Remnants of Revelation

I recently read a book by Winfried Corduan called In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. If the title doesn’t make it obvious, the book is about the evidence (primarily the case of Wilhelm Schmidt) that the first religion of mankind was ethical monotheism (i.e. that there is a Supreme Being who made the world and gave humanity a code of morality). This contrasts with the common, evolutionary view that religion progressed from primitive ancestor or spirit veneration to animism to polytheism to monotheism. Much of the argument for this book works with the apparent preservations of an ancient monotheistic belief system in the cultures of small, primitive tribes around the world.

Corduan’s book was rather fascinating, and of course it raises a fairly obvious question if he is correct. If mankind started out from the beginning with a full-blown belief in a singular, personal God who made the world and instituted moral law, then from whence did this belief come? Corduan, a Christian, briefly argues that there is hardly a good answer except that such a Being actually did reveal Himself to primitive humanity.

So, all of that is great to think about, but it provoked me to some other theological considerations related to primitive revelation. If we take a basically literal reading of Genesis, we have to reckon with the fact that all people on the planet are descended from Noah and his family, all of whom knew God personally. This means that any such remainders of primitive monotheism as Corduan takes note of in his book must trace back to Noah’s family. And yet these remainders are also clearly quite corrupt, enough so that it is hard to imagine that tribespeople who follow these beliefs are actually following the true God.

Of course, this does raise the question: how long were people still worshipping Yahweh? Obviously, Noah’s sons must have known God for who He really is. And the modern tribes do not. So over the last few thousand years, it seems that God’s memory was slowly forgotten. But how long was true worship still a thing? How long were people around the world, not just in Israel, still aware of and faithful to the true God? Presumably, there could have been a number of such people who end up legitimately saved for many years. How long? Centuries? Millennia?

This brings up even more questions. Just how much of the original revelation does one need to know in order to be counted as believing in the true God? At what point in the process of forgetting and mythologizing did the cultures which retained monotheism shift from confused Yahweh-worshippers to idolaters? And is it possible for some people in such places to have continued clinging only to those beliefs which genuinely originated with God’s self-disclosure at the beginning of history, so as to be saved?

The possibility of remnants of revelation which, at the very least, kept a saving witness to God alive throughough the world for many years is, I think, not to be discounted and should be relevant to debates about the fate of the unevangelized. We also have to weigh whether this thought would open up the possibility of some rare people being saved even today by their memory of the oldest special revelation. It might not do so, but if nothing else it’s worth wondering about. Such an idea might be called “revelational inclusivism” and would, at least at a prima facie level, seem to be free of some of the problems with traditional versions of inclusivism which try to grant salvation to people who lack any special revelation. After all, in such a scenario people would only be saved by clinging in faith to whatever small bits of special revelation they had left. But on the other hand, even this might have its own issues when put to scrutiny. And it does not seem unlikely that we may have to conclude that man’s original knowledge of God became everywhere too corrupt to save anyone much too long ago to be relevant today.

Yet Paul did say that God had not left Himself without a witness…

Remnants of Revelation

An Evangelical Calvinist Ordo Salutis

If you’re not familiar with the term ordo salutis, it is Latin and means “order of salvation,” and is basically a framework for laying out the different parts and events of salvation in order. There are two common views on the ordo salutis, a Calvinistic one and an Arminian one. Here’s the a short version of the most common layout, with the differences between the two versions noted:

  1. Election/predestination — Chronologically, election happens before time. While Calvinists and Arminians disagree on what it means, they agree that it is before time.
  2. Atonement — With election decided, atonement is the next step. Christ died for the sins of the world (or just the elect, if you ask a Calvinist) and so purchased all of the remaining benefits.
  3. Conversion/regeneration — Next, upon the preaching of the Gospel, come conversion and regeneration. Calvinists believe that regeneration, being born again, comes first and causes faith and repentance. Arminians, on the other hand, hold that faith and repentance come first and lead to regeneration. (If anyone ever tells you “how you can be born again” by faith, that’s a rather Arminian statement. Calvinists say only God causes regeneration, and there is nothing you can do to cause it until the Spirit moves in you.)
  4. Justification — Justification follows conversion, with God declaring the sinner righteous on the basis of the faith which came about at conversion. At that moment you are given the verdict “righteous.”
  5. Sanctification — Following justification, one begins to progress in conformity to Christ’s image, a process called “sanctification.” This will continue until death.
  6. Glorification — Finally, at the resurrection when Christ returns, we are given fresh new bodies, a new share in God’s glory, and complete eternal life.

This all seems nice and tidy, but an argument can be made that this is a bit out of focus with the Biblical teaching. An Evangelical Calvinist alternative would look something like this:

  1. Election/predestination — God chooses humanity for Himself in Christ, and predestines Christ as the one in whom humanity is to be oriented, shaped, and glorified.
  2. Incarnation/atonement/justification/sanctification/glorification — From an EC perspective, the whole of salvation is fully accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. In the Incarnation He became man like us and for us, so that He might do all of this on our behalf. He lived a sanctified, consecrated human life for us. He was publicly vindicated/justified in His resurrection, declared to be the Righteous One before the world. In His death He offered Himself as the set apart and just sacrifice by which the death of the natural man could be redeemed by sharing in His resurrection. In His ascension He was exalted to the right hand of the Father and given all authority, an authority which He will one day share with us.
  3. Conversion/Union with Christ — With all of the rest of this accomplished, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ and leads us to faith and repentance (realities also rooted in Christ’s faithful and sin-resisting life). It is this Spiritual union which imparts to us all of the realities mentioned before, allowing us to share in His justified, sanctified, and glorified life in the present.
  4. Consummation — Finally, when Christ returns, our share in His salvation life will no longer be partial, but complete. We will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is (1 Jn. 3:2). Our bodies and souls will enjoy full participation in everything He won for us once-for-all.

Sounds good, right? I thought so. I’m not going to elaborate that for now, but ultimately I think this conception is superior to and less artificial than the ordo salutis offered by the classical Calvinist/Arminian paradigm. Barth would agree. And I suspect Scripture would as well. (For recommended Scripture reading on this point, I would suggest reading closely together Romans, Hebrews, and 1 John.)

An Evangelical Calvinist Ordo Salutis