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Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

This will continue the discussion, dealing more with definitions. In the area of soteriology (the study of salvation) we frequently make the same statements in terms of words and structure, yet mean something quite different by it. “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” means quite different things, depending on who is saying it.

Hangout on Air Tonight: Salvation (Universalism, Pluralism, Inclusivism, Exclusivism)

Hangout on Air Tonight: Salvation (Universalism, Pluralism, Inclusivism, Exclusivism)

On the Energion Hangout tonight I’ll be hosting Dr. Bruce Epperly and Dr. Allan Bevere to discuss salvation in Christian theology and the terms I’ve listed. Doubtless many others will come up.

The Energion Discussion Network resource page for this discussion is Soteriology. Click here for the Google+ Event Page.

 

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism in Soteriology

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism in Soteriology

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white backgroundThis past week on the Energion Discussion Network two answers were posted to the question “Can the great religions be vehicles of salvation for their followers?” Answering “Yes” was Dr. Herold Weiss, and answering “No” was Dr. H. Van Dyke Parunak. Both are authors published by my company, Energion Publications.

I enjoyed reading the responses for a number of reasons other than the actual answer given to the question. Quite frequently we respond to an article based on whether we agree with the answer or not. The well-argued, well-presented article is one that supports our own point of view. The scattered, poorly presented one is the one we oppose. In my experience only a few people can say, “This was a well-written article even though I disagree vigorously with its conclusion.”

I’m going to do precisely that in this case. Both of these responses to the question are well-written, and they are even well reasoned. It may seem odd to say that when they come to opposite conclusions. It’s important, however, when you read something this short regarding a topic this complex, that you ask yourself just where the author is coming from. Having edited books by both men, I have a leg-up in doing that, but if you read carefully you can clearly see the approach each takes to revelation (particularly scripture), theology, and finally doctrine. These approaches can be experienced at length in Dr. Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology, and Dr. Parunak’s book Except for Fornication: The Teaching of the Lord Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage.

You can get some idea of the difference simply by counting the number of scriptural quotations in each post. My quick count gives me eight quotations by Dr. Parunak and one by Dr. Weiss. There are some who will think that gives the answer. Dr. Parunak is being more scriptural than Dr. Weiss. I would suggest that this is something like determining how scholarly a book is by counting the footnotes. I have a book on my shelves which has an overwhelmingly large number of footnotes. But if one eliminates footnotes to the author’s own works, footnotes to unreliable sources, and simply incorrect footnotes, the count drops dramatically. The notes give the impression of scholarship, but unless they are also carefully and correctly done, they are not themselves good scholarship.

So the question here is how scripture is used in each case. If you think of it this way, Dr. Weiss is actually inviting you to read more scripture, as he refers to broad theological concepts. You’d need to read at least the books of John, Romans, and Galatians, to actually pick up on some of the ideas he’s presenting.

So now, in turn, am I intending to put down Dr. Parunak’s work based on changing the way I count from a quotation count to a necessary reading count. Absolutely not! This is, in fact, one of the best exercises I’ve seen in years of the way in which the approach an author takes to scripture impacts his or her results.

For Dr. Weiss, scripture is a varied landscape, reflecting a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds, cultures, and even theologies. This landscape invites us to study and to form theology. He would never (and in my experience has never) simply quote a text and say that the text settles the issue. He would always apply that text to a study of the theology of the book of the Bible it came from and as part of the work of its author, particularly its human author. He demonstrates this in a range of books, but particularly in his book Creation in Scripture in which he looks at the variety of views on creation that are contained in the Bible. Some people wonder how he can do this. Surely the creation story is not told repeatedly, even if one accepts that there are two stories in Genesis, which many do not. But Weiss is talking about views of creation, how God is understood to be the creator: Theology, not science or history.

In the YouTube video below you can watch me interview him about the gospel of John, though Colossians comes up at well!

