N. T. Wright: Christ and the Cosmos: Kingdom and Creation in Gospel Perspective

(Jon Garvey) #1


Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Zondervan, Andrew B. Torrance, Thomas H. McCall

ISBN: 978-0310536086, Zondervan, May 8, 2018, $19.88

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.

Because of the chapter by chapter nature of these reviews, I have been eking out my reading of this book, and was pleased to discover late on that I had landed N. T. Wright’s chapter. It was a joy to read, not only because it is absolutely on target in exploring how to view creation christologically, but also because Wright sees the same profound implications for our worldviews that I do, if we take the exercise seriously.

His main thesis is as follows:

  • Seeing creation through Christ cannot mean simply to take our existing view of nature and “fit Jesus, or at least the preincarnate Word, into that picture.”
  • We learn about Jesus, as the agent of the new creation, only through the New Testament accounts.
  • Therefore we should expect to see similar ways of working in the first creation that we do in the ministry of Christ in the New Testament, since texts like John 1 and Colossians 1 show that Jesus was the creative agent of God from the beginning.
  • It follows that history (ie, that of the Incarnate Jesus and his ministry) has at least equal epistemic value with other sources of knowledge, and specifically with science.

In developing this, let us first look at the kind of creation Wright sketches from this:

[W]e don’t start with a view of “how God made the world” and insert Jesus into that. We start with Jesus himself, … and we therefore reflect on creation itself not as a mechanistic or rationalistic event, process, or “fact,” and not as the blind operation of impersonal forces, but as the wise, generous outpouring of the creative love that we see throughout Jesus’s kingdom-work, and supremely on the cross.(p108)

Jesus makes the process of the new creation “abundantly clear.” And if the existing creation also comes from his hand,

we ought to expect that it would often be like a seed growing secretly; that it would involve seed being sown which went to waste and other seed being sown which produced a great crop. We ought to expect that it would be a strange, slow process which might suddenly reach some kind of a harvest. And we ought to expect that it would involve some kind of overcoming of chaos. Above all we ought to expect that it would be a work of utter and self-giving love; that the power which made the world, like the power which ultimately rescued the world, would be the power, not of brute force, or of some vast robotic machinery controlled by a distant bureaucrat, but of radical outpoured generosity.(p102-103)

Wright spends some time on the positions this viewpoint opposes. In the first place, importantly, it endorses, rather than denying, an evolutionary view of nature. If the new creation is like a mustard seed slowly growing, then starting from the Christ who reveals God, the old creation should be similar.

But that conclusion comes with strong caveats on the cultural conditioning of the approaches usually available to us in dealing with this. Wright’s broad vision perceives how the rise of modern science was part of the same reaction to imperialism seen in the world of politics. It is not a pure source of truth:

A false stand-off was thus generated between the kind of would-be Christian view that went with the divine right of kings, a quasi-docetic Jesus, and a “creation” accomplished by naked divine power, and the kind of reaction that was agitating for popular rule, for evolutionary biology, and for a “quest for the historical Jesus,” which would find out that he was just a deluded religious or political teacher. The Bible itself speaks against this entire construct. Interestingly, so does evolution itself, once we eliminate the Epicureanism at the heart of it.(p105)

In other words, Jesus demands that we rethink both our theological and scientific assumptions:

A fully Trinitarian vision of God, Jesus, and the Spirit goes with the vision of a theistic, that is, a non-Epicurean, evolution.(p105)

Wright began his chapter by dismissing the whole “nature” versus “supernature” concept as part of the same culturally-conditioned false dichotomy. Although he does not spell out in detail how his theistic evolution would work (though he promises us further work on it), it involves both “the strange and slow process of sowing,” quite contrary to the revolution Jesus’s contemporaries were expecting, and “remarkable acts of rescue despite the odds,” the paradigm case being the cross and the resurrection.

Jesus, in other words, would be as personally and caringly involved in the natural creation - sometimes in obscure and gradual ways, but at other times dramatically, yet never vaingloriously - as he is in bringing about the eschatological kingdom, the spiritual creation.

Many scientists will complain that they don’t see such personal divine involvement in nature. But Wright observes that, just as understanding the Bible properly takes place by living within its narrative, so,

observation and reasoning never take place within a vacuum (unless you artificially create such an epistemeological vacuum and demand that everyone lives inside it).(p106)

This truth is a critique both of natural theology, in the sense of “reason[ing] up to God without the use of revelation,” and of a “trivial” idea of science, with which it colludes, “that scientific knowledge is somehow objective and faith knowledge is somehow subjective.”

Things, as he points out, are “more complex, and interesting, than that.” He suggests the need for an epistemology of love, and surely the Bible demands no less when it speaks of God’s individual care for the sparrows that are sold for a pittance, and for the wild creatures of Psalm 104. This makes great demands on all of us who have grown used to the idea of “nature” operating apart from Jesus, but I would suggest most radically on Christians in science, who have made such depersonalisation a professional virtue - modern science, after all, began by adopting “the mechanical philosophy.”

I would have liked to see Wright flesh out his christological view more, for as it is stated in the chapter it seems to me vulnerable to the kind of kenotic openness theology that has, in the name of self-giving love, replaced “naked divine power” with the very democracy that the revolutionaries demanded and which, in the last two centuries of Western politics,

…it would be difficult to maintain … has done what it said on the tin.(p104)

Wright actually has a very nuanced concept of divine power, which incorporates not only Christ’s willing suffering for our sakes, but his vindication through the nitty-gritty reality of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This grounds his positive appraisal of the epistemological reliability of history, which he spends some time defending:

It is incumbent on those who study Jesus as Christian historians both to present the history as what it is, a publicly available argument and narrative, and to insist that, despite the questions which attend all historical accounts, this is more than sufficient for Christian faith. (p108)

And if the Christian scientist is a Christian because she has staked her life on the truth of the work of Jesus in history, how could she not concur that history is “a form of knowledge, not merely of opinion.” and remain consistent?

In conclusion, there would be much for biologists to explore through Wright’s paradigm for a christocentric theistic evolution, but so far it’s hard to think of many who show interest in such a project.

Can we change that at Peaceful Science? The real question, it seems to me, is whether we want to.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

Isn’t this what I have advocated? :slight_smile:

(Jon Garvey) #3

That’s one, then…

(Jacob) #4

Then we’re off to a good start. :slight_smile: