God’s Good Earth – Chapter 4: Powers and Principalities

Here is a link to chapter 4 of my book.

The back-story of this chapter is really the kind of thing I quoted, in the Introduction, from C H Spurgeon’s 1868 sermon, saying of the present Creation that “the slime of the serpent is on it all”. The idea of a cosmic fall is usually associated with the tacit assumption of a pre-fall Fall of Satan and other angelic beings, who somehow were the beneficiaries of Adam’s sin by wresting control of nature.

The Bimson article that Preston Garrison mentions in his comment on the last post also points out the lack of any good Scriptural evidence for this idea, with which I concur from my own study of Scripture.

Nevertheless, there are plenteous references to angelic beings in the Bible, and the present chapter is an attempt to assess what the Bible says about their role in nature – my conclusion being that it is virtually nothing.

C S Lewis toyed rather playfully with the idea of personal spiritual entities, like the Greek Dryads, being involved in nature (in That Hideous Strength and elsewhere), and Alfred Russel Wallace found evidence for a whole host of spiritual intermediaries in nature between the transcendant divine and the ultimate beneficiary of evolution, mankind. But on close examination there is really nothing in Scripture to suggest to suggest any such autonomous spiritual powers over nature (and even less to suggest an inanimate nature having autonomy).

Instead, nature is very much portrayed in the Bible as God’s personal demesne, as I showed in Chapter 1. At most one can point to angelic beings being employed instrumentally as administrative servants, but only in highly symbolic apocalyptic writings such as the Book of Revelation, which should be treated with great caution in this respect.

I conclude by asking this question. Can you find a single clear teaching, or even a hint, in Scripture that nature is controlled completely or partly by Satan and his minions? If not, how has the idea become so prevalent in current religious thinking, whether amongst Creationists attributing this “fact” to the Fall, or amongst supporters of evolution jettisoning, in many cases, both an historical Fall and a personal devil, but retaining the idea that nature is morally corrupt?

“KJ” in an earlier comment pointed to the New Testament passages where food is to be received with thanksgiving, since God created everything good. We ought to feel very uneasy when even great preachers invite us to see “the slime of the serpent” covering the natural world about us. God, after all, rebuked Peter for calling unclean what God had pronounced clean.

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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13 Responses to God’s Good Earth – Chapter 4: Powers and Principalities

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for sharing these chapters (and more to come?) with us, Jon. I’ve finally caught up on my reading here, and am benefiting from all of it.

    You give the challenge of finding anything in Scripture that hints at anything other than divine control over nature. The only passage that comes to mind is where Satan causes fires/whirlwinds etc. in the initial afflictions on Job’s family. But (as I believe you alluded to), Satan had to get God’s permission to do that. Still, it is/was a relinquishment of control to some extent even if symbolic. And yet perhaps all the more powerful for its potential scope when taken in symbolic form. Given the many times the old testament prophets attribute both great blessing and evil calamity (usually in some natural form) to God, it is probably extremely thin ice to insist that God is not involved on the strength of how Satan is portrayed in the Job story.

    Speaking of the devil, if indeed he was a bit of a divine agent or ‘provocateur’ to stiffen Adam’s resolve, then it seems a bit out of place that he too should be punished for Adam’s failure on the exam, no? It does fit, though, with other events (like Job) where Satan is not punished at all. But of course, unlike Adam, Job passes the test. Is that the difference? That seems to be a dangerous game the devil plays!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      Glad you’re finding some helpful stuff there.

      For reasons apart from the book and its content, I’ve been meditating a little recently on those verses in Jude and Peter about not “blaspheming” Satan. I think what triggered it was a visiting speaker suggesting it was good to “put Satan in his place” in that way sometimes – a bit like the New Atheist attitude to religion: mockery is the best weapon! Something didn’t quite resonate in that with the way Satan is addressed in Scripture – always with suspicion and caution, but never with disdain.

      Why on earth would Scripture be hesitant about our denouncing the fount of evil, the worst blot on the Universe? The answer I come up with is that the economy of God’s government is beyond our understanding – like trying to understand the workings of the Oval Office from a candy store in Wisconsin. The President probably has good reasons for not sacking the outspoken Secretary of State to which shop assistants are not privy.

      That seems to me to say something about the Job situation. As for God punishing his own agents, there is a good track record of his doing that in the OT – Babylon is raised up to punish faithless Judah, but punished for its presumption and malevolence: individual human motivations operate concurrently with God’s sovereign purposes. Remember, I’ve suggested in the chapter that the political sphere strongly overlaps with the spiritual via the “powers and principalities”, so we’d expect similar principles.

      I’ve noted since I first preached on Job maybe 20 years ago how Satan drops out of the story entirely after ch2: Job’s issues are with God, and God responds on that basis (“Who are you to question how I operate?”), rather than passing the buck to his inimical viceroy. So even Job, taken overall, remains clearly monotheistic: if you have to choose between Satan being a “god” autonomous of God or an “agent of the only God”, he’s clearly more the latter.

      All that, of course, still says little about the daily functioning of nature – Job’s situation was after all a special case. But I felt it was a subject worth addressing in the project as a whole. I haven’t been persuaded to make offerings to the Dryad of the mighty oak outside my study window!

  2. GD GD says:

    One point that indicates the creation is changed by sin is Paul’s statement that the creation groans, and is subject to corruption, until Christ finalises it all. I think it is worth noting that in revelation, Satan ‘gives’ or ‘allocates’ his power to the beast (which I presume is a human tyrant). So I would think the overall assumption that may be implied, is that spiritual rebellion by some Angels, is the source of error and death in the creation, and Adam was given the opportunity to dispel, or negate this, by choice and as an act of will – obviously he and Eve failed to do so.

    This in no way threatens God’s sovereignty over all things – but places mankind in a position to choose not to sin, but instead obey God.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      My contention in the book on Romans 8 is that it doesn’t really say that creation has fallen because of sin, still less because of a prior fall of Satan and his angels. See the extended treatment in Ch3, linked from the previous post.

      More specifically, an alternative is that Adam’s assigned role was not to overturn evil (there’s no mention of that in the text), but to add value and completion to what was good (both “God saw it was very good” and “Subdue the earth” being in the text.

      Ron S alludes to that idea below, to which I must now respond!

      • GD GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        The argument may appear different if we think that the creation has been what God intended (good), but when sin entered (rebellion, disobedience), it became subject to corruption. This argument should not extend to somehow thinking molecules and elements becoming ‘fallen’ or somehow different to what God had created. Rather the totality of the creation became ‘tainted’ by the spirit of rebellion. Adam was not asked to overturn evil, but to ignore it or not choose it (negate). From this position we may discuss God’s plan as progressing towards fulfillment, which naturally is in Christ.

        I get the impression that “fallen” may be a term used to indicate the creation somehow became ‘other-then-it is’, which I think is incorrect. Evil as we understand it does not impact on God or what He wills, but it does impact on us and our place that we occupy and thus because of Adam’s choice (and ours) this is subject to corruption, but waits for redemtion. This is in line with Ron S view of completion.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Yes, I can relate to that: first of all, man has a particular role in creation, and the very fact of not fulfilling it makes the Creation less than it ought to be, even if there is no “physical” alteration at all in it. That has some relationship to the “ritual pollution” theme I talked about in relation to the Flood.

          I would still want to nuance the sense of “corruption” – in the sense that God made the first creation corruptible by design (that is, physical and prone to decay and so on), as opposed to “corruptible” morally, which implies a shortcoming.

          No doubt, though, there is a range of ways of perceiving things that are compatible both with “the rule of faith” and the observation of the natural world we call science.

          Although I’m suggesting the idea that the transformation of physical creation was always in the plan, even in the absence of sin, the primary aim is to question the prevalent idea that what we see in the natural world is somehow degenerated from the way God made it, with respect to entropy and its sequelae in the physical world.

  3. Ron S says:

    Hi Jon, I’ve enjoyed following you the last few months and finally decided to add my two cents. Love your reflections and thoughts.

    I’ve spent some time reflecting on creation and just recently starting looking at the fall. Reading some commentaries on this and Rom 8:20-22 I remembered an old quote about nature – “she’s not our mother but our fallen sister.” G K Beale sees the initial role of mankind as expanding the garden to include all the earth. This mission is further enhanced/spiritualized in the NT as bringing the Gospel to all the world. I wonder if the creation is still awaiting it’s full potential because we failed in the first mission? Is the work still waiting to be completed?

    Could this be the creation’s groaning? The expectant longing of a world finally governed by the image of God and brought to it’s complete realization? No post-millennial thoughts here or personifying nature as “alive” but the final fulfillment to creation as God originally planned it. Now, of course, things are different — we fell and are redeemed. Maybe things will work out better than we thought (post-garden explosion)?

    I see the creature/creation arguments surrounding Rom 8:20-22 and wonder if Beale’s way of thinking allows our dominion as image bears to influence the creation and not Satan’s.

    Just some initial thoughts.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ron, and welcome.

      Thanks for quoting G K Beale, who together with Richard Middleton and John Walton seem to be very significant palyers in this area (or so N T Wright says!).

      Beale’s interpretation, I would suggest, doesn’t sit too well with the “fallen sister” analogy, and that is really the thrust of my overall position: “younger sister” would seem to fit better… before one gets into the less savoury picture of domestic abuse by an older brother given in the Fall narrative and after!

      I agree with your reasoning here. I’ve not actually read Beale’s work to that effect (his stuff on the Temple I have read). Can you cite an appropriate source for him foir our benefit? Richard Middleton, though, certainly takes a similar line in his “New Heaven and New Earth”.

      Good to have you aboard!

      Jon

      • Ron S says:

        Hi Jon, I suppose I could have done a better job with my thoughts. Beale and the “fallen sister” thoughts are separate ideas for sure.

