December 15, 2019

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey, Chapter 6 – When Life Was Good, Chapter 7 – Creation Fell in 1517, and Chapter 8 – Tracking the Fall of Creation

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey

Chapter 6 – When Life Was Good, Chapter 7 – Creation Fell in 1517, and Chapter 8 – Tracking the Fall of Creation

We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey.  Today is Chapter 6 – When Life Was Good, Chapter 7 – Creation Fell in 1517, and Chapter 8 – Tracking the Fall of Creation.  Jon notes that many evangelicals are astonished to hear it suggested that for three quarters of church history the doctrine of a fallen creation was either unknown, or very much a minority view.  I know I was surprised to hear it; I had unconsciously assumed the “traditional” view was… well… traditional.  As Jon demonstrates in Chapters 6 and 7, it turns out not so much.

As he surveys the material, one thing to keep in mind is that before the nineteenth century there was a universal assumption of young earth chronology.  So the effects of the fall were inextricably tied to its effects on humankind.  However, beginning in the mid-1700s, early geologists began to realize that the earth was much older than the previous assumption, based on Genesis, of 6,000 years. James Ussher published his famous chronology in 1650 of the history of the world formulated from a literal reading of the Old Testament.  However, as scientists like James Hutton and Charles Lyell began to make detailed observations and carefully reasoned geological arguments, they began to show that the Earth was perpetually being formed; they recognized that the history of Earth could be determined by understanding how processes such as erosion and sedimentation work in the present day.  Young earth creationists are fond of portraying the revolution in geology as a battle of “worldviews” and “falling away” from the faith.  The truth is much more mundane; the “new” geology was much more successful at predicting the location of minerals and fuels needed for the industrial revolution taking place.  The “new” geology worked, the old geology, based on the assumption of a world-wide flood, was a complete failure at predicting the location of mine-able deposits i.e. it’s all about “show me the money”.  Since Hutton and Darwin, it is necessary to account for the state of the natural world before humankind – what used to be a matter of 5 days is now realized to be billions of years.

The Church Fathers, an 11th-century Kievan Rus’ miniature from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany

In his survey of pre-Christian Jewish sources, Jon notes that neither Philo of Alexandria nor Flavius Josephus alludes very much to the fall.  Philo allegorizes the serpent as “human desire” and the curse on the soil as an allegory to “cultivating vice”.  No change to the natural world is mentioned.  The first of the church fathers to write about creation was Theophilus, bishop of Antioch from 169-183.  He does talk about carnivores who “transgress the law of God, and eat flesh, and injure those weaker than themselves” but then notes the carnivores are a “similitude” (or type) of sinful humans, thus allegorizing them, not attributing evil in themselves.  Irenaeus, the second century writer, who deals at length with the creation, according to Jon doesn’t say anything about animal violence.  However, in his commentary on Isaiah 65:11, Irenaeus seems to assume the prophecy about lions eating straw is a return to a vegetarian situation before the fall:

And it is right that when the creation is restored, all the animals should obey and be in subjection to man, and revert to the food originally given by God (for they had originally been subjected in obedience to Adam), that is, the productions of the earth.  (Irenaeus, Against Heresies V XXXIII, Roberts and Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Library, Vol V, 366)

Jon reviews Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Lactantius (240-320), and Athanasius (296-373); all who maintain the natural creation is in its original condition as it was first created. The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil (330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (332-395), and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) all held that each animal is distinguished by its own distinctive characteristics and these characteristics, including flesh eating, are not the result of human sin, but of divine wisdom.  As mentioned in Chapter 3, John Chrysostom (347-407) is an exception who does find, in his commentary on Romans 8, that the fall corrupted creation.

Jon gives an extensive treatment of Augustine (354-430), since he is one of the most influential theologians in church history. The core of Augustine’s thinking is that we see evil in creation only because we lack the big picture both of God purposes, and of creation’s functioning.  He quotes long sections from the Confessions and City of God to make his points.  Augustine had 3 points:

  1. Augustine only considers harm in relation to humanity. Aware of nature’s harshness, he simply saw no theological problem to address there, and no “privation of good”.
  2. Some things may harm us because we deserve punishment; yet the things that execute such punishment are not in themselves evil, but good.
  3. Those who see evil in God’s present creation are heretics who see an “opposing principle” in nature, responsible for its “evils” independent of God’s determining will e.g. the Gnostics.

