God's Good World (Jonathan R. Wilson): A Review
GOD'S GOOD WORLD: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation. By Jonathan R. Wilson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. Xviii + 283 pages.
To many the word “creation” conjures in one’s mind the religious opposite of evolution. You either believe in God the Creator or you believe in evolution – you can’t believe in both. In a recent book, which I published under the title Worshiping with Charles Darwin, I tried to dispel this myth. In that book, which includes both sermons and essays I sought to reclaim a robust vision of God the Creator. In God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation, theologian Jonathan Wilson seeks to do the same. He makes the claim that our understanding of the world suffers from the lack of a robust doctrine of creation. It is a lack that contributes to a devaluing of the created order on the part of many evangelicals. As an evangelical theologian, he seeks to offer a needed antidote.
The title of the book gives us a clue as to Wilson’s agenda. He seeks to address the escapist spiritualism that he finds present in evangelical circles. It is a vision of the world that believes that salvation has nothing to do with the material creation – such a vision, however, is akin the Gnosticism, with its disembodied view of reality. This spiritually/heavenly mindedness leads to the neglect of a theology of the human body. Commenting on his own experience as a college professor, he notes that what he noticed was that this lack of a theology of the body led his students to become vulnerable to a corrupted vision of the body. It is this corrupt vision that leads to such issues as anorexia, bulimia, sexual promiscuity, and more. A robust theology of creation honors the human body, but not just the human body, the whole of the physical universe. But declaring the world to be good isn’t the end of the story, for Wilson understands the world as we know it to be fallen and in need of redemption. This teleological focus insists that we must move forward toward redemption in Christ for the world to become what God intends for it to be.
The book is comprised of three parts. Part one details the problem as he sees it – that this robust understanding of creation is absent in the church – contributing to a Gnostic, disembodied spirituality. It is absent from the Academy, that is from the academic study of theology. Finally, it is missing from society, leading to a misunderstanding of what it means to be part of nature and our own creatureliness. On this point of creatureliness, he writes: “To say that humans are creatures is to say that our identity, our meaning, our life depend on our relationship to the one who created us.” To say this means that we avoid the belief that we are our own rulers, free from any external authority, or the belief that we have no identity at all. That is, we are simply subject to the forces of nature. Living in relationship to our Creator we’re not the final authority, nor are we simply subject to fate. Instead, we have the opportunity to participate in the work of God – not as co-Creators, but as servants of God.
In part two, Wilson begins to construct a robust theology of creation, one focused on what he calls a Trinitarian Grammar. It is only after he fully details this vision that he turns to the biblical texts usually pulled into play – this is because, in his view, they need to be re-read and not simply limited to Genesis 1-2. These texts are read through a Trinitarian lens:
Even prior to the coming of Jesus and the confessions of the early church, we are engaged by the Triune God. It is therefore no anachronism to read Scripture from the beginning as a narration of the actions of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to read according to the rule of faith: not to find the rule of faith hidden somewhere at some level in the text, but to read the text knowing that the Father, the son, and the Spirit call the text into being, sustain it as Scripture, and through Scripture call us to life in God’s redemption of creation. (p. 129).
This is, therefore, a theological reading of the text. Wilson isn’t afraid of dealing with the question of science, but insists that this isn’t the point of the texts. One of the key points that he makes here is that when we read these texts we must do so contextually, seeing them as a counterpoint to stories such as the Enuma Elish, which pictures creation as anything but good.
Part three takes us into the realm of application – having developed a Trinitarian understanding of Creation, we turn to living in Creation, in the course of eight chapters Wilson helps us look at the world, the way in which we inhabit it, allow it to define us at times, and offer the kinds of tools and practices we need to navigate this world, which has an original intention of goodness, is fallen, and is in the process of being redeemed in Christ. There is darkness, but there is also good news. There is both fallenness and redemption – and the latter is the last word. Oh, yes, there is science. It needn't be a problem, as long as it is not made the ultimate authority.
Jonathan Wilson offers us a thoughtful theological exposition of Creation that is more than mere abstraction. It is written out of concern for a faith community – primarily evangelical – that tends to devalue the created order. It is a community that often fails to recognize our own creatureliness, and thus our connectedness to the world around us. It is, therefore, a theological primer for those who embrace the idea of creation care. It is also, as I noted, a challenge to those who fail to develop a theology of the body, leading to all number of problems. It is also a theological challenge to those who are tempted by a Gnostic vision, but reminding the reader of the incarnation. It is a good book. It is also somewhat densely written, making it at times a difficult read. It’s not that’s overly abstract, it’s just at times verbose (and as one who can be verbose, it’s something I recognize).
Having gotten to know Jonathan when he was teaching at Westmont College and I was serving as a pastor of a Disciples church in Santa Barbara, California, I know Jonathan has a broad evangelical vision. Audience-wise, this book is directed toward evangelicals, especially those willing to embrace a vision that isn’t caught up in the creationist frenzy. He seeks to show a different way of understanding and living out a Trinitarian, evangelical, creation-affirming vision. Non-evangelicals will find much of value, but they might also find much that they struggle with. But then, they’re (we’re) not the intended audience.