Dr. Parunak, on the other hand, sees scripture as more directly from the hand of God, in the sense that all scripture presents a unified picture of doctrine that can be deciphered by the interpreter, and can and should be tested and result in a high degree of certainty. So he will draw a more direct connection between a particular scripture passage. He does not have room for a variety in scripture such that we could say that one theology differs from another.

You can see me interview Dr. Parunak below, and you’ll hear him express this for himself:

Though I find the question of pluralism interesting, I find the way in which we answer it even more interesting.

If you want to explore these ideas further, let me recommend a little book by Rev. Steve Kindle, I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why We Disagree about the Bible and What to Do About It. If you’re more interested in the issue of biblical inspiration, try my own book When People Speak for God, The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age (Bob Cornwall), or the more intense From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully.

My point here is not to critique either approach. I am not forced to publish anything. I wouldn’t have published books by these two authors unless I found their contribution valuable. But you and I as readers have to answer for ourselves the question of what we believe, and to do that we need to get behind the question of what an author believes to why he or she believes that. “Because the Bible says it,” is not really an answer unless you also know how that author or speaker reads and interprets the Bible.

So what about my answer to the question posed? Can the great world religions be vehicles of salvation for their adherents? I must note first that I regard my discussion of methology as much more important than any answer I might give here. Let me use Dr. Weiss’s terminology, which he discusses in his book Finding My Way in Christianity, pages 192 & 193. Exclusivism, he says, is the belief that all are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus and must confess in order to do so. Inclusivism says that there may be those in other faiths who are saved, but they are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus. Pluralism says that any religion may provide salvation and that Christianity does not have an exclusive hold on the true salvation story (I am using my own wording though working from Weiss’s material).

As I look at the question, I find it very difficult to answer without implying something I don’t mean. I am saved by the grace of God, not by a faith tradition, or a particular set of doctrinal beliefs. So just because someone says “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean they are on the right road. My church membership is not what saves me. So in the sense that I believe God’s grace comes to me without consideration for my merit, in which I include meritorious beliefs as well as meritorious acts, I cannot exclude anyone. How wrong would I have to be in order to be excluded from God’s grace?

On the other hand, since I do believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, i.e., I believe that the incarnation is conceptually an exclusive event, and I also believe that there is just one God, however differently we may understand God, then I also see no salvation outside of Jesus, not because one has to understand this in a particular way, but because that was God’s ultimate act, one I see not merely as historical, but also as timeless and unbound by geography. God said that God was not too far away, that God was able to understand and to feel, and that God was able to deal with our guilt, our brokenness, and yes, our healing.

I find that both a message worth proclaiming, and at the same time a call for humility. How wrong can I be and yet be the subject of God’s grace? And in that case how wrong should I allow someone else to be and still consider them to be under God’s grace?

Actually I have an easy answer to that one. Nowhere has God made me the one to decide. I am simply convinced that if infinite God was willing to become finite and limited and live life as I must live it, that God isn’t going to miss any useful option in seeing God’s grace become effective on God’s children. I must sincerely doubt that God’s grace is less effective than mine.

As such, I’m going to trust God to get it right.


 

As a follow-up I’m going to discuss these issues with two other Energion authors, Dr. Allan Bevere and Dr. Bruce Epperly. This will be live via Google Hangouts on Air on January 26, 2016 at 7:00 pm central time:  Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism Hangout (January 26).

Keeping up with the Justification Debate

Keeping up with the Justification Debate

I am doing some reading before I respond to a couple of posts, but I did want to link to some interesting stuff.

Both Mark Olson (Pseudo-polymath) and Anne (Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength) have written posts discussing justification from a perspective other than the judicial/penal substitution approach. Their posts simply confirm to me that there are many, many valid ways to talk about the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf, and that penal substitution is just one of those. Unlike some, I do not wish to discard it, but I also will not make it the one and only metaphor.

Adrian Warnock has posted twice, first Legalism, Racism, and the First Century Jew, to which I will respond later at some length. I find much to object to in that short post, but I’m also working through Piper’s comments in their context before I blow off steam.

