Encouraging Greg Thompson to make a basic clarification: and then I’m on board

I’ve now completed reading Greg Thompson’s six part series on the church and the world (all here; see my first two posts here and here), and I have to say, all in all I think his model for theology and the church’s engaging of the world has much to offer and serves as an important corrective to many other models that are out there. In particular, Thompson’s approach seeks to be focused on our union with Christ and it calls Christians to engage the world with a spirit of service, testifying in all that they do to the redemption of the whole world that is in Christ Jesus.

As I noted in my previous post, Thompson’s focus on the redemption of the material creation is profoundly biblical. The vision of the Old Testament prophets for shalom, which Thompson defines as the “state of peaceful wholeness between God, humans, and the world” is indeed the destiny of creation. Thompson’s careful demonstration that sin extends beyond simple guilt and even beyond the individual experience of corruption to the corruption of relationships, structures, and the world itself – and his insistence that Jesus came to redeem all of this – is a much needed corrective for pietistic and otherworldly versions of Christianity in our time.

Finally, I also appreciate Thompson’s important clarification that the original state of creation should not be confused with the goal of creation. Redemption is not ultimately about going back. Rather, as he puts it, creation displayed the “trajectory of God’s intention,” redemption begins the “process of renewing God’s intentions,” and the consummation brings about “the realization of God’s intentions.” Thompson does not put it in these words, but his focus on God’s intentions is presented in Scripture in terms of the sabbath rest for which creation was designed and to which human labors were supposed to lead.

That said, reading to the end of Thompson’s posts did leave me with one basic concern, a concern about his vagueness in describing the redemption of the world as a process and about his (not unrelated) simplistic assessment of the problem with the social gospel.

In a pithy statement Thompson sums up his account of the gospel as follows:

What then is the Scriptural vision of the gospel? That in Jesus Christ, God is taking his creation—which has, because of sin, fallen into ruin—and redemptively restoring it in every part, until the time of consummation, in which all things will at last be made new. It is this Christ-centered, comprehensive, and restorational gospel that should animate the life and witness of the Christian church. (emphasis added)

What concerns me about this statement is that Thompson is describing the victory and salvation that is in Christ Jesus as if it is an ongoing process of restoration rather than as a definitive act that took place in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Colossians 1:15-20, one of the most important passages in Scripture, describes Jesus as having already reconciled all things to himself in his work on the cross. In his body the new creation already exists because he is the firstfruits of that new creation. The broader point of Colossians is that because all things are therefore caught up with Jesus’ body, believers are not to look anywhere else for anything of significance. He is the fullness, and in him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Christian worship therefore consists of holding fast to Jesus and the Christian life consists of walking in him.

Now in the third sentence of the Thompson quote above he gets at this truth precisely: the gospel is Christ-centered even as it is comprehensive and restorational, and the task of the church consists of faithful witness to that reality that is in Jesus. As Thompson notes at one point, “It is in this Christ-shaped community of love, constituted by the Spirit, that God’s relational intentions for humanity—so broken by sin—may be realized anew (Jn. 17).” Amen to that. I fully agree with Thompson on this point.

It is the present tense second sentence that bothers me. The question is, in what sense is God actively restoring his creation in every part? How is God restoring the trees in my front yard right now? How is God restoring my body right now? How is God restoring the physical universe right now? I understand that in Jesus these things are all definitively reconciled, and I understand that by clinging to Christ in faith believers can be said to inherit the earth because the future of all of this is in Jesus. I also understand how the creation is groaning, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed, and I understand how my outward body is wasting away even though inwardly I am being renewed day by day. But does that mean that God is redeeming all of creation in every part right now?

Colossians teaches us that because all things are reconciled in Christ we should set our minds on things above, not because things above are immaterial things, but because that is where Christ is, and all material things have their only future in him. Then Paul goes on to tell us that the implication of setting our minds on things above are to practice the Christian virtues with our neighbors, testifying to the future of the world in Christ. But that’s the whole point. We testify to the reconciliation and future of the world that is in Christ, but we don’t pretend its happening anywhere outside of Christ. He’s still outside of us and away from us, and we only participate in him through the life of the church. Because the world is still under the curse and because our bodies are still wasting away, our call in this age is to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Again, as Romans 8 indicates, the creation is waiting for its redemption, but that redemption is not yet. Again, I see that we are to witness to this reality in every area of life, and even that we can bring more and more people to participate in it through the gospel such that they can witness to it in every area of life, but can we actually bring about that redemption in every area of life short of Christ’s return? In short, is the Christian life about faithful presence, or is it about triumphalism?

My concern here relates closely to what it seems to me is a simplistic analysis of the social gospel. Thompson describes the social gospel as if its problem was that it did not pay attention to the personal aspect of salvation. In other words, the problem with the social gospel was not that it went too far, but that it did not go far enough. I generally agree with Thompson on this point in the sense that the redemption that is in Christ Jesus is of all things, but Thompson gives no attention to the more basic problem with the social gospel, which was its emphasis on the kingdom as coming down to this earth right now. Its problem was that it taught that the kingdom comes through politics (as well as by other means) and that we can actually turn life in this world into the kingdom itself. It was Reinhold Niebuhr who demonstrated that in this spirit of triumphalism, of collapsing the age to come into this age, the social gospel abandoned orthodox Christianity. And Thompson says nothing about this basic criticism.

The problem is illustrated in Thompson’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, where he writes, “He did come so that the kingdom of God—with its healing, deliverance, liberation, and justice (Lk. 4)—might come on earth, just as it is in heaven (Matt. 6).” Of course, Jesus taught that we should pray that the kingdom will come in the future, and he prayed that even now we would bear witness to the beginnings of that reign by obeying his will on earth as it is obeyed in heaven, but the fact is that in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus kept the prayer for the kingdom to come, and the prayer for God’s will to be done on earth, as separate petitions. Some people want to collapse them together, but if they say exactly the same thing why did Jesus keep them separate? What was he trying to teach us? Paraphrasing the Lord’s Prayer by saying that the “kingdom … might come on earth, just as it is in heaven” is dangerous because it does not accurately reflect Jesus’ own teaching about the fundamental difference between this age and the age to come, a difference bridged even by believers only in the experience of the resurrection (i.e., Luke 20:34-36).

Now I want to stress again that overall I like Thompson’s model of the church’s engagement with the world. I personally think that his model would only be improved by clarifying our ability to witness to the definitive redemption of every area of life in every are of life while avoiding the social gospel’s confusion of that witness with actually redeeming every area of life in this age. It is not clear to me that anything Thompson wants to say the church should be or do is lost if we maintain this important theological distinction.

At the same time, it is a very important distinction. Distinguishing between the redemption that is in Jesus, to which we witness, and between our own role in bringing that redemption in this age, is fundamental if we are to avoid the triumphalism of the social gospel of Protestant Liberalism as well as of conservative versions of it like reconstructionism. If Christians are to maintain the attitude and stance of Jesus toward the world – that of suffering service – it is crucial that we remember that the Christian life in this age is life under the cross, not the life of glory, as John Calvin so eloquently stressed. We do want to take the power of the gospel to every area of life, but we do not need more Christian triumphalism. That has already done enough damage in our world.

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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 12, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Encouraging Greg Thompson to make a basic clarification: and then I’m on board.

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