I am always amazed and often surprised by the breadth and depth of St. Augustine's knowledge and wisdom on so many divergent topics. He seems to have been the prototype of the Renaissance man, long before the Renaissance. Not only that, he possessed the uncanny ability to discuss questions that are timeless; questions that keep coming up in every generation; the ones that we think are new to our times, but which have really been here all along. The one that seemed to leap off the page for me this week is the question of pluralism -- a question that asks whether or not everyone in the world can be saved.
Just to be clear, the topic of religious pluralism has been framed in several different ways. It can deal with who Christ died for -- everyone or the elect? It can deal with who goes to Heaven when they die -- everyone, people who have "faith," or, only those who are saved by faith in Christ? Or, it can deal with whether or not Christianity offers the only true path to God. It is this last point which St. Augustine addresses. Having discussed our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ (who both made and was the sacrifice for our sins,) he writes, "This religion (Christianity) constitutes the single way for the liberation of all souls, for souls can be saved by no way but this." (p. 198)
In contrast to this claim, St. Augustine cites the Neoplatonic philosopher, Porphyry, who lived about 100 years before Augustine's lifetime. He says that Porphyry "...[had] not yet come across the claim, made by any school of thought, to embrace a universal way for the liberation of the soul," adding that he was not able to find such a claim in any philosophy or religion, including the religions of India and the Chaldaeans. (p. 198) St. Augustine found it interesting that, for all of Porphyry's talk about the enlightening insights he had gained from studying other religions, he still had to admit that he had found no way that could liberate (save) any soul in any place in the world at any time. But, Porphyry believed, (Augustine suggests,) that a "universal" way must exist: "he does not believe that Divine Providence could have left the human race without this universal way for the liberation of the soul...he had not yet come across it..." (p. 199) St. Augustine adds that this was not surprising in light of the fact that Porphyry lived during the time of the great persecution of the Church, and therefore did not consider Christianity because he believed it would die out. (p. 200)
St. Augustine is telling us here that there is a way for the citizens of the earthly city to be redeemed, for their souls to be set free and for them to enter the Kingdom of God. But all who come to God must come through this one way; salvation though the death and resurrection of Christ. This way to God opened up "by divine mercy" and at exactly the right time in God's plan for the human race. It began many years ago with the promise made to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through his descendants. It continued on through the message of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke with certainty of the Deliverer who was coming to set the souls of men free. And when he did come, and he died, and he came to life again, he instructed the apostles to take the message of salvation, the Way to God, to all the nations of the world.
St. Augustine wraps up his discussion of the one way of salvation by emphasizing its unique yet limitless scope. He says the Porphyry and the other philosophers looked for the way of salvation in divination, soothsaying and magic but found these things to be meaningless. (p. 203) The real revelation of the path to God is found in Scripture and is articulated by the Gospel, of which St. Augustine gives a wonderful summary statement, very much like a succinct creed: "...the coming of Christ in the flesh...the repentance of men and the conversion of their wills to God; the remission of sins, the grace that justifies, the faith of the saints, and the multitude of men throughout the whole world who believe in His true divinity..." (p. 203) There is a way to God, and it runs through the narrow way of the cross, yet it is open to anyone who walks upon it by faith in Jesus Christ -- anyone, anywhere, any time.
St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, et.al. New York, Doubleday, 1958.