Jon reviews the viewpoints of John of Damascus (679-749) and Anselm (1033-1109) and ends the chapter with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275), one of the most important “doctors of the church” who had huge influence on both Catholic and Protestant doctrines.  Aquinas says:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state (before the fall), have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals.  But this is quite unreasonable.  For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and the falcon.  Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30 say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some.  Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals.

Note that he also cites the seventh-century Saxon monk Bede’s commentary to show that Genesis 1:29-30 had not been taken as a universal command to vegetarianism by this orthodox predecessors either.

In Chapter 7- Creation Fell in 1517, Jon shows a profound reversal in the theological picture appears in the writings of the Reformers.  John Calvin (1509-1564) appears to suggest a wholesale corruption of nature by the sin of man.  Alistair McGrath (A Scientific Theology, Vol. 1: Nature, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, 174-175) states:

In this respect Calvin departed from the view of Aquinas and the Catholic tradition generally, which understands nature as showing the signs of imperfection that need to be brought to perfection by grace.  Calvin went much further: creation has been corrupted by sin, suffers along with humankind disorder and death, and awaits its final restoration by the redemptive activity of Christ.

Luther (1483-1546), in remarks in Table Talk, resembles Calvin’s position:

Though by reason of original sin many wild beasts hurt mankind, as lions, wolves, bears, snakes, adders, etc., yet the merciful God has in such manner mitigated or well-deserved punishments that there are many more beasts that serve us for our good and profit, than those which do us hurt… in all creatures more good than evil, more benefit than hurts and hindrances.

And in his commentary on Genesis, Luther says:

… because [the earth] does bear many hurtful things, which but for man’s sins she would not have borne, such as the destructive weeds, darnel, tares, nettles, thorns, thistles, etc., to which may be added poison, noxious reptiles and other like hurtful things brought into the creation by sin.

For my own part I entertain no doubt that before the sin of the fall the air was more pure and healthful, the water more wholesome and fructifying, and the light of the sun more bright and beautiful.  So that the whole creation as it now is reminds us in every part of the curse inflicted on it, on account of the sin of the fall.

Note that none of what he says may be found in Scripture, as Luther himself admitted elsewhere, with the exception, on one interpretation, of the advent of “thorns and thistles”.  Jon ends the theological survey of Protestant voices with that of John Wesley (1703-1791).  Jon says that Wesley:

… takes the doctrine of fallen creation to new heights (or depths) of lurid description, achieving at last the kind of teaching frequently seen today.

In Chapter 8 – Tracking the Fall of Creation, Jon attempts to explain what led to the change in the viewpoints of Christians that were held for the first fifteen hundred years of the church.  Jon believes the main explanation for this change lies in sociological forces, specifically the rise of Renaissance humanism.  The Renaissance is noted for recovering the knowledge of the ancient classical texts.  This humanism, from its inception, encompassed the idea that “Man is the measure of all things”, which is a quote, by Plato, of Protagoras (490-420 BCE).  Protagoras was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He is numbered as one of the sophists by Plato. In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato credits him with inventing the role of the professional sophist.

Protagoras also is believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that, “Man is the measure of all things”, interpreted by Plato to mean that there is no absolute truth but that which individuals deem to be the truth.  Well, well, well, it seems that post-Modernism is quite a bit pre-modern after all.  Jon says:

In the early Renaissance classically informed humanists embraced the new anthropocentrism whilst seeking to retain their Christian identity, by seeing Adam as embodying this divine humanity’s autonomous freedom and creativity, whilst playing down or denying its corruption.  The fall therefore came to be seen, at least in part, as a good thing in enabling humanity’s development.

