These are some of the questions that Brian LePort wrestled with in a paper that he presented last month at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “The Eschatological Voice of Romans 8:1-25.”
Here’s how he sets up the discussion:
When the canonical choir sings eschatological songs we often give much attention to the passages with a higher pitch. Many books have been written on the otherworldly images of the Apocalypse. The cataclysmic vision of 2 Peter 3.10-13 results in “ooohs” and “ahhhs” as we hear of the earth being purged by flames. And what can we say when Jesus himself tells us “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24.35; Mk. 13.31; Lk. 21.33). There doesn’t seem to be much hope for this creation. It would appear that her end is devastation.
Yet in the Book of Genesis we are told that God thought his creation to be “good” (1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and when he added humans it became “very good” (1.31). This should cause us to pause. In spite all the passages that seem to indicate that creation is expendable we must ask if there are any passages that harmonize more directly with the creation account.
Before we claim to have heard the whole song we must give heed to the tenor of Pauline eschatology. Whereas the aforementioned passages, and others like them, seem to indicate a discontinuation between this world and the one to come, the contribution of the Apostle Paul is that he emphasizes some sort of continuation. In this paper it is my desire to draw attention specifically to the voice of Rom. 8.1-25 as we formulate a Christian eschatology. I will be asking for those who are in attendance to give a hearing to this passage because I believe that it contributes balance to the canonical witness regarding the future of this current created order. It is here in these verses that we will see an analogy between the transition which will occur during our resurrection and the “rebirthing” of all creation.
He goes on from there to argue that to understand Romans, you have to hear the “echoes” of Genesis that reverberate throughout the book. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to read Romans 8 in that context as the crescendo and climax of God’s plans for creation, which he began way back in Genesis 1.
So, he concludes.
In Rom. 8.1-25 we find that the relationship between God, humanity, and the created order will be made right in the age to come. Humans will reign and rule with the risen Lord Jesus Christ over the renovated earth being and doing for creation what Adam and Eve (and every generation since) has failed to be and do. Humans will point creation toward her Creator rather than worshiping the creation.This will be when the adopted children of God are resurrected with new bodies, overcoming death, setting creation free from the curse that came because of Adam and Eve in Eden. Creation will be set free from her suffering.
In LePort’s argument, then, Paul presents the future of this creation as one of redemption and restoration. Although there are elements of discontinuity between what we see now and the new creation to come, he sees important elements of continuity as well – continuity grounded in God’s creative purposes begun in Genesis and echoed throughout Romans.
(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)
I was recently re-reading portions of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and I was struck again with his vision for relating human work in creation with the eschatological new creation. Volf devotes considerable attention to rejecting the idea that there will be an eventual “annihilation” of this world following by an entirely new creation. Instead, he contends that a more faithful interpretation of the biblical narrative would be to affirm that this present creation will be renewed and transformed in the eschaton. Thus, the new creation flows from the current creation, rather than being entirely discontinuous with it.
One of his concerns with the annihilation/new creation framework is that it threatens to rob human work of its intrinsic significance. On that framework, any work that we perform with respect to this creation has only an instrumental value insofar as it improves me as an individual or the believing community as a whole. The effect on creation itself has no lasting significance.
In a renewal/transformation framework, though, he contends that we can understand human work has having eschatological significance in that it participates in the transformatio mundi.
The picture changes radically with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation. Then the results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity….will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. (91)
Thus, human work has eschatological significance even beyond its instrumental effect on the person performing the work. Indeed, Volf argues that this gives us grounds for affirming that even the work of non-believers might transformatively carried over into the new creation. Any “noble result” of human endeavor may be judged by God as having value for new creation.
Volf wants to be careful, though, to make sure that we don’t begin to think that we are actually the ones who bring the new creation into being. For Volf, new creation is clearly a work of God, but in a way that retains the significance of human work.
Through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. These historical anticipations are, however, as far from the consummation of the new creation as earth is from heaven. The consummation is a work of God alone. But since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations…one can say, without being involved in a contradiction, that human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi. (100)
Drawing largely on the resources of eschatology and pneumatology, Volf presents a compelling vision for the significance of human work and how it contributes to the transformatio mundi, while retaining a clear sense of the divine prerogative in new creation.
To that extent, it reminded me of the semi-apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther (at least I can’t find where he said it): “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Given Volf’s framework, this becomes more than rhetorical flourish. Planting an apple tree just might have eschatological significance in its own right. Johnny Appleseed would be so proud.