Today, we continue the conversation about new creation theology from our last conference. If you missed it, you can download the recordings here. We asked Dr. Martin Spence to share some of his key thoughts from the conference and how pastors and churches might move forward.
Add your thoughts in the comments on how to apply new creation theology in life and ministry.
In my presentation at the Thy Kingdom Come Talking Points conference, I tried to show how the church has veered away from the idea of new creation throughout history. Some of these turns were made not as the result of an explicit discussion of the end times, but rather as the consequence of some other debate or pastoral concern. Each turn has created an accretion of ideas that make new creation a strange idea to many who encounter the concept today.
I thought it might be helpful here to summarize thematically why the church has struggled with new creation. These themes cross historical time periods, and still apply today. I’ve also added some ideas for how we can respond practically in our ministries. I’ll cover two of the themes here, and the other two in a follow up post.
THEME 1: BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
On all issues of theology and doctrine, there is a tension between our commitment to the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture and our need for skilled interpreters to help us. It is undeniable that someone opening the New Testament without the support of skilled pastor-teachers and the wisdom of the broader Church will find many verses that, at a first glance, appear to support the sense that “heaven” is the final destination of all believers. Paul refers to our citizenship in heaven, Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” and then there’s the apocalyptic language of an apparent destruction of the earth, and a spirit/flesh dichotomy.
Only a coherent, canonical, historical and linguistic sensitivity can fit these passages into the larger vision of the biblical story.
We need to invest in theological training and provide opportunities for the Church as a whole to benefit from its fruit. We need to stop assuming that our congregations know the core doctrines of Christianity and that all pastors need to do is show how these doctrines are “relevant” to today. And, we need to develop a greater commitment to a process of education/formation in our programming (perhaps especially for young people).
THEME 2: PASTORAL RESPONSE TO SUFFERING AND DOUBT
At several junctures in church history, a pastoral response to suffering and doubt has been to affirm a heavenly, non-earthly hope. The early church endured Roman persecution and longed for release. Augustine comforted people who put their hopes for the coming of God’s kingdom on the then faltering Roman Empire. Across all periods of history, the desire to leave this life (and the earth itself) has been a common response to death—a comfort to the grieving that the pain and suffering are over and that the travail of dying is not in vain.
As Dr. Wittmer argued at the conference, this pastoral comfort is actually amplified by affirming physical resurrection and cosmic redemption—complete victory over death and sin. However, it is understandable that the idea of heaven as a kind of final release from physical, earthly life has been, and remains, an appealing reply to the those who are hurting.
As I suggested at the end of the panel discussion, I think we need to do better at talking about death—to the healthy, as well as the sick or bereaved. A big part of that is providing funeral services that are true to the Gospel hope. Funerals are difficult because they are often shaped by the mourners, not the church (weddings are similar, though we’ll leave that to another discussion). While great sensitivity is needed, I think pastors and worship leaders may need to reclaim funerals as an ecclesial act, so that they do not simply become a venue for reciting the favorite songs or poems of the deceased, nor an open platform for preaching sub-biblical views of death and the life to come.
One option may be to develop a standard funeral service for your church, full of texts about resurrection and new creation as well as lament and mourning over death’s sting (lament over creation apparently thwarted seems to be the right corollary to new creation hope). The church could politely insist that all church funerals use this form, while also offering space for mourners to gather for a time of remembrance and sharing (with the songs, photos, poems and so on that usually go in the service itself).
Biblical interpretation and pastoral care to those who suffer—both of these issues present a challenge for maintaining a clear understanding of new creation theology. What are some other ways we could address this challenge?
In my next post, I’ll continue with two more reasons why we struggle with new creation.