Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church

W. G. T. Shedd

You can hardly incriminate the Reformed credentials of William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894). His final academic post was Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, at a time when both Union and Princeton were strongholds of Westminster Calvinism. He wrote a three-volume Dogmatic Theology, which is one of the most important contributions to Reformed theology in America. Wipf & Stock currently publishes several of his other volumes: Literary EssaysTheological EssaysHomiletics and Pastoral TheologyA History of Christian Doctrine (two volumes), and his commentary on Romans. They also publish Oliver Crisp’s monograph on Shedd’s harmatology: An American Augustinian. Moreover, Shedd authored a defense of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvinism: Pure & Mixed.

Who can be saved?

I have already posted a review of another Calvinist who wrote a lengthy treatment of this question: Who Can Be Saved? Professor Tiessen argues for an “accessibilist” model of the economy of grace, which is a modified version of “inclusivism.” This is my own position. Tiessen cites Shedd at a couple points, though he does not engage with Shedd at any great length. So I decided to consult Shedd’s treatment of this topic in his Dogmatic Theology.

For your reading pleasure, here is Shedd’s discussion of this topic in the second volume of his systematic theology. The underlining is mine:

It does not follow, however, that because God is not obliged to offer pardon to the unevangelized heathen, either here or hereafter, therefore no unevangelized heathen are pardoned. The electing mercy of God reaches to the heathen. It is not the doctrine of the Church, that the entire mass of pagans, without exception, have gone down to endless impenitence and death. That some unevangelized men are saved, in the present life, by an extraordinary exercise of redeeming grace in Christ, has been the hope and belief of Christendon. It was the hope and belief of the elder Calvinists, as it is of the later. [In a footnote, Shedd provides a very lengthy citation from Hermann Witsius’ commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.] The Second Helvetic Confession (I.7), after the remark that the ordinary mode of salvation is by the instrumentality of the written words, adds: “Agnoscimus, interim, deum illuminare posse homines etiam sine externo ministerio, quo et quando velit: id quod ejus potentiae est.”

[“We know, in the mean time, that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, which is a thing appertaining to his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.” — The Second Helvetic Confession, I.7]

The Westminster Confession (X.3), after saying that “elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth, “adds, “so also are all other elect persons [regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit] who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.” This is commonly understood to refer not merely, or mainly, to idiots and insane persons, but to such of the pagan world as God pleases to regenerate without the use of the written revelation. One of the strictest Calvinists of the sixteenth century, Zanchius, whose treatise on predestination was translated by Toplady, after remarking that many nations have never had the privilege of hearing the word, says (Ch. IV.) that “it is not indeed improbable that some individuals in these unenlightened countries may belong to the secret election of grace, and the habit of faith my be wrought in them.” By the term “habit” (habitus), the elder theologians meant an inward disposition of the heart. The “habit of the heart” involves penitence for sin and the longing for its forgiveness and removal. The “habit of faith” is the broken and contrite heart, which expresses itself in the prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word.

The true reason for hoping that an unevangelized heathen is saved is not that he was virtuous, but that he was penitent.

[W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), pp. 706-709]

Shedd continues, but you can see what he is doing. This is good theology.

Once again, “It is certain that the Holy Ghost can produce, if he please, such a disposition and frame of mind in a pagan, without employing, as he commonly does, the written word.” Amen. God is God.



  1. Over my brief sojourn as a Christian, I’ve pondered these questions deeply, but iI think it can amount to a silly exercise. Why does this vex us? Obviously these unreached heathens are not our neighbors or people we have contact with. Given the time of Shedd’s (or even the Reformed period) context, it’s not as if it’s for pastoral reasons (i.e. my grandfather was a Muslim/Pagan/Ancestor-Worshiper etc.)

    Even when we ask whether virtuous or penitent, how exactly would we determine the criteria of that? The pages of history? Who exactly are we talking about?

    Why not an exclusivism, but one who is very open to the ministrations of the Spirit, the One who can preach Christ through visions and dreams. I’ll never know such people, nor to what extent they exist. But God can bring His witness wherever and however. Instead of Anonymous Christians, why not Anonymous Branches of the Church?

    BTW, I don’t mean to sound dismissive, the ‘why not”s are half rhetorical and half genuine questions.


    • Why does this vex us? Obviously these unreached heathens are not our neighbors or people we have contact with.

