The undivided Church insisted that we are saved through Jesus Christ, but said little definitively about how. It is strange that, given the fierce debates and divisions of the early Church, the Fathers chose not to focus their attention on how we are saved. Of course, individual Fathers wrote their thoughts from time to time, but the overall attention to the subject is minimal when compared with questions about the person and nature of Christ, the Trinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, etc. Yet the western Church has been obsessed with the how of salvation for the past five hundred years.
The Protestant Approach
Protestantism in particular has expended a great deal of energy trying to get salvation right. The key doctrine for Protestants is the doctrine of justification by faith. This was Luther’s great contribution to the life of the Church, what he believed to be the rediscovery of the biblical notion that we are saved not by our works but by our faith–or more accurately, that grace is a free gift mediated to us through faith. All orthodox Christians would agree that the great problem of the human condition is sinfulness, that our sin separates us from God. For the Protestant, the chief remedy for this condition is through faith that Christ’s work on the cross has saved us, without any effort on our part.
Simple enough, right? Except that the second that we accept this understanding of salvation, we’re met with a whole host of new questions. How are we made holy? Do we even need to be made holy? How do we make sense of sin in our lives after our conversion? What is the place of the Church? What about prayer and the sacraments? How do we make sense of biblical passages like James 2 which explicitly indicate that works have a place in our justification?
The way that various Protestant groups have worked out the answers to these questions has varied. For instance, Lutheran theology has tended to view sanctification and holiness as something that happens along with justification, and that the path to sanctification is simply to be reminded of our justification over and over again. On the other hand, Reformed theology has focused on sanctification as union with Christ, brought about through a variety of sources but particularly through the exposition of scripture which renews the mind. One finds a different view amongst Methodists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mennonites, and even further divergences within these groups as they have splintered from one another over the years. Of course, one can make too much of the differences here. Most of these theologies still hover around the same core conviction, that justification comes through faith alone. Still, the divergence can be dizzying for the student of faith who simply wants to know the truth and live within its light.
The Anglican Approach
Classical Anglicanism is minimalistic about all of this. The 39 Articles are fairly clear on several points: that salvation comes through Christ alone, that justification is by faith alone, that works above and beyond our duty to God do not add to our salvation. These points are further elucidated by the Catechism, which moves from law to grace, assuring the cathecumen that he or she cannot fulfill God’s call to live a holy life by will power. In all of this, Anglicanism is consistently Protestant.
And yet, there is little official mention of sanctification. The articles make positive statements about the sacraments as means of grace, that they are “not only badges and tokens” but “effectual signs of grace” through which God “works invisibly within us” (Article XXV). This certainly implies an ongoing need for sanctification, but it doesn’t spell out why or how such a thing should take place, nor does it relate the topic back to justification. The liturgies of the Prayer Book reveal a similar emphasis, highlighting justification, acknowledging sanctification, but without making explicit how exactly we are to think about the whole thing.
The result of this lack of specification has been that Anglicans have often looked elsewhere for their soteriology. John Henry Newman attempted to harmonize justification by faith with the Council of Trent, which remains the approach of some Anglo-Catholics today, though Newman himself eventually found such an approach lacking. John Wesley, of course, took a unique approach which remains alive in Methodism. A large number of modern Anglicans, particularly in Africa, subscribe to a Pentecostal view. The Lutheran view is espoused by contemporary Anglican Evangelicals like Paul Zahl and Alister McGrath. FitzSimons Allison tends more towards the Reformed approach. Even the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation as theosis has had its Anglican proponents through the ages, most notably Charles Chapman Grafton and Michael Ramsey.
Since Anglicanism has never pronounced definitively on this topic, all of these approaches are acceptable. This doesn’t mean that they’re all correct, but merely that one cannot be deemed outside the bounds of the tradition so long as one holds a plausible rendering of justification by faith and an unswerving conviction in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as savior. The rest remains unsettled, not because Anglicanism is wishy-washy on this topic, but rather because one of the hallmarks of the Anglican approach to theology is a strong reluctance to say anything definitively that wasn’t said definitively by the early Church. The Anglican Reformers were willing to commit to justification by faith because it seemed to them to be plain in the reading of scripture and not in contradiction with the Fathers. But they were not agreed upon anything more, and to insist upon something that is so clearly unsettled is to invite schism and heresy.
Salvation, the Sacraments, and the Church
I would agree with the Anglican Reformers that an absolute dogma on the topic of sanctification is unwarranted when the Church exists, as she does today, in a state of disunity and disarray. We are all in schism. Novel pronouncements only serve to deepen the divide and further damage the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, there are implications to be drawn from the mind of the undivided Church on this matter. The focus of the Fathers upon the divinity and humanity of Christ is not just about our understanding of who Jesus is but also about our understanding of who we are in relation to Him. The creeds are not explicit about the nature of the atonement, and yet they do insist on belief in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The nature and purpose of the Church was a very important topic for the Fathers, just as it is in scripture. Any orthodox notion of salvation, therefore, must make reference back to the Church as the chief means through which Christ’s work on the cross is realized. We are not saved merely as individuals. We are saved through our participation in Christ’s sacrifice by being drawn up into His Body, the Church, as Paul makes clear in any number of places. Indeed, Romans 6, which is a primary text for Luther and for Calvin, speaks explicitly of the death of the old body so that we might be brought into the new life of Christ. That new life is made manifest in the new Body. “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:5).
Furthermore, while there is great latitude in how Anglicans may come to understand the sacraments, our formularies make clear that the sacraments are a means of grace and not merely symbols. As such, while we cannot necessarily say much definitively about how salvation works, we can say boldly, with the full backing of scripture and the Fathers, that the sacraments are a chief means by which saving grace is imparted to us. There is a reticence in pan-Anglican conversation to make too much out of the sacraments, for fear that such talk might unsettle those of a low church persuasion. But a firm conviction about the place of the sacraments in salvation does not necessitate a rejection of justification by faith alone, nor does it behold a person to believe in transubstantiation or any other way of understanding how Christ’s presence in the sacraments is actualized. Nevertheless, it does necessitate putting aside the strange and novel idea that Anglicans have ever believed that the sacraments were simply memorialist ordinances that have no value in and of themselves. Classical Anglicanism understood just what the early Church understood, that Baptism and the Eucharist are means by which God gives Himself to us, that we cannot be united to the Body of Christ unless we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, and we cannot be incorporated into the Body of Christ unless we are willing to receive the Body of Christ when it is tangibly, wholly, beautifully offered to us.