The second one is 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 5 – Two Critical Passages on Justification in which he links an article that I had linked earlier, and says:

If you are interested in seeing an example of this, there is an article by Wright on 2 Corinthians 5:21 [PDF-HN] that I must say I found wholly unconvincing.

I see a great deal of “finding unconvincing” but I see remarkably little actual exegetical argument. The primary form of argument appears to be theological. If the question is whether the new perspectives on Paul differ from prior theological statements, then we can cheerfully answer yes, and go on. But for me the question is whether the new perspective gets us closer to correctly understanding Paul and what he has to say.

One of the keys here is to understand the paradigm shift that several interpreters have taken. If you do not accept that paradigm shift, you are likely not to accept Wright’s specific exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21. That is not surprising, since he is dealing with that verse in the context of that new paradigm. (I am not overly fond of “paradigm shift,” as a term, or at least I don’t think I am, but it seems to me that the new perspectives on Paul do justify that term.)

Peter Kirk blogged on this same topic, and brings up a number of points. I have to say that anyone who implies that Augustine was a theological pygmy is likely to get my favorable attention! But more importantly, Peter points to one side issue, and that is the way in which (some?) reformed theology can make God look like he is a bit veracity-challenged, and can’t truly tell whether people are righteous or not.

Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. Instead of this, the picture I have, based on various biblical passages such as Ephesians 4:22-24, is that the Christian consists of two separate persons or personalities: the “old self” (in some versions “old man”, but to be understood of course in a gender generic sense) born by natural birth who is a sinner, guilty, condemned to death and destined to die; and the “new self” born of the Spirit and into Christ, who is righteous, holy, free from condemnation, will not die, and indeed is already living eternal life in God’s kingdom. . . .

Just so. Like Peter, I continue to be in flux on some of these issues. There are boundary lines that I’m fairly certain of, but others I’m studying a great deal, but Peter’s paragraph is one of those that strikes me as promising. When I read it, I feel that he is “with” Paul in a significant way. Perhaps he’ll have to adjust some, as he says, but he’s going the right direction.

I will be blogging a bit more on 2 Corinthians 5 from an exegetical point of view, hopefully in the next few days.

PDF of The Future of Justification

PDF of The Future of Justification

I missed this earlier, but there is a PDF of the full book available on the Desiring God web site. I must admit that a couple of books by N. T. Wright still remain above it on my reading list.

Administrative Note: I will be upgrading this blog to WordPress 2.3.1 in the next half hour. If you see this post you either snuck in before me, or I’ve finished. I have the process streamlined, so there should be minimum disruption.

Update: Upgrade is complete. Also, I should have given a hat tip to Metacatholic on that PDF.

New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

I find myself commenting a bit on this topic before I really feel ready to do so, but there are certain things I’d like to insert into the conversation that is being generated from Adrian Warnock’s blog, through the discussion of John Piper’s book The Future of Justification. (Some preliminary notes on the new perspectives may be found on my participatory Bible study blog, category New Perspectives on Paul. All these are just my notes as I journey through some of this interesting writing.)

Adrian has put a good deal of emphasis on what he sees as the gracious approach that John Piper has taken toward N. T. Wright’s work, and how accurately, in his view, Bishop Wright has been portrayed. I have no reason to believe that Piper is intending to be anything but gracious and accurate, and yet there are some things that bother me just a bit. (On these, see below.)

I’m going to outline the points here, but much of my reading on the new perspective has been from sources other than N. T. Wright, so I want to emphasize two things. First, I am in no way trying to characterize Wright’s views on this. I think those who really want to understand him should read what he has written. I linked to an excellent paper he wrote in my previous post on this topic, Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism (PDF). Second, I am myself exploring these ideas, and my training was primarily Old Testament, though I did a considerable amount of exegesis in Greek in school, and afterward. But even so I think I can perhaps help clarify a couple of things.

I started from Adrian’s post today, Legalism Versus Grace in First Century Judaism, in which he says:

Anyone who has read anything about the New Perspectives on Paul will realize that one of the key arguments is that we have misunderstood the Pharisees through the perspective of the Reformation. The first century Jews were never legalists, we are told. . . .

