Abstract:Although evangelicals agree the church must be fervent in seeking to reach those who have little or no access to the gospel, this missiological consensus has not led to a theological consensus regarding the salvific state of those whom the church never reaches. Yet Daniel Strange seeks to throw fresh light on the discussion by proposing an alternative understanding of “unevangelized” based on a more nuanced explanation of divine revelation. This article will summarize Strange’s theory and then evaluate his approach by using the doctrinal rules instantiated by the solus Christus, sola fide, and fides ex auditu principles. For however one answers this disputed question in theology, Scripture is clear that salvation is through Christ alone by faith alone and that faith comes from hearing. The hope is that this doctrinal typology will facilitate not only this particular review, but also indicate a common theological environment in which evangelical theories on the unevangelized might be formulated and assessed.
Working from a Reformed/Calvinist position, Daniel Strange begins the development of his theology of religions in contrast to inclusivist positions in evangelical theology.1 In his initial work he asserts that because the question of the unevangelized is a soteriological matter, theories must not neglect relevant doctrinal issues “including the nature and extent of saving faith, the nature of revelation and the doctrines of grace.”2 Thus, theologians who hold inclusivist positions “might well revise their stance if it were proved that to hold to a certain belief on the unevangelised compromised, for example, the solus Christus.”3 In this case, Strange has in mind the inclusivist model of Clark Pinnock.4
As regards the question of the unevangelized, Pinnock argues that those who respond to the Spirit’s offer of grace through general revelation and conscience can in this way receive Christ’s salvation.5 Yet Strange argues that if the Spirit is working among the unevangelized to help them “implicitly” receive salvific grace, “the question remains how the salvation of the unevangelised believer is related directly to the work of Christ and not merely to the work of the Spirit in creation.”6 He concludes that Pinnock’s view is untenable as an evangelical position, because it neither holds to the core precepts of the evangelical tradition nor represents an orthodox understanding of the Trinity.7 So how might one determine a legitimate evangelical position? Strange goes on to develop what Timothy George calls an “extra bonus” by providing “the most definitive typology to date of evangelical responses to the fate of the unevangelized.”8
Drawing from systematic theology, Strange makes the doctrine of atonement the cornerstone of his typology and, in the first instance, divides theories between particular and universal views of God’s salvific will.9 Based on these two groups, he then identifies six distinct particular atonement positions and three universal atonement positions.10 As for his own stance on the issue, he claims the problem is not with the unevangelized per se, but with the question itself:
The problem with the question of the unevangelised is that it is wrongly construed as being about “those who have never heard through no fault of their own,” or those who are “invincibly ignorant.” However the biblical worldview tells us that no-one is spiritually guiltless and that while there are degrees of light and of responsibility, everyone has spurned the light they have, whether this be the light of general revelation or special revelation.11
Hence he claims that because “the ‘Reformed’ evangelical paradigm” precludes universal atonement, “there is no ‘problem’ of the unevangelised.”12 Yet if there are those who have only received general revelation, what then is this “light” and “responsibility” outside of special revelation?
1. The Purpose of General Revelation
In a chapter contribution entitled “General Revelation: Sufficient or Insufficient?,” Strange upholds the existence of general revelation but denies the possibility that salvation might obtain through this mode alone.13 Furthermore, “general revelation is insufficient to save but sufficient to condemn and ‘render without excuse.’”14 As regards salvation, general revelation needs special revelation before it can be understood and appropriated rightly, and the ordinary means of special revelation is through hearing the proclamation of the gospel.15 Still, though general and special revelation are distinct Strange also argues they are not meant to be separated. For example, referring to Psalm 19 he states:
Here we witness a wonderful unity to God’s revelation in creation and Torah, but a unity in which there is not only a definite qualitative difference between the two modes of revelation, but also an inseparability and “order,” which presupposes that it is only in context of special revelation and salvation that God’s general revelation of himself in creation can be truly understood.16
Thus, for Strange, because special revelation is necessary for salvation, and because there are people in the world who only receive general revelation, then perhaps these people are “those who have fallen outside of God’s preceptive (but not decretive) will?”17 In other words, the very fact that special revelation never reaches certain groups of people is tangible evidence that the purpose of general revelation is not God’s salvation, but his judgment of sin. “There is a corporate responsibility here,” says Strange, “the most universal ‘unity’ being our guilt in Adam.”18 At this point, however, he recognizes the argument is somewhat askew as he attempts to maintain an inseparable relation between the two modes of revelation, while also claiming God deliberately withholds special revelation from certain people thereby causing a separation. Strange nuances his argument by appealing to the tradition of prisca theologia (ancient theology)19 and the writings of twentieth century Reformed missiologist J. H. Bavinck20 to argue for a third understanding of revelation which constitutes a kind of admixture of general and special revelation.21
