Theology of nature – the moral key

At the end of his 2018 Gifford lecture series, N T Wright tells us that the coming of Christ not only unlocks the coming new creation, but enables us to understand the present creation. The cross is at the centre of any theology of nature. I think he’s right, but this needs some careful unpacking to contribute to our theology of nature.

The theme of suffering – and especially divine suffering – has been at the heart of much recent reflection on creation that takes an evolutionary viewpoint. The reason is not hard to find, since the Malthusian “red in tooth and claw” view of evolution has dominated Western conceptions of nature since Darwin. It is one of those areas in which scientific “fact” has been said to have forced a revision of the biblical doctrine that creation was “good” until human sin came along, for, it is said, a host of natural evils are now known to have been prevalent for billions of years.

A major motive for writing my soon-to-be-published (promises, promises) book, God’s Good Earth, was to debunk this greatly exaggerated view of the evils of nature, but let’s dwell on it a bit longer here. For it becomes theologized, I think, by drawing on the “suffering God” and “kenosis” theologies of influential post-Holocaust writers like Jürgen Moltmann.

In effect, these theologies make suffering (seen as the inevitable result of self-giving love) the core truth about God, and it works out from the very beginning, in that (Moltmann said, picking up on sombeody else’s idea) in order to create, God had to move aside to make space for what he created, thus deliberately diminishing himself for the sake of the creatures. Along with that, he gave creation autonomy, even though he knew the risk that the “selfish” process of evolution with its attendant waste, agonizing death and so on would arise and, inevitably, so would human sin.

And so this result of creation’s freedom, the abuse of God’s already self-emptying love, required the ultimate kenosis (self-emptying) of God’s giving up deity altogether, suffering the cross, and so redeeming the sum of all the suffering in the universe, which in effect was all creation.

There are some truths, of course, in there – but overall it is in my view an example of what Stephen Chester (in the context of Pauline studies) describes as the “intensification” or “perfection” of a doctrine, that is, taking just one truth as central, and pushing it to the utmost limit, at the expense of all other truths. In this case, that doctrine is divine suffering.

I’ve written about the misinterpretation of Philippians 2 on Christ’s self-emptying more than once before, but the larger biblical evidence is the complete absence of any sense of God’s self-diminution in creation, or in anything else, through the Bible, save for the special circumstances of the Incarnation, in which the Son suffered in human flesh – yet remained fully God throughout.

Creation is represented in the Bible as a widening of God’s love, at which the “morning stars sang together,” rather than as God’s self-emptying to make room for it, and he is shown (as we have seen in this series so far) to be intimately and sovereignly involved in a good creation, not wringing his hands at the ubiquitous evil results of its autonomy. This, note, is an autonomy which is not taught at all, unlike God’s sovereign government, which is ubiquitous.

Self-giving love usually increases both the recipient and the giver. And in the old-fashioned language, creation magnifies God rather than diminishing him, which is consistent with our own experience – Einstein is increased, not diminished, by publishing his theory.

Then again, the suffering of Christ is pictured in Scripture as the means to an end involving greater glory and joy:

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)

Even the Philippians 2 proof-text for kenosis goes on to say:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In other words – and this is the key point – the suffering of Christ does not define the character of God; but nevertheless it reveals it. Let me give an illustration.

The boys in a First War infantry platoon are not over-enamoured of their commanding 2nd Lieutenant Farquahar. He is obviously a toff, comes across as rather aloof, and is a stickler both for drill and regulations, unlike more relaxed officers some of them have known.

But in the 2nd Ypres battle, the platoon finds itself cut off and dug in, pinned down by machine-gun fire and with a whole German division closing in fast. Ten men have already been lost, and their own machine gun emplacement, forward of their trench, is unmanned and unreachable. Suddenly, Lt. Farquahar leaps out of the dugout brandishing his pistol, races to the machine-gun (taking at least one hit), and singlehandedly keeps up a hail of fire, despite being badly wounded, until astonishingly the enemy breaks and withdraws.

