Against “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation”
I will start this post with a long, overloaded quote from John Goldingay in his book Do We Need the New Testament? pp. 173-4.
It is true that the Rule of Faith provides a horizon from within which we may come to understand the Scriptures, and it may open our eyes to see things from within the horizon of the Scriptures themselves. It thus fulfills a function analogous to that of a concern for the gospel’s significance for the whole world, which makes it possible to look back at the First Testament [JG’s term for the Old Testament] and see that this concern is also present there, so that theological interpretation is missional. But its role is to enable us to see things that are there; it does not determine what is allowed to be there. It is not the “definitive hermeneutical framework for understanding the Scriptures.” The Scriptures do not need to be rendered coherent and relevant; they are coherent and relevant. The Rule of Faith can help us see how that is so. But where they have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon. In practice the church has followed the Rule of Faith in a way that did constrain what the Scriptures are allowed to say, and the Rule of Faith has thus been a disaster for the hearing of the First Testament. The Rule of Faith has no room and no hermeneutic for any episodes in the scriptural story between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1. As Robert W. Jenson put it, “The rule of faith saved the Old Testament as canon for the church — or rather, the church for the Old Testament canon — but in the process it did not open itself to the theological shape of the Old Testament’s own narrative, and so it could not support the Old Testament’s specific role in the church’s practice.” One recalls the alleged statement about a Vietnamese city by a major in the United States army, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”
I have bolded the idea I want to highlight. A story line of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” tells the Old Testament too simply. This is bad enough on its own: we should want to understand the Old Testament correctly. But it becomes outright disastrous later because the New Testament emanates out of the Old Testament. The shape of God’s intervention in history in Israel becomes the setting of Jesus’s ministry and his purpose. So to reduce the Old Testament story is to outright flatten the New Testament gospel. You can’t understand Jesus’s mission statement for the spread of the Gospel (Acts 1:8) unless you understand the question that prompted it: the disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Why was this their question?
Instead of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation structure, I want to chart a brief sketch of Exile and Restoration in the history of Israel. This path is not original and has been done many times before.
To live with God is to live in his presence, where he dwells, under his blessing and authority. God made a covenant with Abraham that God would live with Abraham’s descendants in this way. However, in God’s mysterious providence, they ended up in Egypt rather than in Palestine. They were exiles, living in the wrong place under the authority of the wrong ‘king,’ Pharaoh. So God brought them out (the Exodus) and Restored them to their rightful place, and ruled over them directly. They now lived in the Kingdom of God.
Fast forward 650 years and it happens again. The people of Israel/Judah have fallen into great moral wickedness and unrepentant idolatry. God has decided they must be disciplined, and so the neighboring warlord empires (Assyria, then Babylon) come destroy them and take the surviving Israelites into exile for a time. The prophets consciously realize that this is a repeat of what has happened before. They declare that just as God was faithful to Israel before in rescuing his covenant people from exile in Egypt — a first exodus — he would be faithful again to rescue his covenant people from exile in Babylon — a second exodus.
This second exodus happened. Nehemiah 7 even goes on for dozens upon dozens of verses to list how many exiles returned home alive from each tribe and clan. They rebuilt the temple, and the city walls, and God’s blessing and favor was on them. Or, it should have been. But it was not. The Seleucid Empire took control and did awful things. So awful that the Jews tried to revolt and restore God’s kingdom, which worked for a while but then fell apart again. Rome came and conquered Israel, installing a fake “Jewish” king but mostly ruling through the Roman Governor in the region.
As a result, the Jews of the first century were convinced that the second exodus never really happened. Yes, it happened physically, since the people did return to the land and now live there. God, though, is not ruling, and so his blessing is not on the people, and they suffer in “exile” in their own land. God will send a warrior-king to overthrow these enemies and institute the Kingdom of God again.