The prisca theologiais the notion that the pure knowledge of God has been passed down through the ages and traces of this “original” revelation exist within some or all human knowledge. Yet Strange states, “Because of human suppression and substitution, and without the regenerating work of God, this once true knowledge of God becomes atrophied through a divine providential law of entropy and rather than becoming a means to salvation, it becomes a further basis for judgment.”22 While he is unable to develop his proposal fully at this point, he provides a more robust account in his book For Their Rock Is Not as Our Rock.23 Here Strange seeks to apply an historiographical approach for understanding the origin of religions, foregrounded by the “seemingly retired” anthropological theory called “original monotheism.”24
2. A “Single-Source” Theory for Explaining Revelation
In For Their Rock Is Not as Our Rock, Strange attempts to locate the “historical origin of the phenomena of ‘religions’” within a biblical world chronology.25 To this purpose, he establishes his theological anthropology upon a literal “historical” interpretation of Genesis—in opposition to “purely ‘theological’ and ‘literary’ interpretations”26—giving particular attention to the stories of creation, Noah, and the tower of Babel in chs. 1−11.27 Though he is in this case more concerned with the question of other religions than with the question of the unevangelized,28 Strange nonetheless expands his notion of original revelation and its purpose for those who never hear the preaching of the gospel. He argues that just as the physical existence of all human beings traces back to a single couple, divine revelation and human knowledge also flow out from this singular period in time. He states:
Given a monogenetic understanding of human origins, what is being posited here is a “single-source” theory of revelation and knowledge, when the whole of humanity was in proximity of redemptive-historical events and which therefore defies a simplistic categorization as either natural “general” revelation or supernatural “special revelation.” As well as the more usual, “media” and “means” of “general revelation,” a number of Reformed scholars include specific and “supernatural” knowledge preserved as “tradition” and “memory.” I wish to label this revelation as “remnantal.”29
Strange turns again to the prisca theologia and also incorporates the anthropological concept of “original monotheism”30 to argue that the source of prisca theologia originates with Adam and Eve.31 Furthermore, his single-source theory of revelation does not consist only of a pre-fall awareness of the existence of one God who created all things, but includes the imago Dei as a kind of transcendent first principle (people are made to worship) and a postlapsarian proclamation of Christ in Genesis 3:15—the protoevangelium (first gospel).32 Within this framework he supports the idea that there is no one who has only ever received general revelation (from nature and conscience alone), because all people retain a remnant of the prisca theologia and are also influenced by it at times through contact in history. Nonetheless, this “knowledge” is rendered inadequate for salvation because of constant human and demonic suppression and distortion.33
So according to Strange, general revelation is not only the transcendent reality of the imago Dei and the physical presence of creation, but also includes an admixture of corrupted elements of special revelation (the gospel) which flow through human knowledge and tradition with an occasional influx of the prisca theologia during moments of historical proximity.34 Hence, an unevangelized person “simultaneously on the one hand knows the living God of the Bible (i.e., knows in ‘personal relationship’, not just ‘knows about’), leaving her responsible and ‘without excuse’, and yet on the other hand does not know God.”35 Salvation occurs, then, only as one receives special revelation “because with it comes the regenerating work of the Spirit in special grace.”36 From this perspective, Strange concludes that the gospel subverts the content of other religions and also fulfills the metaphysical human need to worship God.37
3. A Critical Review of Strange’s Single-Source Theory of Revelation
As noted earlier, Strange attempts to make his case from a Reformed theological perspective, and specifically from “within the tradition represented by the Magisterial Reformers especially John Calvin and his followers.”38 Thus we might anticipate his claim that general revelation alone does not save but is enough to “condemn and ‘render without excuse.’”39 But whereas theologians usually base this assertion on an understanding that general revelation consists of little more than God’s communication of himself through the natural order,40 Strange distinguishes his approach by bringing in a much needed christological dimension to this standard confession.41 By connecting the Reformed appropriation of the prisca theologia to the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, he provides a framework to support his claim that God does not condemn the unevangelized for merely rejecting him through natural revelation, but for suppressing the proclamation of the gospel as well. Thus he is to be lauded for seeking to emphasize the need for an epistemic connection to the gospel of Christ in the theological discussion of the unevangelized. With this in mind, because Strange makes Genesis 3:15 the epistemic axiom of his understanding of revelation, we will focus on this particular point and seek to evaluate his theory scripturally, historically, and theologically from within his own stated terms of confessional faith.42 Our doctrinal typology for this assessment is that salvation is through Christ alone by faith alone, and faith comes from hearing (solus Christus, sola fide, and fides ex auditu).
4. Strange’s Appropriation of the Protoevangelium
Strange references Genesis 1−3 and highlights the protoevangelium (3:15) to argue that “pure” knowledge of God and his plan of redemption in Christ was given at the time of Adam and Eve. Furthermore, from that point in time divine revelation has flowed through human history in two “diametrically opposed” streams.43 One stream contains the prisca theologia where common grace and special grace (saving grace) remain intact, and the other stream contains only remnants of the prisca theologia and common grace, which, through “a divine providential law of entropy,”44 is devoid of the Spirit’s regenerative work.45 He asserts, “In the sovereign providence of God, he has preserved and sustained redemptive knowledge of himself within some streams of humanity and not within others.”46
First, scripturally speaking, we might question whether Genesis 3:15 is technically the first proclamation of the gospel whereby God announces his messianic intent in such a way that distinguishes this moment as the gospel’s epistemic source. For a canonical reading of Scripture shows that when Paul regards the source of human sin, death, and condemnation he points to Adam (Rom 5:12−21),47 but when he regards the first proclamation of the gospel and the basic elements for understanding faith in Christ, he points to Abraham (Rom 4:1−25; Gal 3:7−9, 15−29). This is not to say that God waited until the covenant with Abraham to initiate his redemptive work or that Strange has no theological basis for interpreting Genesis 3:15 as the protoevangelium.48 Rather, the point is that the promise given through Abraham is the hermeneutical lens for working out this interpretation. So although he seeks to explain Genesis 3:15 as the time “when the whole of humanity was in proximity of redemptive-historical events,”49 Strange nonetheless must rely exegetically upon Genesis 12 to support this argument. For the liminal moment from which we discern God’s redemptive intent is historically and textually correlated to its substantiation in Abraham. To be sure, Strange asserts that “Abraham and his descendants are a part of this ‘seed’ theology (cf. Gen. 3:15),”50 but it is perhaps more accurate to speak of Abraham and his descendants as the progenitor of this seed theology. For an intratextual reading of Scripture places the epistemic source of the protoevangelium within the historical period beginning with Genesis 12, when, as Paul declares, the gospel was preached “beforehand to Abraham” (Gal 3:8 NASB). This is why Christopher Wright asserts that “fromthe great promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1−3 we know this God to be totally, covenantally and eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations throughthe agency of the people of Abraham.”51 Thus, strictly speaking, the epistemological source of the gospel is Genesis 12:3.
Nevertheless, as indicated above, there remains a viable way to achieve an intratextual interpretation of Genesis 3:15 as the protoevangelium. However, it depends on a syntactical issue which Strange does not address sufficiently, and which may weaken his theory in the process. As C. John Collins notes, when considering the meaning of the woman’s offspring in verse 15, “the first thing to decide is whether the text speaks of a specific offspring or of her offspring in general.”52 He explains that the Hebrew word itself does not connote either a singular or plural meaning, and scholars disagree as to which translation is correct. And while there may be good reasons for holding a singular interpretation,53 Strange provides no background discussion for why he chooses this reading over a plural one, nor does he explain the ways in which this choice affects the scriptural method for defining the protoevangelium.54 For example, Collins states, “If we see Genesis 3:15 as referring to a specific offspring, we can speak this way of ‘unfolding,’ and we do not have to appeal to a sensus plenior.”55 In other words, even if this verse is meant to be messianic, it is still the case that neither the reader nor those who were in physical proximity to this event can be expected to discern this meaning apart from the occurrence and apprehension of the “unfolding” revelatory events which all together inform this explanation of offspring.56
While Strange recognizes a “gradual progression in the specificity of revelation as redemptive history progresses,” he nonetheless collapses God’s “authentic and genuine knowledge of himself and his salvation in his chosen people” into the textual and historical moment of Genesis 3:15.57 But if this particular text in Scripture demands further illumination before readers can grasp its redemptive content then, scripturally speaking, there is no reason to assume this particular moment in history comprises the epistemic origin of the gospel apart from further revelation in time. As John Sailhamer points out, “There remains in this verse a puzzling yet important ambiguity: Who is the ‘seed’ of the woman? It seems obvious that the purpose of verse 15 has not been to answer that question, but rather to raise it. The remainder of the book is, in fact, the author’s answer.”58 There is therefore no definitive intratextual support for claiming that those who lived in historical proximity to God’s verbal response to human sin in Genesis 3 would have understood these words as an offer of messianic redemption to which they must respond in faith. Hence, one can discern the messianic intent of this verse, if any, historically and textually only after Abraham.
