Redemption, Natural Law, and Creation Care: Political Theology 101
In the debates that sometimes stir across the evangelical world natural law and Scripture, creation and redemption, are often played off against one another as if they are dueling forces in a zero-sum game. Usually these controversies obscure the point that the real question under discussion is about the appropriate relation between natural law and Scripture, or between creation and redemption, rather than about dividing and classifying the world or ethics according to some scientific principle.
The fact is, in orthodox Christian theology it is precisely the creation that God redeems in Jesus Christ (what else could he possibly be redeeming?) and it is the natural law to which Scripture commands us to adhere (otherwise God would be schizophrenic). The real questions we should be discussing – How does future redemption call us to relate to the presently fallen creation? How in the created order do we see the natural law that points all human beings to their creator? – are much more difficult to answer, and require much more humility, than are these false dilemmas.
Shortly after I arrived at Westminster Seminary California some years ago Michael Horton guided me into the field of political theology by suggesting that I read Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order. I had been a history major at Covenant College and in Washington D.C. my focus was on practical politics and government. This was my first deep foray into the theology that underlies ethics and politics.
Oliver O’Donovan is one of the preeminent ethicists of our time. He certainly knows the Christian tradition better than anyone else (he is the editor of the massive From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625), and he has a way of bringing the debates of the past into conversation with the issues of the present in a way that is appropriate, rather than strained, insightful rather than anachronistic.
In Resurrection and Moral Order O’Donovan does a masterful job articulating the decisive relationship between Christ’s resurrection and the created order, particularly as it relates to Christian ethics. As he puts it,
In proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, they proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him. The resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message. The resurrection of mankind apart from creation would be a gospel of a sort, but of a purely Gnostic and world-denying sort which is far from the gospel that the apostles actually preached. So the resurrection of Christ directs our attention back to the creation which it vindicates.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every last individual, or every particular of creation will be renewed. As John Calvin argues in his commentary on 2 Peter 3, making use of Aristotelian logic, it is the substance of creation that will be renewed, not the accidents. “Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Romans 8:21 and from other passages.” As Calvin warns, we should be wary of theological speculation that seeks to identify precisely the sort of continuity this entails.
Still, Calvin is quite clear that the restoration for which fallen creation is destined is the same telos, or goal, for which it was always intended. God is redeeming the creation through Christ not in the sense that he is returning it to some static, original state, but in the sense that he is restoring it to its original destiny and purpose. As Michael Northcott puts it, directly in line with Calvin, “the resurrection vindicates the original relational ordering of creation towards the Triune God.”
Some of the readers of my article, “Should Christians be Environmentalists?“, questioned whether it is really appropriate to ground Christians’ approach to care for the environment in our Christology. Wouldn’t it be better simply to look to creation, rather than to confuse creation with redemption? I understand the concern. It would be ludicrous for Christians to claim the ability to somehow bring this fallen world to its eternal purpose in God’s kingdom, let alone even to restore it to its original pristine state.
But that is not the purpose or implication of grounding our attitude towards creation in Christ’s work of redemption. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Jesus’ incarnation and bodily resurrection has vindicated the created order, placing God’s stamp of approval on it and establishing its eternal existence. The sin and curse that have so tarnished it have done their worst, but they have ultimately failed. Creation is not destined for destruction, but for restoration.
Why does this matter? If the fall so tarnished creation that God has decided to abandon it, elevating human souls to some sort of transcendent destiny, then Christianity isn’t so different from Gnosticism or neo-Platonism. Natural law can hold little claim over us. Creation has mere instrumental value. The philosophers of modernity and the Enlightenment then had plausible reasons to view the human relationship toward the environment as one of mastery and exploitation. Christians are simply waiting out the deluge in the lifeboat, waiting to be rescued from this dying world. All that really matters is how many souls are saved.