Enter Jesus, who claims that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” His audience would have looked around, noticed a Roman soldier standing across the street, pointed at him and said, “no it’s not.” As a matter of fact the Kingdom of God is not at hand, they would have said. This gets right at the heart of Jesus’s mission. Jesus did not come to achieve satisfaction of the wrath of God to pay the debt of your sin on the cross and regenerate your heart and etc. No. Jesus came to restore Israel. You don’t personally “get saved.” You get ingrafted into Israel, which gets saved. Your sin-debt isn’t cancelled. God’s unique wrath wasn’t against you, silly Gentile who did not have the Torah. You were just going to hell, courtesy of God’s general wrath. God’s unique wrath was against Israel, who had the Torah and did not follow it, which is why he sent them into exile in the first place. Jesus appeases this unique wrath of God, ending the exile. Yes, you are a sinner in the hands of an angry God. But this same angry God has created a covenant with his people, and now you are part of his people, whose unique wrath from God has been appeased. Similarly, you yourself are not “regenerated,” whatever that means, but instead the Spirit of God is poured out on the True Israel and so the Spirit enables you to walk the Way (another exodus term) of Jesus. If Jesus was on a mission to restore Israel, all our doctrines of salvation and holiness flow from that mission.
Of the whole New Testament, Mark focuses the most on the second exodus theme. He outright begins the entire Gospel with a quote about it from Isaiah 40. He keeps quoting Isaiah his whole book. Mark structures his gospel (1:16-8:21; 8:22-10:45; 10:46-16:8) to parallel the structure of Isaiah 40-66, a second exodus text. Mark’s Jesus does many exorcisms and then explains them (Mark 3:27) by quoting Isaiah 49:24-25, a second exodus text. The Jewish people who were called to repentance would not repent and instead killed the innocent messenger: Isaiah by sawing in half, Jesus by crucifixion, in fulfillment of Isaiah 53, a messianic second exodus text. Mark also pulls themes and quotes from Malachi which is all about this second exodus (as is Hosea which is kind of a missed opportunity by Mark but Matthew catches it and adds it to his gospel in Matt 2:15). Anyways, I could keep going since the New Testament is full of this concept and I would even say is defined by it. (See Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology pp. 694-699 for a good summary of Watt’s book on this topic).
“Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.” What is redeemed? Are we, individuals, redeemed? Hardly. Israel is redeemed by Jesus’s faithfulness as a Suffering Servant. Because of his faithfulness, God has resurrected Jesus from the dead several thousand years ahead of the general resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. Now, Israel is invited to participate in the kingship of God, the kingdom of God, the sovereignty of God, by hope-filled and sanctified presence under any earthly king. Earthly kings can’t stop the power of God (seen in Jesus being killed by an earthly king and then getting unkilled by God). In an unfortunate plot twist, the Jewish people for some reason overwhelmingly rejected this work of God, but that doesn’t change its shape or content. Instead the followers of Jesus were a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish people, which begins to achieve the purpose all along. God was always going to use Israel to reach the rest of the world, and even if 99% of Jews in Jesus’s day rejected the message, God’s mission was going to continue.
What I am getting at is that “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” hardly captures the richness of the Old Testament second exodus theme and so misconstrues the New Testament from the start. So the Old Testament gets mostly cancelled except Genesis 1-3 and few Messiah prophecies, just to set-up a misconstrued New Testament. Not great.
Even if you understand the Rule of Faith [C, F, R, C] as corporate salvation instead of individual salvation, which is a step in the right direction, it still place salvation outside of history. Who cares when Jesus came to earth? He could have died 1000 years before, or in 1978 for all it matters, our salvation is still understood the same. No. Jesus’s Incarnation is a specific invasion by God into history in a particular time. To take the Incarnation out of its historical time is to screw up the whole picture. Israel has been “already-not-yet” restored by Jesus’s death and resurrection. This wouldn’t have made sense 1000 years before, when Israel was still functioning. The hope for a Messiah was built out of a specific historical reading of the work of God in the world. The Judaism that Jesus fulfilled was a religion in history. God did not just create a timeless ethical teaching that would last for all the ages. God acted in history in a first exodus, and then neglected to do so in the second exodus, which set up the hope for a Messiah and made history itself a Jewish and so then also a Christian concept.
That summarizes what I want to say on this topic for now. There is more — how do the other topics of Creation, Fall, and Consummation fit into this frame? Another time, maybe another nitro cold brew and another late afternoon on a fall day at a coffee shop near campus, to the neglect of my actual homework. The most important and hardest work is to do what Goldingay said in the opening quote: “where [the Scriptures] have a broader horizon than that of the Rule of Faith, we will be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours; we allow them to broaden our horizon.”