Don Richardson’s Paradigm – God Embedded in the World”s Cultures
by Mike Oppenheimer
Let Us Reason Ministries
July 24, 2014
Is the ancient world filled with worship of the true god?
Did God plant the seeds of Himself in all the cultures for them to know Him? Is His knowledge found in culture after culture throughout the various tribes in Africa, Asia and China as Don Richardson claims?
When it comes to answering questions like these we must refer to the Bible and not the philosophies of men or the current anthropological opinion. The Bible is absolutely clear and consistent in its answer on this matter.
If you are squeamish to be challenged by the truth then stop reading, because what you are about to read is going to turn your worldview upside down (right-side up) if you accepted Don Richardson’s premise. I say this because of the importance to understand what the church has bought into. I”m for evangelism that concentrates on the person”s individual need for the Gospel, as the Bible teaches, but not starting with the ways of the culture that will modify the message or the God of the message.
The Human Relations Files keeps records on 20 different cultures. The Encyclopedia of World Cultureshas entries of over 1,500. We can assume there were fewer cultures 1,000 years ago and even less as we go further back in time.
Don Richardson is considered the father of cultural contextualization. Contextualization means one proclaims the gospel as the fulfillment of the beliefs held by a culture which he believes is found by how the apostles proclaimed Christ and that this gospel was the ultimate expression of what the philosophers sought on Mars Hill as Paul quoted their own poets ideas to them. The Bible teaches the Gospel is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and prophecy being fulfilled.
When contextualization adjusts the Gospel to accommodate an existing cultural system, it is then a re-contextualization; which is not a good thing.
Richardson re-contextualized religious myths to be like the Bible. He started a movement that is now going forward with his disciple Daniel Kikawa who is someone that we have found just makes things up, reinterpreting what a number of religions mean; removing the words from their actual context in both a culture”s traditions, and the Scripture. It makes me wonder how scholarly Richardson was in his research, since he is on his Kikawa”s advisory board.
I know that Richardson is well respected by missionaries and their organizations for his mission work and his story of the Peace Child. Certainly it is justified to give him credit when he and his wife Carol and their seven-month-old baby went to work among the Sawi tribe in Dutch New Guinea in 1962. Richardson stayed among the villagers to try and find a way for them to understand Jesus from the Bible, but cultural barriers made this impossible; that is, until a certain event brought clarity and he was able to relate Christ to the Sawi as a substitution.
Three tribal villages were constantly in battle. The Sawi people decided to make peace with their enemies. Ceremonies took place where Richardson saw young children being exchanged between opposing villages. One man in particular ran toward his enemy’s camp and literally gave his son to his hated foe. Observing this, Richardson wrote: “If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!” This event gave Richardson the idea of the analogy of God’s sacrifice of his own Son. He used this to explain to the Sawi and they began to understand the teaching of the incarnation of Christ in the Gospel. (see Ruth tuckers documentation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Richardson_%28missionary%29#cite_note-3)
His book “Eternity in Their Hearts” was his 1981 sequel to “Peace Child.” Richardson put together more than a dozen or so examples of missionary stories with him introducing to the church a new paradigm; that missionaries needed to see existing traditions and myths in native cultures as providential preparation for the gospel. But, his premise presented in Eternity in their Hearts is not credible or Biblical.
Recently I began to take a deeper look at what Richardson was claiming of God seeding the cultures of mankind with redemptive analogies from thousands of years ago. Richardson collected missionary stories, often from 100 years ago or more. Today there are those who have dug deeper into these culture”s histories. We will look at several as Richardson”s research brings up questions about his conclusions.
Richardson proposes that an ancient piecemeal knowledge of a monotheistic God existing was sufficient; that general revelation is sufficient to worship God. Many mission organizations embraced Richardson”s missiology in the mid 1980s.
” €¦Scripture after Scripture has testified down through the centuries that our God has not left Him ’, self without witness—even apart from the preaching of the gospel (see for example, Acts 14:16-17 and Romans 1:19-20 and 2:14-15). That witness—though different in kind and quality from the biblical witness—is still a witness to Him!” (p.51 Eternity in Their Hearts)
Let”s look at these scriptures that are the basis for their new paradigm to evangelize cultures.
First is the most used example: Rom.1: 20 -21 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Man”s observation of nature holds him accountable for knowing there is a God, nothing more. Rom.1:20has absolutely nothing to do with cultures in our modern day except as a warning. You can’t say they did know God in our modern time (since Christ) because the Bible says they did not. Paul said this 1950 years ago about those in his ancient past. How do we know this? By its context. Paul starts this off with Rom 1:18-19 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.”
When was this wrath revealed? In the flood. We know this by Biblical history. The same Paul who wrote Rom. 1 also wrote the nations (Gentiles) did not know God, so Richardson is reinterpreting what Paul meant.
Using Rom 1:20 shows us how he takes Scripture out of context because this is only the beginning of Paul”s thought. It is where he ends up that is his last word on the whole matter. Rom 1:21 They became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. v.22 they became fools, v.23 changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man– and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. v.24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, v.25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. v.26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. v. 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting? v. 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.”
They intentionally left God, so whatever is said previously is not applicable to who and what these cultures are today. Paul’s statement is not about after Christ but before, in the distant past, relating the punishment to those who do the same today.
Rom. 1 states “although they knew God”. Paul went on to say unequivocally that the Gentiles do not know God in several places. Not only is Richardson using an amateurish way to introduce a culture to Jesus, it is not being honest about what Paul wrote. This is why the Jews were perplexed at first that Gentiles could be saved. Few in history responded to the God of Israel.
Again, you can”t say they did know God in our modern time when Paul said they did not 1950 years ago about those in his ancient past. This is why they, the disciples, were commanded to go out and give the Gospel to those who were not Jews. They did not know God.
Psalm 147:19-20 “He declares His word to Jacob, his statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them.”
Acts 14:16: “who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways.”
1 John 3:1 “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it DID NOT KNOW HIM.” According to the Bible the world was divided into two people, Gentiles and Hebrews. God gave the Hebrews His ways, not the Gentiles. When the gospel came through the Jews to be offered to the gentiles by way of the new covenant they did not recognize God”s work because they did not know of God.
Eph.2:11-12: “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD IN THE WORLD.”
The Bible teaches before the Gospel one had to be joined with Israel to be in covenant with God (this will be thoroughly explained later).
Richardson”s arguments of cultures knowing God prior is inconsequential because Paul said over and over, and the other apostles also say, that the Gentiles (non-Jews) did not know God. Richardson says, “yes they did”. So the question comes down to who you are going to believe?
Don Richardson says, “Young men and women here (PRC) are learning that there are things in every culture that are not from the evil one, they”re from God, things that god has given people to serve as eye openers to help them understand their need of Jesus. And these things are like compasses, cultural compasses that point people to them.” (video: Principles of Redeeming Cultures schoo (PRC)l, University of the Nations, Kona Hawaii)
Isn”t this what the Gospel message was given for? Rom 10:14-15 “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!”
It is the gospel that is the eye opener. Probing into their cultures to find things of God is not the answer, because it”s not there.
2 Cor. 4:3-4 “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
One of the ways people are blinded is by their culture”s religion, spiritual beliefs. Richardson says “we discover that the same gospel also fulfills the redemptive components of a thousand other cultures as well! (p.60) How? When I Jn 5:19 states “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one.” Satan deceives the whole world (Rev. 12:9).
1 Cor. 1:21 “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom DID NOT KNOW GOD, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
This Scripture can be applied to nearly everything Richardson says because it is a definitive statement that summarizes the condition of the world challenging his theory. Richardson says “This kind of teaching has caused some Christians—including some mission aries—to be very defensive if not actually offensive toward non-Christian people. It has caused them to view Christian-like parallels in other cultures as barri ers to the gospel, rather than as thresholds with “welcome!” written across them!”
I agree that there are points of contention and points of agreement that can be used but we should not make the mistake of using these occasional similarities as bridges, saying their God (their own supreme god) is the Father who sent the Son.
