Abstract:Kyle Faircloth argues that Daniel Strange’s earlier work on the question of the unevangelised is undermined by his more recent theology of religions, and in particular his theory of a ‘remnantal’ revelation. This rejoinder argues that Faircloth has misunderstood Strange on this point and that his original work on the unevangelised is consistent with later work.
I’m appreciative of Themelios for giving me the opportunity to respond to Kyle Faircloth’s article concerning my work on the question of the unevangelized. First, a little contextual background might be helpful. Kyle’s doctoral supervisor is Gavin D’Costa, who was my supervisor twenty years ago (!), and with whom I have collaborated on a number of writing projects in the intervening years.1 Gavin first made me aware of Kyle’s interest in my work, and Kyle graciously showed me an earlier version of this paper, asking me some questions and allowing me some comment. It is a privilege to have the right of reply again on the finished and now published piece of work.
Although Kyle notes that I have attempted to throw ‘fresh light’ on the question, my original monograph The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelised is over fifteen years old, and so while not ‘stale’, it needed a little dusting down, at least, in my own memory banks.2 Such a ‘remembering’ has nothing to do with a desire to now distance myself from my original doctrinal conclusions concerning the fate of the unevangelised in general, and Clark Pinnock’s inclusivism in particular. Indeed apart from my 2008 essay, ‘General Revelation: Sufficient or Insufficient?’,3 my recent writing within the theology of religions has not focused explicitly on soteriological issues but more on questions of revelation, truth and teleology precisely because I remain at cognitive rest with the earlier work.4 As I say in my most recent monograph, while it would be quite ‘un-evangelical’ if questions of eternal destiny are never far from our minds and ministry, the almost exclusive preoccupation with soteriology within evangelical theologies of religions5 has over the years stunted the development of the discipline. That is, we are very clear what other religions are not (ways to salvation), but we are not quite sure what they are, from what they are fashioned, and how they serve the sovereign purposes of God. Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock is an attempt to ask these questions without compromising the missiological urgency that the soteriological conclusions of my earlier work demanded.
Kyle’s contention, of course, is that there is some internal dissonance between these three pieces of work. Moreover, he claims that in later work doctrinal speculation on ‘remnantal revelation’, the prisca theologica, ‘original monotheism,’ and especially the protoevangelium has trumped scriptural and confessional material, with the result that I have compromised the doctrinal relation between an evangelical understanding of sola fide, and the fides ex auditu. He asks me to offer substantive changes and/or go back to the drawing board to offer a creative articulation for addressing the issue which will include ‘the need for an explicit connection with the proclamation of the gospel in the discussion of the unevangelized.’6
In this short response I wish to argue that while some additional clarification and theological double-underlining might be necessary and helpful, I do not believe I need to adjust the theological substance or constructions of my theology of religions, or my answer concerning the fate of the unevangelised. I also contend that the solus Christus, sola fide, and the fides ex auditu remain intact and internally consonant, both scripturally and confessionally. While Kyle has undertaken a helpful service in synthesising my three main statements within the evangelical theology of religions, he has unfortunately ended up putting two and two together and making five.
First, there is perhaps an understandable confusion regarding my category of ‘remnantal revelation’ in terms of its nature and salvific potential. Within Reformed theology we have been used to a fairly clean-cut binary theological classification that, on the one hand, brings into close association concepts such as general revelation, natural revelation, and common grace (not special saving and efficacious grace); and on the other hand, special revelation, supernatural revelation, and special grace. The argument I put forward in my essay ‘General Revelation’ and then develop in much greater detail in Their Rock (with the support of figures such as Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, J. H. Bavinck, and Cornelius Van Til), is that historically and phenomenologically the picture is a lot more nuanced and ‘messy’ in terms of trying to disentangle and separate out the species of ‘revelation’ that make up the religious traditions of humankind. There are more combinations and more interchangeability between these six concepts than has often been recognised. The revelatory ‘stuff’which sinful humanity suppresses and substitutes, and which becomes part of a tradition and memory in idolatrous religion, is an admixture of different types of revelation. It contains not only natural, general revelation but also special revelation in terms of God’s words and his redemptive acts in history that have been witnessed not only by God’s chosen covenant people, but by those outside as well. How one labels such phenomena theologically (do we call this general? or special?) is difficult at this point, but what I am speaking of is the suppressed truth of special revelation which does not have the regenerating work of special grace attached to it. Knowledge of and proximity to redemptive revelation is not synonymous with revelation that necessarily redeems (and that must have redemptive content). The point that I stress in various places in the book, which Kyle picks up on, and which I reiterate again here, is that because of the idolatrous impulse, such revelatory material is immediately corrupted and distorted in sin and so is not salvific.7 Special regenerating grace remains within the confines of God’s covenant people where God’s special revelation is preserved.8 My argument therefore concerning remnantal revelation is never soteriological in nature but rather theological and phenomenological: ‘remnantal revelation gives us a comparative theological explanation of “commonalities” and “continuities” between religious traditions, for example certain events, themes and archetypes.’9 I do not agree with Kyle that the establishment of remnantal revelation ‘opens the door wide for speculation on its salvific possibilities’, 10 because we are dealing with suppressed truth which is counterfeit and not genuine.
