15 Questions for Catholics: Dr Paul Allen Pt II

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Fifteen questions for Catholics, Part II. In a continuing series begun on January 14, The Believer’s Dilemma is examining the problematic theologies of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, which were based on original sin.  What do modern Christians believe?   This is the conclusion of last week’s interview with Dr Paul Allen, Associate Professor, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University, Montreal.


Note: Italicised texts taken from the current Catechism. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM


11) Divine Love and Justice for All 

634 "The gospel was preached even to the dead." The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." Jesus, "the Author of life", by dying destroyed "him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." Henceforth the risen Christ holds "the keys of Death and Hades", so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth."

Believer’s Dilemma:  The catechism suggests that God’s love and justice will be extended to ‘all men of all times and all places’.  It also seems to be speaking about Old Testament saints who remained in the Patriarchs’ Limbo until the resurrected Jesus went down into Hades to preach the gospel to them.  Is this how people from the pre-Christian world were given an opportunity to be saved?


Paul Allen:  That is not an important part of Catholic tradition, but it is there as a logical consequence of what the two dispensations mean. Judaism embodies a living relationship of the people of Israel with God. The important question is, ‘What difference does Christ make?’.  


839 "Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways."  When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, "the first to hear the Word of God." The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews "belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ", "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

841 The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."

843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."

Believer’s Dilemma: The question of inclusive justice was extremely important to people in the Early Church who had to ask themselves, ‘What about my parents and grandparents who never knew Christ?  How could they be saved?’  We face similar questions in the 21st century in a multicultural world.  We no longer all attend the same church and share the same beliefs. Our friends, neighbours and relatives may hold completely religious beliefs or none. The catechism says the Jewish people and Muslims who have ‘not yet received the Gospel’ have been ‘prepared’ for the ‘plan of salvation.’ It does not say they are saved.  


Paul Allen: Ultimately any Christian church, the Catholic Church included, affirms that non-Christians may or may not be saved. We’re obliged to say that about ourselves. We may or may not be saved. We simply do not know the ways of God ultimately.  The life of the Church is meant to be an orientation of ‘how do we need to live?’ and ‘what kind of disciples of Christ do we have to be in order to gain our salvation?’ There’s no final knowledge of anyone’s salvation, including our own.


Believer’s Dilemma: That sounds more Biblical than ‘once saved, always saved.’ But how would all these non-Christian people know what was required for salvation if they had no scriptural revelation? 


Paul Allen:  The necessity for salvation is faith in Christ. The hope is that everyone will be saved. 


Believer’s Dilemma: That is a perfectly Christian response. But if I am a devout Jew or Muslim, I will reply that I believe in God and have a revealed scripture. Without faith in Christ am I doomed?  


Paul Allen:  No, you’re not doomed.  Are you part of God’s plan? Yes. Are you ‘lost’?  To the extent that you have not understood the salvation that Christ offers, yes. So both are true. We know that the condition for salvation is faith in Christ. Nonetheless we don’t know who is going to be saved. Knowing the condition for something and knowing its actual reality in the end are two different things.


Believer’s Dilemma:  Can you explain what you mean by that?


Paul Allen:  We know that the condition for salvation is faith in Christ.  We don’t know to what extent the individual faith of Johnny or Sarah is going to lead to their salvation, or not.


Believer’s Dilemma:  If I am a devout Muslim who thinks that Jesus was a good man and a prophet but not the Son of God and the Saviour, do I have any chance of being saved?


Paul Allen: All I am prepared to say is that you, as a devout Muslim, have not fully understood the reality of Christ. I’m not prepared to say that you can’t be saved.  I don’t know that so I can’t say it. That would be arrogant.


Believer’s Dilemma: But if you’re prepared to say that salvation is dependent upon faith in Christ, and if I don’t have faith in Christ, it would seem to follow that salvation would not be possible.


Paul Allen:  It would seem to, but I’m not prepared ultimately to say that is the case because God’s revelation is ultimately beyond my grasp.  


Believer’s Dilemma: That is what most Christians will answer, but it seems to evade the obvious conclusion.


Paul Allen: We do not have a God’s-eye-view and so it is impossible to rationalize what is beyond death.


Believer’s Dilemma:  I can’t resist suggesting that you wouldn’t be in this dilemma if you had not inherited Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. There is a direct connection between the problem of universal condemnation and limited salvation during this lifetime. These ideas are all linked together. 


Paul Allen:  The Bible is perfectly clear that some people will be saved and others will be unsaved.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Bible distinguishes between people who are good and bad, righteous and unrighteous.  When Augustine established original sin he was quite prepared to condemn babies who were unbaptised.  That was not what the Bible meant by unsaved.  You and I have no difference of opinion that Augustine was wrong about that. 