Second, historically speaking, explicit evidence for interpreting Genesis 3:15 as the protoevangelium does not appear until Irenaeus in the second century AD (Haer. 40.3).59 He makes this connection by asserting that the hermeneutical means for discerning Christ in the Old Testament is the incarnation of Christ himself. Irenaeus explains that “the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means and types and parables,” and yet it is only after their fulfillment in “the advent of Christ” that Christians are able to perceive this treasure (Haer. 4.26.1). Concerning Irenaeus’s hermeneutic, John Behr explains:
With regard to Christ being disseminated in Scripture, and, in reverse, being foreseen by the patriarchs and the prophets, it is particularly important to note that the mechanism turns upon the Cross: it is by the Cross that the types and prophecies are brought to light, given their proper exegesis…. This manner of reading the Scripture was revealed only after the Passion.60
Irenaeus teaches that Christ unlocked his self-communication in Scripture for the apostles, and we receive this hermeneutic through the apostolic proclamation of Christ. He claims that it is impossible to see the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15 prior to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (Haer. 4.26.1). Thus, scripturally and historically speaking, Abraham is the epistemic source for discerning the person of Christ (Gal 3:7−9), and Christ is the epistemic source for discerning all that is written of him in the corpus of Scripture (Luke 24:27, 32, 44). Walter Moberly concludes, “Israel’s scriptures not only prepare the way for Christ, … there is also a retrospective movement from Jesus back to Israel’s scriptures whereby they are recognized to be what they would not otherwise be recognized to be.”61 Therefore if one can perceive the gospel in Genesis 3:15 only after Christ, and indeed this potential interpretation did not obtain until the second century AD, then once again there is little reason to assume the original hearers comprehended and responded to a messianic purpose with just these words alone.
Third, considering Strange’s commitment to a “classical” Reformed theology, it is perhaps significant, theologically speaking, that John Calvin chooses the plural translation of “offspring” in Genesis 3:15, and thus appeals to the sensus plenior for a christological reading. He makes this connection in several steps. First, he interprets the plain meaning of the text to be “that there should always be the hostile strife between the human race and serpents” and that humanity will remain “superior” to serpents.62 Then, in a second step, he makes a “transition” to an anagogical interpretation whereby God “assails Satan under the name of the serpent,” so that people may first “learn to beware of Satan as of the most deadly enemy; then, that they may contend against him with the assured confidence of victory.”63 Thus, as regards the meaning of the verse itself, Calvin interprets “the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally.”64 Yet because it is true that many people do indeed fall under the power of Satan, he connects this verse to Christ in a final step through a Pauline explanation of Abraham, saying, “So Paul, from the seed of Abraham, leads us to Christ.”65 In the end, Calvin understands the seeds of the woman to signify the church, which will gain victory over Satan through the seed of Abraham; who is Christ the Head.66 So we find that Calvin also identifies the protoevangelium beginning with Abraham and discerned only after Christ.
Though Strange need not agree with Calvin’s interpretation of Genesis 3:15, he would do well to work through Calvin’s position as he seeks to develop his own Reformed view. For if both Paul and Calvin place the protoevangelium with Abraham through a post-advent reading of Scripture, then this fact alone must have substantial implications for his single-source theory of revelation.
5. A Doctrinal Conclusion
Again, the strength of Strange’s theory lies in his recognition of the need for an explicit connection with the proclamation of the gospel in the discussion of the unevangelized. And he takes a positive step towards filling this theological gap by highlighting Psalm 19 and asserting that this passage “is a microcosm of the symbiotic relationship between general and special revelation,” and that “God’s purpose in general revelation has never been for it to function independently of his ‘worded’ special revelation.”67 Yet in light of the doctrinal setting effected by the solus Christus, sola fide, and fides ex auditu, there is a critical weakness in the way he develops this strength.