Prometheus

Adam came to be viewed more as Prometheus, the Titan who created humankind but then gave fire to them and was punished by the gods.  This image continued for centuries—for example Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was, rather ironically, subtitled The Modern Prometheus.  Her husband’s Prometheus Unbound employed the myth to glorify revolution.  Jon quotes Alistair McGrath, who agrees with this assessment of the centrality of the Prometheus myth from Bacon through to the Enlightenment, particularly in relation to attitudes to nature:

The rise of technology was seen as paralleling Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods.  Defining limits were removed.  Prometheus was now unbound, and humanity poised to enter a new era of autonomy and progress.  The rise of technology was seen as a tool that would allow humanity to control and shape its environment, without the need to respect natural limitations. (McGrath, Re-enchantment of Nature, 78).

However, Reformation religion was, Jon says, in part a conscious revolt against this vaunting of human autonomy.  He says:

The ratcheting up of the description of evil and the increasing involvement of Satan, until it reached the level we have seen in Wesley’s time, could be seen either as embellishment over the years, or perhaps as an unconscious reaction to the ever more autonomous and divinized self-image of humanity, and the deliberated exclusion of God, as the Renaissance became the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment our own self-obsessed age.  In either case the doctrine of the fallenness of creation turns out, to our surprise, to be an unintended by-product of the very same human-centered ideology that brought our secularist and materialist culture into existence.

Jon points out some implications of the prominence of a Prometheusian mythology replacing the Christian archetype of Adam; a summary of the whole humanist project, he thinks, since cultures mold themselves by their myths.

  • Adam’s morality based on God’s commands vs. Prometheus autonomy despite the gods’ authority.
  • Adam lived in obedience to God despite the one sin vs. Prometheus’ self-determination above all things.
  • Adam was wise and righteous, but then became corrupt vs. Prometheus brought refinement and progress.
  • God was the great Artificer of everything and Adam his imitator and assistant vs. Prometheus is now the Artificer and a Designer is denied any place in the closed system of nature.
  • Adam’s work was to tend and keep creation vs. Prometheus, in Baconian fashion, to torture it for its secrets and bend it to his will.
  • Adam knew that every creature must give account to God vs. Prometheus expects God to give an account of his treatment to every creature.
  • Prometheus is Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, Galileo the mythic martyr of science to religion, the indomitable will of the people, and the improver of a botched creation through genetic modification or transhumanism.

Jon concludes:

But what if my thesis is correct, and the whole concept of natural evil is no more than a re-imposition of ancient pagan pessimism over innovative Christian view of a creation marred only by what sinful humanity itself does to it?  What if the harm that nature causes us is, as the Father’s taught, the result of God’s righteous judgment rather than of nature’s participation in evil?

In that case, we have distorted Christian doctrine very badly to accommodate it to a worldview that is, in fact, diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview.  It was the desire for autonomy that led humankind into exile from the garden.  If directly or indirectly, the quest for that autonomy has led us to doubt or deny the goodness of God’s creation, then there must be serious consequences.

 

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    I think Garvey’s reinterpretation of the Biblical material in favor of a continuing unfallen and good creation, uninfected by the evil of a human fall, is entirely plausible, and more in keeping with what the texts actually say than so-called “traditional” views, which as he says turn out to be a very mistaken reading rooted mostly in the Protestant Reformation. I am, however, not in alignment with his critique of human “autonomy”, nor with the critique of political and social modernity involved in it; I also do not agree with the idea that God the suffering that humans experience from creation is the result of rebellion against God. I think his views in these two matters are linked by what seems to be Garvey’s adherence to a doctrine of human fallennes and depravity that is essentially fundamentalist and traditional. I don’t dispute that the Bible may be read with that interpretation, or that it a feasible one that fits the texts, but I am not a fundamentalist, an inerrantist or infallibilist when it comes to the Bible. Such a reading, even if it comes out of a responsible interpretation of the Bible, continues to put human beings at the center of things, even if only by singling them out from nature for God’s judgment and wrath; and it sets aside the possibility that the reason humans suffer in and from nature is simply because nature was not made to human expectations. In that case, neither humanity nor nature is fallen, but merely “unfinished” in some sense, and human beings are not at the center of the divine plan, but merely one aspect of it. I recognize that this view might not be in keeping with any kind of “traditional: Christianity, but I’m beginning to suspect that I am and have for a long time been something more like a Quaker than a “traditional” Christian. So be it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > and human beings are not at the center of the divine plan

      It could be seen, ‘simply’, that Humans are centered in Scripture because it is the Scripture of-and-for Humans.
      Whatever the “divine plan” is for earthworms or extraterrestrials would be beside the point.

