Observing how new orthodoxies arise

Preston Garrison has drawn my attention to a piece by “RJS” on The Jesus Creed, about a christological view of creation. It’s very familiar to me as exactly the same scheme to which I reacted in my series both on divine kenosis and my own seven part series on Christological creation

My thoughts back then arose largely from Ted Davis’s BioLogos series on John Polkinghorne, and the general proponence in theistic evolution circles of an autonomous creation. In particular Ted had said something to the effect that at least Polkinghorne’s ideas put Christ back at the centre of creation, which had tended to be seen in terms of some kind of philosophical Creator Deity. At the time I suggested some reasons for this purely modern loss of focus on Christ, but felt that it isn’t enough to propose any christological view of creation, but the biblical one, and so I set out to draw some of the Scriptural streams together.

What strikes me about the RJS piece is (a) that it is almost identical in detail to what I opposed and (b) that it received almost blanket acceptance as orthodox in the comments. Either it is orthodox and I’ve got Scripture and historical theology completely wrong (part of the new scheme is to claim Greek Patristic support for itself), or we see how the writings of one, or a few, popular writers can become received wisdom in a short time: I might compare the way John Darby’s dispensationalism became so popular in Evangelicalism through the Schofield Reference Bible. I’m pleased to say that Preston did an excellent job of drawing attention to some false assumptions in the piece – though he felt his arguments were falling on deaf ears. I agree – I wouldn’t have fancied arguing against dispensationalism at the old Keswick Convention.

As my series is now buried in the archives of this small blog, apart from referring you back to it I’ll respond afresh to the RJS article point by point here.

RJS first quotes Robert Osborn to set the Christological scene:

But Christianity – the faith whose central event is the brutal execution of the God-forsaken God on a Roman cross – greatly complicates and deepens our understanding of the divine response to suffering, whether of humans or animals. It also denies us any stoical pact with the cruelties of death as divinely fated necessity of life. Death is the final enemy.

As one commenter points out, though since Moltmann the Suffering God has become a prominent motif in theology, the faith, historically speaking, is centred not on Christ’s death but on his resurrection. RJS replies they’re essentially the same, but that is not so. Properly speaking the gospel’s central focus is on death-resurrection-ascension, but the point is that the death of Christ is only properly interpreted in the light of God’s immediate victory over it. In Acts Paul’s strong emphasis on resurrection was even interpreted by hearers as his proclaiming a new god, Anastasis. The cross cannot be understood apart from the empty tomb, and the eternal throne of heaven. Christ’s suffering reveals God’s sovereignty – and restores it over humanity.

The point about death is also subtly re-formulated here: Christ is credally said to have died (and risen) to defeat the human death that came through sin. His renewal of creation flows from that, but subtly. The confusion between human sin and penal death, and animal death and suffering is a false and recent aberration in theology. If we need no other evidence, Jesus’s procurement and consumption of animal flesh after his resurrection gives us a clue that he did not suffer on behalf of animal suffering: do you kill fish you’ve just died for?

There is, quite frankly, nothing christological in the typical literalist reading of Genesis.

It’s singularly pointless arguing against a nebulous “typical” view. Many people I’ve known who interpret Genesis literally also immediately point to the parallels with John 1, in which Christ is revealed to be within the creating Godhead. Why treat bad exposition as the norm? The fact that the Genesis account itself seems non-Trinitarian is hardly surprising, but should be understood in the light that, according to the New Testament, the Spirit who inspired it was the Spirit of Jesus himself. I’ll come to the undoubted role of the Son as Saviour-in-waiting in the Creation, but would point out here that this is described in the New Testament as the best-kept secret in the Universe, to be revealed only in these end times.

Take this divine secret, and what the Spirit of Jesus chose to reveal and what to conceal in Genesis, and one is warned that our basic view of creation doctrine, and of the “problem” to be solved in salvation history, should first be built on Genesis (and Job and other passages, as RJS rightly says) before we mix in the newly-revealed concept of Christ as the source and end of the Creation. That is how God teaches us through his self-revelation. And I am quite certain that we do not glean from Scripture a picture of a creation marred from the first, for whatever reason, through suffering and death, and requiring in turn a suffering God, but a creation that is good in its Creator’s eyes (despite death) until human sin makes it ritually corrupt.

The importance of kenosis. Beyond the mere statement of atonement, though, there is the power and the significance of kenosis, κενόω, – the self-emptying of Christ… The character and governance of God is revealed in Jesus as the crucified savior, God’s Messiah. This isn’t part of the machinations of meticulous manipulation, but the response and plan of a God who is in relationship with his creation, a creation prepared for his purposes with a freedom of will the result of divine will.

Good old kenosis – a view only so recently revived and made popular that it is treated as a historical Victorian curiosity in my 1988 IVP New Dictionary of Theology – and yet is now seen as central to all theology and especially that of creation. Preston Garrison in his comments points out the over-interpretion of this concept, which in context implies neither a universal principle of divine governance at all, nor even (actually) any idea of “self-emptying” except in the sense of Jesus’s humbling himself to become human and to suffer and die as a servant. Jesus never became less than God when he became fully human – and that was the declared position of the Universal Church in the Chalcedonian creed.