But there are a number of problems with this claim as well. First, it is not essential for the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) that one assume that there were no Jewish legalists, or that there were no legalistic Pharisees. The key position is that Judaism was and is not a legalistic religion, and that in it favor with God was based on grace. I can find any number of legalistic Christians, plenty of whom would fit as targets of some passages in Luke 18 (cited by Adrian later in the paragraph), but they do not make Christianity into a legalistic religion by nature.

Jesus can encounter dozens and hundreds of legalistic Pharisees, and yet the essential foundation of Pharisaism need not be legalistic, nor does it have to carry over into modern Judaism in a legalistic fashion. Just how far one goes on this issue is another matter, and one which I am studying. I definitely believe that the religion of the Mosaic covenant, Israelite religion, was founded on grace expressed through the covenant. That has been my position long before I read any NPP material.

I tend to see first century Judaism as both a bit more corrupted and also more fragmented, so that I find it questionable to make many generalizations about first century Judaism. One could make a few generalizations about groups. Having said that, the Pharisees were probably one of the less corrupt groups. I suspect that they often disputed with Jesus because they were able to connect more frequently, while still not agreeing with him.

But this whole debate illustrates one of the problems I’m seeing with the online critique. (And again I must emphasize that I have not read The Future of Justification, and thus am not commenting on Piper’s own work, but only on Adrian’s presentation of it on his blog.) This issue of legalistic Pharisees as opposed to the legalistic nature of Judaism (or not, as Wright would maintain), illustrates the major paradigm shift that Wright and others are making. They are not seeing justification as dealing with whether an individual is “saved” or not, but rather as proclaiming/acknowledging that person’s entry into God’s people as a group. It is an individualistic perspective that, in answer to the claim that a faith position is based on grace, points out individuals who are legalistic.

For the NPP, we have been reading Galatians and Romans from the wrong perspective, asking the wrong questions. This was drilled into me both as an undergraduate Biblical languages student and in seminary: The message of Galatians is that we are saved by grace through faith and not by the works of the law. Essentially, in that case, Galatians is written in opposition to legalism, and particularly Jewish legalism.

Since first reading a bit about the NPP, I have worked through Galatians twice in Greek, using two different commentaries that at least partake of portions of the NPP. Each time through has been a bit mind twisting. But as I teach at the most basic level of Bible study methods, your questions often determine your answers, so it is very important to ask the right questions. In the case of Galatians, in the seminary classroom, I asked the question “How can I be saved?” I found an answer there–not by the works of the law, but rather by faith.

The NPP suggests that Paul is answering a different question: How does one become a part of God’s people, i.e. how does one come under the covenant? Paul’s enemies say it is by becoming Jews, with the sign of circumcision; Paul says that incorporation takes place because of the death and resurrection of Jesus and through faith. We are looking here much less at individual salvation, and much more at the definition of community. Neither side believes that being part of the covenant people can be earned by works. The sign and the means of incorporation are different.

This is over-simplified, partially because I haven’t incorporated the vocabulary myself, but after two passes through the book of Galatians trying to answer those questions I think I begin to see how the categories work. If you really want to try to understand the NPP, one good exercise is to ditch the “how does an individual become righteous in God’s eyes?” question, and replace it with “how and why does a person come under God’s covenant?” Then read Galatians looking for the answer to that second question. I’m not saying give up your view ahead of time. Just tentatively ask yourself how the book would work if you were asking a different question.

Ironically, it looks to me like Piper might have erred in an attempt to be as gracious as possible. He attempts to read Wright as favorably as possible from his own perspective. In Adrian’s post John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?, he quotes Piper noting the areas in which Wright would agree with the reformed view, and then the single item on which he disagrees. From Piper’s point of view, making Wright agree in most senses with the reformed view appears gracious. But it looks to me like he is missing the point. It is not that Wright goes along with the standard view and then disagrees because he does not believe righteousness is imputed or imparted. Rather, he is defining righteousness in a different way, and therefore the declaration that one is righteous means something different. It is a paradigm shift in which almost all definitions are adjusted, not a minor alteration.