      We have discussed Scripture being *A* story here many times.
      It is a story of a human people then expanding to include all humanity.

      > nor with the critique of political and social modernity involved in it

      Some of that wrinkles by brow as well. But many a scholar drives his ship onto those rocks. He’s adopting a particular narrative of the Enlightenment et ak. As my reading of the Reformation and Enlightenment is far more Economic than Ideological – in keeping with “””it’s all about “show me the money”””” [some things just worked better in a changing landscape] the Prometheusian mythos feels imposed (but rhetorically useful for the battling economic tribes).

      I’m am tempted to grab a copy of the book just for these couple chapters.

    • Dana Ames says

      “…it sets aside the possibility that the reason humans suffer in and from nature is simply because nature was not made to human expectations. In that case, neither humanity nor nature is fallen, but merely “unfinished” in some sense…”

      This is entirely consonant with the MOST “traditional” Christian view – the one that stretches back all the way into the first century – that of EO. Suffering happens for many reasons, most of which we don’t know, ultimately; but nature was not made to human expectations, true. Human nature – that about us which makes us human! – and the natural world are not “fallen”; the first humans are viewed as immature, definitely “unfinished”. Jesus Christ is seen as The First Truly Human Being, the “last adam” in the sense of “Ultimate Man.”

      Man is seen as the center of creation, but not so that creation can serve him – rather so that he can be the priest of creation, leading it in worship (“If they were to be silent, the stones would cry out…”) and caring for its functioning. Man is at once both part of creation and its pinnacle; only man is made “in the image of God”, though everything created participates in Christ by virtue of him being the Logos and the “hands-on” agent of the Trinity in creation, and his endowing each thing with its own specific nature (logoi). This understanding of how everything participates in Christ is the reason we can rightly have a kind of panentheistic view of nature.

      We can’t see the purpose of everything that happens in nature now (nature is “subject to futility”), but when Christ returns he will put everything right (that’s what “judgment” is, esp in the Jewish understanding). That putting right will begin with man and flow through all the rest.

      (I don’t believe Rom 8 refers to the Flood at all, as per Chaplain Mike’s comment below, nor have I seen it interpreted that way in EO. That interpretation doesn’t make sense in the context of Paul’s line of thought there.)

      Dana

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Great post; previously I’ve only seen these things scattershot.

  3. anonymous says

    Romans 8:20For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time.…

    • Many scholars recognize the language in Rom 8 to reflect the Flood story, not the early chapters of Genesis.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I am skeptical about comments that consist entirely of Bible Verses, as if the verses should always be self-evident. Especially when there’s no way to tell if this is just a drive-by hosing Bible Bullets.

      Too much like an MP3 playback duckspeaking a Party Line.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Jon dealt exhaustively with Romans 8:18-22 which was reviewed in Chapter 3. To recap, Jon said:

      “And so, Paul is suggesting in Romans 8, the natural creation (which he has personified for literary purposes) has been, from its original foundation, tied to mortality but longing for immortality, to corruption but awaiting incorruption, to the naturally empowered (psuchikos) but destined for the spiritually empowered (pneumatikos).
      As it is, the salvation that God has now achieved by his own arm, through the incarnation of Christ, is in the wisdom of God far more glorious, and perhaps even the final state more wonderful. But since what is to come is still unknown and indescribable, it is foolish to make the attempt. But what is certain is that it was not how Creation was in the first chapter of Genesis, and therefore the pre-fall state is not what is being described in Romans 8, but the result of new creation in Christ.”

      • ‘but the result of new creation in Christ.’ New, or renewed?

        What relationship does what we see around us now have to a) what was made? b) what will be?

        Creation tells me a lot about God & so for me to understand the overlap between originally/now/then is important for my theology. Anyone want to take a stab at this?

        Or have I entirely misunderstood this quote?