If, on the other hand, the resurrection amounts to the reconciliation of all things in the body of Jesus, as Paul declares in Colossians 1:15-20, then that tells us something about the fundamental goodness of creation. No matter how tarnished it may be, no matter how radical a transformation it will undergo when Christ returns at the end of the age, the creation itself is destined for salvation. The resurrection has enabled us to make a “decision about the status of the ordering of creation as we still partially encounter it, both in ourselves and in the rest of the created order.” The decision is that natural law endures.
The practical implications of this are therefore significant. Because creation is good, because it continues to hold a place in God’s redemptive purposes, the created order – natural law – maintains its authoritative place in Christian ethics. O’Donovan ties together the various threads:
only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be an ‘evangelical’ ethics. Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a Gnostic, gospel at all. The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.
In other words, only if Christian ethics reflects the created moral order does it remain faithful to the gospel. Christians must constantly be about the business of demonstrating that the moral order found in Scripture is indeed that of the creation within which we live. It is, in short, natural law.
Far too much of modernity amounts to a war waged against creation for human ends. Women must have the right to choose to destroy the life within them if we are to be free. Industry must have the right to pollute rivers and groundwater if we are to be prosperous. Men must be permitted to use their property – even human property – precisely how they desire, if we are to be autonomous. Governments must be granted the unchecked ability to wage war against weaker nations if we are to be secure. Individuals must be permitted to engage in sexual relations that bring them pleasure, even to bring children into family structures that seem rewarding to them, regardless of the alienation from the body and from the sexuality of male and female that it entails, if we are to have genuine self-regard.
Christianity permits no such mechanical domination over nature. It requires, rather, a respect for natural law, finding genuine freedom within the order that God has created and that he has redeemed in Christ’s resurrection. And while Evangelicals are good at insisting on these principles for their own pet issues (i.e., abortion, same-sex marriage), their record is less impressive when it comes to others. Claims to a principled approach to politics, or to genuine interest in natural law, would be far more credible were they applied across the board. In the same sense that the health of the fetus, or of a sexual relationship, or of children, is normative for Christians, so the health of the environment, of material and social relationships, and of international affairs deserves our careful attention. The more power human beings, whether as individuals or collectively, have to exercise power unjustly in these areas, the more government is required to intervene to maintain at least a basic measure of justice and peace.
That does not mean we are imposing our religion, seeking to bring about a utopian kingdom of God. Although our motive is forward looking (faithfulness to Christ and his work) our standard is backward looking (conformity to the created order, or to natural law). Although the measure according to which we will be judged is that of perfection (idealism), we recognize that this side of Christ’s return – and in the realm of coercive politics – we are dealing with fallen human beings and a cursed creation (realism). We are therefore motivated and informed by distinctly Christian theology, but the basic material with which we are concerned and the practical knowledge on which we rely, is shared commonly between believers and unbelievers. Christ is lord of all, but we remain caught in the eschatological tension between the two kingdoms, between the present evil age and the kingdom of the age to come.
Anyone who takes all of these principles seriously will quickly see that the Christian religion is not a political conversation stopper. There are no direct lines between biblical teaching and environmental policy. Our Christian faith calls us to take our responsibility toward the environment seriously, and yet it is by no means immediately clear what this means in practical terms. Indeed, on a practical level unbelievers or pagans might hold more wisdom and prudence in these areas than we do. Our calling is humbly to serve, testifying in this way to the hope that lies within us.
Christianity does eliminate several options. We are not pagans who worship nature, setting it above human beings in status and worth. Nor are we humanists who value prosperity and wealth no matter what the human and environmental cost. We are Christians who recognize that the destiny both of ourselves and of creation is in Christ, and that in the meantime, we are to be stewards of the created order, to the best of our ability.
Posted on June 17, 2013, in Calvin, Environment, Natural Law, Neo-Platonism, Uncategorized and tagged creation care, environmentalism, Michael Northcott, nature, Oliver O'Donovan. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Redemption, Natural Law, and Creation Care: Political Theology 101.