Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
Author and missionary to Indonesia (then, Irian Jaya) has passed away this Dec. 23.
Richardson received his education from the Prairie Bible Institute and the Summer Institute of Linguistics. He never taught full time at a university, and his publications would be considered popular rather than academic. Yet his theories of redemptive analogies, the Melchizedek factor, and original monotheism captured the imagination of missionaries and mobilizers of missionaries. He also had a tremendous impact on my own life: I was planning on being a pastor in the USA until a friend at church gave me a copy of Richardson's Peace Child. After I read it, I knew I was called to Bible translation.
Richardson provided data from around the world that suggested that God has planted the notion of a Supreme Being deep within the human psyche (Richardson, 1981). This is a simplified version of Wilhelm Schmidt’s (1931) massive “culture-history.” Like other “diffusionary anthropologists,” Schmidt believed that cultural elements (bows and arrows, ideas about exogamy or endogamy, religion, etc.) must have been diffused from a proto-civilization. For Schmidt and Richardson, this uber civilization was directly inherited from Noah’s descendants, so it must have had a vestige of belief in one high God. The original culture, then, was monotheistic, but subsequent diffusion and cultural innovations led to increased interest in ritual and “middle level” religious activity, to the near extinction of belief in the high God. Yet spanning from the Karen of Burma to the ancient Incas, to Sub Saharan African religions, tribal peoples seem to have a name for the High God who seems to have forgotten them. Perhaps if missionaries would just re-introduce these peoples to their long lost belief in God, they would experience a collective conversion. Richardson’s stories of mass
conversions in these tribes caught the imaginations of missionaries and churches, especially through his involvement in the US Center for World Mission’s missionary course called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.
It is worth pointing out that Scripture does not attest to original monotheism; in fact, it often emphasizes the lostness of other religions. Further, the overwhelming data from around the world do not support Richardson’s claim to a near universal knowledge of a high God. Nor is this actually a problem for missions, for, as Adeney (1982)suggested, people do not need to find coherence with their own religious background to convert. They may come to Christ as they recognize their sinfulness, felt needs, dissatisfaction with their religion.
Aside from the critiques of his Melchizedek factor and model of redemptive analogies, Richardson shaped mission mobilization by championing the cause of frontier missions, Bible translation, as well as the importance of learning local cultures.
Richardson’s (1975) model of “redemptive analogies” was based on his experience with the Sawi in Indonesia. The Sawi, who held treachery to be a high ideal, concluded that Judas was the hero of the New Testament. Being in a constant state of war with neighboring tribes, the warfare would reach a hiatus whenever the tribe would offer a “peace child” to live among the rival tribe. As long as the child survived among its enemies, the villages were at peace. Richardson explained to the Sawi that God sent us his Peace Child, and even though we killed Him, God still wants peace with us. The story of Jesus as a Peace Child served as a “redemptive analogy” among the Sawi, by making the gospel relevant to their cultural logic.
Richardson (1981) suggested that “Godhas imbedded in the rituals, ceremonies, history, and memory of primitive cultures concepts that portray key elements of the gospel.” People who were not privy to God’s special revelation, like Melchizedek in Genesis 14, seem to have an amount of general revelation that prepares their hearts for God. Richardson referred to the preparatory knowledge of God as the Melchizedek factor. And yet, the Sodom factor corrupts this knowledge of God.
Are Richardson’s (1981) models of redemptive analogies and the Melchizedek factor prescriptive or descriptive? If they are descriptive models, the serve to inspire us about God’s far-reaching grace as He has come before the missionary in societies from the Karen of Burma to the Incas to Indonesia, and has revealed himself (to some extent). However, the models are more problematic if they are taken to be prescriptive for missions in general. The implication is that these redemptive analogies lie dormant until a herald of the gospel can bring in the missing pieces. If churches could just discover these redemptive analogies, revival would ensue (Hrangkhuma, 1992). This notion excited mission mobilizers. In fact, after years of seeing few conversions, a supporter told me, “That’s because you did not find the redemptive analogy. Once you do that, people will convert.” Moreau (2012) reports that a missionary among the Momina of West Papua lamented that a colleague “had overlooked numerous potentially helpful but less significant bridges in searching for a single key [redemptive analogy]” (p. 148).
Demarest & Harpel (1989) suggest that what Richardson has described are not redemptive analogies, but rather non-redemptive analogies, since such cultural logics, without the special revelation of Christ, only point to the inability of culture to bring people redemption. This is not just an issue of semantics; evangelical theologians have critiqued Richardson for teetering near inclusivism, by apparently accepting general revelation as redemptive.
Gentiles who either heard from God or were used by God include Balaam, Rahab, King Huram of Tyre, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abimelech, Jethro, Ruth, Naaman and the Queen of Sheeba, and of course, Melchizedek. Richardson’s (1981) missiological interpretation of these passages led him to coin the “Melchizedek factor.” Richardson supplied anecdotes from isolated religious groups throughout the world that seemed to have knowledge of a holy, loving, high God. Richardson did not go so far as to claim that such knowledge was salvific, but he took it as evidence that God has put “eternity in their hearts” (Ecc. 3:11, NIV). Richardson’s argument draws on Wilhelm Schmidt’s (1931) evidence of widespread belief in a unique supreme “sky god” (above the local deities). Schmidt developed a theory of “original monotheism” which argued that as the nations dispersed in Genesis 9 – 11, their ancestral knowledge of YHWH slowly became “degraded” into self-serving ritual and idolatry. This degradation is the origin of the various religions throughout the world today.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor