The Fate of the Heathen [Commentary on Browne: Article XVIII]

Browne’s treatment of Article XVIII—focused as it is on showing that baptism is necessary for salvation—is unusual compared to many other commentaries on the Articles. It is, however, in keeping with his prior advocacy of ecclesiastical election: if we are saved by “only the name of Jesus Christ,” as the Article says, and if those saved by Christ for final glory are saved collectively as the church, and if baptism is the means by which one is grafted into the church, then it follows that “without Christ, without baptism, apart from the Church, no salvation is offered to man, and that if we reject them, we have no right to look for it.”

In discussing Article IX we considered the question of whether baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation in connection with infants who die unbaptized, noting a number of divines who maintain that even as baptism is not to be scorned, we should not therefore conclude that infants who die without it cannot be saved. This is the reason the Prayer Book Catechism tells us that baptism is “generally necessary to salvation” (italics mine), to allow for exceptions of this kind. Browne, as might be expected from its attestation in the Prayer Book, upholds this view: “There may…exist a strong persuasion of the necessity of baptism, without a decided dogmatizing on the condition of those to whom it has not been offered”:

It has already been observed, that it is very possible to assert strongly that no other means of salvation are offered, that no other hope is held out, without determining positively that all who are cut off from the means of grace, inevitably perish. Many of the fathers appear to have thought this a consistent view of the case. Calvin, as we have seen, denied salvation out of the visible Church, and yet would not allow that all unbaptized infants perish.

Browne’s exposition of Article XVIII is occupied largely with this question of the necessity of baptism. However, he also addresses the Article’s import for “the heathen,” understood here to mean those who never hear the Gospel, rather than those who are not Christian regardless of whether or not they hear the Gospel. It could easily be supposed, given the Article’s anathematization of those who “presume to say, that every man shall be saved by the law or sect which he professeth,” that the salvability of the heathen is positively excluded. But Browne argues this is not the true meaning of the Article:

It condemns that latitudinarianism which makes all creeds and all communions alike, saying that all men may be saved by their own sect, so they shape their lives according to it, and to the law of nature. The ground on which it protests against this view of matters is, that the Scriptures set forth no other name but Christ’s whereby we may be saved. The opinion here condemned therefore is, not a charitable hope that persons who have never heard of Christ, or who have been bred in ignorance or error, may not be inevitably excluded from the benefit of His atonement; but that cold indifference to faith and truth which would rest satisfied and leave them in their errors, instead of striving to bring them to faith in Christ and to His Body the Church, to which alone the promises of the Gospel are made, and to which by actual revelation God’s mercies are annexed.

In fact, Browne continues, the Article is silent on the fate of the heathen:

The question concerning the salvability of the heathen need hardly be discussed. It is quite certain that Scripture says very little about them. Its words concern and are addressed to those who can hear and read them, not to those who hear them not. The fact appears to be, that no religion but Christ’s, no society but His Church, is set forth as the means of our salvation. Those who have these means proposed to them, and wilfully reject them, must expect to be rejected by Christ. Whether there be any mercy in store for those who, nursed in ignorance, have not had the offer of this salvation, has been a ques-tion; and it is not answered in this Article. If we have some hope that they may be saved, still we must certainly conclude, not that their own law or sect will save them, but that Christ, who tasted death for every man, and is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, may have mercy on them, even though they knew Him not.

Here Browne utilizes, without explicitly identifying, a traditional distinction in Anglican commentary on the Articles, which is articulated by Thomas Waite as follows: “We are not forbidden to believe that a man may be saved in ‘the law or sect that he professeth,’ but that he cannot be saved by that law; that is, by virtue of his religion, independently of the merits of the Redeemer.”[1] That said, some commentators merely note the Article’s exclusive language without offering any such qualification.[2]

Given the weight of tradition on this point, it is not a symptom of creeping liberalism to be hopeful about the ultimate fate of those who never hear the Gospel. Granted, this hope should not be allowed to dampen our missionary efforts, for as Browne observes, “there is no salvation offered but by Christ and to those who believe and are baptized in His Name” (italics mine). Nor should we presume on God’s mercy where the relevant witness of Scripture is scarce. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that exclusivism of the strictest kind is not required to honor and guard the singularity of Christ’s atonement.

Notes

  1. Thomas Waite, Sermons, Explanatory and Practical, on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826), 275, italics original. See also Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. James R. Page (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1842), 229‒31; George Tomline, Elements of Christian Theology, 14th ed., vol. II (London: T. Cadell, 1843), 278‒80; James Beaven, A Catechism on the Thirty-Nine Articles (Oxford and London: John Henry Parker, 1850), 58; William Baker, A Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Rivington’s, 1883), 105; G. F. Maclear and W. W. Williams, An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 234; Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 491‒92; and B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 160.
  2. See William Beveridge, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: James Duncan, 1830), 376, and Thomas Pigot, The Churchman’s Guide in Perilous Times (London: R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1835), 54‒55.

James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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