In a previous post, Dr. Martin Spence began a two-part series on his key thoughts from the Thy Kingdom Come Talking Points conference and how pastors and church might move forward biblically and faithfully. If you missed the conference, you can download the recordings here.
Add your thoughts in the comments on how to apply new creation theology in life and ministry.
New creation is a strange concept for many Bible-believing Christians, in part because of historical twists and turns that have encouraged non-biblical ways of thinking. In my last post, I described two reasons why this has happened—biblical interpretation and pastoral care for those who suffer—and I gave some practical suggestions on how to move forward.
In this post, I want to offer two more reasons we struggle with new creation today.
THEME 3: BROADER CULTURAL NORMS
Christians are not the only ones with ideas about the afterlife or ultimate meaning. Throughout Christian history, forces outside the church have shaped our ideas of “the hereafter.” Here are a few: the Hellenistic Platonism of Origen and the Alexandrian School, the medieval hierarchical cosmology rooted in Aristotle, the post-1650 commitment to religious liberty and individual connection with God, the sentimental, ethereal views of the “other world” that prevailed in the Victorian era, and the infusion of Eastern religious ideas into western culture from the nineteenth century onward. All of these influences have leavened the eschatological yeast.
While Christians may assert boldly that only Jesus is the route to heaven, Christians have nevertheless allowed these and other non-biblical forces to define the nature of this “heaven.” Indeed, ideas of “heaven” as the final place of our salvation may never have been explicitly taught to us. Rather, they may have been absorbed through the general cultural milieu and inadvertently propagated through Christian discourse—even when we thought we were talking about something else.
Watch your words. The language of “heaven” and “souls” (and many allied words) are so deeply ingrained in our Evangelical subculture that it is hard to avoid using them. There may be justifiable uses of these terms (as Dr. Wittmer outlined at the conference), but we must be aware that what we mean by a term is not always what people in our audience mean. Some words set off associations not intended by the person using them. Those who speak (i.e. preach, teach, pray, lead sung worship) in churches need to be very careful that the words chosen are true to the vision of a new creation theology. I think this is just as important (and in the long-term more transformative of the theological imagination of our communities) as a series of sermons explicitly on the new creation (though that could be good too).
THEME 4: LACK OF ESCHATOLOGICAL DEBATE
At the end of my lecture, I mentioned that the Church has never had a debate on eschatology to mirror the huge (and often divisive) debates on Christology, Trinity, Canon and the nature of Salvation. What I did not move on to say was that the effect of having no overarching debate on eschatology has been to create intense local debates that have focused on issues of times and dates and how the end will come (e.g., Who is the Antichrist? When is the tribulation? What are the vials?, and so on). These debates are often pursued in a somewhat claustrophobic environment, in which small differences of opinion become badges of doctrinal orthodoxy (or brands of doctrinal heresy).
Such debates naturally alienate many other parts of the church. Rather than seeing eschatology as a central part of Christian doctrine (comparable to creation, fall, redemption), it becomes something polite Christians would rather not talk about. People associate it in their minds with a maze of confusing arguments and details.
We need to rescue eschatology from both obscurantism and indifference, and we need to reclaim it for the Church as something that invigorates mission, worship and proclamation—indeed, something that is at the heart of the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I think we need to incorporate new creation eschatology into all areas of church life. It needs to be part of how we talk about mission and evangelism, how we construe social action, how we think about ethics and so on. I don’t mean we should harp on it at every opportunity, but it should become a pervasive and shaping paradigm, as natural a reference point as the cross or resurrection.
Musical worship was a key issue mentioned at the conference. As Dr. Plantinga and others at the Calvin Institute for Worship have helped us see, worship must embody and re-tell the Christian narrative and account for the whole range of Scriptural responses to this narrative. As Keith Getty reminded us, this must be done in a way to draw the congregation into the story, not to perform to them or manipulate their emotions as part of eliciting a spiritual high.
This clearly means we need more songs about new creation (How many do you know? How many are there? Do we need to write them?), and we need to think through the songs that seem to explicitly say something else (the kind that John Duff recited) and slowly retire them. But, perhaps, more complexly, we need to think carefully about songs with a line here or there that might mis-direct people to a wrong (or at least misleading) eschatology. This is hard, especially when such lines may be contained in otherwise very good and popular songs and hymns. For example, Charles Wesley’s ringing celebration of the resurrection (itself a doctrine we do not sing enough about) has the following verse:
Soar we now where Christ has led
Following our exalted head
Raised with him, like him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave / the skies.
It is unfortunate that in this song, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and the believer, we end up soaring in the sky and never come back down again. What do we do about songs like this? (Thinking through some other examples might be the subject of a further blog post: watch this space!)
What are some other ways we could address these challenges to biblical new creation theology?