Let me briefly, and inadequately, comment on the invalidity of assuming that the Incarnation necessarily tells us all we need to know about God. Granted, there is clearly revelation about God here – he shows that he is the kind of God who, in the Father, would give up his Son for us, and in the Son would willingly suffer for undeserving sinners. That truth is even more demonstrated when we understand that God decided on this path before the creation of the world. So much has long been recognised in Reformed circles as the eternal covenant between Father and Son. Only in less rigorous modern Evangelicalism has the suffering of Christ been seen, as RJS rightly complains, as a divine fix for an unexpected catastrophe. To say that the atonement was part of the plan from the beginning is one thing – to interpret that to mean some kind of necessity for both human and natural evil in creation is quite another.

But if one is going to pick on the Philippians passage as normative of God’s character and governance, why stop there? Christ professed ignorance, for example, of the time of the end. Historically, that has been seen, like the “kenosis”, as being about his his human situation: in his divine nature he shares all knowledge with the Father. But under the new thinking, we must conclude that there is ignorance in the Trinity, and since the Son demonstrates the character of God, there must, ergo, be ignorance in the Father too. Of course, the Open Theists overtly take that route, but orthodox it certainly ain’t. And as a course of reasonng about God from the Incarnation it’s woeful.

Note also the way kenosis is linked in the last quote to creation’s freedom (aka autonomy), which I have, to the point of tedium, shown to be an incoherent metaphor inappropriately applied to the non-human creation. As in Polkinghorne and others, I note that RJS (again quoting Osborne) immediately blurs the distinction between non-rational creation’s supposed autonomy and human moral freedom:

Whatever its difficulties, the only position that makes any moral, religious, or rational sense of human moral evil to my mind is the one that declares that the divine will wills human free will…

As RJS glosses:

He is in relationship with people who have the freedom to follow or to turn away. We can cherry pick selected verses that support meticulous sovereignty, but can maintain that position only by rationalizing away the vast (vast!) majority of the text. God’s control is an open-handed control.

Well, we’ve had some fairly recent stuff on the blog about the shortcomings of the view that even human freedom can be mapped accurately to “autonomy”, and the above statements hide the fact that for 2 millennia the greatest Christian thinkers were completely unwilling to grant a dysjunction between human freedom and divine sovereignty. So either these Bible scholars, theologians and philosophers had no “moral, religious or rational sense”, or we are being treated to polemic rather than deep reflection on the tradition. And in any case, human moral freedom has no proper application beyond humanity, and therefore nothing to say about non-human evil, death, suffering or anything else in creation.

RJS now turns to Adam:

Whether or not Adam existed as a unique historical individual is really quite secondary to the biblical narrative. Adam was not the culmination of some perfect creation. Rather, Osborn suggests that we should look to Christ in his life, self-emptying death as the culmination of creation.

He has already quoted Osborne again to the effect that Adam was not the first true human, but Christ. Well, that all depends on perspective, doesn’t it? I couldn’t disagree that, from the first, the creation was planned to unite all things together in Christ, though that was a secret, as I have said, hidden within the Godhead until these last times. But once again, it’s a theological commonplace that Adam failed, and so demonstrated that grace was needed if he was ever to be a true man, and the father of true men. The mystery is that Christ, in order to redeem humanity by being the first realio-trulio true man, only did so by being a descendant of Adam and Eve in the flesh. In the Incarnation he became what he would redeem, so getting too picky about whether men are true men causes as many problems as it solves. Adam was, according to Scripture, created in the image of God. His sin marred that image, and the race is now not as created. We, I agree, are not true men until Christ comes to us, but what did God create in Genesis, if they are not “adam” (Hebrew, of course, for “man”)?

By the reasoning used here – that Christ does not so much renew humanity (incidentally, the core concept of that word “redeem” is a return to some original state, albeit going beyond to something better), as create it for the first time, we have also to say not that creation itself is renewed and redeemed in Christ, but that it never really was a true creation in the first place until the eschatological New Creation. That, like so much of this scheme, is just too pessimistic. How can it lead to other than hatred of the world? The lack of importance of a historical Adam is, I suppose, subsumed in a conclusion of the lack of importance of the original creation.

In conlusion, it seems to me that the classical view (grossly oversimplified) is something like this:

God’s creation was good and joyful -> Man’s sin caused it to suffer (as God foresaw) -> Christ suffered to restore it -> value is added to make the new creation even more good and joyful (and hence Christ’s own suffering is soon turned to joy).

The new scheme, implicitly where it is not stated directly, is more like this:

God’s initial creation was grossly incomplete without reference to Christ’s suffering -> Man’s sin was a symptom of that incompleteness -> Christ suffered to show that divine suffering trumps the suffering of creation -> suffering is seen to be shared by God -> the new creation, by showing that suffering is intrinsic to deity, becomes a good place to be.

At least, I think that’s what it implies … the new creation seems rather indistinct in character. Maybe the autonomous molecules will, in the eschaton, display more selflessness in the light of Christ’s example. Competitive evolution will abolish itself and learn some new, kenotic, way of being… if it can think of one – for the self-giving God would, surely, never impose his own will on his creation.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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