I am always intrigued when sincere believers, committed to the authority of Scripture, and reading it with essentially the same hermeneutic, arrive at different conclusions about what Scripture teaches. It happens re: monergism/synergism, complementarianism/egalitarianism, credo-baptism/pedo-baptism, and on many other points. In recent years, since becoming an accessibilist, I have pondered the matter in regard to the salvation of the unevangelized.
When Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan had a draft of their manuscript of Faith Comes by Hearing finished, Chris offered me a chance to read and comment on it. I was very happy for that opportunity because it is a fine book. If my memory is correct, it was in the process of reading that manuscript that I reached a thesis about the underlying reason for the difference between gospel exclusivist and accessibilist understandings of Scripture. That idea grew more sure in my mind as I read other works in following months. ETS was scheduled to focus on the theme “No Other Name,” at its meeting in November 2011, so I spent considerable time working on a paper unpacking my thesis. I have uploaded a copy of that paper to a new section of “Documents,” and you can read it here if you are interested. The paper is entitled “God’s Covenants: A Ground for Hopefulness Regarding the Unevangelized.”
Different metanarratives inform the two readings of individual texts
In my paper, I proposed that different metanarratives inform the two readings of Scripture. I believe that it is most natural for synergists (such as Arminians or Molinists) to be accessibilists, but gospel exclusivism comes more easily to monergists. If we believe that God has unconditionally chosen those whom he will save from out of sinful humanity, it is not logically problematic if God does not make available the means of saving revelation to those whom he has not purposed to save. As a Calvinist myself, my particular interest is in the different conclusions reached by gospel exclusivists, on the one hand, and agnostics or accessibilists on the other.
I find no texts in the Bible that state explicitly that only the evangelized will be saved, nor any that state explicitly that any of the unevangelized will be saved. Although gospel exclusivists cite numerous texts which appear to them to affirm explicitly what they assert, four problems are common in their interpretation of these texts: first, texts asserting the uniqueness of Christ as the world’s only Saviour are read as assertions that knowledge of Christ is necessary to benefit from his saving work (eg. Acts 4:12); second, texts asserting the saving efficacy of belief in Jesus are read as assertions that only such fully informed faith can save (e.g. the citation of Joel 2:32 in Rom. 10:13); third, Scripture is clear that all who believe in Jesus are saved and that all who reject Jesus remain condemned. But it is often not observed that texts which speak of not believing (i.e. rejecting) Jesus are in contexts where knowledge of him is assumed, and so these cannot be extended to refer to the unevangelized (e.g., Jn 3:16-18); and fourth, the context of texts is ignored, as in Romans 10, where Paul rejects, as a possible explanation for widespread unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, that Jews were ignorant of him. So, this much cited text is not speaking of the unevangelized, though it does state clearly the necessity of revelation for saving faith.
I posit that this absence of texts explicitly stating gospel exclusivism is probably the main reason for widespread agnosticism on this point among evangelicals these days. I further propose that the decisive factor which leads some Calvinists to gospel exclusivism, but others to agnosticism or accessibilism, is the different understandings of the metanarrative concerning God’s saving program that they bring to their interpretation of individual texts.
The gospel exclusivist metanarrative
Stephen Wellum is very explicit about the gospel exclusivist understanding of the way in which God’s covenantal work relates to his saving work: “In order for one to benefit from the saving work of Christ, Scripture teaches that one must exercise explicit faith in the covenant promises of God, now, given our place in redemptive history, centered in Jesus Christ” (Faith Comes by Hearing, 146). He states further: “Scripture presents the work of the Spirit always in relation to the Son, entailing that when the Spirit is at work in people, his unique work is to bring people to faith in Christ which must always be viewed in a covenantally defined way” (p. 165).
What Wellum means by “a covenantally defined way” is not clarified but, taking it together with the earlier statement, it looks like an explicit affirmation that, in order to be saved, one must know the particular revelation related to God’s most recent covenantal activity. This raises the necessary revelational bar very high, for it entails 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.
The accessibilist metanarrative
A few factors stand out to me as particularly important in the accessibilist metanarrative that differentiate it from the big picture of gospel exclusivism:
1. Our orienting starting point is the amazing graciousness of the sovereign God.
2. The purpose of God’s particular covenants is not the establishment of the boundaries within which God does his saving work. Rather, the covenant people are God’s specially designated instruments in God’s mission in the world.
3. Because God has not limited his saving work to the boundaries of the covenant people, he has not made essential for saving faith the knowledge of the latest divine self-revelation which he gave to parties to his covenant. The covenant context of salvation grounds hopefulness concerning the salvation of those who are ignorant of God’s latest covenantal revelation because covenant obligations and blessings are according to the covenantal administration under which one lives, by virtue of the revelation that God has made available to an individual.
4. Salvation comes, objectively and exclusively, through the Seed, the descendant of Eve who was to crush the serpent’s head, the descendant of Abraham through whom the nations were to be blessed.
In the body of the paper, I then walk through the various covenants, demonstrating God’s saving work outside of the covenant community and emphasizing the role of the covenant community as God’s missionary people, rather than as the boundaries of his salvation.
You are welcome to red the paper at your leisure and give me your input.