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4 General Revelation, Inclusivism, Pluralism, and Postmodernism Millard J. Erickson Central to the discussion of the validity and efficacy of world religions is the doctrine of general revelation. While Christian exclusivists insist that a proper relationship with God requires knowledge of him through his special revelatory work, inclusivists contend that the knowledge of God available to all persons makes such a relationship possible, even for those who have never heard the gospel explicitly. To pluralists, the term general revelation appears somewhat ethnocentric. They prefer the nomenclature of natural theology, holding that the adherents of all religions are related to the same God, although they construe him according to the understanding of him found in their own sacred writings. While the doctrine of general revelation has had a long and varied history, certain periods have proven to be epochal. In those times, because of particular issues impinging on the discussion, the topic has been explored in much greater detail and depth than at other times. One of these was in the time of Augustine, when the sacking of Rome brought forth charges that the adoption of Christianity had been responsible for such an adverse occurrence. To reply, Augustine found it necessary to appeal to evidence that would have been familiar to those who did not accept the authority of the Christian Scriptures. Then when Christianity found itself in contact with non-Christian religions, again some common arena of discussion was needed, so Thomas Aquinas developed his fourfold proof of the existence of God. In the sixteenth century, as the conflict between Rome and the Reformers was vigorous, the issue was the status of grace, so the exclusiveness of the church’s revelation was at stake. Then in the twentieth century, twice the church found itself endorsing what turned out to be evil. The first was during World War I, when some leading churchmen were among the ninety-three intellectuals who endorsed 91 the Kaiser’s war policy as a working of God.1 Then in the 1930s, the church proclaimed Adolf Hitler to be God’s good gift to the world. In each case, Karl Barth saw what he believed to be a mistake based on the blurring of the distinction between general revelation and special revelation or, more accurately, the confusion of thinking that there was some knowledge of God available apart from Jesus Christ. His criticism of these liberal conceptions spilled over into a dispute with his fellow neo-orthodox theologian, Emil Brunner, not only over the status of a general revelation, but also over the integrity of the image of God in humans, enabling them to discern the true God within nature, and even the issue of the ability to receive the special revelation without some divine particular enablement.2 All of these debates, however, took place within a context that assumed a certain objectivity to knowledge and its objects. Thus, a rational discussion and debate could be conducted over the extent of knowledge available through the natural world and the validity of various religions, based on this. Although such a conception of truth and knowledge is often depicted as restricted to the modern period and especially the Enlightenment, it was also shared by the era commonly referred to as premodernism. Postmodernism, however, casts the discussion in an entirely different light. While there are many varieties of postmodernism, for purposes of our discussion herein, we may think of postmodernism as a philosophy that affirms the following statements: 1. All human knowledge is conditioned, that is, affected by the historical and cultural situation in which it is found. There is therefore no purely objective knowledge. 2. There is no common human nature that can be assumed in all persons. This means that there is no common rationality among all persons, no laws of logic inherent in everyone. 3. There is no purely sterile standpoint from which truth can be known neutrally. 4. Reality is never known directly or in terms of uninterpreted facts. All knowledge is interpreted knowledge. 5. There is no metanarrative, no all-inclusive explanation of reality, valid for all persons. Attempts to construct such holoscopic theories either fail or become the means of suppressing contrary views, and thus of oppressing those who hold them. The thesis of this chapter is that the movement known as postmodernism, if accepted as true, has far-reaching effects on the doctrine of general revelation, especially as it bears on the question of the relationship of human beings to God. 92...


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