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Bible Study, Part Four: The Creation’s Waiting!

Posted on Saturday, August 26, 2006 at 01:31PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | CommentsPost a Comment

What happens to the Bible’s environmental message, when it makes the big jump from the Old Testament to the New?

Jesus isn’t on record as having said anything specific about humanity’s right relationship with the natural world. There are intriguing hints, such as his amplification of the Old Testament view of “dominion” (Mark 10:42-45, etc.), and his statement in the Sermon on the Mount that we should become as the wild creatures, “taking no thought for the morrow”. But these are hints, not clear directives.

When we turn to Acts, and the rise of the early Church, things start to get more interesting. We began our tour of the New Testament accordingly, with Acts 2:14-21, where the apostle Peter, explaining the behavior of his fellow believers to people on the street, declares that the prophecy of Joel is being fulfilled, and the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.

Strictly speaking, this particular prophecy doesn’t say anything about environmental matters, either. But Joel’s words about the Spirit being poured out on all flesh are strikingly similar to Isaiah’s words about the Earth being full of the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea. And Isaiah’s words about the Earth being full of the knowledge of YHWH are directly tied to his vision of a world in which disharmonies between humanity and the creatures are no more.

So is there a connection between Acts and Joel and Isaiah? To answer that, we moved on to the most moving environmental statement in the whole New Testament: Pauls’ words in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 19-23. Here is my translation:

For the Creation [ktisis] waits eagerly, in earnest expectation, for the children of God to be revealed.

For the Creation was subjected to [human] vanity [mataiotês] — not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope — because the Creation itself will also be delivered from the bondage of destruction [phthora] into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

For we know that, up to now, the whole Creation has been groaning and laboring together in the pangs of birth.

And not only that, but we, too, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.

This is a tough passage to translate, both because of Paul’s wretched grammatical constructions, and because of the ambiguity of those key words for which I have cited the Greek originals in my translation above. (You might want to compare my somewhat freer translation of the same passage in my posting of July 24.) Our Bible study group struggled particularly with the meaning of ktisis, which is translated in the Authorised (“King James”) Version somewhat confusingly to modern readers, as “creature” rather than “creation”.

Moreover, these sentences need to be seen in context — particularly the context of verses 12-18 and 26-28. Paul is enunciating a whole pneumatology — a theory of how the Spirit transforms the believer who receives it, making her or him capable of rising above base motives to do God’s will on Earth. In this context, the business about Creation waiting eagerly for the good results is an aside.

Nonetheless, this is an important aside for our purposes, because it tells us that Paul, and the early Christians generally, had not discarded the visions of Hosea and Isaiah. The wedding is still on, even if it isn’t taking place in the literal wilderness; the creatures are awaiting their promised treaties “with eager expectation”. But bringing this wonderful vision to fruition is proving as hard as giving birth to a child!

What sorts of “bondage to destruction” and “groaning” did Paul see the Creation suffering? Modern environmental historians say that, in Paul’s time, the destruction of the land around much of the Mediterranean basin was well advanced: hills that had supported forests were now bare rock, thanks to logging and overgrazing; whole provinces of Anatolia and Italy that had once looked as lush as paradise were profoundly desertized now; great urban harbors that had once sheltered fleets were now silted up by eroded topsoil and becoming no more than malarial marshes. The whole process was proceeding rapidly enough that old folks could speak of the great changes they’d seen since their childhoods.

Of course, today the destruction and the groaning are even more advanced. Frankly, I barely touched on it in my postings during my walk across the Midwest, although the highway is a grand place to see it —

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“For the Creation was subjected to human vanity…” — photo of highway construction through a forest, © 2006 by Penelope Berger (via stock.xchng).

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“…not willingly, but because of him [humanity] who subjected it in [self-centered] hope….” — close-up of oil refinery, © 2006 by William Picard (via stock.xchng).

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“And we too wait eagerly … for the glorious liberty of the children of God!” — “Global Security”, © 2005 by Lee Pettet (via iStockphoto).

Can we bear to read this passage from Paul in the light of what’s happening today? Judging by what came out in our Bible study, it’s becoming hard for some of us to do so. The pain is so great!

Friends, I will conclude my report on our Bible study in my next posting.

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