God’s good world?

We’ve waited a long time for a worthy successor to Langdon Gilkey’s theology of creation, Maker of Heaven and Earth, so I was excited to read Jonathan Wilson’s new book, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (Baker). Unfortunately, I think we’re still waiting. The book is a solid piece of scholarship suited for an academic setting, but it’s too Barthian for me to use as a required text in my classes. Wilson attempts to give more weight to creation than he learned in his pietistic, Baptist upbringing, but his insistence that creation be read only in light of redemption prevents creation from having value in its own right.

Specifically, Wilson’s insistence that we must never speak of creation apart from redemption (it’s never creation simpliciter but always “creation that is being redeemed”) leads him to conflate creation and the Fall. He contends that in the beginning “creation was teleologically perfect, not originally perfect. In other words, God made the cosmos perfectly suited for the fulfillment of its purpose in Jesus Christ.”  (p. 119). God’s original creation contained agony and death, but that is okay because God planned that Christ would restore everything in the new creation. The original creation wasn’t entirely good, but God promised to make it so by the end.

Wilson claims that Adam and Eve did not ruin a good creation when they sinned. Rather their Fall rejected God’s final, redemptive purpose for creation (p. 119, 190). Of course, I imagine that it may have been difficult for them to trust God’s telos, given that they were surrounded by suffering and death in their original state. Wilson argues that death is so ingrained in creation that even if Adam and Eve had not sinned, the divine Son would still “have become incarnate to die, not for our sins, but to take death into the life of God so that death would be no more” (p. 198).

Wilson’s approach is reminiscent of Barth (p. 49-50, 54)—though he stops short of arguing for universalism (p. 124-25)—and H. Richard Niebuhr. Like Niebuhr, Wilson uses creation, fall, and redemption as various perspectives on the world rather than three successive acts in its history (p. 54-55). This makes for confusion, as Wilson wants to say that the present world is simultaneously good, fallen, and being redeemed, depending how you look at it. I didn’t quite understand when Niebuhr said it, and I still don’t get it.

God’s Good World would be a provocative book to engage in a doctoral seminar, as it’s an updated example of a Barthian, Niebuhrian approach that attempts to make Scripture fit with the findings of modern science. For example, Wilson claims that evolution is true inasmuch as it describes the world in its fallenness (p. 187). I don’t think this works as well as he thinks, as evolution claims to describe the world as it is and always has been, not merely the negative side of life as we find it. Wilson’s creative attempt to reconcile Scripture and modern science shows how much ground some Christians will yield to make this work. And it leaves me wondering whether his title should end with a question mark.

3 Comments

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  1. Charles Wineman June 21, 2013 — 11:50 pm

    “This makes for confusion, as Wilson wants to say that the present world is simultaneously good, fallen, and being redeemed, depending how you look at it. I didn’t quite understand when Niebuhr said it, and I still don’t get it.”

    While I’d have to read the book to fully understand what Wilson is trying to say, it may not be as confusing as it sounds. Christians are being redeemed, but still struggle with our own depravity. During the incarnation Christ was here wholly divine and wholly mortal, part of the world was fully good during that time. I’m not sure if you can really view them separately no matter how you to try to view them, but I am comfortable with them mashed all together while we wait for Consummation.
    Time just appears to be linear, always moving towards the future, but in reality time does not act this way. Every point in time exists at the same moment and our limited capabilities make it appear linear. God is eternal. He exists inside and outside of time, meaning in reality time is as was described earlier. This means Creation is good, fallen, and being redeemed at the very same moment even if we cannot perceive it that way. Am I right? Only time can tell.

  2. Charles: The confusion comes in when creation, fall, and redemption are not viewed as discrete, historical events but merely as three simultaneous perspectives on the world as it has always been. Scripture says there was a golden age that preceded Adam’s cataclysmic Fall. This is what Wilson seems to deny.

  3. Charles Wineman June 22, 2013 — 9:28 am

    Dr. Wittmer: Mankind has definitely perceived discrete, historical events Wilson’s denial of that is problematic and my explanation was a feeble attempt to understand the reality of sequential events in light of what eternity really means. It appears I need to add some more titles to my summer reading list.

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