Marilyn McCord Adams: For Better for Worse Solidarity

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

Marilyn McCord Adams’s chapter is a welcome return, from what seems to have been a diversion into matters on the historicity of Christ raised by N. T. Wright, to the books theme of the role of Christ in the created order.

I found, though, that this was the first chapter on this theme with which I had significant disagreements. To generalise these, her methodology was to review various historical views on the necessity for the Incarnation, and then develop her own understanding from these. In my view, this leads her to sitting too loose to our authoritative source - the Scriptures - in favour of philosophical and scientific speculation.

I raise a first quizzical eyebrow at the way she introduces the chapter:

But what difference does Christ make to creation? Could God accomplish divine purposes in the world as we know it without an incarnation?

Hold on there - Christ, the eternal Son and Logos of God, is not co-terminous with the gracious act of incarnation. To argue for the centrality of Christ to creation does not necessarily imply the Incarnation.

To be fair, working through the views of ancient scholars from Origen and opponents like Augustine, through Anselm to disagreements between the positions of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, she does grapple with their wrestlings on whether the Incarnation was a necessary part of God’s plan, or a secondary response to sin:

… put otherwise, whether a God-man was “Plan A” or “Plan B.”

Such questions are notoriously difficult, because Scripture reveals a tension between the lack of a physical or moral necessity for sin in a good creation, and the hidden counsel of God in which Jesus is “the lamb slain from the creation of the world.” The old philosophical theologians sometimes got bogged down in those distinctions - which are sometimes best left hidden in God’s secret wisdom.

But, as Adams points out, as in so much of the “theology of origins,” it is important to remember that the old theologians were almost exclusively concerned about Christ in relation to man and other rational beings (angels), and never intended their arguments to be applied to the inanimate creation, which “created order” is the theme of this book.

Within that more simple, anthropocentric universe, the Incarnation was an established fact whose necessity was questioned in retrospect, given the “unreasonableness” of the inconceivably great God being joined to the “almost nothing” of a human life in hypostatic union by Incarnation. However, it seems to me that union with God (in Christ) for the race of mankind, though still “unreasonable,” might quite conceivably have been achieved apart from Christ becoming flesh, had sin not occurred, from the information Scripture provides.

This is important, because the case she goes on to develop points out the “marginalizing of the material (creation)” in the old theological speculations, but in correcting it she makes big assumptions about the nature of the material creation. She does this by swallowing the Darwinian view of nature (or, to those who have read my book God’s Good Earth, the “Promethean view”), which in effect fuses the perishability of nature with the corruption of sin as symptoms of the fundamental nature of the created order. Her shorthand for this is “horrors,” to which I’ll return shortly.

Of course, if nature’s perishability and the evils of sin are in essence the same thing, then it follows that the suffering Christ of the Incarnation is as necessary for the first as for the second. But the cost of this is the goodness of creation, and makes God the direct author of the evils which he sends his Son to redeem. As I have argued in my book, though, whilst this is a common assumption in what we might call “evolutionary theology,” it is not what Scripture teaches.

To return to Adams’s “horrors,” which frustrate creation’s flourishing, she begins with a long list of sin’s direct effects, from child abuse and Nazi death camps to nuclear warfare, thowing in a couple of debilitating diseases that, as far as one can tell, are not the direct consequences of sin. But she goes on to conclude that “horrors” are not, as these sinful actions are,

. . .optional or accidental but inevitable for material persons in this material world where material stuff for the most paert behaves in the way the physical sciences describe."

It is significant that she develops this in contradiction of “Adam’s putative primordial fall.” Philosophy, then, has trumped revelation in formulating doctrine.

In fact, it is also evolutionary science, as simplistically understood by Darwin following Malthus, which trumps Scripture’s teaching on a good, albeit perishable, creation corrupted by sin. In the Bible, it is sin which not only causes her first list of “horrors,” but prevents God’s intended peaceful transition to a new, spiritual, creation in which God and creatures participate fully in glory and communion.

So out come the usual suspects - material substances “cannibalize” (rather than transforming) simpler ones; plants and animals live by “consuming and destroying” (rather than by mutual dependency); humans inherit “‘Darwinian’ motivational tendencies” and animals the drive to “do anything to secure” life. She concludes with the “proverbial” (actually Malthusian) “struggle for existence in which only the fittest survive.” I do not accept that science establishes this jaundiced view of God’s world.

I smiled when Adams says that “social psychology exposes how limited imagination and Darwinian motivation renders human beings being politically challenged,” because having studied that subject at Cambridge, I know that what it actually exposes is the Marxist prejudices of many of its practitioners.

Enough - my conclusion is that the case that material creation is intrinsically full of “horrors” is not sufficiently well-grounded, and contradicts the message of Scripture. Christ is indeed central to creation at all levels, as the Word who makes the mind of God a reality to all his sentient creatures, and especially to rational humanity.

Is the Incarnation necessary to creation, then? Well, it has become necessary to the completion of the eternally-planned new creation, because of the failure of God’s chosen agent - Adam and his race - to bring it about from within creation, as the image of Christ on earth. At that point, for God’s purposes to prevail, “his own right arm” must bring salvation by taking on human nature.

That, in fact, brings greater grace and glory to the Son, and through him, to the Father, than a world without the fall would have done. And it is also true that such an outcome was always within the eternal counsel of God. But into that holy mystery, it is best not to probe too far.

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