Paul Allen: Augustine was unfortunately extreme in his interpretation or expression of original sin.  Yet he was quite correct in recognizing it as the universal human condition.


846 "Outside the Church there is no salvation" How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.


847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.

Believer’s Dilemma:  The catechism states the traditional Catholic belief that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, but it makes allowances for people in remote times and places who could not have known Jesus. It seems to offer little hope for non-Christians in modern times.


Paul Allen:  For many centuries almost everyone in European society was a member of the Church. It was impossible to imagine a sincere believer who was outside the Church.


Believer’s Dilemma: After the Council of Carthage in 418 it was compulsory throughout the Roman Empire to be baptised into the Christian faith.


Paul Allen: Not compulsory in the sense of needing a driver’s licence in order to drive a car.  Compulsory is the sense of an ingrained habit of families bringing their babies to be baptized.


Believer’s Dilemma: It was more than that. Following Constantine, Christianity was made legal and the persecutions ended.  Then Constantine nephew Julian tried to eradicate Christianity and restore Paganism.  Then Theodosius made it his mission to eradicate Paganism.  From the first Imperial decrees against Paganism in 391 to the Council of Carthage in 418, Augustine lead the Christian forces in a monumental clash of civilizations. After 418, the severe civil penalties for practicing Paganism were supported by the doctrine of original sin which promised eternal damnation for unbaptized Pagans.  Original sin was a powerful weapon of mass conversion to compel every citizen of the Roman Empire to get ‘inside the Church.’


Paul Allen:  I’m not disputing that. But I would draw a distinction between that kind of social and legal infrastructure and the kind of totalitarian framework that you would have in Soviet Russia, for example.   


12) Freewill and Salvation  

406 The Church's teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine's reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God's grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam's fault to bad example. The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. The Church pronounced on the meaning of the data of Revelation on original sin especially at the second Council of Orange (529) and at the Council of Trent (1546).

Believer’s Dilemma:  The role of freewill in salvation is more of a question for Protestants from a Lutheran or Calvinist tradition.  Luther in ‘Bondage of the Will’ claimed it was impossible to reconcile God’s predestination of the universe with human freewill. 


Paul Allen: I’m not going to go to the wall to defend Luther and Calvin but we need to put their writings into context. They were not philosophers.


Believer’s Dilemma:  Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was the major theological book of the Reformation.  He was a profound and systematic thinker.


Paul Allen: This is a better question for John Vissers, the Reformation theologian at McGill’s Presbyterian College. It is my understanding that Calvin’s idea of predestination has been greatly exaggerated. While it is there in the Institutes, and has been affirmed as a central pillar of Calvinism for centuries, in the Institutes it is not all that central.


Believer’s Dilemma:  I will speak to Dr. Vissers in a few weeks. Let’s continue with the Catholic perspective.  Augustine’s views on freewill and predestination were less categorical than those of Luther and Calvin, although at times the Catholic catechism sounds positively Lutheran.  


1739 Freedom and sin. Man's freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God's plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.

Paul Allen: The affirmation of freewill is central to Catholicism.


13) The End to Sin, Suffering and Death.  

2014 Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called "mystical" because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments - "the holy mysteries" - and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.

2015 The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes:

He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.


Believer’s Dilemma: The Catholic catechism talks about gradual ‘spiritual progress’ and ‘the way of perfection’ whereas Protestants would be more inclined to speak of sanctification.  Redemption from original sin is passive and invisible. A far more important aspect of the faith experience has been to seek liberation from the problem of real sinHow do believers move from the imperfection of this physical, mortal state to the perfection of an eternal state?


Paul Allen:  This involves the Catholic affirmation of Purgatory, the state of being after death where one’s imperfections are rooted out. Purgatory is basically a way to explain how it is possible for God to offer salvation to those for whom it is absolutely self evident that they have lived miserable, failure-filled or even just imperfect lives.

Believer’s Dilemma:  We’ll speak more about what happens after death in the final question.  

14) Prayer

2629 The vocabulary of supplication in the New Testament is rich in shades of meaning: ask, beseech, plead, invoke, entreat, cry out, even "struggle in prayer."  Its most usual form, because the most spontaneous, is petition: by prayer of petition we express awareness of our relationship with God. We are creatures who are not our own beginning, not the masters of adversity, not our own last end. We are sinners who as Christians know that we have turned away from our Father. Our petition is already a turning back to him.