I think we need to understand the NPP, and particularly Wright’s view of all of this carefully as a whole. Picking it apart in a point by point comparison with the reformed view, or any other for that matter, will not work well, because Wright is shifting the categories. Justification doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to a traditional reformed theologian.

A Question of Ecumenism, Theology, or Exegesis

A Question of Ecumenism, Theology, or Exegesis

Over the last few days Adrian Warnock has been posting excerpts from John Piper’s new book on justification, The Future of Justification. His latest seems to represent an escalation, with its title John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?. Adrian has maintained throughout that Piper is being gracious to Wright and is accurately representing Wright’s views.

Other than to note the escalation, however, the grace (or lack thereof) of Piper’s book (which I have not read) is not my topic. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, so to speak, because I am not nearly as concerned that one gets justification precisely right. This topic is, in my view, very susceptible to “doctrinal correctness”–a tenseness about precise terms that makes it difficult to explore. Reformed theologians in particular seem to want to make one’s precise understanding of justification they anchor point of their theology. They equate it with the gospel. I couldn’t possibly disagree more. The gospel is not a precise understanding of esoteric points of theology.

Which leads me to the actual purpose of this post. What is driving the discussion? Piper is criticizing Wright’s view on justification, and I’m not going to criticize him directly, but there is a clear tendency in Adrian’s quotes from Piper, and that is simply define what reformed theology has been up until now, demonstrate that Wright disagrees, and leave the obvious impression that Wright must be wrong.

Elsewhere, there are some who claim that Wright’s theology is driven by ecumenical goals–bringing Catholic and protestant views together. I’m not sure how well that is going, if it is true. Certainly the hardliners in the reformed camp aren’t feeling the ecumenical spirit in all of this.

But when I read Wright himself, I get a different impression entirely of his driving force. Now I need to place a caveat here. I am only a small part of the way through my own preliminary studies of this New Perspectives on Paul, and I probably won’t try to express my own opinion on some of the key issues for months. Right now I can simply say that the work of Wright answers some questions about Paul for me and raises others. I’m tempted to simply fall back to the notion that Paul was a complex character, and does not willingly fit into our theological boxes.

When N. T. Wright goes about doing his own writing he appears to me to be driven not to find or produce a particular theological result, but rather by exegetical concerns. He seems to be more careful to follow the text where it leads than the majority of writers. I’ve read. For an example of his exegetical writing, see On Becoming the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). For a more theological view, with Wright expressing his own view of justification, see Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism.

In response to this, we need more than theology. I have no doubt that there are reformed theologians making theological arguments, yet there are also many who are simply happy to point out that Wright fails to meet their standards of “orthodox evangelical theology” and thus can be dismissed out of hand.

But wasn’t one of the features of the reformation going directly back to scripture? At this point it looks to me like the Bishop of Durham is behaving like a reformation theologian–digging through the texts and trying to come to the best understanding possible, while the purported defenders of the reformation are left to point out just how orthodox their teaching is–by their standards.

If I’m given the choice between defending theological turf and wrestling with exegesis and trying to understand Paul in his world and mission I’ll choose the latter every time.

Morning Reading – 11/6/2007

Morning Reading – 11/6/2007

I read a large number of blog entries each day, and I never have time to comment on everything I’d like to. Considering how many posts I do write, this may be a good thing. One way to comment without having to write is by linking to extremely good posts, and this morning provided me with some excellent material.

Responding to Torture

First, I have been trying to get a handle on writing a post on torture, with the Mukasey hearings, but I haven’t gotten beyond “torture is evil.” After that it feels odd to be explaining that torture is bad. It’s so much a part of me, that I have a hard time taking it seriously as a debate, but there it is, being debated by presumably serious people.

