Thoughts of a Country Preacher

The Monday morning ruminations of a pastor.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Can General Revelation Ever Be Salvific in its Effect? Part 2

Last week, we began our discussion of whether or not general revelation is sufficent to lead one to Christ. Today, we will examine the four primary positions on general revelation.

There are four main responses to the question "Can general revelation ever be salvific in its effect?" Two positive responses, Pluralism and Evangelical Inclusivism, contend that general revelation is sufficient to lead one into salvation. While two negative responses, what I will call "Apologetic Natural Theology" and "Particular Revelation" argue that general revelation alone cannot be salvific in its effect.

The first position on this topic, Pluralism, states that any source of enlightenment is sufficient to produce salvation in it’s subject. This position, which is perhaps the eldest son of the relativist camp, is held by many people within and without the Christian community. Its most notable Christian proponents are Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Wilfred C. Smith, Paul Knitter, and most notably, John Hick. In the Pluralistic worldview, humanity is a fallen creature, and must be elevated from that fallen condition through illumination from some source. To the Pluralist, Christ is but one of many means to salvation. One could feasibly be illuminated through Buddha, Islam, self reflection, or any other transcendental means. While many would see this as a general acceptance of all religious expression, even Pluralism’s most vocal figure, John Hick, admits that there are limitations. Hick does not believe that the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, nor the Branch Davidian cult of David Koresh qualify as religious experiences, though he does not offer an explanation as to why.

The second position on this topic, Evangelical Inclusivism, argues that salvific grace can be demonstrated and accepted through general revelation. This position has sought to find a balance between the relativistic Pluralism of Hick and the traditional exclusive view found in Conservative Evangelical circles. This position is represented by men such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, and has been affirmed in the Catholic Church by the Vatican II council. To support their position, Evangelical Inclusivists propose that Christ’s atoning work have both ontological and epistemological traits. Ontologically, Inclusivists assert that Christ’s death and resurrection has provided a universal means for humanity to obtain a saving faith. The epistemological traits are that we can know about his death and believe in his resurrection. To the Inclusivist, the ontological aspect of Christ’s work is all that is necessary for salvation. Inclusivists argue that one can come to understand the concept of a perfect God, and the concept of an imperfect man. The realization that there is a gulf between man and an unknown God is enough, says the Inclusivist, to produce a saving faith in a person.

The third position on this topic is what I call "Apologetic Natural Theology." In this position, general revelation is used as a starting point to rationally prove issues of faith, such as the existence of God, the reliability of the Christian Bible, etc. This position has been held by the Pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, B. B. Warfield, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and Josh McDowell, but is most evident in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’ efforts to prove the existence of God, and an immortal human soul were the precursors of modern apologetic thought. Aquinas believed that these assertions could be proven through cosmological, teleological, ontological, and moral arguments. Aquinas, like most who hold this position, taught that the rational mind is able to prove God’s existence through an inductive analysis of the world around them. However, though Aquinas thought that we could gain an understanding of God through His creation, Aquinas did not teach that this knowledge was salvific in its effect. In his work God and Creation, Aquinas argues that "our natural knowledge originates with the senses, and hence our natural knowledge can reach only as far as sensible objects can lead it." Later in the same work, Aquinas states that natural theology derived from general revelation can not show us God’s nature, it can only show us that God exists.

The final position on this topic, the "Particular Revelation" stance, is quite extreme. This position argues that nothing can be learned from general revelation as man’s fall affected the whole of creation, erasing the Imago Dei. Because God’s image has been erased from creation, He is now wholly transcendent, and can only be known through direct, special revelation. The only major theologian that I am aware of that has held to this view is Karl Barth. Barth’s position in this matter is very obvious in the opening pages of his work No: Answer to Emil Brunner. In this work, Barth states that:

Every attempt to assert a general revelation has to be rejected. There is no grace
of creation and preservation. There is no recognizable ordinance of preservation.
There is no point of contact for the redeeming action of God.


Blogger WTM said...


Thanks for this post. You do a good job of setting out the various options. I just have a couple nits to pick, as is my habit. The first of my nits has to do with your third category, “Apologetic Natural Theology.” You characterize general revelation in this position as “a starting point to rationally prove issues of faith, such as the existence of God, the reliability of the Christian Bible, etc.” Certainly, general revelation can and has been used in this way, and you list an impressive array of theologians who, as per your judgment, have done so. My nit has to do with the inclusion of Martin Luther and especially of John Calvin in this list. I don’t know Luther well enough to defend him in strong terms, but I do know Calvin very well and I must say that I have never found him employing general revelation in this fashion. Your talk about ‘rational proof’ of the existence of God, etc, is simply a category mistake for Calvin’s theology. He is never out to ‘prove’ anything in a rationalist sense, that is, he is writing to other Christians and not to agnostics or atheists or pagans. He has no need to prove these things. Now, Calvin may from time to time make arguments from general revelation to bolster the faith of believers in these matters, but this is not ‘proof’ in the strict sense, and it certainly isn’t ‘apologetic’ in the sense of Josh McDowell.