2634 Intercession is a prayer of petition which leads us to pray as Jesus did. He is the one intercessor with the Father on behalf of all men, especially sinners. He is "able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." The Holy Spirit "himself intercedes for us . . . and intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

2637 Thanksgiving characterizes the prayer of the Church which, in celebrating the Eucharist, reveals and becomes more fully what she is. Indeed, in the work of salvation, Christ sets creation free from sin and death to consecrate it anew and make it return to the Father, for his glory. The thanksgiving of the members of the Body participates in that of their Head.

2639 Praise is the form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS. It shares in the blessed happiness of the pure of heart who love God in faith before seeing him in glory. By praise, the Spirit is joined to our spirits to bear witness that we are children of God, testifying to the only Son in whom we are adopted and by whom we glorify the Father. Praise embraces the other forms of prayer and carries them toward him who is its source and goal: the "one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.

Believer’s Dilemma: Prayer is an important part of Christian tradition. What is your experience with prayers being offered and answered?


Paul Allen:  Prayer is about making yourself laid bare in front of your maker. It is not about seeking a remedy or a healing medicine that you would expect from a hospital. That’s not the way that God answers prayer.


Believer’s Dilemma: The catechism identifies different types of prayer: petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise.  Prayers of petition fall more into the category of ‘seeking a remedy.’  What is the expectation for prayers of petition?


Paul Allen:  In every mass there are prayers of petition prior to the celebration of the Eucharist. All the wants and needs of the congregation are laid out on the altar. This is part of the suffering of the world that we are asking God to take up into heaven. It is part of the Eucharistic theology that God came into the world as a human being who suffered, died and was buried so that all our little sufferings are encompassed in that and taken up to heaven.


Believer’s Dilemma: There are surely people in every congregation who expect their prayers of petition to be answered?


Paul Allen:  You mean in a simplistic and childish way?


Believer’s Dilemma:  In a literal and tangible way. There are Catholics who print personal ads every day in newspapers to give public thanks for answered prayers.   


Paul Allen: If someone has prayed for something and it has been answered, they should give thanks because everything that is good comes from God. But to set about expecting or demanding God to deliver things ‘because I am a good person’ is a problem attitude, which may or may not lurk in these petitions.  


Believer’s Dilemma: When believers conceive of a micromanaging God who directly orchestrates all the good things in their lives, they are also faced with a God who is the direct cause of the bad things in their lives or deliberately permits bad things to happen. The expectation of an all-powerful God who provides the faithful with health, wealth and blessings is not unusual among Evangelicals. 


Paul Allen:  I don’t personally know anyone who would pray in that way.


15) The Eternal State

1026 By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has "opened" heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.

Believer’s Dilemma: The Catechism lays out in considerable detail the events anticipated between death and eternity. What is your understanding of what happens in the interim period between the time we die and the Second Coming that establishes the New Jerusalem in final two chapters of the Book of Revelation?   


Paul Allen: I don’t think about these things all that often.  It’s a part and parcel of Christian eschatology that draws on clues and hints.


Believer’s Dilemma: Those ‘clues and hints’ have been used to create some remarkably complicated eschatologies. 


Paul Allen:  Yes. The Kingdom of God is something we understand metaphorically from Jesus in his sayings and parables. The Kingdom of God – eternity – is a state of bliss-like harmony.


Believer’s Dilemma: That is the traditional description.  ‘Heaven is a state of eternal bliss.’ The emphasis is on enjoyment of the presence of God rather than the company of friends and personal pleasure?


Paul Allen: I don’t really have a stake in either elaborating on that or countering it.  If you go on YouTube, Tom Wright has a nice take on a popular Christian view of heaven. Wright makes it clear that a lot of Christians have the idea that you go to heaven as soon as you die. But that is not what the New Testament is talking about.  It actually describes an interregnum period between our individual death and the return of Christ which establishes the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. There is some work that needs to be done on correcting the expectation of when eternity comes about. There is a lot of agreement about what the Kingdom of God ultimately looks like.  N.T. Wright’s YouTube interview video is a précis of a book he has written called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.



(Note, N.T. Wright was the Bishop of Durham and the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England until his retirement in 2010. He is a leading New Testament scholar who has written extensively about misconceptions concerning life after death.  He does not situate eternity in an ethereal heaven, but in a restored, very physical planet earth.)  






The following ABC interview with N.T. Wright encapsulates his ideas more graphically.  Wright’s interpretation of the New Testament is diametrically opposed to the premillennial vision of an imminent Rapture as portrayed in the ‘Left Behind’ books and movies.


Believer’s Dilemma: One of the unique features of Catholicism is purgatory. How much of a reality is that for most modern Catholics?


Paul Allen:  It is not as prominent as it was 50 years ago.


Believer’s Dilemma: In the grand sweep of Christian history this is a recent change.


