New creation in Paul and scripture: a response to John Doyle
John Doyle has now summarized his excellent set of studies of the ‘new creation’ motif in Paul. He claims to have embarked on this course at least partly as a self-defensive response to a piece I had written on the Canaanite ‘genocide’, so I hope a courteous rejoinder is not out of place.
1. I think that too much has been read into my argument about the Canaanite ‘genocide’. For a start, my intention was basically to point out the analogy between i) the judgment on the whole of creation prior to the ‘re-creation’ through Noah and his family and ii) the judgment on the inhabitants of Canaan prior to the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. This would appear to support the basic contention that the descendants of Abraham were conceived from the start as a ‘new creation’ (using the term metonymically), but I explicitly stated in the comments that this was “not put forward as a justification of the ‘genocide’”.
I do think, however, that for the sake of biblical integrity the church must somehow tell this part of the story. It is not just this particular episode that is at issue - violence is interpreted as divine judgment throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, Jesus’ death is conceived primarily as the rescue of part of Israel from violent destruction through violent destruction. A modern liberal readership - I include myself - will inevitably have problems with this, but it cannot simply be erased from the narrative and it is bound to have implications for our theology.
The church now finds itself subject to a Lord who refused to resort to violence in order to deliver Israel from oppression and the prospect of destruction, and I conclude from that that the church qua church should never establish or defend itself by means of violence. But what Jesus preserved through his death was a narrative that included the invasion of Canaan - and various other bloody incidents, prophecies and imprecations. If we disown that narrative, we risk again reducing the gospel to an over-spiritualized, dualistic, quasi-gnostic message of personal salvation. I would assert rather strongly that we must not decouple the New Testament from the rest of the train.
2. I agree that the ‘new creation’ in Christ constitutes a ‘radical departure’ from what preceded, the reason being that it presupposes a final victory over death and, therefore, the final renewal of creation as imagined by John in Revelation 21. However, I would argue that the resurrection also entails the renewal of Israel, which is why Hosea 6:1-2 is so important. In that respect, ‘new creation’ language in the New Testament is a natural development of the Old Testament understanding of the restoration of Israel following judgment as a renewal of creation. So, for example: ‘For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind’ (Is. 65:17). The resurrection entails both continuity and discontinuity.
I would also disagree in this connection with the following statement made by John in an earlier comment:
Yes, subjective life in Christ must be fundamentally different at this existential level - differentiated from exclusive nationalism, on the one hand, and an overbearing imperialism, on the other. But I think it is right to insist that this must be preceded by and contained by the thought that in the resurrection the people of God corporately find a new way of being community in the world. The phrase ‘an active collaboration of free subjects freely joining themselves together in common cause’ suggests a democratic social movement, not a self-consciously distinct people of God under the lordship of Christ.
3. The fact that the structural divisions of humanity have been overcome in Christ certainly does not mean that the distinction between microcosm and macrocosm is no longer valid. The distinction remains because it is entailed in the seminal calling of Abraham. What has changed is the basis for the distinction: ‘the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith’ (Rom. 4:13). My argument in Re: Mission is that the descendants of Abraham are always potentially understood as a new or alternative ‘creation’ - that is why I use the term ‘microcosm’. The cross does not nullify the promise to Abraham, so the microcosm / macrocosm distinction remains valid. In the end John appears to recognize this, which confuses me somewhat: ‘Though the post-crucifixion entrance requirements may have changed, the practical upshot may be the same: a chosen microcosm arising from within a failed and dying macrocosm.’
It seems to me an advantage of the ‘microcosm’ language that it provides a category broader than national Israel but nevertheless retains an appropriate apartness from the macrocosm. Jesus’ death may have nullified the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but Paul is quite clear: through the ‘faithfulness’ of Jesus the promise to Abraham would be safeguarded. The term also, of course, carries creational overtones, which is what recommended it in the first place.
4. In my view the subjective or existential aspect to Paul’s understanding of what it means to be ‘in Christ’ really has to do with the experience of those who would literally suffer and perhaps die because of their faith in him. The language highlights the fact that the ‘community of the Son of man’ was required to walk the same narrow and difficult path leading to life - ‘life’ being both the survival of the people of God following judgment and the resurrection of the dead in Christ at his vindication. But even if that historical-eschatological argument is disallowed, I don’t see why this subjective aspect should negate the relevance of the larger biblical narrative about ‘new creation’.
5. I don’t agree that the ‘new creation’ language mitigates or removes the structural division between the microcosm and the macrocosm. ‘New creation’ in Galatians stands for the break down of the division between Jew and Greek (Gal. 6:15), but the framing narrative still has to do with the grounds for inheriting the promise to Abraham: Paul is concerned precisely that the Galatian believers will disqualify themselves from membership of this community by reverting to the law. In 2 Corinthians those who are ‘new creation’ in Christ have been reconciled to God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17-19), but that simply serves to separate them from those who have not been reconciled, those who are ‘perishing’ (2:15-16). In Ephesians and Colossians to put on the ‘new person’ is to become fundamentally set apart from an old world upon which the wrath of God is coming (Col. 3:6). Again, this appears to be acknowledged elsewhere. Gentiles have become part of the commonwealth of Israel, they have become ‘one new man’ (Eph. 2:15) - and as a result they are no longer ‘by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind’ (2:3).
6. So I would argue that the microcosm is there for the benefit or blessing of the macrocosm - for humanity unreconciled to God. But the people of God may be a blessing only on the basis of a fundamental vocational distinctiveness or apartness or holiness - a covenantally delimited commitment to be God’s ‘new creation’ in the midst of the nations and cultures of the earth. In the language of Exodus 19:5-6: ‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
7. Does this mean that the rest of humanity has been relegated to the ‘status of a failed experiment, subject to termination at a moment’s notice by the Experimenter’? I see no basis for characterizing the macrocosm as an ‘experiment’, failed or otherwise. That is not consistent with the idea of a loving creator. But I see plenty of basis for arguing that the New Testament story about Christ is told against a backdrop of judgment - on humanity generally because of sin, but also historically on first century Israel and on Greek-Roman culture. The macrocosm has refused to follow the ways of a just creator God.
8. For the microcosm to be called apart, differentiated from the macrocosm, does not mean that we are stuck with an ‘antagonistic us-versus-them mentality’. The microcosm is called apart for the sake of the macrocosm. The three ‘practical implications’ that John modestly suggests make pretty good sense, in my view, for the descendants of Abraham conceived as a renewed microcosm in Christ. But, as Peter points out, that presupposes the invitation to the world to share in the corporate experience of the recovered creational blessing. It is then on that basis that the church may exist for the benefit of others - may embody in its corporate life, both actually and prophetically, the love of God for a world that has rejected its creator. Naturally, if Christians fail to put off the old humanity, fail to put off the ‘antagonistic us-versus-them mentality’, fail to put off anger and hatred and injustice and violence, then the concrete creational blessing is neither received nor transmitted to others.