Is Creation for Evangelicals and Neo-Reformed what Donuts Are for Homer Simpson?

I am noticing a trend, trend-spotters that historians are, and it does not appear to be promising.

Over at Christianity Today, Scott Sabin, author of Tending to Eden, connects the dots among – hold on to your baseball cap – evangelism, “compassionate justice ministry,” and earth care.

On a global scale, restoration is a monumental task. We are unlikely to achieve it this side of Christ’s return, any more than we are likely to bring about world peace by turning the other cheek. However, kingdom thinking can serve to guide our planning and our individual choices. At Plant with Purpose, we have seen restoration happen. Rivers and streams that had withered have begun to flow again due to upstream solutions. They have become powerful illustrations of God’s ability to redeem and restore, both for us and for the farmers with whom we are striving to share Christ’s love. . . .

Much of the world is either directly suffering as a result of environmental degradation or reacting in numb despair to gloomy predictions. Both groups desperately need the hope of Jesus Christ. It is the hope they long for, a hope that speaks directly to the redemption of all creation and reminds them that God loves the cosmos.

The gospel is for everyone—from dirt farmers to environmental activists. It is good news that God cares about all that he has created.

Pete Enns picks up on those same connections between creation and redemption in a piece for Biologos.

Psalm 136:1-9 is similar. The psalmist praises Yahweh for creating the cosmos using language reminiscent of Genesis 1. But in v. 10, without missing a beat, this “creation psalm,” brings up the exodus. Then in v. 13 we read that Yahweh “divided the Red Sea asunder.” Again, this calls to mind Genesis 1:6-8, where, in creating the world, God divided the water above from the water below (see also Psalm 74:12-17 where God “split open the sea”). “Dividing” the sea is a theme the Old Testament shares with other ancient creation texts, as can be seen in the link above.

Creation and exodus are intertwined. The creator was active again in delivering Israel from Egypt. . . .

What we see in the Old Testament is raised to a higher level in the New. God’s redemptive act in Christ is so thoroughly transformative that creation language is needed to describe it.

John’s Gospel famously begins “In the beginning was the Word….” The echo of Genesis 1:1 is intentional and unmistakable. Jesus’ entire redemptive ministry means there is now a new beginning, a starting over—a new creation. This Jesus, who is the Word, who was with God at the very beginning, through whom all things were made, is now walking among us as redeemer (John 1:1-5). Those who believe in him are no longer born of earthly parents but “born of God” (vv. 12-13). They start over. The language of “born again” later in John (3:3) points in the same direction. . . .

Redemption is not simply for people; Jesus’ redemptive program is cosmic, as we can see in Romans 8:19-21. Creation itself awaits its chance to start over, its “liberation from bondage.” Cosmic re-creation finds its final expression in Revelation 22:1-5. In the beautifully symbolic language that characterizes the entire book, we read that the cosmos has become the new Garden, complete with not one but two trees of life, where there is no longer any curse.

The Bible ends where it begins, at creation. The goal of redemption all along has been to get us back to the Garden, back to the original plan of the created order. To be redeemed means to take part in the creative work of God. The hints are there in the Old Testament, and the final reality of it is ultimately accomplished through the resurrection of the Son of God.

To round out the redeeming creation line-up, David Koyzis yields the especially helpful service not only of connecting creation and redemption but also neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism.

Perhaps readers of Evangel also read On the Square, but if not, permit me to direct your attention to a wonderful article by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, which, but for a few sentences here and there, could easily have been written by an evangelical Christian of the Reformed persuasion: Fire On The Earth: God’s New Creation and the Meaning of Our Lives. I am struck by his redemptive-historical reading of scripture, which many of us may tend to think is the exclusive preserve of the Reformed tradition. Archbishop Chaput is to be commended for disabusing us of this misconception. Here’s an excerpt:

A simple way of understanding God’s Word is to see that the beginning, middle and end of Scripture correspond to man’s creation, fall, and redemption. Creation opens Scripture, followed by the sin of Adam and the infidelity of Israel. This drama takes up the bulk of the biblical story until we reach a climax in the birth of Jesus and the redemption he brings. Thus, creation, fall, and redemption make up the three key acts of Scripture’s story, and they embody God’s plan for each of us.

To be sure, the God who creates is the deity who redeems. But to miss the difference between creation and redemption, and to rush to identify them with a Homeric blessing – “mmmmmmmm redeemed creationnnnnn” – is to miss the import of this little thing we call sin. The creation was and is good. It did not fall. It does not need to be redeemed. Only fallen creatures need redemption. In which case, to miss the ways that creation and redemption differ is to repeat the same collapsing of categories that Protestant progressives effected one hundred years ago when they threw out the distinctions between natural and supernatural, divine and human, sacred and secular, to brew an ideology that would save the world.

