be more clear on this in his pneumatology, and Christ teaches nothing else. All the same, there is no bare legal standard by which a wicked-or-righteous delineation can be discerned, and, furthermore, repentance itself is considered fundamental to a righteous standing (even before the works of the Holy Spirit have been manifest in acts of charity). Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the first chapter of Romans, wherein Paul is announcing God’s judgment against all, both Jews and Gentiles, who do not honor God:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [All translations are the NASB.]

Little needs to be said by way of commentary. The important points are clear: God is “evident within them,” all who have existed “since the creation of the world,” through a knowledge of God “understood through what has been made.” God’s holiness, his righteousness, is known (“attributes” and “nature”), and this knowledge accompanies a binding prescription on those who know. It can safely be said that all humans with a normal rational consciousness are held responsible, since this knowledge of God is “clear” and “without excuse.” It is interesting that Paul assumes that a knowledge of God’s nature entails a knowledge of his will for his creatures, and this will is then determinative for the culpability of those under his judgment.

In the second chapter of Romans, Paul gives another retelling of this judgment, but this time he is explicit that the Law received by the Jews and the “law” known by the Gentiles both condemn the respective bearers of this knowledge, but there is also a righteousness than can be achieved vis-a-vis this knowledge of God. Eternal life is granted to those who seek the things of God (“glory and honor and immortality”):

5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life;
8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.

Paul has not yet solved the problem of how any can “by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality,” since the Law cannot bring life in-itself but only death (enter Christ and the Spirit, but that comes in the next several chapters). Continuing on:

11 For there is no partiality with God.
12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law;
13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.
14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively [or “by nature” — RSV] the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,
15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,
16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

The doers of the Law “are just before God” or “will be justified.” But, once again, it does not matter that the Jews have received the law in a special revelation, since the Gentiles also “instinctively” or “by nature” can be doers of the Law. Theirs is a law “written on their hearts.” Their “conscience bears witness,” their moral sense tells them what is right, what is the will of God, what is holy and just. Those who persevere in seeking this holiness will enter eternal life, and Paul is clear that this applies to the Gentiles who “have not the law.” Thus, those who are outside of God’s special covenanting work are still subject to God and objects of his salvation. Since this applies to all Gentiles “since the creation of the world,” it likewise must apply to all Gentiles who have yet received the knowledge of God’s covenant with Israel and Christ, the means of our salvation. After the resurrection, Gentiles outside of the few apostles and disciples did not automatically become subject to a new requirement to have a “conscious” faith in Jesus Christ on this side of eternity. This is foreign to the Bible, and if we are to trust the historical research of Francis Sullivan, S.J. (in Salvation Outside the Church?, Wipf & Stock 2002), this exclusivism is largely foreign to the early church as well.

Obviously there is much more to be said, especially about the role of grace, the ordo salutis, and the economy of the Holy Spirit outside the Church. Not surprisingly, I have liked what I have read from von Balthasar on all these points, so go forth and read wisely.



  1. Ah, man, Mr. Davis, you gotta do a part II or something on what Sullivan says! I read his From Apostles to Bishops, and am very much a fan of his. You have no idea how intrigued I am. I’ve been reading Hughes Old on the shaping of the Reformed baptismal rites in the 16th century, and he talks a little bit about the exorcisms that accompanied the catechumenate in the Early Church. Basically, converts from a pagan religion had to be exorcised before even entering the catechumenate because it was understood, not that they were worshipping the one true God the best they could, but that they were worshipping demons. You see the connection I’m making, I’m sure.

  2. Kevin,

    I’m not too sure what to say about the post. I will leave aside the Pauline passages because it will get too technical. I will just mention a couple of things that intrigued me and then state what I think. (By the way, have you read J. Dupuis’s work?)

    First, the word “outside” is a bit ambiguous. I think that if a person, through no fault of his own, follows the law within his heart, then he can be saved. But this is because he is in some mysterious way united to the Church, not outside.

    Second, you said, “Natural knowledge of God is, thus, not knowledge of the Law given to the Israelites and fulfilled by Christ; but, as we shall see, natural man is capable of a knowledge of God and his commandments (his will) for his creation.”

    This actually leads to the question: can we know the natural law apart from the Church? Hauerwas says no. It is true that we have certain precepts of the natural law in us. But to apply it and to understand it requires grace, requires the Church. Can we understand the “will of God” or the creation, apart from Jesus Christ? Is not Jesus Christ the will of God? It is wrong, I think, to think about natural knowledge of God apart from Christ. Now, this does not mean that I disregard natural theology or analogy of being. We can go on and on with analogy of being. However, I do think that Christ is necessary to understand the natural law.

    So how do we reconcile the two points above? Well, Vatican 2 taught that there are elements of the Church outside of the Church. Because of the Incarnation, the whole world has been filled with grace. The Incarnation is a cosmic event: heaven and earth unite without confusion. This may be one way of thinking about things: the functions of the Church exists outside of her visible structure. That is why baptism is valid in Protestant circles. These functions do not make up the Church, but these functions come *from* the Church. So, knowledge such as “God made me,” is a product of the Church’s life. This way, we do not need to get rid of the possibility of salvation outside the visible structure and we can also reject the notion of anonymous Christianity.

    That’s how I see it from a Catholic perspective.

  3. Kepha,

    I’ll have to go back and read Sullivan. It has been a while. As for exorcising demons, we have plenty of examples of subjection to the devil both in the Church and outside.


    Never read Dupuis.

    Certainly “outside” is ambiguous, because those saved “outside” the covenant are joined with the one and only God, the covenanting God of Israel and Christ. They are saved because God is a God of redemption. But, the fact remains that they are outside the visible proclamation found in Israel and the Church. I suppose the idea of “mysteriously united with the Church” has some value, insofar as the Spirit as the agent of Christ effects righteousness. Building off of this, I can certainly go along with “the whole world has been filled with grace” because of the Incarnation. That’s a good way to put it, keeping in mind that this determination to redeem his creation extends across all of temporal existence (“since the creation of the world”).

    I disagree with Hauerwas. As long as we are talking about degrees of knowledge, there is certainly a natural knowledge of God’s will, a moral and aesthetic order, outside of Christ and the Church. All are “without excuse” and condemned accordingly. The Law given to the Jews and the Christ given to the Church are obviously perfect manifestations of God’s holiness, and, as such, are the standard against which pagan knowledge is tested. That’s basic Christian natural law presups. Hauerwas and company are just trading on the fact that analogy is analogy, not identity, which makes it easy to heap scorn on finite attempts to “capture” the infinite. I’m not in that business. All the same, we, as Christians, must think of natural knowledge of God not apart from Christ, but that does not mean that we cannot understand a certain, shall we say, “grasping for Christ” among the pagans. Of course, that directly contradicts Calvinist total depravity doctrine, but it is very much the doctrine of the Catholic Church at Vatican II and in the Catechism.

    One of the things I like about the culpability framework in Catholic theology is that it allows for ambiguities — you are judged according to the amount/degree of knowledge attained. We cannot minimize the amount of sin involved in both pagan and Christian knowledge of God and his law, and there is a real sense in which “no one searches after God” (Paul) if understood in an absolute committal sense, which only Christ achieves. All of the above points will severely suffer without a doctrine of representative and penal substitution — but that would require a much longer post.

  4. Kevin,

    You might like Jacques Dupuis’ work. It was notified by CDF, but I think it’s good. Even the notification does not say anything about heterodoxy but rather statements that could be misunderstood as such.

    As for the Hauerwas thing, well, I would just recommend reading some of the stuff he wrote. It has some political implications as well…such as…can we speak of the “common good” without Christ? If the natural law is based on human nature, a human nature that tends towards beatific vision, and the Son has assumed this nature, is not the best understand of human nature Christ himself who reveals man to himself (Gaudium et Spes 18)? And so on. You might also like Dave Schindler’s Heart of the World

  5. Apolonio,

    I’m decently familiar with Hauerwas, and I have to say that he’s not on my planned reading anytime soon. I can get all of the Christocentrism in Barth and in a much better and more careful presentation. I’m rather familiar with all the dangers involved in appropriating a natural law untutored by the Christian faith. I certainly do not think the full scope of moral reasoning was ever achieved outside of the Church, and this is precisely because we are sinners in need of a perfected humanity in Christ. All the same, this does not mean that moral reasoning outside of the Church has been “totally depraved” or fundamentally idolatrous or merely utilitarian. This is where I disagree with Barth (perhaps, depending on how you interpret him) and those who utilize the same ideas (e.g., Radical Orthodoxy, Post-Liberalism, Presuppositional Reformed apologetics, and so on).

  6. I know I’m 2 and a half years late to the party… but if man could always turn to to God in some way before and after Christ, and without knowledge of Christ… why should Christ need to die?

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