Salvation for a medieval Roman Catholic serf

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: Here’s a scenario: a medieval peasant farmer (a serf) lives in a European agrarian hamlet. He is illiterate and Roman Catholic. He was taught to pray to Mary and some other appointed “saints” who (ostensibly) would intercede with God on his behalf. He was also taught that the path to heaven was only through the Roman Catholic Church. As such, he had to participate in the sacraments, not yield to temptation, be a “good” person, do good works — and expect to spend some time in Purgatory! But over the entire course of his life, he has never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ... so salvation by grace alone through faith alone was unknown to him. How will he be judged?

Answer: I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition and participated in all its sacraments from baptism through confirmation... so I’m not just some random evangelical complaining about the Catholic church. What I am is an Evangelical who understands that he had walked through a minefield for twelve years or so — but without blowing up! ... and I am thankful for God’s protection in this.

That being said, I’m not much different from your medieval Catholic peasant. We were both born, raised and trained to participate in sacraments and attend highly liturgical — and symbolically deep — church services in the hope that this would bring us to — and sustain us in — a relationship with God. With me, it didn’t work. I left the church immediately after confirmation… unengaged, unfulfilled — and even though I was educated in the Catholic notions about God — I did not “own” either him or their doctrines.

This is one of the possibilities for your medieval serf. If he was born into a Catholic home, he would have been shuttled off to church and made to go through the sacramental system until he was confirmed (— that’s the sacrament that lets the parents off the hook —) and then, in the church’s eyes, he would have the right to make his own decisions about the church.

So, if he ended up like me — having gone through some years of official training but not buying into their theology — then he would likely have still attended the church... but as a person who did not “own” either God or the church’s doctrines. In this, he would be no different a target for salvation than was a person who never heard the gospel.

(Reasonable Faith Ministries has a three-minute video about what happens to those who have never heard about Christ. I recommend that you watch this at this point in our discussion. Click here to watch this video.)

During (and immediately after) my stint in Roman Catholicism, I was no different than people like Abraham and Job... people who didn’t “own” any Scripture. Sure, I was “exposed” to Scripture and learned some legitimate truths about God. But it was the witness of God in nature and the human conscience that won the day. I couldn’t make sense of life unless it coexisted with a spiritual realm… which led me to theism… which led me to biblical theism. That path would be open to the medieval serf despite his exposure to the teachings that fight against the grace-based salvation we know so well.

Here, I take a lesson from Abraham. Abraham was brought up as a pagan. But there was enough light for him to see the true God — and when he connected with God, God connected back! But Abraham wasn’t the pioneer that everyone supposes. God already had a priest in place to accommodate Abraham’s journey of faith. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20) — (arguably) 600 years before the law! — and the tithe flows from the lesser to the greater.

So, where did all this God-consciousness come from? From without (Romans 1:18-20) … and from within (Romans 2:14-15). A medieval peasant would have had the same access to the unfiltered God that Abraham and I did. For an earnest seeker, the Catholic church might have been a loud noise... but it would have been a background noise at the end of the day.

Please do not misunderstand me, though. I am not summarily dismissing the Roman Catholic Church as a source of light. (That would be a disproportionate response.) I’ll be the first to argue that their traditions and anti-salvific doctrines do more to obfuscate than illuminate the Christ. But Christ is there… and he is more there than he is in the woods.

However, to be saved, a practicing Catholic would have to — at a minimum — sift through some dense symbolism to find the source of the light — Jesus Christ — and that would be a job in itself! But then he’d have to ignore things... like sacraments being a means of grace, the necessity of meritorious works, Purgatory — and so much more! Under those terms, Jesus’ sacrifice does not have the power to cover our sins. So, from sin’s perspective, Jesus is harmless without our help... and a “harmless” Jesus can be worse than no Jesus at all. Why is that? Pseudo-Jesus can inoculate us against the true Jesus.