But Joe Carter has saved me on this point, by writing a 100% on target, excellent post, Our Tortured Silence: The Shameful Response of Christians to Waterboarding.

All I would add is that our fear sometimes makes us waffle on our moral convictions. We must fight terrorism, but we must be sure to maintain our integrity while we do it, or the terrorists win even if we physically defeat them. Let’s be sure we like who we are when we’re done.

Dividing the Denominations

Through an unrelated comment, I found a post on the division of the church, Happy Reformation Day/Hallowe’en. This relates to my own previous post, Setting Doctrinal Priorities. I’m not concerned about their being denominations, or at least accountability organizations that bring congregations together, but we very often do not see the unifying factors, and thus splinter further and further.

What is the Gospel?

Again, relating to two earlier posts, Adrian Warnock has posted on justification again, and after quoting a description of forensic justification, and details of imputed righteousness, he says:

That, my dear reader, is the Gospel. What better explanation of it have you ever read?

Now I don’t have a problem with Adrian seeing the gospel there, but that is simply one way of expressing it; it is not the only one. When we divide along such detailed lines, I see many problems ahead for Christian unity.

Am I an Evangelical?

Am I an Evangelical?

[Reflective rambling alert, to those who prefer more substantive stuff.]

I’ve answered this question before, but it was brought back to me over this past weekend when someone who knows me well enough to know better described me as “a solid evangelical.” Say what? He definitely intended it as a compliment, but I was somewhat surprised.

Then I was reading Adrian Warnock’s blog, on which he has begun to work through Piper’s new book The Future of Justification. Adrian says:

That infamous quote from N. T. Wright and his framing of thousands of years of debate about the imparting or imputing of Christ’s righteousness as ‘muddle headed’ is breathtaking. Either Wright is as much of a lone figure reformed as say Martin Luther himself, pointing back centuries before him to another lost truth that makes Luther as much in error as the Pope of his time, OR Wright, however bright a scholar he is, is very wrong. I believe Piper has shown how very wrong Wright is. Join me over the next few days as we explore how he does this.

When I read something like this from Adrian, surely an evangelical, I have to doubt whether I want the label. It’s not that I think Adrian or Piper are being discourteous. It is just that they split doctrinal hairs down so many times. To me, N. T. Wright is conservative. I understand the differences between him and other evangelicals. I just don’t see the critical importance of the difference in the way Adrian states it. (I will certainly be following Adrians comments, though I doubt that I will read the book.)

In fact, I don’t think the Bible itself manifests anything like the unity in describing human sin, redemption, atonement, and God’s expectations of people that appears in this very tense reformed evangelical theology. N. T. Wright is not, in my view, all that opaque. He’s extremely thorough with impeccable scholarship. And as for Martin Luther, while I appreciate some of his reform efforts, I truly do not think he said the last word on understanding Paul.

Reformed interpretation of Paul has gotten muddle headed and it has done so simply because theological propositions have been given preeminence over an exegesis of the text. In addition, an assumption that the Bible teaches a single theology tends to paper over the differences.

Labels are such slippery things. Any label that manages to acquire a positive connotation will also tend to spread, as people want to claim the label, even when they are not in the center of the definition. “Fundamentalist” has had a bit of a negative connotation, and so it hasn’t become nearly so diluted. The label “orthodox” (lower case ‘o’) is generally very positively perceived in Christian circles. It’s definition started with those who toed the doctrinal line put out by the church councils, and these days very few Christians want to be called “unorthodox.” I like to say that being “orthodox” means you can say the apostles creed without crossing your fingers. Trouble is, of course, that people have very different tolerances for reinterpretation before they feel obligated to cross their fingers.

In my previous answer to this question I mentioned the evangelical commentators on Daniel I have found, including Earnest Lucas who wrote the Daniel volume in the Apolos Old Testament Commentary series. Lucas maintains that one can assert Biblical inerrancy and also a 2nd century date for the book of Daniel. When I mentioned this to an evangelical friend, he said, “Well, that series is published by InterVarsity Press and they’re pretty much just another liberal publisher any more.” Note that Lucas does not exclusively affirm a 2nd century date, but simply asserts that either is possible for one who believes in inerrancy.

