Friday, September 12, 2014

Faith in Christ without having heard the Gospel

There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. But what about those who haven't heard of Christ? A standard story is that they can have a spiritual relationship with Christ even though they do not know that they are having a relationship with Christ. They can be "anonymous Christians."

But faith is supposed to be an interpersonal relationship. The kind of hidden mysterious relationship that falls under the head of anonymous Christianity seems to fall short of the best kind of interpersonality, and seems not to be very incarnational in character. Now, there is nothing wrong with saying that although it falls short of the best kind of interpersonality, it is sufficient as faith. But I want to explore a dimension that gives more of an interpersonal and incarnational aspect to being an anonymous Christian.

Suppose that our anonymous Christian is blessed by being in a community with other anonymous Christians. They are all, unbeknonwst to themselves, animated by the grace of Christ. They are all, unbeknownst to themselves, members of the body of Christ. Thus in relating to one another they are relating to Christ. But their relations to one another do have the right kind of interpersonality and incarnational character. The presence of Christ through other anonymous Christians in their community—maybe even everyone in the community is an anonymous Christian—make their implicit faith in and love of Christ much more of an interpersonal relation than it would otherwise be. And of course in this regard they are not that different from explicit Christians, since so much of what we know of Christ is based on what we know of people whose lives are made radiant by Christ's grace.


vexingquestions said...

Dr. Pruss,

Thanks for this reflection. I think that you're right that the interpersonal relationships of anonymous Christians with other anonymous Christians could be thought of as an anonymous part of the Body of Christ (animated by His grace). I was thinking that your reflection might work as a theodicy against some versions of the argument from divine hiddenness. A crucial premise in J. L. Schellenberg's version of the argument states that a perfectly loving God would not permit people to have reasonable non-belief. He reasons that a perfectly loving God should always be open to relationship, and this implies that non-resistant reasonable unbelievers should not exist (or be so numerous). The assumption, which may have some prima facie plausibility, is the idea that relationship with God entails belief in God. However, what you've written seems to provide a plausible counter-example where, for certain people, the path for salvation is found in a spiritual and incarnational relationship with Christ despite a lack of belief in Christ and the Triune God. This might not diffuse the argument completely, but it does challenge the idea that hiddenness/unbelief runs contrary to relationship, and so contrary to perfect love.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


Your post does remind me of my undergraduate days in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan. I had this gas dynamics professor who was a devout Buddhist. I remember I was in his office to discuss some gas dynamics problems, and our conversation turned towards spirituality. Just then, I noticed I had a fly up the sleeve of my shirt. How the fly got there I don't know. I at once said "I've got a fly up my sleeve. I gotta kill it." My professor told me that I must not kill a thing. He then asked me why we must kill things. I have never forgotten that moment. He passed away from cancer two years after I graduated. I've prayed for the repose of his soul. I wonder if I could call him an anonymous Christian? Back then I got turned off to Christianity by some fundamentalist Christians in my dorm, and I felt like I would rather spend an eternity in hell with my Buddhist professor and Jewish friends, than an eternity in Heaven with these fundamentalists. It was some 22 years when I would go back to Christianity as such and then it was into the Catholic Church through RCIA. In many ways I look at the incident with the fly. I passed the class, but I wonder what my professor would think of me because I am a hunter. Did he fail to teach me? Or he tried to teach me and I rejected his teaching.

I would write more, but I am busy packing to go to the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Aerospace Department of the University of Michigan. The last time I celebrated a hundred years was back in 1986 when my grandfather turned 100 years old.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a really neat thought. Indeed if God can be found in others, then Schellenberg's love argument can be undercut. Let's consider writing a paper on this! (Email me if interested.)


The anonymous Christians are, well, anonymous, but this sounds like a plausible candidate.

I think that killing an animal in order to eat it is preferable to killing an animal because it is annoying.

QED 0AD said...

Dragma and Pruss's comments actually show how flimsy this line of thinking is. Since virtually everyone agrees that it's wrong to torture babies for fun, and since that's a position Christ would agree with, then everyone is a good candidate for anonymous Christian!

G. K. Chesterton would be spinning in his grave if he knew that you people were taking "Christian virtues gone mad" (killing a fly!) and making them a good indicator of salvation!

Eric Steinhart said...

These kinds of arguments (about "anonymous Christians") seem to be the ultimate in Christian hegemony. They converge on the idea that all moral people are really Christians, but just deluded about this fact about themselves. So, if my self-delusion (my false self-consciousness) were cured, then I'd wake up and freely and happily declare myself to be a Christian. Thus: I'm not a Christian because I'm stupid or blind or cognitively defective. I'm not at all sorry to report that I am not and do not want to be a Christian in any sense, not even in an anonymous sense. And while I no doubt suffer from many cognitive defects, they are not such that their removal will make me finally see that Christianity is the only religion.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Whether the criticism applies depends on just how one takes anonymous Christians to be defined. I like the _de re_ approach: to be a Christian, anonymous or not, requires having the right relationship with Jesus Christ. Some of those who have that relationship are aware that their relationship is with Jesus Christ. They have the relationship both _de re_ and _de dicto_. Others have the relationship _de re_, e.g., through a relationship with other people in whom Christ is present by grace.

