Theology & Culture (4): A Theology of Culture (Redemption and New Creation)

[Note: The material in this installment is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Theology & Practice of Mission (B&H, Fall 2011).]

The Bible’s third plot movement occurs immediately after the Fall. God gives not only a promise of death (Gen 2:17), but also a promise of life (Gen 3:15). He immediately declares that one day the offspring of the woman would destroy the serpent. Paul recognizes this promise as a prophecy of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16), God’s Son who is “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). This declaration, therefore, is God’s promise to send the Messiah to whom the entirety of Scripture ultimately testifies as it declares how God, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, would fulfill his promise to send this Savior.

God affirms that by the Savior’s stripes man is healed, and upon the Savior’s shoulders the sin of the world was borne (Is 52:13-53:12). Further, the redemption he provides reaches into every square inch of God’s creation, including the non-human aspects of creation. This redemption of the created order is made clear in major Christological and soteriological passages such as Colossians 1:13-23 and Ephesians 1:1-14. In the Colossians text, we are told that Christ the creator of all things is also Christ the reconciler of all things; God will “by [Christ] reconcile all things to Himself, by Him” (Col 1:20). In the Ephesians passage, we are told that we have redemption through Christ’s blood, and that further, “in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth-in Him” (Eph 1:10). We know that Christ has not yet reconciled all things to himself because creation still groans in bondage (Rom 8:20-22).

For this reason, Scripture points us forward to a new heavens and earth in which God’s kingdom will be realized. At the beginning of the Scriptures, we learn that God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1) while at the end we see him giving us a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1). At the beginning we are told of a garden, but in the end we are told of a beautiful city that is cultural through and through, replete with precious metals and jewels and the treasures of the nations. Christ’s redemptive work extends through God’s people to God’s cosmos, so that in the end “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). This world will be one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13), thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for his world.

Therefore, the final two plot movements tell the story of God redeeming both his image bearers and his creation. Two cultural implications are important to notice. First, the doctrines of redemption and restoration are confluent with the doctrine of creation in affirming the goodness of God’s creation. God values his creation and in the end times he will not reject it. Instead he will restore it, renewing the heavens and earth so that they give him glory. Further, he promises to give us glorified bodies in that day (1 Cor 15:20-28, 50-58). While God could have promised man an eternity floating around in a bodiless state, in some sort of ethereal wonderland, instead he promises to give man a resurrected bodily existence in a restored universe that shines with the glory of God himself (Rev 21:1-4, 9-11). This promise is yet more reason to view God’s creation as good, and our faithful cultural interaction with it as something that pleases God.

Second, the doctrine of restoration is confluent with the doctrine of creation in its affirmation of the value of faithful culture work. Because God (in the beginning) values his good creation and commands man to produce culture, and because he promises (in the end) to give us a glorious creation replete with its own culture, we ought to live culturally in a manner consistent with God’s designs. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”* This new way includes glorifying God from within our cultural contexts, providing a sign of the already-and-not-yet kingdom, of what the world will be like one day when all of creation and culture praises him. As we interact within various dimensions of culture-the arts, the sciences, education, public square, etc.-we are called to do so by bringing the gospel to bear upon those dimensions.

In our evangelism and church planting, we must recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, the church is always planted, and the Christian life is always lived within a cultural context (through human language, oratory, music, categories of thought, etc.). Instead of chafing against this reality, we may delight in our charge to make the gospel at home in those cultures, and to allow the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”** God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to minister within our cultural context rather than attempting to extract ourselves from it.

___________________

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 336-7.

**D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.

  3Comments

  1. Doug   •  

    Bruce,

    I am grateful for these posts and being able to interact over them. I have some real questions that I hope you can help me through. I am not seeking to be arguementative, I am sincerely looking for help in navigating through this issue. As a church planter, I am constantly hearing the expectation that we are supposed to be engaging, shaping, and redeeming culture, but I have yet to see this expectation put on me in the Word. But maybe I am missing something and you can help.

    You say, “God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to minister within our cultural context rather than attempting to extract ourselves from it.”

