The Creation Gospel: Part 1. What and Why?

Do we need a new ‘Reformation’ to reshape the gospel for the 21st century?  Some people think so. In this talk, Tony gives some shape to the ‘ creation gospel’ – as the shorthand term for these new approaches to the old story. He does this by contrasting it with the ‘redemption’ gospel – the traditional evangelical framework that puts sin and forgiveness at the centre. Importantly Tony is not claiming we have an either/or choice between these two frameworks, but rather we must choose where the Gospel should begin – in Genesis one or Genesis three? He covers lots of this conceptual territory with a story of his journey from one framework to the other. This talk is part one – part two will follow shortly and will dive into the ‘so what’ of this creation paradigm. Both talks serve as an introduction to Rikk’s upcoming talks on “Design and Theology”

Resources
Transcript

Creation Theology Part One:
What it is and why it matters today more than ever

Dr Tony Golsby-Smith. April 2020

Overview

In Gospel Conversations, we advocate what we like to call‘creation theology’.  Since this is suchan important theme for us in GC, I decided to give this talk as a summary ofour views.


This overview diagram explains the structure and flow of mytwo talks.

·       First, I will ask WHAT do we mean by this term‘creation’ theology, and I will carve out that territory by contrasting it with‘redemption’ theology which is the more typical evangelical framing of thegospel around sin, and redemption.  Iwill say at the outset that in this contrast, I won’t be arguing either/or butrather ‘where do we start?’ – which framework is the primary conceptual lensthrough which we investigate and also proclaim the gospel?
Secondly I will move on to WHY this matters and in particular why it matterstoday. I am a big believer in contextual understanding of doctrines – ie whatsome people call pastoral theology or sapiential theology. Put simply thismeans that we are not searching for one right package of the gospel but ratherdifferent times have called for different angles of the gospel to behighlighted. And the Holy Spirit inspires certain leaders of their generationto rise to the challenge of discovering new angles of the gospel that speak totheir day. I think the ‘creation’ gospel is incredibly relevant to our worldtoday, and I will make that case here.

·       Then I move onto the SO WHAT of the creation gospel.It opens up new spaces for us as Christians, and new battlegrounds, and newcurricula. For instance a Bible college built firmly on the redemption gospelwill chart out certain themes, skills and ways of being that flow from thatframework. So what are the ‘so what’ fields that are emerging from the Creationgospel in places like Regent college who have pioneered the creationgospel.  Broadly this field could becalled ‘public theology’ because the creation gospel logically  opens up the scope and application of thegospel beyond the private property of the church and into the wider field ofall human endeavours.

·       But fourthly I move onto the problems or the fields ofinquiry that this opens up.  Like all newendeavours, we solve some problems but open up other new territories to conquerand the creation gospel is no different. I will argue that the creation gospel andthe field of public theology has unfortunately positioned itself in the fieldof ‘ethics’ in the public space and this has left us marooned as ‘critics’ ofthe system not as participants.

·       This leads us to our final area – what is a betterframework for us to publicly participate than as ‘critics’ of the worldsystem.  our answer is as ‘creators orsub-creators’ or to use a more modern word as ‘designers’.  This is exciting and fresh and opens upuncharted territory. For the gospel to play out a key role here I will arguethat we need

o  A new anthropology– of the image of God

o  A new kind of publicdiscipleship - as our role in the creation focuses on sub-creation

o  New skills and capabilities.

Creation theology offers New language

Let me conclude by saying that I am not inventing a newframework here as if people have not been acting this way in the faith. RatherI am inventing a new language to characterise our work in the world. Thislanguage is not religious language but rather the common language of humanenterprise. The power of a new language is that it makes explicit whatotherwise was implicit and so we can more deliberately work on it and with it. Anew language can also help to change our paradigms and look at things in newways.

What is ‘Creation Theology’?

 

The Gospel begins in Genesis One (not Genesis three)

What do we mean by this phrase ‘creation theology’?  Simply put it means that we start ourthinking about the gospel (not the bible) in Genesis one not in Genesis three. Wethink the gospel began in Genesis one not in Genesis three. That means thegospel does not begin with the fall and with the sin; it begins with creationand the intent revealed in creation.  Itgoes right back to the very beginning. [1]

 

This might sound simple but it is not, in fact it is aprofound shift. Paul Ricoeur, the eminent philosopher of rhetoric, captured itbest when he said,

 

“The beginning isnot what one finds first; the point of departure must be reached, it must bewon.”  [2]

 

My Story to illustrate Ricoeur’s point

Let me illustrate this tough journey through my experienceas a keen young Christian.