For that reason, two-kingdom and spirituality of the church advocates are eager to either warn evangelicals and progressive Reformed types about the danger of their view, not only because confusing the creational and redemptive functions of Christ blurs a category that has been crucial to the Reformed tradition. It is also because such confusion inevitably mistakes improvements in standard of living for the fruit of the Spirit.

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14 Comments

  1. Allan
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m not trying to debate, but I’ve always been taught that creation is fallen too–that it is still good,and yet, the fall affected it. Those who have taught me this have pointed to gen. 3:17 which says “cursed is the ground because of you”, etc. Also, rom. 8:19-21 “the creation waits in eager expectation… For the creation was subjected to frustration… In hope that the creation itself will be liberated from it’s bondage to decay.” So I guess my question is, what do you view those passages as saying?

  2. Posted July 30, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Hart,
    Forgive the long response, but this post strikes a deep nerve in me, and I think you are absolutely right. I think Enns friend over at BioLogos, Bruce Waltke has a far more sensible and Reformed take on the rise of Christian/Evangelical environmentalism in his “An Old Testament Theology” as he discusses the flood narrative:

    “Many people waste time and emotional energy worrying about earth’s destruction from various disasters such as a recurrent big bang, an asteroid disturbing earth’s orbit, or a life annihilating thermonuclear war. They should not. The earth will be here until Jesus comes again.” (p.292)

    He later elaborates:
    “This connection between the flood and final judgment is aptly encapsulated in the words of a Negro spiritual: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, fire next time!’
    ‘The fire next time’ is something many of us prefer not to think about. Rather we focus on (re)creation as the symbol of God’s grace in preservation and regeneration of individuals and societies. We hope for new beginnings, relying on the belief that the human predicament is the product of memory and history and can be overcome by mass societal undertakings such as education and reduction of poverty. But the repeated pattern of re-creation, renewed founder, sin, conflict, and judgment in the Bible emphatically underscores the point that humanity is incapable of establishing or maintaining a just society.
    Ultimately the problem is not history, memory, or environment, but human nature. Starting over is not the answer to the problems of human society; the solution cannot be a mere physical re-creation. New heavens and a new earth are nice and good, but without regenerate inhabitants, they are as doomed as the Garden of Eden. Thus the flood provides only half the solution, the other half awaits Jesus Christ and his baptism in the Holy Spirit. The waters clears away the sins of the past, but the Holy Spirit is needed to change human nature and the course of human destiny for good.” (pp. 301-302)

    I don’t want to belabor the point here, but I think Sabin, Enns, and Koyzis all suffer from a wrong-headed biblical theology. The only agent in creation and re-creation/restoration is God. We are not taking part of the creative work of God as some sort of vice-creative agents as Enns seems to intimate, we are STEWARDS nothing more, nothing less, the office of steward is a high enough calling and it is reflected in any lawful vocation. In the same way, the church and her ministers are not agents of the new creation co-laboring with God to bring about the restoration of all things, they are heralds of the message and means of redemption in Christ alone. I am sure these guys and those who align themselves with Enns, Koyzis, and Sabin mean well, but they possess a grossly overinflated anthropology, and an anemic view of the totality of human depravity. We were not, even in our prelapsarian state creative agents, why in the world would we think that thereafter we would be? We believers who still live with the taint of sin don’t even possess the capability to be creative agents for good, merely testifiers to the goodness of the Creator. Our good works are simply testimony to the goodness of God who will judge the world with fire before it is made anew. The whole point of the gospel is how we might escape that final fire and enjoy life with God forever, not how we can make this world a better place or how we can participate with God in renovating the universe. We must keep the Creator/creature distinction in place when contemplating our common callings and the work of the church lest we overstep that distinction and try to take from God what is his alone to accomplish, namely the restoration of all things.

  3. Posted July 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Allan, the earth is cursed and needs to be made new. But it seems the height of arrogance for fallen man, who caused the curse, to talk about mankind “saving the earth”.

  4. Posted July 31, 2010 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Allen,

    Whatever else those texts might be saying, one implication of saying that non-imago Dei creation has fallen in the same way the imago Dei creation has is that Jesus necessarily lived and died for fish. But the whole of Scripture clearly teaches that he lived and died only for his people–not their pets and food. But careful not to read into this some sort of latent Gnostic Dispensationalism. The creation is very good, but it doesn’t need to be redeemable to be very good (in fact, to say so seems to ironically imply it’s not good enough in and of itself). And the reason it waits for the sons of God to be revealed is simply that there is an order to things: the crowning achievement of creation, us, leads the way for better or ill. Once the imago Dei creation is glorified then it’s non-imago Dei creation’s turn.

  5. dgh
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Allan, my sense is that the creation is “cursed” because it must sustain sinful creatures (and even cover their graves). The best case was for Adam not to sin and to avoid the need for cemeteries. But I’m not sure that weeds or bears are evidence of the fall, or that redemption will mean no more weeds or bear-attacks.

  6. Bryan Peters
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Just to be clear, I can cite you as agnostic regarding bear attacks in the new creation? There has to be a way to work that into some essay’s footnote.