      I’m not so sure. Most of my classmates in college were “unreached” in any meaningful sense, and their exposure to Christianity was almost entirely superficial. This is, of course, the generation that learned all of their social views from Jon Stewart — seriously. Among my co-workers, I have had friends who were, nominally at least, Muslim and Hindu, though having grown-up in America their perception of Christian doctrine was hardly any different from my other friends with little or no attachment to the Church.

      You do make a good point about whether this is for pastoral reasons or merely intellectual reasons. Speaking personally, it is both, but I can only speak for myself.

      Even when we ask whether virtuous or penitent, how exactly would we determine the criteria of that? The pages of history? Who exactly are we talking about?

      Definitely not the pages of history. Shedd is wise by not providing any sort of criteria to evaluate such movements of the Spirit. Similarly, Karl Barth talks about “little lights” originating from the Light in John 1:4-5 — see Church Dogmatics IV.3, p. 114ff. Barth is talking about the “light” of God outside of the covenant community, but he is extremely cautious and he refuses to provide any explicit illustrations of how these “little lights” are manifest.

      If God can “bring His witness wherever and however,” I would not limit this witness to dreams and visions. The difficulty is, of course, how someone can be made penitent — and thereby open to the Light — without the Cross of Christ explicitly manifest to them. This would require us to discern other forms or media by which this conviction may be elicited in “the unevangelized.” Someone like Balthasar or Weil could appeal to forms of Goodness and Beauty, though this is difficult for Protestants to formulate. For both Balthasar and Weil, the Good and Beautiful is cruciform.

      Also, we would presumably want to establish some continuity with these forms and our postmortem experience of God, especially for the unevangelized. In this way, the exclusivity of Christ can be maintained robustly, while maintaining a certain latitude in our pneumatology.

      • My own personal experience: I was the Conservative side of the coin. Instead of my views coming from Jon Stewart, they were coming from Michael Savage (probably even a sharper wit). Instead of openly hostile or mocking, I was superficially equated. Jesus as Savior meant he was one of the good guys. I was a Christian, just not Christian enough to read the Bible, affiliate with the Church, desist in unmarital sex, or repent (to name a few).

        Yet God saw it in His mercy to bring the Gospel to me, through a friend, despite myself. I understand the pastoral point pretty well. My friend didn’t take my false confession to mean anything and he pursued my spiritual health, despite his own failings, struggles, insecurities, etc. I fear a certain kind of philosophical inclusivism excuses us among our peers. God will judge in the eschaton, I’m to be salt and light and bear the truth, in my words and in my body.

        I’m not sure what you mean “limit to dreams and visions”. If a man repents, it’s the work of God and the angels rejoice. If Christ can work through ‘lesser lights’, why wouldn’t Christ reveal Himself as the Name under which all beneath Heaven are saved?

        This is why I raised my initial hesitancy. We are dealing with an article of faith in the workings of God. There is no one who is sent into the eternal fire who “slipped through the cracks”.

        I think a lot of this ends up in our self-perceived anxiety over the souls of mankind and our own responsibility in the missions of the Earth. For Paul to be able to understand clearly that someone can(should!) be rightfully turned out of the Covenant Community so his flesh would be destroyed and he’d repent, that’s a high view of what God is doing (I can’t imagine most Evangelicals having the stomach to do this).

        We ought to be faithful and loving, contending for the truth with compassion.


        PS As a note of curiosity, I wonder when the first written Christian discourse on this issue first appeared? When was this first addressed? It’d be interesting to see the context for this. The Early Church (I’m thinking of Justin Martyr particularly) had a few voices appreciative of Greek philosophy, and yet they made no remark on their eternal state. I wonder why it never pressed upon their minds to the contrary.

      • I’d be curious too about the 2nd-3rd century views on this. As for my comment about dreams and visions, I was simply thinking of many exclusivists that I have encountered — common among the Piper/Mohler crowd — who believe that the only way an unevangelized person could be saved is if he has a vision of Christ, allowing him to thereby have “explicit faith” in Christ. And apparently there are some reports of such dreams/visions among Muslims in the Middle East. That may well be authentic, but that is not the only way Christ can reach the unevangelized.

      • Again, who is this person? A Chinese peasant in the year 100 AD? An American teenager youth-volunteer in the 21st century?

