Against dualistic Christianity – the cosmic Lordship of Christ…
Western culture has shaped the church in many ways. Quite possibly the most “profound and subtle way” is that the church has come to “tacitly and explicitly” accept the dualism that is at the heart of modernity, according to culture commentator Ken Myers.
It’s not just us every day Christians who have been shaped by pressures to divide our world into separate spheres—the private that is religious and the public that is secular. The now-famous New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has written about a pivotal period in his early career when a close study of Colossians awakened him to the private-public divide in his “theological life.”
In 1983 I started work on my Colossians commentary. By the time I finished it in 1985 I had undergone probably the most significant change of my theological life. Until then I had been basically, a dualist. The gospel belonged in one sphere, the world of creation and politics in another. Wrestling with Colossians 1:15-20 put paid to that. I am still working through the implications (and the resultant hostility in some quarters) …
In Part II of “The Church and Cultural Discernment,” Ken Myers picks up N. T. Wright’s story:
Wright says that before studying Colossians for two years, he was a dualist. He’s a pretty smart guy, and he’d already done a lot of thinking about theology, so I think it’s probably safe to say that if he was a dualist, a lot of other Christians are as well. He believed, as they do, that the gospel could be neatly compartmentalized apart from, as he puts it, “the world of creation and politics.” That’s a pretty big slice of life that has nothing to do with the gospel. But studying that letter – in fact just studying six verses of it – produced the most significant change in his theological life. Ten years later he was still working through its implications, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he still is, because there are a lot of pressures to make us into that kind of dualist. The common understanding about the separation of church and state in America encourages that kind of dualism. As I’ve said, the entire momentum of modern culture favors that kind of dualism, whereby religious institutions and religious claims are privatized, and to a large extent, many contemporary churches are willing to accept (for whatever reasons) the world’s definition of what it means to be one of Christ’s disciples.
But is that dualistic view really compatible with the teaching of Scripture? Can our understanding of and, more importantly, our experience of redemption really be detached from our life in Creation, in all of its diversity and specificity? Should we assume that religious life is rightly understood as essentially separable from the order of Creation and of society? N. T. Wright came to the conclusion that such an assumption could not be sustained on a careful reading of the Bible’s account of the meaning of Creation and redemption. As he came to write in that commentary on Colossians, “[In the Scriptures] redemption is not thought of dualistically, as though the created world were totally evil and salvation meant being rescued from it. Creation is God’s work—Christ’s work: though spoilt by sin, it still belongs to God and God still has plans for it. Redemption is not an invasion from a different or hostile realm. The Lord of the world has come to claim his rightful possession.”
Wright came to believe that the New Testament and the Old Testament alike tell the story of God, the maker of all things, who made Man in his own image as the steward of all of Creation. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are depicted as at home in the earth. The relationships they enjoyed with God, with each other, and with Creation were harmonious and fitting. Human flourishing, human blessedness, was the enjoyment of that harmony, not simply with God in some disembodied manner, but in human love and active engagement with the rest of Creation, which is what we mean by “culture.”
One of the reasons that we as modern people are tempted to understand redemption apart from Creation is that we have assumed that we could understand human nature apart from Creation. Modern philosophy, beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, assumes that there is a chasm separating the human mind from the world of matter. The cosmos are a machine: purposeless, meaningless stuff. We can impose meaning on the stuff of Creation; we can extract useful materials from Creation for the pursuit of our own projects, but nature is not, in the modern view, declaring the glory of God or available for the imparting of wisdom. In such a world, if human nature is to be understood, it must be defined apart from the material world, even apart from the human body itself. Like the ancient Greeks, the essential human attribute for modern thought is mind, or more accurately, will. Mind suggests a contemplative attitude, and modern man is committed to doing things, to making history, to being in control.
The modern dream of absolute and unbounded control requires the assumption that nature is meaninglessness, but even in a world after the Fall, under the Curse, Creation is not without form and void. The sinful disobedience of Adam and Eve disrupted the harmony they enjoyed before their Fall. Not only were they thus alienated from God, they were alienated from one another and from the rest of Creation. The alienation was decisive, but not complete. The curse in Genesis 3 shows a world of pain, struggle, and disorder. But it is not a complete chaos: babies are still born; the earth still yields fruit. God’s good gifts are not entirely destroyed, even though Creation is in bondage to decay as Man is in bondage to sin.
Our sinfulness continues to cause us to rebel against God, and also to rebel against the order he has established in nature and human nature. As Oliver O’Donovan writes, “In speaking of man’s fallenness we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it.” So our rebellion against God results in confusion about the rest of Creation, and the pursuit of a position of dominion that is a shameful parody of the dominion enjoyed by Adam.
The Biblical narrative in four acts is Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The law of the Spirit of life sets us free, and the Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. How could we possibly posit a dualism between gospel and culture, between redemption and Creation, when redemption is the liberation of Creation? …
Myers goes on to explain more fully how the doctrine of creation demonstrates the Creator’s concern for the cosmos as well as human souls. Here are two more excerpts that demonstrate how he proceeds.
The radical work of God in conversion and discipleship is nothing less than the beginning of the renewal of all Creation, and to the extent that our cultural lives are extensions of our engagement with Creation, the patterns of our cultural conventions require transformation as well. Jesus did not die, rise, and ascend to change something in our hearts and to leave it at that, but thereby to change everything. We as his disciples participate in the commencement of those changes.
In striving to keep Creation linked with redemption in our minds, it may help to be reminded of the way in which the Creator is described in the Bible as personally engaged with the entire cosmos. Evangelicals often talk about accepting Christ as their personal Savior; I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about honoring him as a personal Creator. The order God has placed in Creation, which we are obliged to discern and honor, is the order of a personal God who cares for what he has made. In the Scriptures, the identity of God as Creator is very much tied up with the idea of loving Providence, of his actively working within Creation to fulfill his purposes. …
“The Church and Cultural Discernment: Distinguishing Engagement from Captivity” was published in Reconsiderations, a publication of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, which serves the campus of the University of Florida. Part I is here, and Part II is here.
Ken Myers is host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, one of our best sources for understanding contemporary culture and the challenges it presents to the Christian Church. For a better introduction to Ken’s work, please go here and click on “Journal” and then on “Free Sample Issue.”