Basil of Caesarea is not only one of the Fathers I cite in God’s Good Earth as a supporter of the teaching of an unfallen creation, but he wrote a complete series of homilies on the days of creation, expounding Scripture in conjunction with the science of his time. In other words, he was both deeply interested in, and a great admirer of, the creation. So I was struck by reading an apparent anomaly in his other writings yesterday:
My children, we Christians don’t consider that this present life possesses any value in and of itself. Nor do we give our verdict that a thing is genuinely good, if all it does is contribute to the present life alone… No, our hopes march forward to the future; all the things we do are geared towards getting ourselves ready for the next life.
Now, I might be inclined to put such apparent disdain for the present world down to the known influence of Neoplatonism on Christianity then, to which Basil was certainly exposed as a student in Athens. But his very robust attitude to the goodness of the present creation would then present something of a paradox.
Actually, I don’t want to spend this time accounting for Basil’s views – suffice it to say that we may need to take the impression of “pie in the sky when you die” in older authors with a pinch of salt, as deeper things are likely going on in their thought.
Instead I want to apply the paradox to my own developing views on how the biblical metanarrative is constructed, because I am someone who affirms, and rejoices in, the goodness of the present creation. I even see a strong continuity between this world and the promised new creation in Christ. And yet the hope of the life to come is a central theme of both my own theology and that of the historical Church. What can account for the strong Christian emphasis on suffering and service here – and concern for the welfare of those who are poor or lost, as well as the longsuffering natural world – yet also for setting all our hopes on a new world order altogether, going by the name of “a new heavens and a new earth”?
Briefly, the way I view the overarching story of Scripture is as a tale in 3 scenes, as here. This is informed by, though not dictated by, the Genealogical Adam idea. I see the creation of Adam, whether de novo or from an evolved human, as transcending biology, this man being called in history into a new, and spiritual, relationship with God in the garden of Eden. He is intended to become a priest to the world, transforming both it and his own race as a dwelling place for God, until in the end “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God.”
The call of Israel follows a parallel path, including the repeat of Adam’s failure, and the third “movement” is that in which Jesus succeeds where the others failed, and the new creation is inaugurated, to be consummated at his return.
My focus here, though, is particularly on the exile of Adam, which the Genesis account portrays as expulsion from the garden of God, and the tree of life, back to his place of origin in the wider world – which is, in all respects, the good earth created by God in Genesis 1.
On my narrative above, the garden was the seed-bed for the transformation of creation from the physical, the psuchikos to the spiritual, the pneumatikos. Had Adam and Eve sought wisdom at its true source – in the fear of the Lord (and so obedience to his command not to eat of the tree), which is the beginning of wisdom – then they would have grown in the wisdom of God – which is as much as to say, in Christ the logos (incidentally John Calvin translated Logos into Latin as “sermo“, because of its strong connotation of wisdom and conversation). And as they took that wisdom into the world, in the power of God and the eternal life of the tree of life, they would have transformed the world and everything in it in ways we cannot really imagine, but which would have made it suitable to be filled with the glory of God. Man, the image of God, was through Adam to bring God fully into his cosmic temple.
By this we may conclude that the milieu for which Adamic man was created “from the dust” – in contrast to what Genealogical Adam conceives as earthly man before him, albeit created in God’s image and representing him in the world – was a world like Eden, overflowing with God’s presence, brimming with the life of Christ, each creature, like Moses’s burning bush, perhaps, radiant with the glory of God. In other words, Adam was created for the world that Christ is now, at last, beginning to bring to fruition.
It follows that it was intended that wherever Adam and his race went from the garden, they would be conforming that world to the new pattern – terraforming the world to come, if you want a prosaic parallel, to suit their new nature and the purposes of the Father.
Instead we see Adam exiled back to the original world, the world of the physical. Not only does he fail to bring the new creation to fruition – he corrupts and pollutes the lower level of goodness with which God endowed it at creation. This, to me, is where creation’s “frustration” arises in Romans 8. Its actual state was what it had always been, but (at least in terms of anthropomorphic personification) God had promised something new – his very own presence in all things in glory. To have such a “divinization” rudely stymied by mankind’s sin would be as frustrating as anything could be for a physical creation.
But for mankind the problem is at least one step more severe – Adam’s race had already begun the process of transformation, and had started to live in such a new world in the garden, walking among the “stones of fire,” to use Ezekiel’s phrase. God was perfectly just to exile the couple who, by their deeds, had demonstrated their origin as worthless dust, back into that world of dust. But that world was no longer their native soil, except in the merely biological sense.
And neither it our native soil – not just as Christians with a sure hope of eternal life, but as children of Adam with a history. Ecclesiastes says that God “has also set eternity in the human heart.” I suggest that Adam’s was the first heart so endowed.
Israel saw the exile of Adam as a parallel to their own exile, and as N T Wright points out, they saw no end to their exile, despite the return of the remnant, until the kingdom of Messiah would come. The logic of that is that as Babylon was the place of exile for Israel, so the physical earth of the old creation was the land of exile, and remains the land of exile, for Adam and his children, until Christ changes it. We remain exiles until we reach what has always been our native home, a theme on which I recorded a rather patchy album of songs a few years ago.
This typology can be developed fruitfully, for this world remains our only home until that coming change, and it is neither to be despised nor neglected. The prophets told Israel to settle in Babylon, to build houses, raise families and – because they must never forget the land of the covenant – actually to bring transformation to that alien land. See what Daniel and his friends, or Esther and Mordecai, achieved in that regard. Likewise, the Christian life is to be lived out fully and richly here, whether that is in terms of bringing justice and hope to man, or in terms of exploring and glorifying God for all that he has already made, as St Basil did so long ago. Yet that ought to be done in the conscious knowledge – and the certain hope – that it is the new creation for which all of us who are in Adam were created in the beginning.