        • Dana Ames says

          Beakerj,

          N.T. Wright does a great job describing this, as much as can be done. There will be both difference and continuity with what we know now, else we wouldn’t be able to relate at all to what is to come; exactly how that will be has not been revealed, but the pattern to look at is Christ’s resurrected body. (There will be some kind of upheaval, or “descent”, or something like Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe”, just as Christ had to die and was buried – but we don’t know how that’s going to play out [except it won’t include “the Rapture”!], and that’s not the end of everything.) In Wright’s view (and in the view of EO) creation will be renewed, transformed – not done away with. In EO, everything, not only humans, has a relation to Christ by virtue of him being the Person of the Holy Trinity who did the “hands-on creating”, if you will, according to the will of the Father and with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Wright also talks about how the new creation will be enlivened not by its own biological principle (psychikos) – which is not a bad thing, but not up to containing the glory God ultimately has for it – but by the Holy Spirit (pneumatikos), as Mike quotes Garvey above.

          There are some videos (audio recordings, too, I believe) of Wright speaking about “New Creation” – do a web search, starting with the NT Wrightpage. If you want to read Wright (who in many, many cases echoes the EO understanding) you can do no better than his “big books” – “The New Testament and the People of God”, “Jesus and the Victory of God”, and “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” All the dozens of smaller books he has written trace back to these. They are detailed, but not dry and academic – very readable. Perhaps your library system has them.

          • Thanks as always Dana. I’ll do a search & see what his videos being up first, I like listening to Tom Wright. I went to a lecture in Cambridge he did on film once & it was great.

    • Dave Greene says

      It would seem to me that creation’s “pains of childbirth” in verse 22 would suggest the state of creation prior to Adam’s fall – a state from which Adam and the human race was meant to participate in the birth and maturing of.

  4. Dana Ames says

    Today’s post by RJS at Jesus Creed is the continuation of a book review she’s been writing. I think this section of the review has some helpful related ideas.

    Dana

  5. Hmmm interesting stuff. So I see and still I am blind. I was set free to be a servant. By some I am called mountain goat because I feed cats at the bottom of a mountain before I walk up it in prayer. I have been through too much to talk about here and now. 60 years old now should be dead. Never more alive. Such is the walk. I’ll stop in again from time to time. The heat here in the keystone state was fairly cold compared to the fire in the spirit. 4 AM comes quickly. Still writing and looking at the songs. Good to see things are alive and well here. Hope i get a chance to read more here. Yours truly. W

  6. But….in Greek mythology, or some versions of it, at least, Prometheus actually *created* human beings. Keep in mind that, as a Titan, Prometheus predates the Olympians. He is punished by *lesser* beings for bringing fire to the race he created – and this allowing humans to have light when it’s dark, a way to cook food, work metal, etc.

    He is shown as *compassionate* – by contrast, Zeus and the rest of the Olympians are quite cruel, both in punishing him and in their basic indifference to the human condition.

    That rhe Romantic literary movement recast their “modern Promethus” as a monster does not = the Prometheus of the Greco-Roman world being evil. If anything, quite the opposite.

    The Romantics were, at very least, writung social critique in these cases. And some of their immediate predecessirs, like William Blake, did so as well. He’s the one who referred to the new factories as “dark, Satanic mills,” although his religious beliefs were very different than most held at that time, and partly self-created. At any rate, Nature is vital to the Romantic movement in the arts, in ways the author seems to be ignoring, or brushing aside, at least.

    While i buy creation being unfallen, this whole Adam vs Prometheus deal is *way* out there – along with the broad-brushed treatment of both the Renaissance abd the Enlightenment as Big Bads. From where I’m sitting, i honestly think a sophomore in English lit could make short work of this author’s claims in a debate. I kind of suspect he doesn’t truly understand the philosophical and cultural movements he says he’s using as evidence. I don’t think any decent English lit prof could, or would, accept his thesis.

    Also, i believe the term is “Promethean.” At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it written, though maybe this author has invented his own adjective in. re. Prometheus?

  7. Err, *some* of the Romantics – by no means all.

    But Mary Shelley clearly didn’t view the “modern Prometheus” as anything but monstrous, no matter how innocent Frankenstein’s monster actually was.