So an evangelical commentary on Daniel can assert a 2nd century date, and InterVarsity press can be considered liberal. Such are the wanderings of labels over the conceptual landscape.

Creation, Fall, and Redemption: Three Views

Creation, Fall, and Redemption: Three Views

Yesterday I wrote about the significance of the theory of evolution for the view of evil, particularly whether physical death is the result of human evil. Understanding Christian views on this topic requires some knowledge of the doctrines of creation and the fall, and secondarily of redemption.

One of the most contentious issues in the creation-evolution controversy amongst Christians involves specifically the creation of human beings. When surveys ask whether humans were specially created by God recently (6-10 thousand years), they may get skewed results because of this. There are a number of Christians who believe the universe and the earth are old, and that life on earth is old and may well have developed via evolutionary processes, but believe that human beings are specially created. Thus, they would affirm that all life is related except for human beings.

This may seem very odd from a scientific point of view, but I’m dealing here with theological objections to evolution. While I’m primarily presenting this material as background for understanding the previous objection, there is also the simple objection that because of their special place in God’s plan, human beings must be a special creation. This objection is often misunderstood, and is also often misstated. The major theological problem is not whether the first human was directly formed from dust rather than developed from a prior form, but more that the development must be special and a direct intervention of God. (Note that this is not my view, but rather I’m trying to represent a range of views that require a separate, special creation.)

There are three elements here. First is the creation of human beings, however accomplished. What was the moral state of these creatures, and how did they attain “the image of God?” Second is the fall. Assuming that humanity original carried God’s image and was on good terms with God (as presented in Genesis), what happened and when? Finally, these two elements will combine to impact one’s view of redemption. The result of redemption depends on what the original state actually was.

I’m not going to try to name these views. I’m going to describe them and present them in three columns. These views range from a fairly literal one (but not necessarily young earth), to a completely evolutionary view.

Element View 1 View 2 View 3
Creation Human beings are specially created, either separately or individually, or on a plan similar to existing apes. They are formed precisely according to a detailed, divine plan. Human beings evolve physical, but receive or become a soul through action of God at a specific point. At that point they are morally innocent and what God would want them to be, even though their bodies are the result of evolutionary processes. Any self-aware, intelligent creature should be regarded as “in the image of God.” The means of forming such a creature are irrelevant. Such a creature would be innocent, but also morally limited based on heredity and environment.
Fall The fall resulted from a specific violation of a specific, known command of God. Eating the fruit may be symbolic, but it is symbolic of a particular event that occurred chronologically after the creation of human beings, i.e. it is not a part of their state as physical creatures. As a general rule, similar to the first view, though the specific nature of the rebellion may not be specified so precisely. The fall expresses something inherent in the state of a finite creature. There may be a moment of stepping away from innocence, but this is more a matter of recognizing and consciously making moral choices than specifically violating a specific command or even rebelling generally against divine authority.
Results Physical death resulted from the fall. Young earthers will generally hold that all physical death results from this act. Old earthers may believe simply that human beings suffer death because of the rebellion. Physical death is simply part of the state of being a physical creature. Creatures die; humans are creatures. There is inherent in our condition a separation from our spiritual home with God.
Redemption Involves return to the originally created state via God’s creative power. (The first two views will overlap here. Involves a return to the original state, only better, with a spiritual body. Redemption allows the spiritual side of humanity to connect with the creator in eternal life, which is a gift given by God. What is meant by “eternal life” varies in how it will be interpreted and what that state of being will be.

I believe that almost any actual theologian will vary from any single column. My hope is that you will think of a continuum starting with the first view and ending with the third for each element and realize that some mixing and matching will occur. These are just summaries of some of the possibilities. I’m trying to keep this short and thus have not provided all the Biblical support for each position.

If I generate enough interest in my own mind or on the blog, I may write some more on the Biblical and theological implications of each of these points.