The Only Name, Part III: The Case of Cornelius
This is the fifth essay is a series focusing on the distinctives of Catholicism. I have attempted to demonstrate in the previous essays that two broadly Christian theologies, the Incarnation and the Messianic Prerogative, are distinctly Catholic in origin and nature. I have also begun outlining the parallelisms between the Christian doctrine of exclusivity and the details of the Catholic theology of exclusivity.
In my third essay, I outlined Catholicism’s unique claim to salvific exclusivity. This claim is distinguished from that of other religions by two facts that are held in tension in the mind of a Catholic. The first is that the Catholic Church is the sole source of grace, and the second is that individuals that are not explicitly associated with Catholicism (or even Christianity) may be recipients of that grace. This is, as I noted, a unique theological balance in the history of religion.
I also posited that this balance “best parallels the claims of ‘mere’ Christianity as found in the Holy Writ.” Here, I would imagine, many would beg to disagree. Therefore, I am now setting out to prove my assertion.
First, the Scriptures bear witness to Christianity’s early commitment to metaphysical singularity in the dispensation of grace. The Bible outlines but one way, one salvation, and one mediator for man. As Jesus says in the Gospel according to John: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Or in the words of Peter, speaking with the Holy Spirit, whose words are recorded in Luke’s Book of Acts: “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul writes in a similar way to Timothy that “ there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
This has been a source of offense many times throughout history, not least during the Roman persecutions. Indeed, were it not for the early Christian’s exclusive claim to the divine, Jesus could easily have been inducted into the pagan pantheon. Alas, apotheosis was not enough for the Christians, who knew that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6).
While this truth may upset those who would erase traditional doctrine, the objection which is more commonly raised concerns the second principle of exclusivity. However, early Christianity exhibited no such qualms. This is most apparent in the case of the God-fearers, a group of Gentiles who had adopted the Jewish belief in monotheism without adopting the Law. From the standpoint of the Jewish covenant, they were outsiders. However, before they were reached by the Gospel, their beliefs were not robustly Christian either. These persons were in many ways outside the Old Covenant and the New; yet among them we find evidence of God’s salvific graces, even before their reception of the Christ.
The most familiar example comes from the Bible, in the account given by Luke in Acts 10. Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, was a “devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). This description ill-befits any but those whom God has smiled upon; and indeed, an angel testifies to Cornelius that “your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).
Cornelius is a living example, therefore, of the Gentiles which Paul speaks of in Romans 2:14-16:
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
It is true that, without the Gospel or the law, the hearts of such Gentiles condemn them before God. Nevertheless, the example of Cornelius proves that Paul’s careful exception—that some Gentiles’ conscience will “perhaps excuse them on that day”—is not entirely hypothetical.
As I noted earlier, this incident is far from the last time that Christians recognized the grace of God in those who were not explicitly affiliated with the faith. However, Cornelius’ story is notable for its antiquity, and its Scriptural endorsement. It seems the Catholic extensions of the principle found in Cornelius’ story are natural, logical outgrowths—in other words, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, and the Second Council at the Vatican do not abandon Scripture in outlining Catholic exclusivity, but flesh it out.