First published Feb 18, 2013. Revised Feb 2nd, 2022.
Don Richardson was a missionary to the Sawi, a cannibal tribal people from Western New Guinea in Indonesia. The book thesis is simple: God uses general revelation to draw people to special revelation, therefore redemption in Christ.
We usually understand “general revelation” as the creation and “special revelation” as the revealed Word: the Bible. The author goes further in the use of “general revelation.” He calls it the “Melchizedek factor.” Through their worldview, God gave hints to every people group pointing to Christ, just as Melchizedek had some knowledge of God and blessed Abram “by El Elyon” meaning God most high (Gen 14:18-20). Later on, Abraham reused “El Elyon” in Gen 14:22: “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High” (Lit. Yaweh El Elyon). Richardson calls this the “Abraham factor” which represents God’s special revelation.
Those hints are organized in three categories:
- The acknowledgement of a “vague God” or the concept of “sky-god”/”native monotheism”
- The expectation of a lost book as message from this vague God
- The practice of strange customs having some resemblance with customs or concepts from the Bible
The author goes around the world to find examples illustrating his thesis. For instance, Pachacuti, king of the Incas in the fifteenth century AD, organized religious reforms to stop worshipping the sun as god and to start worshiping the god Viracocha who has similarities with the God of the Bible. Another example is the Sawi people who had a “peace-child” custom. They would exchange a child as a symbol of peace between tribes. Don was able to share the Gospel by describing Jesus as the peace-child God gave to us for reconciliation and peace.
This topic may remind us of the danger of syncretism (mix between Christianity and other religions). Accepting this thesis may concern some of us. It may be viewed as a slippery slope leading to “Jesus is the best way to God, but not the only one.” However, the author makes it clear to the reader. He calls syncretism the danger of the “Sodom factor” based on Gen 14:21-24. Abram acknowledged Melchizedek but denied the king of Sodom. That king offered Abraham to keep the spoil of the battle but to give the king’s people back. Abraham ended rejecting to keep anything from the king of Sodom that they may not boast of making him rich. The idea is that there are aspects from “pagan” cultures we can accept but others that we must reject. I believe the intention was to encourage us to see God’s work in the hearts of all people and to hope for potential bridges to share the Gospel.
“God has indeed prepared the Gentile world to receive the gospel. Significant numbers of non-Christians, therefore, have proved themselves many times more willing to receive the gospel than we Christians historically have been to share it with them.” (p. 30)
Interestingly, Richardson wrote a chapter on how evolution in the religious domain led our modern society to believe the opposite of his thesis. Edward B. Tylor stated that polytheism evolved into monotheism. However, Richardson referred to the works of other scholars to invalidate Tyler’s hypothesis. Richardson’s argumentation is concise though sometimes light considering how dense this topic may be (ex: relation between Communism and religion), but in my opinion, arguing longer would be more distracting than useful.
Lastly, Don Richardson dedicates three chapters to the “Abraham factor.” His main goal is to show the centrality of the Abrahamic covenant. The people of God were called to bless all nations from the beginning. He browses the Bible to demonstrate how God had in mind every nation from Abraham to Jesus to the sending of the apostles in the book of Acts.
“We Christians have generally failed to appreciate the fact that Paul and the other apostles saw the Abrahamic Covenant as basic to everything Christ came to accomplish.” (p. 144)
Although I mostly agree with the author, he stretches some passage to show the relevance of his thesis, especially in Jesus’ words. For example, he uses Jesus’ words about Tyre, Sidon and Sodom that would have repented if they had the chance to see Jesus’ miracles (Lk 10:13) as God’s desire for the nations. It seems to me that Jesus was more rebuking the Jews’ unbelief rather than pointing out to the Gentile cities as needy (even if they were). This said, Richardson’s thesis was simple and his argumentation convincing. I myself find ways to connect Hmong stories with possible Bible stories. We called upon the “sky” in times of troubles. Could it be that God meant it to be a way to receive His redemption in Christ?
“The primary thesis that I advocate in the book is a simple one: God’s general revelation (see Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:19-21; 2:14-15) is not an effete, inconsequential, inert bystander watching from the sidelines as God accomplishes everything related to redemption via special revelation alone. Instead, cosmic general revelation and canonized special revelation turn out to be stunningly coordinated players serving on the same team. God, via general revelation, imprints human cultures in a variety of ways. Discerning the particular way God has already imprinted a given culture helps a missionary discover how to poignantly explain redemption to members of that culture.” (Author’s postscript)