Second, Kyle’s contention regarding salvific possibility is based around the issue of the protoevangelium, the discussion of which forms a major part of Kyle’s paper. Concerning this, and while not irrelevant to my concept of remnantal revelation, I think the amount of focus given to the protoevangelium by Kyle is disproportionate and indeed overall something of a ‘red herring’. In other words, Kyle puts too much stress in his article on what he perceives as a stress in my own work on the protoevangelium. He does this because he perceives a strong connection between my understanding of Genesis 3:15, and the prisca theologia. Looking back over the relevant sections in my work concerning remnantal revelation, I do not see that Genesis 3:15 features as highly as Kyle believes it does. As already established above, it is one piece of evidence which demonstrates that concepts of salvation, redemption and even sacrifice have been present in the history of mankind and are the revelatory basis for idolatrous religion to twist out of shape. Once again, however, whatever is going on in terms of the propositional content of the protoevangelium, it is never salvific when taken up by idolatrous humanity outside of God’s covenant line.
Somewhat ironically, this is not to say that the protoevangelium is not crucial in the flow of biblical history. In numerous places throughout Their Rock, I stress the importance of theological and historical continuity between Genesis 1–11 and 12–50. The holding to a monogenetic understanding of human origins is integrally bound up with this. If I was to set this aside, as Kyle asks me to do, my theology of religions as a whole would become both unstable and impoverished. While admittedly embryonic and ‘shadowy’, these early chapters and especially the protoevangelium contain both seeds (double meaning intended) of curse and blessings, of particularity and universality. I agree with Kyle that there is a more formal and explicit covenantal revelation to Abraham (that through his offspring all the nations will be blessed), but I would still maintain that this is building on the drama of universal and cosmic redemptive promises already set down in the protoevangelium. A lot has been going on before Abraham arrives on the scene. This primeval revelation that contains perennial themes of enmity, antithesis, seed, suffering and eventual victory is still present even if one does not take v. 15 to be a specific offspring. Kyle’s survey of the history of exegesis concerning this verse is illuminating and it might have been helpful if I had given a little more exegetical detail in the book. However, I don’t think my overall argument is invalid even if like Calvin (and Vos, I should add11), one takes a ‘plural’ translation. The concept of deliverance and victory is still there. As it happens, and for the record, I still tentatively gravitate towards a more singular reading of ‘seed’ largely based on O. Palmer Robertson’s exposition in Christ of the Covenants.12
Third and finally, we return to soteriology and the question of the unevangelised. I think that Kyle overstresses and so misunderstands the connection I make between the protoevangelium and the prisca theologia because he believes I hold to a prior commitment ‘that God does not condemn the unevangelised for merely rejecting him through natural revelation, but for suppressing the proclamation of the gospel as well.’13 He believes I can only establish this through holding to a strongly Christocentric and messianic exegesis of Genesis 3:15 which contains salvific potentiality. Kyle believes that seeking to emphasise the need for an epistemic connection to the gospel of Christ in the theological discussion of the unevangelized is laudable, ‘much needed’,14 and ‘a positive step’.15 He critiques my own particular construal of how I seek to demonstrate this claim, not the claim itself. Scripturally, historically and theologically he believes there to be a critical weakness in terms of the mechanism of delivery.
My response to this is that in actuality I do not share this prior commitment with Kyle, and indeed never have. To clarify, I maintain that remnantal revelation and its associated concepts (original monotheism, prisca theologia and yes, the protoevangelium) are not necessary to render the unevangelised ‘without excuse’. Kyle quotes from Their Rock is not Like our Rock that an unevangelised person ‘simultaneously on the one hand knows the living God of the Bible ... leaving her responsible and “without excuse”, and yet on the other hand does not know God.’16 However, he takes this statement out of context; at this point in the book I am referring to the perpetuity of the imago Dei and not the prisca theologica. Hence the theological category of a ‘pure’ general revelation remains theologically important because it can justly condemn but not save.17 In other words the unevangelised are indeed just that, unevangelised—they do not have knowledge of Christ and so lack the necessary knowledge for saving faith. Contrary to Kyle’s claim, this does not resolve the problem for Pinnock in terms of a universally accessible salvation, nor does it support his theory of implicit saving faith. The point I make in the conclusion of my essay on ‘General Revelation’ was that those who have only come into contact with general revelation, may be far less than often imagined because of the category of (the then not as yet named) ‘remnantal’ revelation. Such revelation is never a means of salvation because it has been idolatrously suppressed, but as a phenomenon it needs to be taken account of and explained theologically.18
Moreover, and as a closing challenge, I would need more evidence to be convinced that the creedal support offered by Kyle in the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, had in mind the category unevangelised as its referent. Given the hints offered by Kyle throughout his paper, and based on my previous survey of the terrain, I await with interest to see how he himself ‘might speculate on how non-elect unevangelized people will come to refuse Christ explicitly’19 and how this will be demonstrated biblically.20