  7. dgh
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Bryan, I guess bears could develop an appetite for summer squash. Men will not have libidos in glory. So with God all things are possible.

  8. Posted July 31, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Well you noted in “Lost Soul…” that the mindset and ethos of the post-WWII Evangelical and the Social Justice crowd were pretty much the same. Figures that they would go down this road as well.

  9. Andrew Duggan
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    but I’m not sure that weeds

    So what do you do with Gen 3:18? While one doesn’t need to believe that thorns etc were new after the fall, their status as weeds seems inescapable. But then maybe you go with the the theme of “Yeah, has God said…” A rose by another name might smell as sweet, and the thistle might be national “flower” of Scotland, but in the middle of a wheat or barley field they are still weeds. So if you’re not sure about that well, how sure can the rest of us be that when you say sin you mean sin? My guess is not very.

  10. Posted July 31, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Andrew,

    It seems pretty clear that the curse upon the soil was a antediluvian consequence that God mercifully loosened after the flood waters subsided when he instituted the Noahic Covenant:

    “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:20-22)

    To be fair to your question though, it seems that the soil was not returned to the Edenic ideal pre-fall condition, however God’s providence would extend to ensure that the agricultural process would find an equilibrium that was severely imperiled by the prior curse. John Walton draws distinctions in the providence of the Noahic Covenant by distinguishing between saving and salvaging:

    “It is more than just salvation here, God is committed to salvage operations. Noah and his family are saved, the world and human civilization are salvaged. Salvaging involves retrieving that which was valuable from the wreckage.” (NIV Application Commentary: Genesis p. 338)

  11. dgh
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Andrew, it is an arresting inference about my view of sin based on a remark about weeds. But since you agree with me that weeds may have existed before the fall, your apparent gotcha would seem to apply to your behind as much as mine. So what exactly is your point, bro?

  12. Allan
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Hart,
    What you are saying makes sense, it is just not what I’m used to hearing I guess. But I am intrigued and attracted to your view. So–help me understand this a little more… I don’t want to put words in your mouth but let me know if this is what you’re saying:

    Basically, that there is no intrinsic difference between creation before the fall and after the fall. It was good before the fall and it is just as good now. So there were tornadoes and death (of creatures and plants–not of humans) and hurricanes and earthquakes and before the fall–but because we were sinless, God in His providence made sure that we humans were not adversely affected by any of that–in a similar way that Psalm 91 speaks of God “command[ing] his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” to make sure that “no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent… they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” So that’s how it was in Paradise.

    Then after the fall, basically there was not anything new introduced into creation–the only difference is that because we are no longer sinless, God does not always “command his angels” concerning us to make sure that no harm will befall us. The creation is still good just the same as it was in Paradise, but now God in His providence doesn’t hold it back from harming us. So, for example, bears ate animals in Paradise, but they never ate humans (even though they were physically capable of doing so) because God in His providence kept humans from falling into a situation where they couldn’t avoid it or defend themselves, etc.

    But now, after, the fall, because of OUR fallenness as human beings, God does not always in His providence keep and protect us from those dangers–and therefore now, post-fall, it is possible for us to be eaten by a bear.

    Is this making sense? Is this what you are saying?

    So the “cursed-ness” of the ground that Genesis 3:17 speaks of–and the “bondage to decay” and “frustration” which “creation itself” is under (Rom 8:19-21), is not that it is fallen, but that it is (due to the post-fall lack of constant protective providence from God) now often against us and not under us. Now it can hurt us and even kill us (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc)–and THAT is the cursedness which Genesis 3:17 speaks of. So creation itself is not fallen and does not need to be redeemed–in itself it is just as good as it was before the fall. But now, due to our sin, God allows His good creation to be used against us.

    I faintly remember hearing someone arguing a view like this before. Is this a complete misrepresentation of what you are saying Dr. Hart, or am I understanding you?

  13. dgh
    Posted August 2, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Allan,

    I’m not sure it makes sense because I’m not sure if I really hold all that. Positing what the original created order was like, from bears to weather patterns, is speculative business. To blame the fall for all difficulties in this life, from death to weather, has some appeal, I know. And I do think that mindset is behind the good government evangelicals who seem to equate better standards of living with the fruit of the spirit. But I’m not sure the March of the Penguins would have necessarily been any easier before the fall, or that the creatures in the depths of the sea would be any less ravenous pre-fall.

    But I am pretty confident that talk of redeeming culture or blurring creation and redemption cannot mean that Christians have any power or means for taming hurricanes or bears in this life. So, I wish they would actually hear what they’re saying and recognize its folly.

  14. Posted August 2, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Well, I am not sure if the means are altogether redemptive, but it seems like wild bear taming could be accomplished with the aid of some high power ammunition. But that seems a bit problematic with the whole redemptive notion of spears-into-plowshares thing doesn’t it?

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