Greg Thompson and Michael Horton on affirming creation: what Christianity is about

In another of his series of blog posts (see my first response to Thompson here) on the role of the church in the world Greg Thompson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, describes how Christians tend to diminish the goodness and significance of creation through two basic impulses: anti-materialism and pietism. For conservatives who are in reaction mode to the social gospel or to neo-Calvinism in particular, Thompson’s words are particularly apt.

According to the anti-materialism impulse (sometimes described as neo-Platonic):

there are two parts to creation, the “spiritual” and the “material.” The spiritual part of creation is the “higher,” the home of wisdom and virtue. The material parts of creation—the earth, the body, and the artifacts of our lives—are the lower parts. In the anti-material perspective, these lower parts are variously portrayed as (at best) a backdrop to the cultivation of higher spiritual goods or (at worst) as a hostile obstruction to them.

Pietism builds on this anti-materialism. It,

suggests not only that the spiritual realm is higher in the order of creation, but also that it is more important—perhaps exclusively important—in the order of redemption. In this account, God’s fundamental concern is with the spiritual aspects of a person’s life—the heart or “the life of the soul.” … [For pietism] these material aspects have no fundamental role in God’s larger redemptive purposes. That this is so may be seen in several widespread expressions of pietism. First, we see it in pietistic preaching, which fails to positively address larger social or material concerns. Second, we see it in pietistic ethics, in which renunciation of the world functions as the animating conviction. And third—and perhaps most clearly—we see it in pietistic eschatology in which the actual trajectory of salvation is to be literally taken out of—or raptured from—the world.

Thompson uses the dangers of anti-materialism and pietism to warn his readers against separating creation from redemption. As he puts it, “Creation and redemption are not opposed—they are wed (Rm. 8). The same God who made the world in creation entered into the world in incarnation (1 Jn. 1), and began the process of healing the world in resurrection—the first-fruits of the coming renewal of all things (1 Cor. 15).”

I first came to grips with the importance of affirming creation even in our theology of redemption through the work of Michael Horton. In his excellent book Covenant and Eschatology Horton demonstrates that Christianity teaches a theology of two ages (creation and new creation, the present evil age and the age to come), not of two realms (matter and spirit, body and soul). This dynamic is integral to Paul’s thought, he argues, building on the work of the great Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos. “Instead of the ‘true world’ of eternal perfection versus the ‘apparent world’ of temporal change we find ‘this present age’ and ‘the age to come.'” Horton goes on to write,

It becomes clear that this two-age model is concerned not with two worlds or realms, but with two ages, one inferior to the other not for any necessary or ontological reasons but for situational and ethical ones... (emphasis added)

That which happens in the present is not simply for that reason evil, for God’s providence or common grace is active in upholding all things and restraining evil, and God’s Spirit is creating a community of faith, hope, and love out of spiritual death. It is not ‘this world’ of matter, transience, contingency, and so forth, that is set against ‘the other world’ of pure spirit and apathetic bliss, but ‘this world-age’ of human rebellion, injustice, and irresponsibility in opposition to ‘the age to come’ in which God’s reign is uncontested, the cross is transformed fully and finally into glory, and faith and hope are exchanged for sight. (32-33)

What this means is that although Christianity is not about secular earthly politics, it very much is about bodily human beings, concrete human communities, and the very physical actions and interactions that these human beings and communities perform. Preaching that pretends that hungering and thirsting after righteousness is simply about justification before God, or that the justice with which Paul is so concerned in Romans is simply about being right before God is profoundly distorting. To seek first the kingdom and its justice, that all these things may be added unto you, is not a distinction between spiritual things and physical things, but between the redemptive transformation of all of life and the passing secular affairs of mortality. As Calvin argues, Christians are to hate the sin and death of the present age, not the life to which human beings aspire and which they receive in Christ.

Where the social gospel (and forms of neo-Calvinism) go wrong, in other words, is not in their emphasis on the material, but in their emphasis on the present. Liberalism is so determined to realize the kingdom now (and it has so lost confidence in basic Christian teaching regarding the resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ) that it turns redemption into a process, attacking any theology that teaches that life before the second coming of Christ is life under the cross. Liberalism argues that the kingdom is realized progressively in this world, along the lines of Hegelian or Marxist philosophy, thus avoiding the need to trust in Christ’s unexpected and cataclysmic second coming.

I’m not sure where Thompson is going with his blog posts, and in fact, I wish he was somewhat clearer about this in his final paragraph (why does he speak of resurrection as a process in the quote above? Does he want entirely to collapse creation and redemption together?), but the orthodox Christian distinction between the secular and the eternal is not one of matter and spirit but one of life before Christ’s return and life after it, between life in the mortal, decaying creation and life in the resurrection of the body. To be sure, we anticipate the kingdom by demonstrating our obedience to Christ in every area of life as the body of Christ in this world. But in the final analysis our entire hope for redemption is caught up with the body of Christ, who is in heaven, and will one day return, as the Apostle’s Creed tells us, to judge the living and the dead.

What matters here, however, is that Christianity is about transformation, not destruction. It is about genuine bodily human life before God, not about its transcendence in immateriality or piety. Thompson is headed in the right direction. I am eager to see where he goes with this.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 5, 2012, in Neo-Platonism, The Secular and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Greg Thompson and Michael Horton on affirming creation: what Christianity is about.

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