When Is a Person Truly in the People of God  Research Paper

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People of God

When Is a Person Truly "In" the People of God?

When Is A Person Truly "In" The People Of God?

"Inclusivism" is a term that encompasses a fairly wide range of positions, as J.A. DiNoia notes in his book, The Diversity of Religions. DiNoia's definition is broad enough to encompass both a minimal and a maximal form of inclusivism. The maximal form is asserted by those who believe that "all religious communities implicitly aim at the salvation that the Christian community most adequately commends." Non-Christian religious bodies may think and act as if their ultimate goals are distinctively different from the church's. However, their goals in fact orient them to some degree towards Jesus Christ, and to the extent that they do, their concrete identities may be truthful and their way of life leads to salvation. A minimal version of inclusivism says little or nothing about the salvific significance of non-Christian religions as such, but asserts "at least that salvation is a present possibility for the members of other religious communities" (Congar, 1964). It is evident that the Christological and philosophical presuppositions of both forms of the inclusivist position enable its adherents to maintain the traditional claims for the church far more easily than within pluralism. All inclusivists, as we noted earlier, believe that Jesus Christ alone is the savior of the world, that it is his grace which penetrates all religions and cultures, whether or not they are aware of him. Inclusivists would deny, furthermore, that this is simply a relative perspective. Rather, their claims reflect the actual state of affairs, namely, that all truth and all goodness come through Christ and his Spirit.

Of the two forms of inclusivism, it is the maximal kind that is of interest here, for it generates a distinctive horizon within which to reflect upon the church. Maximal inclusivism asserts that all that has been touched by the truth and goodness of Christ is in some way embraced within the church's reality. There is therefore a connection at the ontological level between the church and all that lies outside its visible boundaries, both religious and non-religious. Henri de Lubac displays a Roman Catholic version of this belief when he writes:

Nothing authentically human, whatever its origin, can be alien to her [i.e., the church catholic] & #8230;. To see in Catholicism one religion among others, one system among others, even if it be added that it is the only true religion, the only system that works, is to mistake its very nature, or at least to stop at the threshold. Catholicism is religion itself. It is the form that humanity must put on in order finally to be itself.

This maximal version of inclusivism thus becomes an epic framework for understanding all aspects of the relations between God, world and church. In identifying Christianity or, more narrowly, Roman Catholicism, with authentic humanity, the horizon pushes theological reflection in the direction of a Christian humanism. We can call this set of beliefs, "ecclesiological inclusivism." It is distinct from minimal inclusivism, which need have little bearing upon ecclesiology. Those who maintain the latter -- as I think Karl Barth did in his Church Dogmatics period

-- may be optimistic about the universality of salvation and may acknowledge the relation between Jesus Christ and all truth and goodness outside the church in much the same way as within a theodramatic horizon. But they do not attempt systematically to draw out the implications of these beliefs as they discuss the church, which may be treated as more or less a separate issue. Thus a theologian may be rather more inclusivist than exclusivist or pluralist about salvation and truth, but if her inclusivism is of a sufficiently minimal kind, it may be part of a theodramatic horizon and ecclesiology, since her inclusivism has no determinative bearing upon her understanding of the nature and function of the church.

The People of God is, only a partial expression of the human acceptance of God's salvific offer. It presses forward, so to speak, to its full realization in the visible church. And so, because saving faith is so closely linked with the visible church, one must say that all of the People of God, whether they know it or not, and whether they are religious or not, are necessarily orientated towards the visible church. Even when people are members of non- or anti-Christian bodies, those who live well have an implicit desire to become members of the final expression of God's salvific offer (votum Ecclesiae). If, however, they genuinely (i.e., existentially rather than simply verbally or merely by their membership in other bodies) reject the visible church, they deny their membership in the People of God. And to deny one's membership in the People of God is in effect to reject one's salvation, since it is the same as rejecting the transcendental offer of Godself. In this way, then, Rahner can say that the membership in church is, in the intentionality of the believer at least, necessary for salvation (TI II, 83 -- 88). But at the same time, those who do not reject their membership in the People of God are in a real sense members, though in a different degree, of the visible church through grace.

The Whole People of God

When we talk about the church as the whole people of God we must avoid the twin dangers of inclusiveness and exclusivity.

(1) The exclusive error equates the institutional church with the whole people of God on the grounds that only those who belong to the body of Christ, i.e., the visible church, can be reckoned among the people of God. Yet how do we want to define church membership? Is it simply sufficient to belong to a denomination or should one at least minimally participate in the ongoing life of the church?

The membership in the German Volkskirche, for instance, is determined by not having officially renounced church membership and this means still paying church tax. In this way one could be a member 'in good standing' without ever setting foot into a church sanctuary, except for one's own baptism (Rahner, 1961). In contrast, many American denominations deter- mine active church membership by communing at least once a year or by financially supporting the church at least once in the same period. After a certain time of inactive membership one is usually removed from the congregational roster unless the degree of participation improves. Such criteria hardly fit the description of the nascent church in Acts 2:39-41 where it states that day by day they attended the temple together and that they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship (D'Costa, 1986).

Regular attendance at worship and generous giving are not foolproof criteria by which we can determine who belongs to the whole people of God. Often these 'positive' attitudes can be the result either of tradition followed without much reflection or of moralistic self-righteousness. Already Augustine equated the visible church with the institutional church, while he conceived of the invisible church as being in some con- texts larger and in others narrower than the institutional church. Similarly, in one of the favorite motifs sculptured above church portals of medieval European churches, the scene of the last judgment, there are always some people on the side of the condemned that bear distinctive ecclesiastical attributes, such as the bishop's mitre. Again this indicates that medieval Christendom did not imply that church membership necessarily meant that one belonged to the whole people of God.

(2) Since the perimeters of the invisible can at times be more inclusive than the visible church, the suggestion has been made to include among the invisible church everyone, regardless of one's religious affiliation, or at least the most loyal members of all religions or pseudo-religious affiliations. Thus the transition between Christians and non-Christians, or between Christians and Christendom itself, is no longer expressed in terms of an absolute either/or, but in a gradual more or less. Though it would be a confusion of terms and a potential act of Christian imperialism to call followers of non-Christian religions anonymous Christians, we must he aware that the whole people of God are not concomitant with the active or inactive membership of a denomination or of all the churches taken together.

Thus the term people of God does not refer to a church or denomination or to all of them, but it refers first of all to the one who gathers, sanctifies, and enlightens people of all nations and of all ethnic and religious origins. This means that at the beginning of any reflection about the whole people of God we must first reflect about the nature of the church as it expresses itself in the will of its founder, God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. This does not make irrelevant the institutional church. It is still the primary institution that treasures the Christian tradition and facilitates a Christian consciousness through its…

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