A vaccine works by introducing a harmless version of the target virus into a human body to stimulate an immune response. “Harmless” Jesus creates nominal Christians — and children are often the first casualties here. You see, if parents are not Bible-teaching and Bible-living Christians, they are infecting their children with a false Jesus... setting them up to reject the true Christ. Have you ever wondered why it’s often harder for “Christians” to come to Christ than garden variety pagans? Some things are better evaluated from a distance.

Roman Catholicism is a “Christian” denomination, but it has presented an effete Christ to billions of people in the world. Some would argue that an effete Christ is better than no Christ at all... but I’m not convinced. I think their version of Christ does more harm than good — and by your question, I suspect that’s your impression too. But perhaps I’ve found some wiggle room.

First, there is often a difference between the church’s official beliefs and what individual Catholics believe… and I suspect (I hope!) that many salvations lie in this crack. Catholics are like any other religious people in that many are nominally Catholic. This means that a great number do not understand what the church’s official doctrines are… and there may be many among them like the Philippian jailer who have asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) ... and who now understand that all they ever had to do was believe in the right Jesus in the right way.

Second, I see hope in the story of the man with “partial” belief. Since evangelicals often emphasize the moment of salvation (as in, do it now!) it is tempting to think that faith is an instantaneous enterprise. But that’s not true. God and the Holy Spirit play a long game (John 6:44). Part of that game is stages of belief… and the healed boy’s father admitted that his belief was partial. There is room in the notion of “partial” belief for the gospel to grow — even under the influence of Rome! (Mark 9:21-24).

My final thought has to do with the initial conditions of a person’s life as it relates to Molinism. Under Molinism, every individual who has or ever will live has had every chance to respond to God’s light. So it is no small saying for a Molinist like me when Paul affirmed that all people — including our medieval serf who is embedded in the Roman Catholic culture — are without excuse (Romans 1:20). This affirms God’s fairness in the processes of salvation... which is often in question.

Molinism emphasizes that our omniscient God knows everything. This is not breaking news for evangelicals. But Molinism emphasizes that God does not just know every actual thing: he knows every possible thing. This brings us to the idea of counterfactuals and what theologians call “God’s Middle Knowledge.”

God’s Middle Knowledge is different from his foreknowledge in that it deals with the call and response that is unique to counterfactuals. Via his foreknowledge, God knows what will happen. But through his Middle Knowledge, God knows what could happen — and this is where your question lives.

God knows what every individual would freely do at every possible moment, in every possible culture, in every possible time and every possible place. So, if God sees that a person would respond to his light in some of his possibly lived lives, he would actuate whichever of those lives would best benefit his kingdom. But since God merely actuated the life he saw that person living, the person would be in the driver’s seat of his life... living it freely and in real-time.

So the question for the medieval Roman Catholic serf becomes, is he a person who would not respond to God’s light no matter where, when, or under what circumstances God put him? If this is true, then the Roman Catholic influence would be arbitrary. It would likely be a factor in his spiritual malaise, but it wouldn’t be any different or more evil than the things he did not overcome in his other possible lives.

Alternately, if this serf managed to cut through the liturgical detritus and find the saving Christ, then of all the possible lives God could have actuated for this man, this is the one that best served his kingdom.

Now, there’s the problem with Molinism: it acts like a mirror — and I’m not nuts about what I see. Likely, I would not have overcome even moderate difficulties to find the true God. I say this because... look at where God put me! I was born a white male in the USA after World War II. No category of person in the history of the world has enjoyed more security, comfort and opportunities than me.

True, I have given most of my life to the cause of Christ in some way. However, I have this nagging feeling that I would probably have been a Pharisee in the time of Christ… or pagan out there somewhere who didn’t make the cut. So God put me here — with plenty of food!

But praise God, it’s the saved me who is here — and that’s my point. Our illiterate medieval serf would have had all the same possibilities for salvation that I did…so he, too, would be without excuse.

I pray this helped.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200713 How would God judge an illiterate medieval Roman Catholic who never came to Christ?).

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