        I think we’ve reached an impasse. I’m not putting the brakes on Christ’s ability to be made present in the Spirit. But if God is able to work out “virtue”, having men engage in the kind of love that is truly Human, then why not make Himself known? This is all mysterious. I don’t know how God interacts in the chambers of many people’s minds.

        But it is quite explicit in the Apostles that Christ is the only Name that saves. I’d be more content resting more on Christ preaching post-mortem, then to go out and say that for some reason the Spirit would transform a person’s works and not transform his mind as well. Again, it’s all mysterious. Maybe I’m more hopeful and more of a continuationist than you! 🙂

        And sure, an Anonymous Christ. We who are converted as adults do so by being met by a Stranger. But salvation is through union, and thus head-body.


      • I believe what I am saying would apply to both the 1st century peasant and the 21st century youth-worker. I certainly believe that there would be a change of mind, and I am not satisfied by the typical inclusivist approach of validating all religious forms (as Rahner seems to do by reinterpreting them through his existential christology — “openness to being”). It is more likely that the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of Christ himself, would reveal our idolatries and inadequacies and, thereby, include a critique of religion. This would look different in different contexts, as people and cultures produce unique forms of idolatry and injustice.

        I said at the end of my first comment that we should maintain a continuity with our postmortem state. In this way, Christ is the agent — through the Spirit — of God’s electing grace to the “heathen,” and this name of Christ is made known to them in the hereafter.

        So, yes, we are at an impasse, but I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

    • Instead of Anonymous Christians, why not Anonymous Branches of the Church?

      Why not rather “the anonymous Christ” (cf. Matthew 25:31ff.)?

      • Yes, exactly. That’s a great approach. Anyone can encounter Christ in service to the poor, and the Holy Spirit can work in the servant’s heart toward penitence and authentic charity. “Whoever does not love does not know God” (1 Jn 4:8), so might we say, “Whoever does love does know God.” This does not make virtue the means of salvation, because the gracious operation of the Spirit is still at the foundation of it all.

  2. Faulty view of election. There is no eternal decree to elect and to reprobate. That’s Augustinianism, not Scripture.

    Romans 10:11-13: “11 For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; 13 for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”

    It’s that simple.

  3. Surprisingly, Dante has a pretty good take on this. Lots of people know Inferno has the peaceful “virtuous pagans” outer circle, but lesser known is that he has a handful of people who “shouldn’t” be there in Purgatory (where the first person he meets is an unbaptized and suicidal pagan) and Paradise. He devotes a couple of cantos in Paradise specifically to this difficult question and threads the needle of not presuming too definitively on either God’s mercy or judgment, I think.

    And of course, no one can accuse Dante of being soft on wrath.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. Interesting. In the document Lumen Gentium at Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church made inclusivism their official doctrinal position. Francis Sullivan, SJ, traces the doctrinal history of the Catholic Church on this topic — in his book, Salvation Outside the Church.

  4. I remember taking a class on American Christianity and noticing that passage in the Westminster Confession. It’s interesting to see how this passage was interpreted.

    • Yeah, that is very fascinating. “This is commonly understood to refer not merely, or mainly, to idiots and insane persons, but to such of the pagan world as God pleases to regenerate without the use of the written revelation.” But the interpretation of X.3 that I’ve heard is that it only applies to “idiots and insane persons,” not to the unevangelized. If I remember correctly, that is Loraine Boettner’s interpretation. So it’s interesting that Shedd confidently states that it applies to “the pagan world…without the use of the written revelation” and cites Zanchius. That would make a good thesis for a paper, evaluating the beliefs of the Westminster Divines on the meaning of those “incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (WCF X.3).

  5. I think of the two well known passages in 1 Peter: 3:19 and 4:6. In 3:19 the verb kerusso is used for Jesus’ preaching, and euagellion in 4:6, both verbs are commonly used in the NT for preaching the gospel. I realized of course these verses remain hotly debated to this day, but to me they do seem to offer some kind of possibility. The fact that we don’t know what God is doing with other people doesn’t mean that He isn’t doing anything.

    • Those are good verses to point out, especially as they may indicate a scenario of postmortem gospel encounters. But since they are so contested and a clear exegesis is elusive (for me as well), they have little persuasive value in debates, at least for the strict exclusivist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s