Farquahar survives, amazingly, to collect his MC and fight another day – but his men now see him in an entirely new light, even though he’s as much a stickler for regulations as ever. They would follow him to the ends of the earth, and indeed some do in subsequent engagements, whilst several refuse to be separated from him even after hostilities cease, joining the staff of his large and prosperous Scottish estate and serving him in peace as in war.

The point, of course, is that the relatively limited time in which the officer suffered willingly for his men was still the definitive evidence of his love for them both after the trial was over and, in retrospect, even before the platoon got into its little scrape. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends.”

Self-giving love, then, is willing to suffer for the beloved, but is not based on suffering. The central feature of God’s character, and therefore of creation, is his love for it, not his suffering for it. One of the two Hebrew words for “form” used in creation accounts is chil, which literally means to bring forth in pain, as in the travail of childbirth. But the non-obstetric sense is usually that of “taking pains” over a worthwhile task – creation is being described as a “labour of love” rather than a “difficult labour.”

Love, when not opposed or betrayed, is all joy. The opposing of God’s love, according to Scripture, came not in the forming or management of creation, but in the betrayal of that love by the devil and his angelic followers, and by mankind in its Fall into sin. There are at least a couple of ways of viewing that. The first, from the earthly point of view, is that is was an unnecessary and anomalous rebellion against all that is good, in God and in creation itself. The second, from the mysterious viewpoint of God’s secret counsel, is that it was always intended as God’s opportunity to reveal the full extent of his love in giving up Jesus – “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” (1 Pet 1.20). He is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev 13:8).

Now, if we think of this in terms of an over-arching biblical metanarrative that involves deep time and a relatively recent Adam called to bring in a “new thing,” the new creation in which God’s glory will fill all things, then the whole drama of salvation from sin – the grief over making mankind described in the Flood narrative, the wrath against evil, and the salvific suffering and death of Christ – is a remarkably short set of events.

Just as the war in which our fictional army officer served was a small part of his life – and the heat of battle in which he distinguished himself was just a few hours – so the whole drama of sin, and the suffering to which Jesus was willing to submit, consists of just a few thousand years in the 12 billion year life of the old creation, and the eternity of the new.

Nevertheless it is pivotal, for given that drama of sin it is only through the Cross of Jesus both that we be may rescued from sin and death, and that the creation will be transformed as God always planned so that God is all in all. The Cross therefore stands at the point of transformation of the good old creation, into the unimaginably good new creation, and is indeed the key to its inauguration. The last and greatest creation fittingly comes into being through the last and greatest demonstration of God’s love, in the suffering of Christ.

That suffering, though, is not a permananent feature of God, but a response to human sin, just as the wrath of God, though not an aberration in the eternal character of God, is not a permanent phenomenon. There was no wrath in God before the onset of sin, and as Scripture tells us in Revelation, with the seven last plagues “God’s wrath is completed.” And the same, I think, is true for divine suffering, which grew out of pure joy in the craftsmanship and care of creation, and will be resolved once more into greater joy in the age to come.

Meanwhile, the Cross has revealed to the world the extent of the love of God – which in nature is in fact the same love, and the same God (the Father creating by his Son through the Spirit). For our theology of nature, then, we are now in a position to understand that the natural world around us, however it might appear to us in our fallen state, is an expression of the same love of Christ that cared enough to die for us.

That surely ought to affect how we live in it, but also how we work in it. A Christian researching the Cross historically, perhaps, or in medical terms, surely must not do so without being constantly aware that he is dealing with the greatest expression of God’s love. But the rest of history, human and natural, is also the outworking of that same love, as are the scientific truths to be discovered from nature. The truths of love ought never, surely, to be divorced from appreciation of that love.

Here is love, vast as the ocean,
loving-kindness as the flood,
when the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten
throughout heav’n’s eternal days.

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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