My second nit has to do with Barth, who you locate under the category of “Particular Revelation.” Now, to understand Barth we must do two things: first, recognize that he is given to polemic excess; second, recognize that when he treats things at length he often ends up giving back most of what he earlier appeared to be taking away. On the basis of my close reading of certain important sections in Barth’s Church Dogmatics carefully, I believe that I can adjust the quote that you give from Barth to indicate his balanced position:

“Every attempt to assert a general revelation has to be rejected. There is no grace
of creation and preservation [apart from Jesus Christ]. There is no recognizable ordinance of preservation [apart from Jesus Christ]. There is no point of contact for the redeeming action of God [apart from Jesus Christ].”

It is specifically Barth’s treatment of providence in CD III/3 that brings this out for me. There Barth undertakes a discussion of preservation and affirms its reality, but what he will not do is credit it with existence, both ontological or epistemological, apart from Jesus Christ. That is, not only are we unable to see God’s providential and preservational activity apart from Christ, but this activity does not even exist apart from Christ. The same basic pattern would hole true with general revelation. Barth does not grant creation an independent existence apart from God’s election to save humankind in Jesus Christ. Creation, for Barth, is the external basis for the covenant, but the covenant is the internal basis of creation. One does not exist without the other, but there is a distinct priority given to the covenant (even though the covenant is for the sake of the whole creation – the logic gets dizzying!). In this way it is less that the Fall has changed things, but that creation has always been ordered toward Jesus Christ and, thus, God has always been accessible and knowable only in Jesus Christ.

Keep up the good work on your blog, John!

4:02 AM  
Blogger Pastor John said...


Welcome to the blog and thank you for your comment. Nit picks are always welcome on this blog – so long as they are thought out (i.e., not from nit wits:)

Any time one does a survey study of a topic, the categories we use to outline it are going to be quite broad, as are mine. I am in no way suggesting that Calvin was a Genevan version of McDowell. However, I still believe that it would be logical to place them in the same general category, as both believe that general revelation can give us some sense of God’s existence. As Calvin writes in his "Institutes":

“It is beyond dispute that some awareness of God exists in the human mind by natural instinct, since God himself has given everyone some idea of him so that no one can plead ignorance. He frequently renews and sometimes increases this awareness so that all men, knowing that there is a God and that he is their maker, may be convicted in their own conscience when they do not worship him or give their lives to his service. If there should be an area where God was un-known, you would think it likely to be among the most primitive tribes, really remote from civilisation. But in fact there is evidence that there is no tribe so warlike, no race so uncivilised as to be without the conviction that there is a God. Even those which are very little different from ani-mals seem to retain some religious awareness, because this universal conviction is firmly in the minds and hearts of all men. There has never been any part of the world, any city or any home without religion, proof that awareness of God is written on every heart.”

Admittedly, Calvin did not take this nearly as far as Aquinas or McDowell. While not using it as an apologetic tool, he does acknowledge that humanity does gain some sense of God from general revelation. Your nit on my third category is legitimate, as it is tough to pull all of the theologians I mention into one unified category. It feels very clunky, but such is the nature of a survey study.

Regarding Barth, I may have to concede the floor to you as you seem to have a firmer grasp on his teachings than I, and I no longer have a copy of his Dogmatics readily available to me to argue from. However, I would like to note that Barth is often critiqued from many angles for his rejection of general revelation. I would invite you to note “Natural Theology: Compromising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Emil Brunner and the reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth”, as well as Erickson’s “Systematic Theology”. At the heart of this critique is Barth’s notion that knowing God equates to having a saving relationship with him. Thus if one is not saved, then they cannot have any knowledge of God at all, because there is no knowledge of God outside of the revelation of Christ – you’re right, it is dizzying.

Thank you again WTM for your comment, I hope this answers your concerns from my original post.

God bless you as you complete your studies at Princeton Theological.

8:59 AM  
Blogger WTM said...

My point with Calvin is simply that he is not engaging with non-Christians, and therefore speech about 'proof' and apologetics as usually conceived in the modern era, don't apply well to him. But, you conceed as much. :-)

You are right about Barth (broadly insofar as it is consistent with my comments). My point is that, once you are a Christian and looking at the world from a position 'in Christ', you get something very much like general revelation back.

I like the look of your blog so you can count on my droping by again!

11:23 AM  

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