There seems to be a sense that the eighteenth of the Anglican articles stands between the preceding set on salvation, and those that follow on the Church. Its primary stress is, I think, the uniqueness of Christ as Saviour, fitting the solus Christus to what has effectively been the sola fide and sola gratia of the articles on salvation. But the rather odd description referring to “Law and Sect” may just hint at a Christocentric formulation of the maxim extra ecclesiam nulla salus – there is no salvation outside the church.
XVIII. Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ.
They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.
Even if this article does not actually state that “outside the church there is no salvation” it does seem to wish to stand in that tradition. It is difficult to see that “Law or Sect” is simply an indicator of what today we would call other religions. In fact, the Reformation at large is comparatively uninterested either in the question of other religions, or in the missionary impetus. Its horizons are primarily those of Christendom, and it is an internally focussed movement. Nonetheless making that focus on Christ central does offer other ways of looking at the question, which making the church central does not.
One of the few mentions of other religions in these foundation documents of Anglicanism (I’m not sure if it’s the only one) comes in one of the collects for Good Friday, and very much in the language of the time says:
O merciful God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live; Have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
The language of remnant suggests only some people will be fully brought into God’s eternal communion, yet the prayer is bold enough to pray God’s mercy for “all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks” which rather odd specification is, I think, a summary of everyone not already a faithful Christian as Cranmer understood it. It seems that Cranmer believes universal salvation should be prayed for, even while restricting the way of salvation to Christ. What he does not do, is say anything explicit about what this means, mainly, I suspect because it wasn’t a “live” question for him. One presumes he intends baptism and faith, but he simply doesn’t fill in the blanks.
He is somewhat clearer in what he denies: no-one will come to this perfect communion with God independently of Jesus Christ. Equally he frames it as a particular form of denying salvation by works. No more for followers of other sects or laws than for those in the church is salvation a matter of steadfastly practicing good works. When it comes to religion, Christian and non-Christian, Cranmer is an equal-opportunities critic of works. One senses this as the driving force of the article.
It continues to seem right to me that the Church must affirm something of this Christocentric shape to entering into full communion with God. It is, above all, a logical entailment of believing in the incarnation. The particular historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the defining centre of creation, the fullest possible contact point between the eternal and the temporal, the necessary and the contingent, God and humanity. By stressing a Christocentric engagement over and above an ecclesiological one, it also leaves open rather more possibilities for how God might bring people to himself beyond an overt Christian faith.
It is after all when Paul most appreciates the divine action in Christ that he is impelled to his most universalist statement:
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. (Romans 5:18)
I hesitate to claim universalism as a certain fact on the basis of the few verses which give it a firm grounding: there are too many to the contrary. The tradition has made much more of those many negative verses, to the suppression of the few positive ones (Origen almost alone excepted). Nonetheless, though I would not frame my prayer as Cranmer phrased his Good Friday collect, I think that the universal communion of a renewed creation in God is a prayer that Christians can and should pray in genuine biblical hope of its realization. It is the love of God that should motivate the gospel, not the fear of death and hell. It seems to me there is much to commend a hopeful universalism as a fundamentally Christian horizon for prayer, and a context for witness.
(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)