Richardson”s method is to use their culture”s religious beliefs, which are not truth to bring them to Christ. Where in the Bible does it teach to look into what God gave in cultures? While there can be points made to show what is the truth about God and their condition, it cannot be the focus nor a starting point because God did not form these cultures nor put things in them €¦ man did. The cultures were in darkness, even those who lived among the Hebrews. Isa. 9:1-2 ” €¦in Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”
Richardson tries to legitimize these cultures as having some lost knowledge simply on the basis of them calling a god a “Supreme God” (which was a sky God). Pointing out the various cultures included a “supreme God” or a “sky God,” who transcended a pantheon of gods. We are told by Richardson/Kikawathat the ancient natives believed in the spirits, along with other gods. This “creator god” lived in the sky as His primary residence but was also present everywhere, invisible to human eyes.
Richardson writes: And what does “sky-god” say at such times? Does he rant and rave jealously against the God of Christianity as an encroaching foreign deity? Does he urge his followers to fanatical rejection of the intruder’s gospel? Far from it! In hundreds of instances attested to by literally millions of folk religionists worldwide, the Sky-God does exactly what El Elyon did through Melchizedek. He cheerfully acknowledges the approaching messengers of Yahweh as His messengers! He takes pains to make it very clear that He Himself is none other than the very God those particular foreigners proclaim! (p.50)
So is the sky God of all these religions (hundreds of them) the God of Israel? What packaged nonsense and people actually believe this! This is one of the most absurd assumptions I have ever heard and should be rejected because of what the Bible says. This reveals Richardson”s theology is unbiblical and is a dangerous precedent (I will explain in detail later on why this idea is not possible).
Richardson interprets this silence of their god as approval (pragmatism). How does anyone believe this? This non-reaction is not approval but proof of non existence according to the true God (here is a list of some of these sky gods). This is outrageous that the churches actually embrace this false philosophy.
Is not the gospel the power of God and all other gods are powerless before it? There are places where people resisted and other people came to Christ (such as Mars Hill).
He goes on to say “One, gains an unmistakable impression that the Sky- God wanted to communicate with people of various folk religions all the time, but for His own mysterious reasons maintained a policy of restraint until the arrival of Yahweh’s testimony! This is surely a powerful exta-biblical evidence for the authenticity of the Bible as revelation from the one true and universal God! (p.51)
Evidence, where? He gives stories that are passed on, not by what is written, but what is told to missionaries in the past.
He further states “If you belong to a tradition which has been teaching Christians for centuries that the rest of the world sits in total darkness and knows zilch about God, it becomes a little embarrassing to have to say, “We have been wrong. In actual fact, more than 90 percent of this world’s folk religions acknowledge at least the existence of God. Some even anticipate His redeeming concern for mankind.”
The world does not sit in darkness? John 1:5 “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” John 3:20 “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light , because their deeds were evil.”
90% is a majority, not half. Think about what he is saying. Acknowledging God’s existence makes you no longer an atheist, but Richardson seems to equate this with far more. God who? Without revelation from the Holy Spirit no one can know God. Since the Gospel came nearly 2,000 years ago the only way to know the Father and worship is through the Son; “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).
Are we so impressed that he may have dug up buried religious treasure? That”s fool”s gold. The people were not truly monotheistic in their practice. Nearly all pagan cultures had supreme gods, among their other gods. Are we going to legitimize them all according to his worldview? Even Egypt had a supreme gods but Moses did not say their god was his God. In fact he wrote ALL the gods of the nations are not the same. It”s not whether they believe in one god but whether he actually is the true eternal God. As we will see this is not so.
People”s superficial view of Israel in history allowed this to becpme an accepted theory, not unlike Darwin’s theory of evolution to those who do not believe Genesis. The spiritually mature can see right through this scheme to legitimize pagan cultures by a point of similarity, telling them their god is the Father who sent the Son.
Richardson subtitled the first printing of his book in 1981 “The Untold Story of Christianity among Folk Religions of Ancient People.” Obviously someone saw something wrong with the title of Christianity in the folk religions! So it was changed in 1984 to “Startling Evidence of Belief in the One True God in Hundreds of Cultures Throughout the World,” making it more generic. Many hundreds of cultures, as the subtitle claimed, were not in his book, they were easily countable examples whose stories were stretched to prove his point (and we will look at several of them later). How can he say this? It”s guess work based on a flawed view of these cultures once having “God”. Richardson”s clich © of evidence of believing in the one true “God” (like Israel) is a statement of unbiblical proportions, going directly against the Bible, and the whole counsel of the written Word.
Don Richardson says: “They began discovering what thousands of exploring Christian missionaries had already discovered – that about 90% of the world’s folk religions are permeated with monotheistic presuppositions.”
That is an immensely large claim that cannot be proven, especially according to the Bible (especially by the one scripture they use “ad nauseam,” Rom.1:20). This would be like finding someone who believes in freedom without living it and then equating them with believing in and practicing the US Constitution. Having a monotheistic belief among the other beliefs does not mean it is accurate or true. But when you lower the bar, and have the view that general revelation is sufficient, it is enough.
Richardson suggests we follow Paul’s example and proclaim the Father of Jesus as the “unknown God.” He gives further examples with Skrefsrud proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Son of Thakur Jiu and others.“Then Paul voiced a pronouncement that had waited six centuries for utterance: Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to pro claim to you” (Acts 17:22-23). “Was the God whom Paul proclaimed really a foreign god as the philosophers surmised? Not at all! By Paul’s reasoning, Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian God, was anticipated by Epimenides’ altar. He was therefore a God who had already intervened in the history of Athens. Surely He had a right to have His name proclaimed there! But did Paul really understand the historical back ground of that altar and the concept of an unknown god? There is evidence that he did!” (p.22-23 Eternity in their Hearts)
Indeed he did, but not in the way Richardson thinks. Richardson implies this altar made to “God” was acceptable, that the Greeks knew God six centuries prior. First of all theos is not a name, but a title. All the statues of gods were theos of one kind or another, and Epimenides anticipated nothing. Paul did not assign a name to this unknown God. He did not call him Yahweh, lest he endorse the altar to Him.
From this reference quote of Epimenides’ poetry Richardson makes a leap to Paul leaving “Titus to strengthen churches on the island of Crete, Paul later wrote instructions to guide Titus in his dealings with Cretans: “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13).
The words Paul quoted are from a poem ascribed to Epimenides (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micro paedia, 15th ed., vol. 3, p. 924). Notice also that Paul called Epimenides “a prophet”. The Greek word ispropheetees, the same word Paul commonly used for both Old and New Testament prophets. Surely Paul would not have honored Epimenides with the title of prophet apart from knowledge of Epimenides’ character and deeds! (ibid.) Richardson actually thinks Paul is saying Epimenides is a prophet, likened to Israel’s prophets. In actuality Paul called this philosopher their OWN prophet, not God”s. Paul used a hyperbole which leaves one considering the quote, because one of their own made this statement. So if Cretans are always liars, this being quoted from a Cretian, means he is included. Paul”s purpose is to make Titus aware of the people he is working among as he appoints elders.
Let”s pause and see who this so called “prophet” Epimenides actually is. In his poem Minos addresses Zeus (Minos is the son of Zeus who was the leader of the Greek pantheon of gods): “They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one – The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idel bellies! But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, For in thee we live and move and have our being.”
Zeus is the holy and high one? Now we have the context and understand it”s not always what someone says but what they do not say that matters. Paul was refuting them using their own poet”s words to introduce the Greeks to the true God, Jesus Christ, who actually died and resurrected.
(Note: Richardson includes this point of the poem, saying this was a personal name for the almighty p.49-50, but goes on to say it is one of three variants of the original Deos. “Greek theologians, tinkering through centuries with the Almighty’s personal name Zeus, gradually introduced meanings that were inconsistent with the original concept. They decided, for example, to make Zeus the offspring of two other beings—Kronus and Rhea)” That far different from what we find in Greek mythology.
Other quotes of Epimenides:
Epimenides” version of Typho: Typho entered the palace while Zeus was asleep; and Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt.
Plutarch: Epimenides refuted the story that eagles or swans setting out from the ends of the earth met in the middle at Delphi, the so-called Omphalos: There was no Omphalos, either in the centre of the earth or of the sea. If any there be, it is visible to the gods, not visible to mortals.”
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1418a; Epimenides gave his oracles not about the future, but on things in the past which were obscure.
It is said Epimenides fell into a deep sleep in the Dictaean cave near Gnossus where he lived, from which he awoke fifty-seven years after with the gift of prophecy (Diogenes La «rtius I, 109-15).
This is why Paul says he is their prophet.
Epimenides was also honored as a god. A second century Greek historian noted a story aboutEpimenides’ death, that Epimenides had tattoos on his skin. Tattooing was reserved for slaves, others believe Epimenides belonged to a shamanic religion from Central Asia, associated with shamanic initiation.
Now we understand why Richardson said the Judeo-Christian God was anticipated by Epimenides’ altar. Richardson insinuates this Greek “prophet” is in the category of the Hebrew prophets. So many people have used Richardson’s points not knowing that Paul was using it against the philosophers on Mars hill. Did anyone in the Bible use this method Richardson promotes in his book? No, not even Paul on Mars Hill. Paul did not say the philosophers had a book they lost, or they had knowledge of this God, or that he was NOT foreign to them. Paul agreed with many other statement by himself and other apostles that they did not know Him; they did not know a thing about God. Clearly what Richardson is saying on this is not the same thing Paul is saying.
All the Gods of the nations are idols according to God. We see this in illustration when we come to Mars Hill in Acts 17:16. From the time of Babel men changed the God of creation for worship of the created things in nature and of their own hands. There is nowhere in the Paul’s discourse on Mars Hill where Paul implies that Gentiles knew God. He did not begin with what they knew but what they did not know. Richardson says: “Was the God whom Paul proclaimed really a foreign god as the philosophers surmised? Not at all!”
Acts 17:18-19 Epicurean and Stoic philosophers said “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.”
Men do not naturally call on or seek God, nor know Him. You cannot have a relationship with God based on general revelation. The Greeks had sought many gods and did not find God, nor were they interested in finding Him once Paul told them about Him.
Paul is not turning them back to one of their gods they knew? Neither did he appeal to their own culture as God-given? Paul is NOT saying that God was presently working in their culture from the beginning. He proclaimed a God they did not know – a foreign god. Paul referred to Scripture in his sermon and he also used their own poets words against them. It was not a compliment but a challenge that was offensive. Then he used Bible based teachings to explain to those who knew nothing about the true God. His was a Biblically based message.
Paul made it clear that God is unknown, not because He has not revealed Himself to man, but because men have refused His existence as Rom.1 states. Paul sums it up by stating in Acts 17:31: “because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Notice their reaction in the next verse (v.32), “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” They were offended.
There is no example in the Bible of what Richardson or his disciple Kikawa are doing. Paul is pointing to a God they did NOT know, and he filled in the details. God gave Israel the way to approach him — God says throughout this period the Gentiles do not know him and so did the evangelist Paul who spoke to them on Mars Hill.
But Richardson is making a correlation in Acts 17 of their poet as a prophet in Titus; Why? To have one consider the next points of discovery in his book, that hundreds of cultures knew the God. But he is wrong.
Then we have Acts 14:16-17 to settle. “who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. “Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”
The witness is not a specific revelation of God but, when read in context, the witness is giving the world their basic needs, not that God was involved in any culture”s development or ways. In this verse it is dealing with their basic need of rain to have an abundance of food.
This is not a point in favor of what Richardson is trying to present, and he neglected the first part that states “all nations to walk in their own ways.” It tells us God left them alone, to their own ways.
Now that we see how these Scriptures are taken out of their context the true biblical view should be apparent. We are left to choose between a view like shifting sand, a worldly view, a humanistic cultural view €¦ or a biblical view.
Richardson used a selective way to pull Scriptures out of context to validate his view and the church accepted it and it changed its view on how to do missions. Many missions and organizations have stopped using the Bible to present truth and instead made culture their priority. Richardson”s methodology was accompanied by his new theology and was quickly accepted, embraced by larger mission organizations because they were having difficulty making inroads to these people groups. As this spread, it made Richardson one of the more sought-after speakers on cultural mission work.
Should we accept this theological breakthrough he proposed, that God was already present in hundreds of cultures (90% of folk religions) making them gospel ready? IS THIS TRUE? No it is not. The Bible says the Gentiles “did not know God”.
Are you disturbed yet? We are just beginning.
For further reading:
Part 3 The Melchizedek priest King factor– Are there other Melchizedeks?
Part.4 A lost book? All the tribes that once had a book of God
Part 6 The Santal- Thakur Jiu