Paul Allen:  We need to remember that Purgatory was only doctrinally affirmed in the medieval period. For the past 900 years it was a stable part of the catechism and Catholic devotion. It remains true doctrinally but has declined in importance in the popular imagination. Theology teaches that Saints go directly to heaven to share in the glory of God, whereas everyone else, to a greater or lesser extent, goes through a period of purification known as Purgatory. The problem with the word Purgatory is that it conjures up images of place rather than a state of being. The catechism presents Purgatory as more metaphysical than physical.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  Purgatory may not have been formalized until the medieval period, but the idea was introduced by Augustine to solve a theological problem created by original sin. The Early Church seems to have had a fairly literal take on the idea of a physical resurrection much as Tom Wright is trying to reintroduce.  Justin Martyr and others were quite categorical about it.  They had the notion that the unfinished business of this life – purification, sanctification  – would be completed there. All those who never knew Jesus would have a chance to fully understand what salvation actually means and entails.  They would have 1,000 years to complete their spiritual progress.  Augustine, for reasons related to original sin, had to eliminate that transitional period between this world and eternity in order to force people to be baptized here and now.  But it left a huge problem of justice.  Some people devoted their entire lives to following Jesus to the best of their ability while others lived selfish lives of self-gratification. How could they all go directly to heaven? And so Purgatory was born.  The catechism still states that we must accept or reject Christ here and now, although many people will never have that opportunity. 


1021 Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul -a destiny which can be different for some and for others.

1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately, -or immediate and everlasting damnation.

Believer’s Dilemma: Augustine’s objective was to compel everyone within the Roman Empire to be baptized into the visible Church. This was an argument that he perfected with the Donatists.  Augustine claimed authority to use force to bring dissenters into the Church. God would subsequently identify the true believers who were part of the invisible Church.


Paul Allen: Yes. That’s another part of Augustine that is startling. To my knowledge the distinction between visible and invisible has a very particular significance in Augustine’s argument with the Donatists. They had a very closed and narrow idea of what the visible Church was.   


Believer’s Dilemma:  To create social peace within the Roman Empire, Augustine wanted to make Christianity the largest possible tent in order to accommodate Pagans and people who had little interest in religion. God would decide who would go to heaven. Augustine just wanted them in church. His generation was in a life and death struggle with Paganism. The modern culture war between liberals and conservatives is a picnic in compassion.  The only way to prevent the Empire from tearing itself apart was to force everyone to follow the same religion.


Paul Allen: Peter Leithart has written a new book called Defending Constantine.  Historically, Constantine comes under a lot of attack for making Christianity into Christendom. That is where a lot of these conflicts began.


Believer’s Dilemma: Leithart argues that the violence and compromise which damaged Christianity so badly has been incorrectly attributed to Constantine. What he doesn’t say, but implies, is that the true culprit is Augustine. The modern world has rejected the most damaging aspects of original sin.  At some point, we may be ready to reject original sin entirely.   


Paul Allen: We need to make a distinction between the core conviction of the doctrine and its expression.  We have to be careful not to throw out the entire tradition or blindly retain it with some time-bound ugliness that we see now in hindsight. That’s why the Catechism is constantly being revised. The theologian Bernard Lonergan makes this distinction as part of a theological method.  It’s important because what often happens, in some churches more than in others, is that you have a certain understanding of what scripture means and you have a historical collection of interpretations of scripture. Then you have a selection of a category or a word and the doctrines that follow on from those. Lonergan’s point is that when theology is constructed, these are all discreet steps along the way. We should never confuse doctrinal formulation   with a particular scriptural passage. And systematic theology is another different enterprise altogether. Dogma was a particular articulation of a doctrine made at a particular time for a particular reason. Dogmas are of a time and place whereas there are things underlying the dogma that continue. The task of theology is to distinguish and decipher the underlying core from its time-bound or culture-bound expressions.  


Believer’s Dilemma: Thank you. This has been helpful and enlightening.


Paul Allen: Are you going to ask these questions to non-Christians?


Believer’s Dilemma:  Eventually. First I want to a fairly clear understanding of what contemporary Christians think about sin and salvation.


Paul Allen: Good luck with your project.


Questions or comments?


Tags: Emperor Constantine, Emperor Julian, Emperor Theodosius I,  Council of Carthage, Pelagius, Justin Martyr,  Calvin,  Institutes of the Christian Religion, Dr. John Vissers, McGill’s Presbyterian College, N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Left Behind, Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine, Bernard Lonergan.




To read inmterviews with other denominations, click here


Tags: David Bentley Hart, Augustine, Pelagius, Elie Weisel, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham.


Questions or Comments?