 

For years I was familiar with Genesis one, but in truth Itreated it as background setting for the real story. When a director is setting up a drama, they spend sometime early on setting the context and painting a picture of the backgroundagainst which the real drama/plot unfolds. That is how I thought about Genesisone – background and neutral.  As anevangelical the real drama or plot began in Genesis three. It set up theproblem of sin and the fall for which the cross was the answer. My mainreason for going to Genesis one was to argue over evolution and whether it wasliteral or not.  It did not feed my mindor preoccupy my thinking. It did not frame my thoughts. Instead Genesis threeframed my thoughts – and indeed my whole theology[3].

 

Then life intervened in my mid-thirties and somethingchanged. I left teaching and started consulting. I like to call this my ‘Josephin Egypt’ experience. This meant I was confronting the heavy lifting needs ofleaders in the real world; issues like

·     how do you handle complexity in legislation –

·     how do you change human behaviour – engage frontline employees in change;

·     how do you balance the rights of the individualversus the collective;

·     how do organisations manage to control risks butat the same time promote innovation;  


Limits of redemption gospel; 1) ethics not ‘wicked problems’

The redemption gospel did not really shine much light onthese issues.  It only had ethicalconcerns to raise. But these leaders rarely faced what I would call primarilyethical issues – they were facing what I came to recognise as ‘wicked problems’that threatened the order and well-being of their business. I can rememberwondering – can we offer a smart God not just an ethicalGod?  Does God and the gospel make uswiser, smarter, more creative and courageous in dealing with wicked problems[4] –or does it just make us more ethical and critical?

 

Limits of redemption gospel; 2)  Christian v non-Christian
I also quickly began to haveanother experience: I was becoming friends with these people and they were notall Christians. Some were atheists, some agnostics, some Catholics, someprivate about their beliefs etc. but this did not interfere with ourpartnership or our friendship. So I was thrown into partnerships that werehuman but not ‘Christian’.

 

Limits of redemption gospel; 3) The danger of irrelevance

Christians who go on this journey are confronted with a bigchoice: either they throw away the gospel because it does not seem relevant anymore,or they find a bigger God and a bigger gospel. Most sincere Christians don’t want to confront such stark alternatives,so something more gradual happens; they become dualists with a ‘Sunday’ worldand a ‘Monday’ world.  The danger of thisis that they get a smaller and smaller God who has less to say about themajority of their life. This is a precarious situation.

 

A glimmer of hope – holy ground- bigger God, bigger project

Then something very strange occurred – a glimpse of a biggerworld and a bigger God.  I did not planthis, it crept up on me.  I had theprivilege of beginning to design and lead workshops – strategic conversations –where I led leaders to shape change.  Tocreate a good system.  And to mysurprise,I felt like I was walking on holy ground. I had no theology to explainthis but it was real.

 

Theology catching up with experience

I found this new theology largely by moving the ‘beginning’back to Genesis One.  Here I began tofind a deep story about creativity and the role of humanity in furthering thecreative act of God. For instance, I was inspired by a book on creation by MichaelWelker called ‘Creation and Reality’ in which Welker argues two hugelyrelevant points:

1.    The act of creation in Genesis is unfinished –creation begins here but does not finish here. It is ongoing. It is betterthought of as God opening up an order of existence which will be characterisedby ongoing shaping

2.    The scope of creation in Genesis 1 includessocial systems not just natural systems.

 

Gospel begins in Genesis one not Genesis three

So I began to read Genesis One not as the set-up for thestory, not as the context and landscape but as the real beginning of the plot,the drama and the story. In this ‘creation theology’ the drama was creating thecosmos – designing and shaping the created order.  This creating demanded a creator,and that meant I had to peer into the nature of God. The breakthrough for mewas seeing a Trinitarian model at work where the Word was the agent forcreation that transitioned between intent and objectivity. Every drama needsantagonists and resistance – and I saw that not just in evil but inparadox.  How does an infinite Godevidence his acts in a finite order? How can created order house theuncreated God?  Now at least I was askingbetter questions.

 

This gradually reframed my thinking and my engagement withthe world. I could take the creation gospel everywhere. Furthermore, I couldlook back at the redemption gospel and see its limitations including how itelided the creation account from scripture itself.[5]

 

Biblical authors begin with G1 mindset not G3

I now see that the creation account framed how prophets andapostles interpreted God’s interventions in history.  They did not start with the Fall andsin.  For example, consider how Johninterpreted the life of Jesus in both his gospel and his epistles. As an oldman he reflected on his experience of this life of Jesus through the lens ofGenesis one. He began both his gospel and his epistle with famous prologuesthat blended the physicality of Jesus with echoes of God’s act of creation asrecorded in Genesis one. Clearly this was more than stylistic or persuasive;his thinking about the significance of this life was mediated by the lens ofcreation. He did not choose to use Genesis three and the so-called ‘fall’ ashis mediating lens in these great prologues. In so far as ‘sin’ enters, it is aconsequence of this creation, and it is not given a place in the foreground ofhis interpretive thoughts.