Note that a _de re_ relationship in the absence of a _de dicto_ relationship does not by itself imply a cognitive failing. We never know all the descriptions under which people with whom we have a _de re_ relationship fall.

Eric Steinhart said...

Alex, that's a very reasonable distinction to draw, and it can help in part to mitigate worries about Christian hegemony. But not entirely: many people just plain don't want to be associated with Christianity in any way at all, and find the concept of the "anonymous Christian" to be deeply offensive to their own non-Christian identities. I'm reminded of Oprah Winfrey telling Diane Nyad that she really believes in God, despite her avowed atheism, just because she (Nyad) finds nature to be awesome and wondrous.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure, but that's how it is. If God is in some way in everything, it's very hard to avoid having a de re relationship with him.

As for offense, the truth is of course going to be offensive, no matter what the truth is.

Either the central doctrines of Christianity are true or not.

If they are not true, then much as Paul said, we Christians are being utterly ridiculous. We're massively wasting our time at best, and probably we're idolatrous blasphemers, albeit perhaps non-culpable due to ignorance.

If they are true, then those who overtly reject these doctrines either (a) are anonymous Christians, and hence have a connection to Christianity that they overtly reject, or (b) are missing out on what is central to human life.

Since there are two billion Christians, it follows that billions of people either:
(i) are at best massively wasting their time; or
(ii) have a connection to a religion they overtly reject; or
(iii) are missing out on what is central to human life.

Each case will be offensive to some. But one can't avoid this.

Eric Steinhart said...

You say "Either the central doctrines of Christianity are true or not." Very hard to believe that, since there's been so little agreement on what they are. Your options (i) to (iii) are likewise not convincing - most people of any religion are just going through socially sanctioned motions, and have very little awareness of or interest in the doctrines of their religions. And indeed, humans are notoriously subject to almost universal cognitive defects (such as hyper-active animacy detectors, weird beliefs about probability, etc.). So it wouldn't be surprising that theists are just in the grip, often an innocent one, of such cognitive defects. But I don't think offense follows. All that follows is that we're all humans, all fallible in well-documented ways. The offense comes when one is trying to build, have, or keep an identity which is non-Christian, and Christians exert coercive force to destroy or prevent that identity. I take it that the "anonymous Christian" arguments, when actually deployed, are efforts to co-opt other identities, in preparation for or justification of more overt coercion.

Eric Steinhart said...

Also, it's really hard to type in this little box.

Mark Rogers said...

Eric I am glad you are commenting, I always learn when you participate.

Heath White said...

I have some doubts about the whole "anonymous Christian" paradigm. But:

The offense comes when one is trying to build, have, or keep an identity which is non-Christian, and Christians exert coercive force to destroy or prevent that identity. I take it that the "anonymous Christian" arguments, when actually deployed, are efforts to co-opt other identities, in preparation for or justification of more overt coercion.

If the concern is with coercive force, I think we should wait for some coercive force to actually be deployed or at least credibly threatened before we get offended.

One of my pet peeves is when my students say how much they dislike others "imposing" their religion when what they mean is "mentioning" or "asking me to think about."

To Alex's more general point that somebody is going to get offended: if A's identity requires the truth of P, and B's identity requires the truth of ~P, and people get offended when their identities are undercut, then the truth about P is going to offend either A or B. Secularists and serious theists are in the position of A and B.

Eric Steinhart said...

Heath, I believe religious tolerance is possible, and disagreement is possible without giving offense. A militant atheist and a fundamentalist Christian, right, they'll offend each other. But not because of P and not-P. Rather, their moral stances concerning disagreement cause the offense. Both are intolerant.

But you're right to ask the deeper question: is the "anonymous Christian" theory ever used in intolerant ways? Perhaps not often. But Pope Francis did make some non-theists angry when he invoked the doctrine with respect to them. And atheists often do complain that they're not secretly Christians if they're spiritual.

The flip side of the "anonymous Christian" doctrine is that, if you're not worshipping Christ, you must be worshipping Satan. Those are the only options, right? Hence I think many pagans (e.g. Wiccans) get falsely labelled as Satanists because of the "anonymous Satanist" doctrine.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think people just need to get used to the fact that in disagreements about the things that are matter most to them, if they're wrong, their practical and/or intellectual self-identity is likely to be quite badly screwed up. There is no need to bristle when someone who thinks one is wrong draws a conclusion that naturally leads to a case of this general fact. At the same time, one needs to be courteous when drawing people attention to particular cases of this general fact.