Particular revelation accessibilism

In a comment on my previous post regarding the metanarrative that informs accessibilist readings of Scripture, Chris Wettstein has said some things to which I want to respond more fully, by way of a new post.

Chris’s comment

Chris wrote as follows:

In further reflection upon your article, I think that there could be a helpful distinction to note between 2 kinds of “Gospel exclusivists”: (1) those who believe the exact details of the gospel are necessary – including understanding of the historical details of Christ’s death and resurrection, as having already occurred in history; (2) those who believe that the essence of the gospel is necessary – that people would trust in the Promised Redeemer;

I personally would place myself with the “gospel exclusivism” of Calvin & the Westminster Confession & the London Baptist Confession.

In your article you point out that many “gospel exclusivists” (including Calvin, Turretin, and others) affirm that Cornelius was “regenerated” before Peter preached the gospel to him.

I myself would agree with Calvin and those others who you mentioned, who take this understanding of Acts 10. But I disagree that this poses a problem for the historical gospel-exclusivism, noted above.

Here is why I do not see this as an “exception” or as a problem to such “gospel exclusivism”: The gospel-exclusivism of Calvin & the Westminister Confession & the London Baptist Confession would affirm that the gospel was already being proclaimed, in essence, throughout the OT era – ever since God gave that gospel promise to Adam in Gen 3:15. Cornelius had access to the gospel, even before Peter came to explain the full message to Him.

If Cornelius was a “God-fearer” – a Gentile believer in the God of Israel – he would have believed in the Messiah of Israel who was promised in the OT. He would have looked forward to the Messianic age, which is an important part of the overall OT message.

Gospel-exclusivism – by this definition – does not require that people hear “all the details of the gospel” in terms of the physical death and resurrection, as having already occurred. This kind of Gospel-exclusivism does NOT insist that “one must know the particular revelation related to God’s most recent covenantal activity.” This kind of Gospel-exclusivism does NOT “raise the necessary revelational bar [too] high,” by entailing a “belief that, as God makes each new self-revelation in connection with his covenant making work, the knowledge derived from previous covenantal revelation ceases to be sufficient for saving faith.”

I personally do not know “how much of the gospel” is needed – in terms of cognitive details – for God to regenerate people. I just focus on preaching as much of the gospel, as clearly as possible, to as many as I can. However, I do believe that Christ was active in the OT era, and that saved people had faith in Christ throughout the OT era.

As the LBC says, in ch.20, parg.1: “The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners.”

How I categorize that perspective

To a new page, Documents/Tables etc., I have just uploaded an item entitled “A Typology of Positions Concerning the Salvation of the Unevangelized.” In that typology, I define “gospel exclusivism” as the belief that “God saves only through faith by means of the gospel as proclaimed by human witnesses.” This is the position I hear argued for by gospel exclusivists these days, notably in the book by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson from which I appropriate the label, as their self-definition. It is easy to demonstrate that a large motivation in the admirable passion displayed by gospel exclusivists is a great fear that anything short of this will diminish the church’s motivation to evangelistic mission.

Given this definition, I identify Chris’s position as a clear example of “particular revelation accessibilism.” Welcome to the accessibilist fold Chris. I define that persective as the belief that “God saves some people through particular revelation that is less specific than the gospel, but not by means of universal revelation alone.”

Here is why I would place the position that Chris has described in the category of “particular revelation accessibilism”: (1) it allows for the salvation of some who do not hear the gospel from human witnesses. Furthermore, it does not require knowledge of the full new covenant gospel for salvation, even if that is proclaimed by non-human witnesses, as in “qualified gospel exclusivism;” (2) it avers that “Cornelius had access to the gospel, even before Peter came to explain the full message to Him,” in the form of the promise given in Genesis 3:15. This is to allow for salvation by an appropriate believing response to the revelation available in a prior covenantal  administration. That is classic “accessibilism.” Furthermore, (3) Cornelius is not considered exceptional (as per Aquinas, Calvin, and Turretin) but paradigmatic. Bravo! As I too have proposed, Cornelius was saved by his faith response to old covenant revelation, despite that the fact that the new covenant has been inaugurated. He is a classic case of someone who lives experientially out of synch with the chronology of God’s redemptive historical program.

The Westminster Confession

I am intrigued by the suggestion that Calvin and the Westminster/London Confessions of Faith are on the same page. Hitherto, Calvin has looked to me like a clear gospel exclusivist (hence his positing that Cornelius is exceptional) but the Westminster Confession was ambiguous on the matter. I would be happy to be wrong about Calvin.

The Westminster Confession (1647) asserted that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth” (10.3). It then adds: “So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word” (10.3). In the late 19th century, W. G. T. Shedd pointed out that “this is commonly understood to refer not merely, or mainly, to idiots and insane persons, but to such of the pagan world as God pleases to regenerate without the use of the written revelation” (Dogmatic Theology, 2:707-08). An accessibilist reading might appear to be excluded by 10:4, which denies that “people not professing the Christian religion” can “be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature and the law of that religion they do profess.” Accessibilists might reasonably take the confession to be excluding salvation by works in this phrase.

I think that particular revelation accessibilism allows for the salvation of people who live in hope because God revealed to someone in their village that he would be sending a messenger who would bring them the message of life (or a book including it, as in Burma, etc.). In some of these instances about which we know, people died in that hope before the messenger arrived. Once that missionary came, however, there were large scale movements of faith in the gospel because of the hope in which those people had lived, believing God’s particular non-normative revelation through a messenger of his choosing within the village. A gospel exclusivist would assert, doubtless with regret, that the gospel arrived too late for those who had only the promise of its coming to believe in. Accessibilists find this a restrictiveness unsupported by the biblical narrative of God’s saving work in the world.

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One Response to Particular revelation accessibilism

  1. Chris Wettstein says:

    Hi Dr. Tiessen,

    Thanks for being so “inclusive” that you would want to put me inside the “accessiblist” grouping! 🙂 However, I personally do not think that “particular revelation accessibilism” is the right label for myself.

    I am specifically not trying to say that “God saves some people through particular revelation that is less specific than the gospel.” Rather, as far as I know, I am only saying what Calvin & the Westminster, and the London Baptist Confession all affirm – namely, that God has always saved people through making known Christ & the gospel to them, even in cases when He only made known the “essence” of the gospel, without the full historical details of the gospel yet made known to them.

    I read the commentary notes by Calvin and Turretin, in your article, and I agree 100% with what they say about Cornelius. I do not see them struggling with this issue according to the same categories that you are using; they both believed that Cornelius was different than other pagans, but yet he was very much like the OT fathers who believed the gospel (prior to Christ and the NT era). This was not a difficulty for Calvin or Turretin, because they were able to affirm that the gospel was truly preached in the OT era, in terms of its essence.

    With this in mind, I think that you could, perhaps, add another category to your typologies. Perhaps you could call it “Gospel-essence exclusivism.” When I hear of “particular revelation accessibilism” I think of any random “particular revelation” which may or may not include reference to Christ or redemption at all – such as some supposed “revelation” about where a tribe should move their tents. That’s not what I believe saves people, although it might be part of God’s providence leading to the salvation of those who do hear the essential gospel of the Bible. If some tribe hears a message of God coming to earth, to save them from their sins; or a message of God forgiving them through a Chosen Man who will be revealed to them – that sounds more like the essence of the gospel. I would personally be agnostic about particular people who I hear stories about; but I would be firm in believing that God always saves people by revealing Christ and the gospel to them.

    I don’t think its adequate to only distinguish between “complete message of the gospel, in all its detail, as having already been fulfilled” vs. “particular revelation which is less than the gospel.”

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