God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey
Chapter 3 – Other Red Herrings
We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey. Today is Chapter 3 – Other Red Herrings. In this chapter, Jon looks at the main Scriptures outside the creation and garden narratives that are used to argue for a fallen creation. First up, Genesis 6:11-13:
11. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.
The traditional interpretation is that because of humans even the animals are now wickedly violent and have to be destroyed too, along with the whole earth. Jon makes two points; the first is that the blame for the corruption is laid on “all flesh” not the inanimate world including the thorns and thistles said to be altered by the fall. In the second place, if the “corruption” and “violence” referred to predation, parasitism, etc., then it is apparent that bringing a breeding colony into the ark would have no remedial effect at all. Of course, as the NIV translation above shows “all flesh” is “all the people” and it is human sin that leads to human violence. Another major point of the flood story is that Noah remains tainted with sin vis-à-vis his later drunkenness. Finally, why is creation purified from predation through the rescuing of carnivores? In any case it is not only carnivores, but gentle herbivores too, who are destroyed in the flood.
Next up is 1 John 5:19, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” I’ve seen a number of interpreters, especially Word-Faith charismatics, use this passage to imply all bad weather, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, etc. are under the control of the devil and his “prince of Persia” type (Daniel 10:13) principalities and powers and wicked spirits in the heavenlies (Ephesians 6:12). To interpret it thus would, of course, be to deny the whole theology of nature we have seen so far in the Old Testament. The simple explanation is that John means by “the world” the world of idolatrous desires i.e. the human world apart from God, not created nature.
A major passage that seems on its face to overturn the idea that creation is still “as created” is Romans 8:18-22:
18. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21. that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
The whole context of the passage leads up to the assurance that our sufferings cannot separate us from the love of Christ; they are therefore particularly Christian sufferings. Secondly, Jon looks at some of the key words:
Creation: It is an assumption that Paul means nature here. He is drawing attention to death and life, angels and demons, present and future, all powers, height, and depth, but not a single one of them is subject to biological decay. Jon says, “Conversely, Paul omits any reference to the ordinary animal world, or to the inanimate elements we consider most disordered and chaotic, such as earth, water, and atmosphere.”
Frustration: The word occurs 3 times in the NT where it means “sinful ignorance” or empty boasting”. It corresponds to the Hebrew word hebel, which based on the Septuagint use, mainly in Ecclesiastes, refers to the futility of all human affairs, not the natural world.
Hope: The usual Greek word is used here, but the question is who is exercising hope? Hope or dread for the future is entirely a human attribute. The object of this hope is redemption and salvation from sin and death, which is the predominant meaning throughout the Bible.
Liberated: The NT use of this word is always either of liberation from human slavery, or from sin, or from the law. It is never used of the non-human realm, so if nature is referenced it is in some figurative personification, rather than literally.
Bondage: The word in the NT covers human slavery or bondage to the law, and through it to sin. It is never used of death per se, nor of course to decay.
Decay: Paul’s use of the word is always to do with mortality, not immorality.
Jon then reviews the church fathers through Augustine’s interpretation of the passage. He says:
In summary, then, the early interpretations of Romans 8 is pretty varied, but refers in most cases (a) to some aspect of the rational creation, rather than to nature and (b) to the corruptibility inherent in our material condition rather than to the effects of the fall, Chrysostom being the only exception.
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.
Jon then deals with the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah, such as Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:25:
6. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
65:25 the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
The argument is that these passages predict a return to the original state of Eden. But Jon argues:
There is indeed a contrast, whatever the metaphorical context, between this present age and the age to come. But is there any implication that this is a contrast between a damaged creation and a repaired one? I would argue, rather, that it’s a contrast between the first, good creation and new, better creation. This is a progression that actually goes back to Genesis 1, and helps us understand not why the present creation is “naturally evil”, because Scripture does not state that it is, but why it could be better than we find it.
