2. Recovering Theological Foundations
Any faithful paradigm for the church’s life in our time must be fully grounded in the timeless truths of the church’s theological identity. The theological identity of the church universal rests in both its canonical revelation and its creedal formulations, while the theological identity of each of the many sub-traditions of the church is shaped by deeply held confessional distinctives. Each of these—canon, creed, and confession—must be faithfully embraced, proclaimed, and embodied in their entirety by churches around the world. And yet, in our time, there are four theological foundations that must be recovered—across traditions—if the incarnational paradigm of faithful presence is to take shape among us.
i. The Enduring Goodness of Creation
The Scriptural account of God’s work begins with creation (Gen. 1). Out of no compulsion other than the greatness of His loving heart and the joy of His creative power, God made the world. And not only did God make the world, He also delighted in it. Seven times in the earliest pages of Scripture, God celebrated the world, rejoicing in its goodness. And then, as the final act of creation, God made human beings, not only as emblems of this goodness, but also as stewards of it—bearing the noble calling to nurture the world’s native goodness unto fullness. These things—God’s creation of the world, His seven-fold benediction over its goodness, and His call to nurture this goodness—suggest that the world God made is not only worthy of His delight, but also central to His purposes.
And yet in much of the Christian church, the goodness of the world and its importance in God’s purposes has been diminished.
One source of this diminishment is a long-standing inclination towards anti-materialism. While it has many forms and varies in degree, its basic perspective about the nature of the world is both widespread and consistent: there are two parts to creation, the “spiritual” and the “material.” The spiritual part of creation is the “higher,” the home of wisdom and virtue. The material parts of creation—the earth, the body, and the artifacts of our lives—are the lower parts. In the anti-material perspective, these lower parts are variously portrayed as (at best) a backdrop to the cultivation of higher spiritual goods or (at worst) as a hostile obstruction to them. And while this broadly held anti-materialism must be commended for maintaining an extraordinary devotion to the goodness of God’s spiritual creation—the beauty of the virtues and the glory of the soul—it is nonetheless the case that in renouncing the material parts of creation, the Scriptural picture of the overall goodness of God’s world is diminished.
Another (related) source of this diminishment is pietism. While anti-materialism is a claim about the nature of creation, pietism is a claim about the nature of redemption and its relationship to the created order. Built upon an anti-material foundation, pietism suggests not only that the spiritual realm is higher in the order of creation, but also that it is more important—perhaps exclusively important—in the order of redemption. In this account, God’s fundamental concern is with the spiritual aspects of a person’s life—the heart or “the life of the soul.” And while in the pietist perspective the meaning of the material aspects of creation is variously interpreted—ranging from a useful backdrop to redemption to an obstacle to it—it remains universally the case that these material aspects have no fundamental role in God’s larger redemptive purposes. That this is so may be seen in several widespread expressions of pietism. First, we see it in pietistic preaching, which fails to positively address larger social or material concerns. Second, we see it in pietistic ethics, in which renunciation of the world functions as the animating conviction. And third—and perhaps most clearly—we see it in pietistic eschatology in which the actual trajectory of salvation is to be literally taken out of—or raptured from—the world. And while the emphasis on spiritual vibrancy and a certain form of detachment from the world is biblical, it is nonetheless the case that the pietist vision radicalizes this detachment and in so doing diminishes the goodness of creation, robbing it of its role in God’s larger purposes.
The net result of these twin afflictions—anti-materialism and pietism—is a widespread and enduring dualism, a separation between God’s work of creation and His work of redemption. This dualism has come to profoundly shape the Christian understanding of God’s world. But this dualism is false. Creation and redemption are not opposed—they are wed (Rm. 8). The same God who made the world in creation entered into the world in incarnation (1 Jn. 1), and began the process of healing the world in resurrection—the first-fruits of the coming renewal of all things (1 Cor. 15). Thus if the scriptural witness and theological confession of the Christian church are to be fully embraced, we must set this dualism aside and once again embrace the goodness of God’s creation and its role in God’s redemptive purposes. Only as we do this will we begin to meaningfully move toward the world as bearers of faithful presence.