    But how do you understand 2 Peter 3:10-13? “The earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness…”

    And then the following statement is one that I hear often but never with any solid Scriptural defense. I have searched, but I find no passage that seems to place this expectation on believers. Instead, as pilgrims, we are looking forward to “a better, heavenly country” (Heb. 11:16) and are called to follow in the steps of those “of whome the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38).

    You write:

    “Second, the doctrine of restoration is confluent with the doctrine of creation in its affirmation of the value of faithful culture work. Because God (in the beginning) values his good creation and commands man to produce culture, and because he promises (in the end) to give us a glorious creation replete with its own culture, we ought to live culturally in a manner consistent with God’s designs. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”* This new way includes glorifying God from within our cultural contexts, providing a sign of the already-and-not-yet kingdom, of what the world will be like one day when all of creation and culture praises him. As we interact within various dimensions of culture-the arts, the sciences, education, public square, etc.-we are called to do so by bringing the gospel to bear upon those dimensions.”

    I hear this idea often, but it does not seem to me to be the concern of the Scriptures or the early church who were told to pray for the rulers over them that they “might live a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim. 3:2). Maybe I am not understanding you. Can you provide some references to help me understand where this is coming from and just what do you mean by “providing a sign of the already-not-yet-kingdom”?

    Thanks

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Doug,

    Hi, and thank you for your thoughtful and significant questions.

    First, allow me to survey some “doctrinal markers” that show us why culture matters. In the doctrine of creation, we learn that God created humans for the express purpose of worshiping him in all of life, and in particular to worship him through cultural type of activities (naming the animals, tilling the soil). Further, God gave him unique capacities (part of being created in God’s likeness) to enable him to do so (capacities such as creativity and rationality). The doctrine of the fall shows us that sinners then distort their calling under God’s reign and the use their capacities in an idolatrous manner. This is why cultural activities are infected by idolatry. In the doctrine of salvation and the end times, we learn that once again God cares about the things we are calling cultural. He gives us an eternity on a new heavens and earth. This new creation is slam full of culture. It includes a beautiful city (architecture) with exquisite gates and metal and jewels (art).

    Second, allow me to give some explicit commands in Scripture that come to bear on this question. In the Shema and in Jesus teaching, we learn that we are to love God will all of our heart, mind soul,and strength (comprehensively). Those are the very capacities we use to produce culture, to enjoy culture, and to critique culture. Further, Paul tells us to glorify God in everything we do, even in our eating and drinking (which are cultural activities). Nearly all of Scriptures commands refer to cultural obedience either directly or indirectly.

    Third, I’ll mention the doctrine of Christ. Scripture makes clear that he created all that exists, he sustains all that exists, and he is Lord over all that exists. For this reason, I want to do my part (within the context of the particular life situation God has given me) to bring my cultural activities under the Lordship of Christ, and to view all aspects of my surrounding cultural context through the lens of Christian Scripture.

    Fourth, you bring up a fine text of Scripture, 2 Pet 3:10-13. One interpretation is that the fire spoken of is destructive and annihilative. A second interpretation, however, is that the fire is purifying. Craig Bartholomew, Michael Goheen, Al Wolters, Richard Bauckham, and others hold to this second view and I believe they are right. However, even if you hold to the first view, and even if God annihilates the present creation, he is replacing it with a “new heavens and earth” which is remarkably material and cultural. So we’re back to where we started. God cares about the material and cultural. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have given us a material/cultural world to live in and he wouldn’t give us a bodily existence in a material/cultural world forever throughout eternity.

    Finally, you bring up a fine passage of Scripture, Hebrews 11. As you mention, we are instructed to look forward to a better, heavenly country. I like this passage and use it often to speak about the fact that one day we will dwell eternally on a restored creation, one that is better and more heavenly precisely because it is no longer under the sway of sin, Satan, and death. Instead, it is under the Lordship of Christ.

    And, in the meantime, we are responsible to recognize Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of our present lives, including the cultural aspects. We, God’s people, are to live in such a way that we are a foretaste of that better, more heavenly country. We cannot be a foretaste, however, if we do not actively bring the cultural aspects of our existence under Christ’s Lordship.

    Thank you for the through-provoking questions and for your faithfulness in planting a church.

  3. Pingback: A Theology of Culture (4): Redemption and New Creation | For Christ and Culture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>