By Dr. John Hurtgen, dean, School of Theology, Campbellsville University
CAMPBELLSVILE, Ky. – “Can a person be saved through Christ by responding to general revelation only?”
Dr. Adam Harwood, McFarland Professor of Theology and director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, raised this question at Campbellsville University’s annual Baptist Heritage Lecture Series in March.
His audience needed help first to understand the question.
In a seminar room full of students, faculty, and community members, Harwood gave a brief theology lesson about “general” and “special” revelation.
He said a core Christian belief is that people can know about God as creator and judge through creation and conscience, without ever opening a Bible. He said, “An intuition has been shared by the majority of Christian thinkers that God has revealed general truths about himself to all people in every time and place.
“‘Special revelation’ is also a core Christian belief that points to ‘God’s revelation of special truths about himself to particular people at definite times and places, by various means but primarily through Scripture, culminating in the witness of Jesus as God’s Son.’”
Harwood said Christians have long taught that while all people can know about God through general revelation, people can only know God in a saving relationship only through the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Harwood’s question, “Can a person be saved through Christ by responding to general revelation only?” was not meant to challenge this understanding. Rather, he wanted his audience to consider something additional, even dynamic, about the way God reveals himself.
He spoke of what he called the “further revelation view.”
He said, “God sometimes provides further revelation to those who respond positively to previous revelation.”
Harwood used the example of a “devout and God-fearing” pagan, by the name of Cornelius in the New Testament (Acts 10), of this “further revelation view.”
Cornelius, not yet a follower of Jesus, obviously had learned about the one true God from general revelation but had not yet received God’s special revelation about Jesus Christ. Before that happened, Harwood said, God first gave Cornelius “further revelation,” by means of a vision about a man (the Apostle Peter) who would come to his house with a special message.
Cornelius, acting on that vision, receives Peter into his house and hears the good news about what God has done in Christ. He and his household then believed in the gospel message and were saved.
What the Cornelius story reveals, according to Harwood, is that “a response of humility and repentance only toward the Creator and Judge is not adequate for salvation.”
Yet, he added, “Further revelation functions in a preparatory role for the gospel and is consistent with—not in contradiction to—evangelism and missions,” which are fundamentally the tools of special revelation.
Harwood referred to anecdotal examples of an Iranian and an Indian, who separately — much like Cornelius — had visions that led them to people who explained the good news about Jesus.
In the end, Harwood said, “God reveals himself to those who respond positively to general revelation by providing further revelation (by special revelation) and guides them to believers who will declare the message of the gospel (as he guided Cornelius to Peter).”
Harwood said God desires to reveal himself to people by means of general and further revelation and that it is a Christian’s responsibility to declare God’s special revelation of his Son to others.
Dr. Joe Early Jr., director of the Baptist Heritage Lecture series, invited Harwood to speak at this year’s event and introduced him. Early said he was pleased not only with the full audience but with the questions that many asked of Harwood at the end of his lecture.
Campbellsville University is a widely acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university with more than 11,900 students offering over 100 programs of study including Ph.D., master, baccalaureate, associate, pre-professional and certification programs. The university has Kentucky based off-campus centers in Louisville, Harrodsburg, Somerset, Hodgenville and Liberty with instructional sites in Elizabethtown, Owensboro and Summersville. Out-of-state centers include two in California at Los Angeles and Lathrop, located in the San Francisco Bay region. The website for complete information is www.campbellsville.edu.
Campbellsville University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award certificates, associate, baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097 or call 404-679-4500 for questions about the status of Campbellsville University.