        Checking Beale’s thoughts on this leads to different conclusions than I’ve espoused. He sees mankind’s role as expanding the garden to encompass the whole earth (chapter 3 of The Temple and the Church’s Mission), as I’ve said. But with regard to the fall, as he states on page 87, he believes that Adam failed in his duties to keep out the unclean thing (i.e. the serpent) “that brought sin, chaos and disorder into the sanctuary and into Adam and Eve’s lives.” He goes on that the serpent “ruled over” Adam rather than Adam “ruling over” it.

        I’ll see if I can find a clearer statement on the fall and creation by him.

        It’s not completely clear what Beale means by “chaos and disorder.” He sees Revelation 21-22 as a return to garden/temple concepts so perhaps one can infer some things from that.

        In any event, there is a chain of events started by the serpent which affect Adam and Eve and potentially the earth, as their kingdom. As the OT implies again and again — as it goes with the King, so it goes with Israel. Should we take this to mean — as it goes with Adam and Eve, so it goes with the earth, their dominion?

        With our current expulsion from the garden, is the creation merely lesser for it? Or has it been directly and negatively impacted by it? This seems to be the heart of it. I think the result is clearly fractured relationships – enmity, pain and frustration. Shalom is obviously missing and sorely needed. More thought is needed and I appreciate your efforts.

        While the serpent started the whole thing, can “the slime of the serpent” be said to be on it all by implication? I can see someone believing such a thing. I’m not defending Spurgeon’s quote, as establishing cause and effect seems very important in this instance, but only giving some room for interpretation (I don’t know Spurgeon’s point or the context of the quote).

        Pragmatically, does it make a difference? I believe it does. I see death as part and parcel of the created order – why have a tree of life if Adam didn’t need it? Makes little sense to me. Eternal life seems to be a privilege, not an intrinsic right. And if this is true, where does that leave us? Could Adam have tripped and fallen in the garden? Did he need blood clotting and infection mechanisms for skinned knees? Would Eve’s children born there (as was the plan) never have had to learn to walk? Would accidents still have happened? And what about the fish? They didn’t get green plants for food. They weren’t snuffed out in the flood. Wasn’t death present in the oceans from the start? Interestingly, there is no sea in Rev 21/22.

        Was there still a need of heaven, even in the garden? I’m starting to think so. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Hmmm… These are deep thoughts indeed and I fear they challenge us to the core of what we may have traditionally believed. Creation was said to be “very good” but it wasn’t said to be perfect. Simply wanting everything we simplistically “don’t like” to be the direct result of Satanic control of a fallen world may be naive in the extreme. Well, except for mosquitoes. I don’t like them and they must be of the devil! 😉

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Hi Ron

          It’s the lack of clarity in a phrase like “that brought sin, chaos and disorder into the sanctuary and into Adam and Eve’s lives” that gets to me. So many commentators use such words, and one has to suspect it’s partly to avoid having to commit unequivocally to views that might go against the consensus.

          Given the current debates on “natural evil” both within the origins question and more generally, any commentator ought to be delineating the degree, extent and nature of the disorder. As the sentence stands, Beale has said just what I would say – the garden sanctuary and the lives of people are disrupted. But one needs to clarify whether it also means the whole cosmos is trashed and corrupted… and if so, why it should mean that.

          To me that failure means that all kinds of theology loses focus. For example, if human death is seen as a tragedy, whereas (as I believe) death per se was part of the good natural order, it emphasises the spiritual exceptionality of mankind, and invites examination of our particular role in things.

          But if our sin “took out” the whole cosmos physically, introducing (in effect) not only all death but the entire effects of entropy throughout the Universe, then we just appear to be the inexplicable lynch-pin of the whole Creation, which is far closer to the Renaissance Humanist view of things than the nuanced biblical picture of us… but that’s Chapter 6!

  4. KJ says:

    Walton, in The Lost World of Adam and Eve, speaks of non-order as a

  5. KJ says:

    That is (after my fingers on iPhone so rudely interrupted)…Walton, in The Lost World of Adam and Eve, speaks of the category of non-order alongside order and disorder. I’ll need to re-read to look for particular application to this discussion, but it certainly would add some nuance. If I recall he views the serpent in Gen 3 as an agent of non-order rather than disorder.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      KJ

      Yes, Walton’s approach to this has influenced me a lot, and is one shared by others like Middleton.

      There’s a likely correlation between this and our other discussion on Romans 8: the final eschatological completion of the cosmos, in which the corruptible puts on the spiritual (incorruptible) would then represent the final subordination of non-order, planned from the beginning to be executed through man… only Jesus, rather than Adam, turns out to be the agent.

      Walton himself does not, as far as I have read, make this link because he’s dealing with ancient texts, rather than second temple and NT eschatology based on them.

      How does Satan, represented in later Scripture as the malevolent power behind the serpent’s temptation, fit into this idea? That’s something to be researched by others, but I’m sure we are supposed to understand something more nuanced than “sinful humanity ≈ sinful Satan ≈ sinful nature.”

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