“I understand this passage to have this meaning—that there is no element and no part of the world which, being touched, as it were, with a sense of its present misery, does not intensely hope for a resurrection. He indeed lays down two things,--that all are creatures in distress, and yet they are sustained by hope … [Creation] shall be participators of a better condition; for God will restore to a perfect state the world, now fallen, together with mankind” (John Calvin, Epistle of Paul to the Romans, pp. 303, 305)
The Text & Worldview Shifts
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved” (Romans 8.19-24a, NRSV).
Though a recent critic of renewed Earth eschatology implies that Romans 8 is an “obscure passage” and needs to “yield to the clearer;” there could not be a more clear and unambiguous statement by Paul. An obscure text in Romans may be found in 11 but Romans 8, I don’t think so. Profound does not mean obscure. And Romans 8 is indeed profound. And as we have seen, the language of Romans 8 is all over the Bible. God will redeem his beloved Creation of which humanity is but the crown.
In the history of interpretation the meaning of Romans 8.19-24 has been generally agreed upon until the Seventeenth Century. The Enlightenment with its secularization of creation witnessed many Christian thinkers retreat to the realm of (ironically) pagan and semi-gnostic “spirituality.” This movement is told artfully and compellingly (though non-theologically) by Peter Gay in his rich book, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism (Norton, reprinted many times).
Not all Christian thinkers caved in to the pressure to be an enlightened Christian with a scientific Christianity. Yet it is amazing how even those who resisted in the centuries that followed imbibed the poisonous well (in my opinion). But we should not, and are not, sitting in judgment on these saints because it is impossible to escape culture and its influence upon us. But we can become aware of its tendencies.
In previous installments I have attempted to demonstrate the continuity of contemporary expression of renewed Earth theology with historic Christian exegesis and interpretation. The very first sustained interaction with Romans 8 is in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. From Irenaeus to the Reformation there is an amazing continuity in reading and interpreting Romans 8. In the Protestant tradition after the Reformation the “classic” interpretation held sway until the onslaught of the Enlightenment. Two examples about a hundred years apart will illustrate my point. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) a famous non-conformist English scholarly pastor thrived as the western world was going through its “shift.” Henry is cognizant of a new interpretation of the text. As he comments on Romans he notes
“By the creature here we understand, not as some do the Gentile world, and their expectation of Christ and the gospel, which is an exposition very foreign and forced, but the whole frame of nature, especially that of this lower world – the whole creation, compages of inanimate and sensible creatures, which, because of their harmony and mutual dependence, and because they all constituted and make up one world, are spoken of in the singular number as the creature” (Henry, An Exposition of the NT, on Romans 8:19-22)
A look at the ever popular Adam Clarke (1762-1832) shows the transition to the Enlightenment world view was almost complete. Clarke thrived more than a hundred years after Henry. He was born, bred and died as a child of the Enlightenment. Clarke bought completely into the more “spiritual” (socalled) interpretation of Romans 8. He comments on v.21 for example
“The sense, therefore, of the apostle in this place seems to be: the Gentile world shall, in time, be delivered from the bondage of their sinful corruption, i.e. the bondage to their lusts and vile affections; and be brought into such a noble liberty as the sons of God enjoy” (Clarke’s Commentary, 6, p. 99)
Clarke rejected the apocalyptic world view (see Kingdom Come for more on what that might be). Rather, Clarke is symbolic of the cultural shift that had swept through the Western world. It took time for this shift to take place but it did occur. The Eighteenth Century could be called the “Age of Reason” and Clarke and other thinkers did not want to seem ‘unreasonable.” For those looking for some great cultural analysis look no further than Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Free Press, 1990), find it at a good public library.
The classic Christian view was not lost however. Jonathan Edwards retained, as we have seen, a profound sense of the history of the biblical narrative and its story of redemption. Alexander Campbell had an equally profound grasp of God's plan for salvation (i.e. regeneration). Moses Lard, David Lipscomb and James A. Harding retained the apocalyptic category as a valid piece in the Christian worldview.
In the twentieth century with the rise of “critical” scholarship (especially following WW II) many began to realize they had imposed baptized European philosophical categories upon Jesus, Paul and other biblical writers. Some have even realized that a certain anti-semitism lay under the surface as well. And there is more truth to this than most want to admit. It is not to much to say that the study of the world of Jesus and the early church has been revolutionized in the Twentieth Century. Apocalyptic, as Ernst Kasemann has quipped, is the “mother of Christianity.”
The historic Christian interpretation of the resurrection of the human body and the redemption of the world by God has been shown to be historically, theologically and even exegetically firmly rooted in the Jewish apocalyptic worldview.
A Talk with James A. Harding
James A. Harding believed one of the secrets to right living for God was a proper understanding of the apocalyptic worldview. Likewise, Harding understood the import of such words as redeem, reconcile, regenerate and renew. Sounding very “un-Enlightened” (and J.C. Holloway and L.S. White even told him so!!) he wrote in 1898
“Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin,’ and far and wide has extended the curse that thus came through Adam. All briers, thorns, and thistles; all sickness, pain, and sorrow, all jealousy, enmity, and hatred; all war, bloodshed, and death, with every evil thing began with the fall in the garden … The earth itself, with every man, woman and child that has lived on it … has come under its blighting influences and suffered its awful power.
“But—thanks bet to God—through Jesus Christ grace came with a mighty hand to meet this great, dark, cursing, onrushing tide of woe and death, to roll it back, to free men from death and the earth from every curse of sin, and to give to it a glory and beauty never dreamed of by Adam and Eve in the midst of their Edenic home. This earth, with its surrounding heaven, is to be made over, and on the fair face of the new earth God himself will dwell with all the sons and daughters of men who have been redeemed through grace … through Adam we lost the garden of Eden; through Christ we gain the paradise of God” (James A. Harding, “Three Lessons From the Book of Romans,” in Biographies and Sermons, edited by F.D. Srygley, p. 249)
I think Harding has a good grasp of the text.
This post has tried to trace ever so briefly how Romans 8 has been understood and how its interpretation has been affected by the Enlightenment. Hopefully the relevance of this exercise is self-evident. We are forced to ask ourselves the vital question of how, as heirs of the Enlightenment, do we still see Christianity through the interpretive binoculars of that cultural movement. I submit to you that the neo-platonic (and some neo-gnostic) views on Christian spirituality demonstrate that indeed we have drunk deeply from that well.
In my next blog I will offer my own exegesis of Romans 8, with the assumption that apocalyptic is a major strain of thought in Paul. What set of lenses we use is all important. As it is I think I have shown that Scripture sustains the renewed earth point of view but we shall see--and I am still learning.
As I have done in the previous posts I will also have a conversation partner that is yet to be revealed. These posts have involved a great deal of work, I am not sure that is truly evident in the final product but I have personally grown tremendously through this exercise.