Inclusivism (4): The Example of Cornelius

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Up until now, my posts on inclusivism have been aimed at establishing a principle that lies behind inclusivist theology, and countering an argument for exclusivism. Now we come to a positive argument for inclusivism. Any theology of the unevangelized must deal with the example of Cornelius. This example is especially important, because of what Peter says he has learned when he meets with Cornelius:

Acts 10:34-35
“Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”

What is implicit in Peter’s words is a recognition of Cornelius as a paradigmn case. Whatever is true about those outside of the Church, and specifically the unevangelized, is embodied by the example of Cornelius. If Cornelius was saved only when he was a Christian, then we are to understand Peter’s words as implying that God accepts those who fear God and work righteousness in their act of becoming Christians via evangelization. If, on the other hand, Cornelius was saved prior to evangelization, then we are to understand Peter’s words as implying that God accepts those who fear God and work righteousness prior to their actually becoming Christians. Clearly this is an important issue.

I will argue that Cornelius was saved prior to evangelization. This argument borrows heavily from John Sanders’ “No Other Name”. Here are the relevant verses:

Acts 10:1-2
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God…

Hebrews 11:6
But without faith it is impossible to please God: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

Ephesians 2:8
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God…

From these passages it can be argued:

1. If exclusivism is true, then one must intellectually assent to the propositions that constitute the Gospel in order to be saved.
2. Cornelius was a God-fearer. (“one that feared God”)
3. God-fearers are not Christians, but converts to Judaism from Gentile ethnic origins.
4. Those who are not Christians do not assent to the propositions that constitute the Gospel.
5. Cornelius pleased God prior to becoming a Christian. (“thine prayers and thine offerings have gone up as a memorial before God”)
6. If one lacks faith, one cannot please God. (“without faith it is impossible to please God”)
7. Therefore those who please God have faith.
8. Therefore Cornelius had faith prior to becoming a Christian.
9. Those who have faith are being saved. (“For by grace are ye saved through faith”)
10. Therefore Cornelius was being saved prior to becoming a Christian.

Therefore exclusivism is false.

I will now consider two possible responses to this argument, and attempt to show that they do not succeed.

I. Cornelius was not saved before Peter came.

The typical response to the inclusivist argument is that Cornelius was not saved until Peter arrived. This is based off of Acts 11:14-3 (“Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.”). The objection is thus a denial of premise 8. In one sense the inclusivist can agree that Cornelius was not saved until Peter came. He did not have the fullness of salvation that comes through the Messiah. But in another sense, it seems Peter was saved beforehand; otherwise, it is hard to explain how he could please God and hence apparently have faith. As Sanders points out in No Other Name (p.66), the meaning of “salvation” is not very tight and restricted in Acts: it can refer to physical healing (14:9), making whole (4:9), deliverance from a storm (27:20), and a proper relationship with God (15:1) in addition to meaning eternal life through Jesus Christ. Arguing from this verse that Cornelius would have gone to hell if he had died before Peter came assumes a view of salvation as a one-time, singular event; and it ignores the data about Cornelius being devout and apparently having faith.

II. Cornelius was saved before Peter came, but that is because he was a Christian.

This response attacks premise 3., that God-fearers are not Christians. The implication is that the example would not support inclusivism because Cornelius would be a Christian, and hence evangelized, before Peter came. Though I have only heard this suggested by one person, and have never heard a scholar support this view, it does offer some arguments that are worth looking at.

Argument (A) There was no clear cut Jew/Christian distinction during the time of Acts; hence there’s no reason to think that being a God-fearer did not imply being a Christian.

Argument (B) Cornelius seems to have heard of Jesus before Peter shows up–

10:36-37
The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (he is Lord of all:) That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached;

Therefore it seems that he could have been a Christian before Peter showed up.

Here are possible inclusivist replies:

(A) A close analysis of the words used to describe Cornelius seems necessary to see whether this suggestion undercuts the case for inclusivism from the language of “God-fearer”. The words “eulabes” and “eusebēs” denote “devout man”. “Eulabes” is used of Christians in Acts 8:2, of Jews and proselytes in Acts 2:3, and of Jews in Luke 2:25. “Eusebēs” is used of Cornelius in Acts 10:2, of Cornelius’ soldier in Acts 10:7, and of the Christian Ananias in Acts 22:12. Throughout the book of Acts, the Christians are generally called “the disciples of the Lord”. It would be a radical departure from the content of the rest of the book to introduce Cornelius, a Christian, as a “God-fearer”. The phrase for “God fearer” is “phobeo theos”. It comes up in Acts 13:16, 13:26, and in these examples clearly indicates a non-Christian non-Hebrew who has converted to Judaism. It is unprecedented as indicating a Christian.

The problem that comes up is this: If “eusebēs” is used of Cornelius and his servant, and the only other place it is used is to signify a Christian, then it seems that “eusebēs” could signify that Cornelius is a Christian. But if “phobeo theos” is only used of non-Christians, and it is used of Cornelius, then it seems like it could signify that Cornelius is not a Christian. Admittedly, this leaves an ambiguity about Cornelius, so it does not seem that the specific words predicated of him (“God-fearer” seems to imply no, “devout” seems to imply yes) can decide whether or not he was a Christian. Admittedly it is peculiar that he is never referred to as a believer or a disciple; but the proponent of the “Cornelius Christian” theory can counter by suggesting that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence with respect to his being a disciple. Overall, there is no overriding argument here that Cornelius was a Christian, but the argument that he wasn’t a Christion based on the label “God-fearer” seems to be nullified. If there is an adequate reason to think that Cornelius was a non-Christian, it will have to be located elsewhere.

(B) It is true that Cornelius seems to have been aware of the existence and reputation of Jesus before Peter came to him. But to say that he was already Christian makes the narrative very awkward.

If Cornelius was already a Christian, what is the purpose of Peter’s apparent proclamation of the Gospel? Peter’s preaching takes the same form as other evangelistic presentations: [1] opening that connects with audience (v34-5), [2] Christological kerygma (v36-41), [3] Scriptural proofs (v43), and [4] summons to repent (v43). It seems, for all intents and purposes, to be a presentation of Christianity for the hearers, and an offer to exercise faith in Christ.

If Cornelius was already a Christian, why does he seem to be so confused about, for instance, the fact that Peter cannot directly serve as broker of God’s patronage (25-6)? This seems like a huge problem if he really was already a Christian. When this is coupled with the lack of mention of Cornelius’ connection with any kind of Church, and the absence of any reference to him as a disciple or believer, the fact that “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” doesn’t seem to be a strong enough response to withstand the inclusivist’s suspicions. Much of the data that we would expect to see if Cornelius was a Christian is lacking.

Finally, how can we make sense of the fact that Peter’s explanation of the angel’s message to Cornelius says “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved”? (11:13-4) The way Peter states this implies a lack of awareness of the content of the message. Whatever may be true about Cornelius knowing something of Jesus before Peter arrives, Peter’s message apparently imparted a new familiarity with Jesus that can be called “salvation”. This, above other considerations, makes it highly implausible that Cornelius was a Christian before Peter came. So instead of premises 2-3, we can insert the following:

2. It is unlikely that Peter would preach the Gospel to Cornelius; that Cornelius would bow to him the way he does; that he would not be identified with membership in the Church; that he would not be identified as a believer/disciple; and that Peter would repeat the angel’s message to Cornelius as saying that he needs to get Peter to save him if Cornelius were already a Christian.
3. Therefore Cornelius was probably not a Christian when Peter came.

Conclusion:

Because it is most plausible that Cornelius was both saved (in a very real, yet incomplete sense–he would have had eternal life if he died) and not a Christian (didn’t believe the Gospel) prior to Peter’s presentation of Christianity, it seems that he supports the inclusivist view of salvation.

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12 Responses to “Inclusivism (4): The Example of Cornelius”

  1. David Says:

    You say that Cornelius was “being saved” before he heard the Gospel. What do you mean by that? Do you mean something different than simply “he was saved”? It seems that you need to prove that he was already saved prior to Peter’s coming, so I will just assume that is what you meant.My first question would simply be, why was Peter needed to come and preach the message to Cornelius at all if he was already saved? Second, you mentioned that “salvation” can take on different meanings in Acts. Assuming that’s true, you would still need to show that the sense of “salvation” in this passage is referring to something other than the eternity-in-heaven variety. It seems perfectly warranted to begin with a presumption in favor of this kind of salvation, since the other kinds in the passages you mentioned give clear indication that they are referring to something different. I don’t see such a clear indication here.Thirdly, you seem to be making a jump when you assume that God is pleased with Cornelius’s prayers, because the text doesn’t explicitly state that. The most you can get from the text is that God has heard Cornelius’s prayers and is sending Peter to give him the gospel (which, as I mentioned already, would seem to indicate that Cornelius, despite his devoutness, still lacked what he needed for salvation). Moreover, this is simply an odd case, because this is going on in a transitional period between, so to speak, one true religion and the next true religion. This would also get us into questions about the extent to which Jews worship the true God, and a number of other issues that, it seems to me, need attending to before an argument for inclusivism could go through.

  2. MG Says:

    David–You wrote:”You say that Cornelius was “being saved” before he heard the Gospel. What do you mean by that? Do you mean something different than simply “he was saved”? It seems that you need to prove that he was already saved prior to Peter’s coming, so I will just assume that is what you meant.”Yes, to translate into Protestant terminology, Cornelius was saved. He would have, on my understanding, gone to heaven had he died.You wrote:”My first question would simply be, why was Peter needed to come and preach the message to Cornelius at all if he was already saved?”I understand salvation to be a degreed notion. You can be more or less saved. Hence salvation can be nearer to us now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11, as well as numerous other passages). Because of this, I think it is acceptable to speak of Peter saving Cornelius *more*.We evangelize because God commands us to, not because we can exhaustively discern his reasons for sending us or the effects our actions will have. God can want us to evangelize for all kinds of reasons. And our evangelism can have all kinds of effects. (This makes me think back to the ‘ole four spiritual laws booklet thingy. On the flip side of the tract, they had another tract for people who wanted to rededicate their lives to Christ. In obeying God’s command to evangelize, Campus Crusade people often encounter people who they already consider Christians, but need some help. They wouldn’t have called it this, but those CCC people could have articulated what they were doing in terms of helping people on the street to be “more saved”)It is impious to say “oh if Cornelius would have gone to heaven if he died then Peter shouldn’t have bothered”. Cornelius needed help, he needed his salvation to be completed–he needed Christ. God sent Peter to give him the fulllness of salvation, though there was nothing inherently wrong with his faithfulness per se. This is, at least, my explanation for why God used Peter this way; I don’t see anything wrong with it as of right now.You wrote:”Second, you mentioned that “salvation” can take on different meanings in Acts. Assuming that’s true, you would still need to show that the sense of “salvation” in this passage is referring to something other than the eternity-in-heaven variety. It seems perfectly warranted to begin with a presumption in favor of this kind of salvation, since the other kinds in the passages you mentioned give clear indication that they are referring to something different. I don’t see such a clear indication here.”I think that my argument about God being pleased with Cornelius’ offerings is adequate to show that in some sense, Cornelius was saved. Hence, we have more reason to think that salvation is being used in the sense of “completing, perfecting, Christianizing one who believes in God and would go to heaven if he died” than in the sense of “turning a hellbound person into a heavenbound person”. This relocates the issue to your objections below about whether or not we have the evidence I am claiming…You wrote:”Thirdly, you seem to be making a jump when you assume that God is pleased with Cornelius’s prayers, because the text doesn’t explicitly state that. The most you can get from the text is that God has heard Cornelius’s prayers and is sending Peter to give him the gospel (which, as I mentioned already, would seem to indicate that Cornelius, despite his devoutness, still lacked what he needed for salvation).”I find it very implausible that God heard Cornelius prayers, acknowledged his offerings, but did so in a morally neutral way. Did God really hear his prayers and yet not consider him to be a believer or approve of him? A man illumined by God is recorded to have said “Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth.” (John 9:31) Now obviously God “hears” everyone in the sense of knows what they are saying when they speak. The hearing being talked about here is one of “acknowledges by responding to requests”; and this isn’t done with respect to “sinners”.The acknowledgement that is present in the case of Cornelius is not the generic awareness that we are talking about with respect to the whole world. This is trivial, and probably isn’t worth mention. It seems rather to be awareness that Cornelius is doing something good and right, and that God approves, and that God will therefore respond. God “hears” him in the sense of John 9:31. If there is a third kind of category of “hearing” or “acknowledging” that isn’t “generic awareness” or “responding to the requests of a believer” then I’d like to know what it is. Were you thinking of something I’m not aware of?You wrote:”Moreover, this is simply an odd case, because this is going on in a transitional period between, so to speak, one true religion and the next true religion. This would also get us into questions about the extent to which Jews worship the true God, and a number of other issues that, it seems to me, need attending to before an argument for inclusivism could go through.”While it is true that this is a transitional case, I think that Peter’s statement in verses 34-5 shows that it has a potentially wider range of applicability. Also, if we are so quick to write this off as a transitional case, we could easily write off any argument from the book of Acts about ecclesiology, salvation, what have you. The entire period of Acts is a transitional period, so things will work a little differently, but look very similar overall to what will happen afterwards; we probably need more than just the fact of transitionality to show that this verse can’t have the implications I’m suggesting.Finally, to press the point, wouldn’t you say that Christianity was *the* true religion at the time Cornelius was saved? Its not like non-Christian Judaism was the true religion at that time. You might have a more extensive argument here for why the transitionality matters to my application of the verse, but I would like to see it fleshed out more.

  3. David Says:

    The point about Campus Crusade and renewing or rededicating one’s faith is actually an interesting point in light of what I said about this being a transitional period. But before I attempt to flesh that out further, let me ask a preliminary question. What do you think happened to Jews (regarding their relation to salvation) immediately following the death and resurrection of Christ, specifically Jews who had no knowledge of Christ? Were those Jews still saved in precisely the same way as Jews prior to the incarnation? (I don’t think that the answer to this question relies on whether or not you accept inclusivism).

  4. MG Says:

    David–You wrote:”What do you think happened to Jews (regarding their relation to salvation) immediately following the death and resurrection of Christ, specifically Jews who had no knowledge of Christ? Were those Jews still saved in precisely the same way as Jews prior to the incarnation? (I don’t think that the answer to this question relies on whether or not you accept inclusivism).”My initial answer is this: the same difference between the rest of humanity pre-Christ, and the rest of humanity post-Christ. Their souls are immortal, they now die because of Christ and not Adam (and in doing so they recapitulate Christ’s death) and they are predestined to resurrection.

  5. Catz206 Says:

    ah i c. when I have time, I would like to discuss1.) The genre, unique time, and purpose of Acts.2.) What makes something normative 3.) What Paul’s thinks of those who do not put their faith in Jesus Christ.4.) How those in the Old Cov put their faith in God.5.) Jew/Gentile dynamic6.) Jesus’ statements about the coming new cov7.)Why one can affirm 10. and not be inclusivist. When I have a chance to chat, I will try and not stack a bunch of points on you.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    This is Aaron.The previous post included this list of discussion topics:1.) The genre, unique time, and purpose of Acts.2.) What makes something normative 3.) What Paul’s thinks of those who do not put their faith in Jesus Christ.4.) How those in the Old Cov put their faith in God.5.) Jew/Gentile dynamic6.) Jesus’ statements about the coming new cov7.)Why one can affirm 10. and not be inclusivist. This is essentially what I was going to bring up with you Michael. I don’t know how the previous poster was going to answer all of these issues but I can attempt to answer most of them in the next couple weeks. Or you could answer these issues and I could reply?

  7. bríde Says:

    It’s kind of lame of you guys to post a list of things to talk about without any elaboration.If you don’t have time to discuss it here, why bother posting?

  8. MG Says:

    Zach–Well, I think they’re just mentioning some of the things that they plan on discussing later, giving a preview of the issues that they think should qualify our reading of Acts 10.That being said, I don’t see how even with elaboration, any of the 7 points would overturn my proposed exegesis. I am interested in hearing the arguments against this interpretation.

  9. bríde Says:

    Michael -Really, it doesn’t make any sense to post anything if you aren’t going to elaborate.I might as well go over to Dr. Pruss’s blog and say, “You’re wrong. Orthodoxy is true.” That wouldn’t impress him, nor would it get us anywhere. In fact, it would be disrespectful.It seems lame to show up on a post that – along with the ensuing conversation – had some time and thought put into it and simply say, “Here’s some stuff that proves you wrong, but I’m not going to discuss it right now.”

  10. Catz206 Says:

    Michael, would u prefer to discuss the areas I listed in person? That must be easier for me. Otherwise, there would be a lot of typing involved. The seven things listed (though I am sure u know this already)are categories which I would like to discuss (make sure we have a base) before showing how your interpretation may not adequately consider or line up with them. So… 1.) The genre, unique time, and purpose of Acts.We would discuss this, establish a common understanding and then I might say something like: Your interpretation of Acts is problematic because Acts is a narrative and narratives are interpreted by________________. Maybe since there are too many things to cover, you might take what you deem important and make a separate post. Just a suggestion.Bride, my post was not offered as an argument. I was merely offering a “heads up” for categories that will be discussed. These are known hermeneutical considerations that are needed for interpretation.Since I doubt this post is going to disappear anytime soon, I do not think a time delay is problematic. Still, I am sorry for any confusion.

  11. Catz206 Says:

    Actually, would you consider explaining your interpretation in light of the genre and tell us why this situation with Cornelius is to be considered Normative? …maybe in another post? Then we can cut to the chase and argue over interpretation.

  12. MG Says:

    Catz–I will post about genre in my use of Acts sometime hopefully within the next week.

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