Strange devotes a large part of his evaluation of Pinnock towards building a case that epistemological awareness of the ontological work of Christ is necessary for saving faith.68 And through this process he upholds the solus Christus concluding that even an implicit response to the work of the Spirit in the world does not account for how this response occurs in Christ. For “surely if one is to ‘die with Christ’ and ‘rise with Christ,’ one must know what he has done, let alone know the fact that he exists?”69 But in his later writings, in an effort to connect this christological epistemic element in his own theory, he inadvertently resolves this particular issue for Pinnock as well. Strange argues for the existence of “embryonic revelatory knowledge of the gospel from Genesis 3:15 onwards,” a knowledge which in itself had sufficient epistemic reference for saving faith.70 He also claims that humanity possesses a remnant of this knowledge “preserved as ‘tradition’ and ‘memory’” that they “epistemologically suppress.”71 Thus, Strange’s support for the notion of implicit “false faith” also indirectly supports Pinnock’s theory of implicit saving faith. Further, although Strange claims “that in positing this ‘remnantal’ revelation I am not saying it has any ‘salvific’ potential,” his introduction of the concept nonetheless opens the door wide for speculation on its salvific possibilities.72
For instance, if general and special revelation cannot operate apart from each other, and if general revelation includes a remnant of special revelation for which people are guilty through their implicit suppression, then it is just as possible they can be forgiven through their implicit acceptance of this ubiquitous knowledge. The problem for Strange is that in claiming there is a vestige of special revelation among the unevangelized, the logical structure of his argument requires that he allow for the Spirit’s work of special grace as well; otherwise there remains an internal dissonance in his theory.73 Strange holds that one cannot separate the ontological work of special grace from the epistemological presence of special revelation.74 Thus, irrespective of its condition—whether in “embryonic” or “remnantal” form—the presence of this revelation includes the regenerative work of the Spirit.75 So the only way he can balance his theory is to either allow the possibility that the unevangelized can have implicit faith in the same way they have implicit false faith—i.e., through the flow of universal knowledge about God and Christ rooted historically in the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15—or explain how the unevangelized can have explicit false faith in the same way the evangelized can have explicit saving faith—i.e., fides ex auditu—thus making his notion of remnantal revelation irrelevant. Yet considering his particular Reformed theological framework, the first option cannot support an evangelical understanding of solus Christus, sola fide, and fides ex auditu (the crux of his criticism of Pinnock), leaving only the second option, which would require substantive changes to his theory.
To this purpose, Strange may want to set aside the scientific notion of a monogenetic view of human origins, the anthropological theory of original monotheism, and the deistic version of prisca theologia to make better use of his stated doctrinal and confessional material.76 For if the scriptural, historical, and theological resources indicate that the protoevangelium was introduced with Abraham so that everyone was not, has not been, and still are not in proximity to redemptive-historical events, then how might one explain false faith without separating the ontological and epistemological elements of faith? For this he may find creedal support from the Baptist confessions listed in his theological material, which state, “Nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner except his own voluntary refusal to accept Jesus Christ as teacher, Saviour and Lord.”77 Thus he might speculate on how non-elect unevangelized people will come to refuse Christ explicitly.
Or, if the Reformed doctrines of total depravity and particular atonement imply that there is no “problem” of the unevangelized,78 then perhaps he could approach this subject indirectly by addressing related questions within Reformed theology perceived to be genuine problems. As George points out in his review of Strange, “There are a cluster of issues even Reformed theologians need to think through more clearly than has yet been done. What about the salvation of those who die in infancy, or those who remain mentally incompetent?”79 For instance, the Westminster Confession states, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (10.3). Thus to affirm this confession, he might seek to explain how this particular group of unevangelized people will eventually receive the outward calling of the Word for saving faith—that is, the “fully orbed character of notitia, fiducia and assensus” ministered ex auditu.80 And by dealing with this issue he may also discover ways to approach the broader theological question of the unevangelized.
As his theory stands, however, his assertion that all humanity was in proximity to the gospel of faith and salvation in Genesis 3:15, and his subsequent notion of remnantal revelation whereby all people have epistemic guilt through implicit false faith, compromises the doctrinal relation between the sola fide and fides ex auditu principles. That is to say, if faith obtains through explicit hearing of the word of Christ (Rom 10:17), then the necessary epistemic conditions for belief are the same conditions necessary for unbelief. Which means that just as the notion of remnantal revelation cannot support the possibility of saving faith among the unevangelized, neither can it support the possibility of false faith. Yet if Strange will allow his scriptural and confessional material to have primary influence over the speculative nature of his theory,81 then perhaps he will be in a better position to offer a creative articulation of revelation for addressing the issue of the unevangelized.