Before the powers went bad

Daniel Deen (aka Philosurfer), over at Peaceful Science, has just reviewed a chapter by Brian Curry in the book Christ and the Created Order. The chapter is interesting in focusing on the role of the “powers” that are so prominent in New Testament teaching, but so completely absent from science-faith discussion generally.

I was gratified, because I did my own treatment of “the powers” in my 2012 series on Christological Creation, and included a chapter in my book God’s Good Earth, concluding they had little or no role in the government of the natural creation, unlike their massive influence on human political and religious structures.

Incidentally I see that God’s Good Earth has now made a rudimentary early appearance on Amazon.com with a publication date of 2nd January coming! That despite the fact that I haven’t yet been asked to do the index – I’d better not get ill over Christmas or we’ll miss the imminent deadline.

Brian Curry’s treatment put me in mind of an argument for the unfallenness of the created order that I haven’t made, or at least haven’t stressed, in the book. Although he majors on the influence of spiritual powers on human affairs, he does give a nod to their role in what is called “natural evil,” a role which, as I have already said, I did not find when I actually searched the Scriptures on the matter. Perhaps the difference is that Curry obtained much of his material from a secondary source by John Howard Yoder.

He mentions “disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, drought, famine and death,” and proceeds to address the usual question of theodicy in relation to such natural evils, questioning whether a “binary” concept of God and his creation is sufficient to account for such violence as “not truly evil but necessary for God’s ‘big plan’.” Behind this must be a kind of Miltonian corruption of Satan and his angels at the start of the ages.

Curry is right, of course, to re-populate the universe with the angelic powers and authorities that Scripture so clearly affirms. But I think that Leibniz-style theodicy always ends us up in a worse place than before, as it has since its invention by the Deists in the seventeenth century, by actually denying Scripture head-on. My argument for this, perhaps paradoxically, comes from acknowledging the old earth which is so often said to have exacerbated the problem of theodicy.

Genesis 1, on any orthodox understanding, prepares the ground for the appearance of man, and the drama in the garden that follows in chapter 2. My own view is that Genesis 1 is intended to provide the setting for this drama in a cosmos designed as a temple, but even if this is denied, the teaching is plain, and it is this. At the time that mankind finally appeared on the scene, created in the image and likeness of God, and bringing the initial creation to a close, all that God had made was “very good.”

The whole reason for the repeated “God saw that it was good” statements of Genesis 1, and the “very good” summary, is to show in the context of the whole book that when evil appeared, it was alien to the goodness of God, with which he had endowed his work. Now, I’ve discussed before here, and in my book, that “good” is used primarily functionally rather than morally in Genesis 1: it does not mean that lions and tapeworms ate only carrots, but it does mean that the creation did exactly what God had intended it to do.

And that contrasts directly with the sin of the serpent and the primordial couple in the garden, which, although they were certainly accounted for in the “secret counsel” of God which had already set apart the Son as “the Lamb slain,” and which saw “the end from the beginning,” were not what God had intended, and were decidedly not good. The contrast, then, between the “very good” of chapter 1 and the sin of chapter 3 is essential to the whole purpose of Genesis.

Make your Adam recent, as I do, or ancient and palaeolithic, as some do, or even allegorical, as many do, and it doesn’t alter the fact, if we accept the fall at all, that sin came into the world then, and only then. Not only is an angelic fall, back in the mists of time, not mentioned in the Bible, even though it is in Paradise Lost, but it is impossible in an old earth scenario. For angels are part of creation, and were presumably involved in the world’s management in at least some manner, at a time when Scripture unequivocally says creation was good. The powers then were also, necessarily, good.

From this perspective a couple of things emerge. The first is that, since the disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, drought, famine and death mentioned by Brian Curry not only existed, but were formative of that good creation of which mankind was the finishing touch, we cannot attribute them, in an absolute sense, to fallen powers. We have no warrant from the creation account for establishing a moral dualism in the created order.

It follows from this that we have no more justification for branding those natural phenomena as the work of evil powers in our time either, for as far as we can tell they are operating in much the same way as they always have. That, of course, is not to say that their distribution to the detriment of mankind might not be the result of the now-fallen powers – but in my book I show that, as a matter of fact, God claims throughout the Bible to retain complete control of the forces of nature for his own just government of the world.

A third conclusion also follows, once we have demonstrated a satanic-fall-before-the-ages to be untenable. And that is that the fall of both mankind and the powers is (compared to the age of creation) a very recent thing, a mere blip in the scheme of things, both compared to the age of the physical order, and to future eternity. In fact, I suggest, the fall of people and powers was simultaneous, for it was as God revealed his intention to hand over the rule of all things (including angels) to this man of dust, that the devil saw reason to subvert God’s will and deceive man into sin. And so we can see evil as a very real affront to God’s good purposes, but as a very temporary state of affairs, both in the physical and spiritual realms. “God is not slow, as some perceive slowness.”

This gives to the times before the fall a dignity and divine grandeur we might otherwise miss. For the duration of the 12 billion odd years we can attribute to the universe since the Big Bang, including the 3 billion years of life on earth, the cosmos truly was a divine temple. The old myths of a golden age before evil are true, for God reigned on his heavenly throne, perhaps through his angelic powers and authorities, uncontested.

Why we should not simply hanker after the good old days and spend all our time admiring the fossils in natural history museums is that this was only the first, perishable, creation. When God created mankind in his image, it was in order to bring to an end the perishable order by transforming it into a spiritual and imperishable kingdom. That was Adam’s role, and that was Adam’s failure, and that was the downfall of the powers too. And that is why we are unsuited to life in the old, perishable world and, whether consciously or unconsciously, hanker after eternity.

It is only because the good God of the old creation is also the Christ who has brought in the new that eternity is still open to us, if only we break with our past, and with the “elemental powers,” and commit ourselves to him and his inbreaking order.

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Genealogical Adam, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Before the powers went bad

  1. GD GD says:

    Interesting discussion Jon. The remark concerning fallen spirits and their role in the cosmos and also heaven, has inspired a great deal of poetry, to which I am drawn. I agree that the role of the serpent is discussed in Genesis, but the bible makes a few references to Satan, even in tempting Christ, so I am inclined to see a more active role for such powers.

    On the age of the Universe and sin entering the world with Adam, I think a chronology regarding fallen spirits may be invalid.

    Having said that, God is over all, so these powers impact on the choices and behaviour of us, be it as individuals or as institutionalised aspects of humanity. It is inappropriate to suggest they may have an adverse impact on what God has ordained (I am not saying anyone has made such a suggestion, although I feel Milton may have overdone it in his paradise lost).

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      GD

      Have you come across Michael Heiser’s contention that by “serpent” the original author and readers of Genesis would have understood not a mere beast, but an angelic being, one of the divine council? There are some intriguing linguistic clues to that interpretation, including the interesting fact that the seraphim (burning ones) of Isaiah, believed to be essentially the same as cherubim, have the same name as the serpents that plagued Israel in the wilderness.

      That possibility doesn’t alter the overall message (for as you say, Scripture not only talks about Satan, but pins the Eden temptation on him). An angelic being, or an angelic being speaking through a beast, is a relatively minor difference. But it would provide a continuity of ideas and show that the later writers weren’t simply “flying a kite.”

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