 

Let us put it bluntly. He did not begin his meditations on the life of Jesus with a frameworkthat said, “Mankind had a problem with sin which began in Genesis with originalsin – and Jesus was the answer to this problem.”  Rather he began with a framework that said, “Wehave seen the life that was with God from the beginning, from the creation ofthe world and this life has now been made accessible to our senses and thus ourthoughts.  That is what we are testifyingto you.” This is an accurate paraphrase of the opening verses of 1 John, notthe sin-based paraphrase.

 

Implications & worldviews of Redemption v creation theologies

So, in summary I would say this is how the creation gospelexpanded my thinking – and how the redemption gospel had caused some unintendedconsequences in my thinking….

 

Competing Anthropologies

From total depravity to imago dei

 

Differing scopes

From a religious scope defined by heaven and hell toa cosmic scope defined by a continuing creation

 

 

Differing postures

From Private and internal focus to public and external focus

Nature of redemption/mechanism of redemption

From the Cross to the Resurrection – new creation

 

Why is the Creation Gospel relevant today?

The creation gospel is really needed today.   Here is how it is relevant…

 

Mars Hill

This ‘creation gospel’ can feel soft. It includeseverybody.  It is a Mars Hill approach.It starts with what we already have, and it renames it as God’s gift. But ithas edge – it offers comfort, but it is contested, and it confronts today’sdoubts and ‘antichrists’.  

 

The ‘gospel’ that Paul offered in Mars Hill is a goodtemplate for us today because he was addressing ‘secular’ Gentiles who did notshare his religious background. In this way his audience at Mars Hill was quitea modern one. You will notice that he did not start with the differencesbetween his audience and himself, but with their common ground. He found thatcommon ground in their shared experience of creation.  But then he stretched their view of creationbeyond their theories and that meant he had to challenge those theories. Ineffect he was saying “We share this wonderful experience of creation, but itdemands a bigger explanation than your religion or philosophy can provide forit…”

 

In the same way, we need to start the gospel ‘earlier’ inthe story than the life of Jesus and the redemption account. We will need toget there eventually, but we need to win space in the foreground first – andthat foreground is the question of creation or nature. Even calling this world‘creation’ versus ‘nature’ is a good place to start stretching into the gospelstory. [6]

 

Three major ways the creationgospel challenges secularism
Creation theology challenges the prevailing worldview in threesignificant ways.

 

·     Today we are afflicted by nihilism not justsecularism.  In contrast, we offerHOPE, because we believe that this creation is a gift not an accident and haspurpose.  If it has a beginning, then ithas an end.[7]

·     This nihilism is made inevitable by ourprevailing worldview of objectivism & materialism.  Secular society believes that the world ismere machinery.  In contrast we believethat the physicality of the world is cohered by MYSTERY & LOVE/INTENT.

·     This objectivism implies a mechanisticanthropology.  It is a low view ofwhat it means to be a human being. In contrast, we believe unashamedly in the SOULand the SPIRIT not just the body. This leads us to a high anthropology and adignified view of humanity as the image of God.

 

How do we move to Christ and the Cross?

This beginning moves to Christ but in a new way. Our highanthropology can seem doomed to failure by the mockery of death and disease andby humanity’s shocking track record of doing well on the earth. An idealisticview of humanity has always run the risk of being utopian and unrealistic giventhe realities of human behaviour. Into this place, we bring Jesus as thedefining ‘human being’. This will move us to the cross and redemption  – but like the gospels, we will move there bythe route of his incarnation, his ‘humanity in practice’ first.

 

The gospels establish not just Jesus’s life, but his character.They make the case in story after story of his character not just his ideas:his mastery over the created order, including those things that threaten ourmajesty such as diseases, calamities and death itself. His wisdom about lifeand morality grounded in an incomparable grasp of the covenant and purposes ofGod as expressed in the Hebrew scriptures. His compassion for the losers andthe lost, exemplified in his choice of friends and disciples and in hisrelentless seeking out of the lost and the outcasts. His indomitable courage inconfronting the self-serving power elites of his day who were, in one way oranother exploiting the common people.