The real problem with the so-called “traditional interpretation” is that is that it never appreciates the scriptures as literary works. Scripture always has to be diced up into verses that then must be taken “literally”. The grand literary sweep of a passage tends to be missed as “interpreters” bog down in minutiae. Prophetic symbolism is consistently missed. That this is obvious can be seen by looking at Isaiah 65:20:
Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.
Wait… what…? What’s this about dying at one hundred years? I thought when Jesus returns, the dead will be resurrected and NOBODY DIES ANYMORE? What happened to: “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:53-54) See the problem with literalism? Either Isaiah or Paul is wrong, they both can’t be right, can they?
Or maybe, as Jon points out, Isaiah is engaging in the prophetic symbolism of the ideal Israelite farmer who is dwelling in harmony on the slopes of Mount Zion, close to the king and to God’s temple, “everyone under his own vine and his own fig tree” (Micah 4:4). Jon says: “Then the animal references are understood in this context, rather than as a description of nature in the raw. In each case a wild animal is paired with the livestock to which, in this present age, the latter might fall prey, to the loss of the farmer. No wild herbivores are mentioned. It is more to do with the Israelite landholder dwelling in God’s promised safety than the correction of a cruel natural order.”
20 thoughts on “God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey, Chapter 3 – Other Red Herrings”
Thank you for your thoughtful elaboration Christiane.
You are right, of course. Anything chronological falls apart when discussing God. Christ was the plan from the beginning, by reason of God knowing from the beginning man was to fall. Christ is “plan B” only in the sense of being the logical and necessary consequence of the (foreknown) fall – retrospectively Christ is a necessary part of the ultimate goodness of creation and infinitely greater than the (never actually going to happen) “plan A”. Plan A was necessary, though, as, unless Adam was given the chance to fail, there could be no “Plan B” either.
“Expository preaching” as in spending MONTHS dissecting and parsing a single verse?
In Rumi’s parable all the blind men after feeling the same elephant. I’m not entirely convinced Paul and Isaiah are. .
But if seen retrospectively, as you start off your comment, then “plan B” was actually “plan A”, since the human “fall” was as certain and necessary as death in the creation, but just as certainly and necessarily redeemed in the person of Christ, who was not God’s afterthought or improvisation, but his intention from eternity. In God’s plans, normal chronology does not set the order of precedence, and what comes later changes everything that came before.
I don’t disagree.
The late James Boice was (in)famous for this. He spent, by his own admission, 8 YEARS preaching straight through the Gospel of John, tiny chunk of verse by tiny chunk of verse.
well, ChrisS, your very wise comment sure explains
“do unto others and you would have them do unto you”
and it helps clarify the Franciscan teaching, this:
” it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned”
AND your comment even connects with the Matthean verses that few understand, these:
“38When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ 40And the King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’”
(from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25)
But most of all, ChrisS, I think you would understand something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the Incarnation, this:
““” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity.”
ChrisS, your simple comment makes much good sense in relation to truth of the Christian faith where Our Lord came to reunite us to God AND to one another. You get it. 🙂
“Scripture always has to be diced up into verses that then must be taken “literally”. The grand literary sweep of a passage tends to be missed as “interpreters” bog down in minutiae. Prophetic symbolism is consistently missed.”
I have close relatives who think expository preaching is really the epitome preaching/teaching. When I lived in Dallas many years ago I heard a lot about this because of the influence of Dallas Seminary — plus I was always afraid the bus I was riding would empty out, driver and all as we headed down the freeway.
Some of those who love expository preaching want a preacher who preaches endlessly verse by verse through a book of the Bible (Romans seems to be a favorite) and makes comments on each verse. The best ones dissect the verse, subject, verb, predicate, modifiers, etc until the weary end.
There may be exceptions, but most of this is doing the Word of God a great disservice.
The thing that strikes me here is that opposition will be transformed into a unitive reality. No one left to fight because the other is me.
I suspect the goodness of creation must be viewed as it were retrospectively. It is perfect when one includes its final “restitution”. Death is not the last word. Creation would be imperfect if it stopped where it is now and the “restitution” did not occur. It is because death is not a permanent state of things but temporary and abolished in the “restitution” that a creation with death (presently) in it is nevertheless “good”. Death is a temporary but (somehow) necessary part of the plan.
This would mean that the “fall” and Christ’s abolition of death must be viewed differently – man was and is part of and our creation instrumental in the bringing about of the final “restitution”, and our sin was to turn aside from the planned progress towards this “restitution”, so that Christ’s death and resurrection was required to set us back on track again. Creation would have (hypothetically) ceased to be good if our “fall” had been left unchecked and the “restitution” would then never occur.
On this view the first Adam was removed from ordinary creation and placed within the protection of Eden’s walls with access to the Tree of Life and immorality as part of God’s plan to bring about the “restitution” and the abolition of death in creation as a whole. He “fell” and was ejected from the garden and made once more subject to death in order to implement God’s “plan B” which was that Christ as second Adam would succeed where the first Adam failed. Because Christ succeeded, creation as a whole (viewed as it were retrospectively from God’s viewpoint) remained and remains good.
Isaiah and Paul are coming at the same subject from different angles & viewpoints.
I understand Jewish rabbinical commentary is similar, giving several Rabbis’ different views and interpetations of the same passages, even when they conflict with each other. The idea is that each Rabbi was looking from a different angle and a different “take” on the subject instead of “IT IS WRITTEN — SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE!” you get in the Evangelical Bubble/Wilderness.
Remember the fable about the seven blind men and the elephant?
Like Piper Points and Trump Tweets?
(Which come pre-diced into 140-character verses.)
Or maybe Isaiah and Paul just disagree? They are separated by hundreds of years. Isaiah is writing from a traditional Jewish point of view which concentrates of the blessings of this life idealized in the earthly Kingdom of God. Paul is writing out of a cosmic apocalypticist view. We have to get past this idea that if you dig down deep enough all the writers in the Bible are saying more or less the same thing. Times change. Ideas develop, evolve and are modified to meet the needs of a different age..
Paul uses the language of both cataphatic and apophatic mysticism to describe these things, but he leans especially on apophatic language to convey what the imperishable and immortal and eternal are like; that’s because his experience of them is rooted in his experience of the risen and present Christ, and whatever he knows of those things is conditioned by what he could take in from his very liminal though immediate experience of the resurrected Christ.
Yes, but he is still “clothing” (to use the same metaphor as Paul to a different purpose) that example in highly metaphoric, highly symbolic language that requires interpretation(s), but cannot be reduced to interpretation(s). Paul sometimes seems not to know what he is talking about, for instance when he is talking about a “spiritual body”, because sometimes he doesn’t quite know what he is talking about; that doesn’t mean he isn’t talking about something real, only that he has to grope in his own metaphorical thought-world for words to express suggestively what cannot be expressed exactly, just as Isaiah did. Neither we nor Paul really know what immortality or the imperishable would look like; these are actually one-to-one rejections of the categories of mortal and perishable that we are all-too familiar with, that can only be expressed as negations with metaphorical reverberations.
But in Paul’s case, there is a historical representative example to base the metaphors on – Christ’s Resurrection.
Or maybe both Isiah and Paul are speaking in poetic metaphors and symbolism that cannot be reduced to so-called “literal” interpretation and understanding. I mean, how what would it mean to take literally “clothing” the perishable with the imperishable, or death being “swallowed up in victory”? The mythology of Paul’s language is as metaphorically expressed, and constrained, as Isaiah’s; let’s not think that he is offering something that needs less interpreting, because it is somehow more “literal”, than Isaiah.
I suppose the main question is:
what does ‘restitution of all things’ include ?
. . . and what does ‘restitution of all things’ not include?
“Repent ye therefore, and be converted,
that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;
And He shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you:
Whom the heaven must receive UNTIL THE TIMES OF RESTITUTION OF ALL THINGS,
which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.”