 

In this way his life defines human potential and secures it[8].He is the living proof that we are the image of God because he was the trueimage of God.  The incarnation is not anabstract doctrine or a diversionary tactic to enable redemption. It is part ofa worldview that humanises truth and creation. It puts character at the centreof truth not just propositions. It says, that we cannot judge anybody’s claimsto truth in the abstract, we must consider their life.  Was it a good life?  Let’s be blunt about this. The incarnationsays that you cannot evaluate the truth of Nietzsche’s philosophy withoutevaluating Nietzsche’s character;  youcannot evaluate the truth of Richard Dawkins, or Bertrand Russell, or Einsteinwithout evaluating their lives and thus their character.

 

So by this route of the incarnation, we move to redemptionand the cross.  The creation theologythen finds its gospel fulfilment in the resurrection which is better named the‘new creation’ as the epistles commonly do. This centralises the resurrection rather than moving to sidelines asmatter of logistics between heaven and earth, as the redemption gospel is wontto do.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 


[1] Now we are not arguing the creation gospel meansthrowing out the redemption gospel. That is not our choice – we need both. Thequestion is one of priority. We can express our choice as a simple formula

·       G1>G3 or,

·       G3>G1

 

[2]  In allsystems, the heart of understanding is the beginning – not as a point in time,but as the real cause and intent that made the system occur. This is a truththat I have found again and again unlocks insights in strategic planning andlarge scale problem solving.  Ie asking,‘Why did this system begin – what was its origin?’ is a far more fruitfulquestion than ‘What is wrong with this system, and how do we fix it?’  

 

In this way the beginningpersonalises the system. We move away from its operations as objectified gearsand levers or mechanics, to the heart and love that first framed the system.

 

In turn this focus on thebeginning intent, moves us to contemplate the ‘end’ of the system – itsculmination and ultimate outcome.  So the‘beginning’ shines light on the ‘end’ and vice versa. Investigating thebeginning in this way is hard work. It is hard because you have to uncover thepurpose, which is usually hidden under layers of activity. It is notimmediately obvious and it may well have been subverted by false objectivesalong the course of its history that have made it depart from its originalintent.

 

[3] This is how the redemption gospel is framed; sin isthe problem which is set up in Genesis three, and the fall becomes thedistinguishing point of view that we take to the world. This lens of ‘sin’ and‘fall’ lays the ground work for the redemptive work of Jesus which is theforgiveness of these sins. Thus the focus in on the cross as the majormechanism for this forgiveness.  Thisfocus on the cross and forgiveness leads to a view of the trinity and God: inwhat is often called the doctrine of penal substitution, Jesus is the sacrificeand this sacrifice is made to God the Father as the judge of sin. The trinityenables this redemption since, only the third person of the Godhead died – andthe judgment cycle is internal to the Godhead with God both judge andsacrifice.

 

[4]  The term ‘Wicked Problems’ was first coinedby Horst Rittel in 1973 in an essay entitled “Dilemmas in a General Theory ofPlanning”.  A wicked problem was acomplex socio- technical problem that had no single answer and in fact had nosingle definition. It could not even be properly called a ‘problem’.  Richard Buchanan claimed that all ‘designproblems’ were in fact ‘wicked problems’ in a seminal article entitled, “WickedProblems in Design Thinking”.  Tameproblems or scientific problems are linear and have right or wrong answers; eg‘Why did our software program fail last night?’   But a wicked problem is non-linear andinvolves design such as ‘How do we draft a new constitution for our emergingcountry?’  The linear problem does notinvolved human agency but the wicked problem has human agency and intent at thecore.

[5] Itis too big a theme to develop here, but it is interesting how Calvin tries tohandle accounts of creation in contrast to how the Patristics such as Gregoryof Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. One is limited and defensive, the other isexpansive and foundational.

[6]  The theme of starting the gospel ‘earlier’ isbrilliantly expanded by Michael Gallagher, Professor of Fundamental Theology atthe Gregorian University in Rome in his touching book ‘The Human Poetry ofFaith’. He recounts his advice to a frustrated young priest who was failingto communicate the gospel to young people. Gallagher told him, “Start furtherback. … our crucial human hungers are more human than religious; the languageof the Catechism, even when well expounded, was not where the young people were‘at’. They needed a chance to discover their questions before being given anyof the great answers of the Christian tradition…”. Page 3

[7]Miroslav Volf developed this theme wonderfully for us in his talk on GospelConversations ‘Pleasure, Meaning and the Death of God’.  https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-j68ck-b206d6

[8] Iexplore this theme in my talks on Radical Humanism on our GC website.