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Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 1

Kevin Hester

Modern evangelicals regularly engage in robust discussions with naturalists and with Christians who promote other, non-literal interpretations of the Genesis account. Many conservative Christians often wonder how creation has been understood throughout Christian history. As a historical theologian who focuses upon the early church, I am often asked about the early church perspective on creation. Many Evangelicals are initially disappointed when I share with them the nature of early Christian views. Most church fathers don’t spend time discussing the literal historicity of the creation account because they simply assume it. Even Augustine, whose complex views on creation have become a recent battleground, demonstrates this essentially literal approach to Genesis when he dates the ages since the creation of man at 6,000 years (City of God, 12.11) and argues for a literal, world-wide flood (City of God, 15).

Still, when the early church fathers did discuss creation, they were answering different questions and responding to different apologetic needs. The questions they were answering tended to be more philosophical than scientific. That does not mean, however, that the early church has nothing to teach us on the topic. If we understand their context, they can show us a way forward by focusing upon the basic principles they developed of a good God actively creating a good world from nothing, and endowing that world with His purpose and design.

If you hope to turn to the early church fathers and their medieval counterparts for specific answers on modern debates related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the nature of the days of the creation narrative as expressed in Genesis, you will be disappointed. However, that is not to say that such perspectives should not or cannot be informed by the teachings and beliefs of the early church. What I will demonstrate is that the early church posited a purposeful, active creation of all that exists ex nihilo (from nothing). And that they developed this reading of the creation story in a context where the predominant views of the universe’s origin ranged from a disinterested passive creation on the one hand (Neo-platonism) and the eternality of matter working through blind causes on the other (Atomism). Further, we will note that Christianity introduces a concept of teleological purpose and systematic expression in creation that lays the foundation for all of modern science. It is because God is a God of order and He created this world for a purpose that science is even possible. Early theologians believed that reflection on the natural world could reveal truth that would lead humans ultimately to God.

The Philosophical Context of the First Century

There were two major views on the origin of the universe (cosmogony) in the ancient world. One of these was Atomism. Atomism is generally identified with Democritus (370 BC), Leucippus (370 BC), and the founder of hedonism, Epicurus (270 BC). Epicurus developed an ethical theory that defined the goal of life as contentment and he believed that fear of the gods prevented many from achieving this end. In order to relieve his hearers of concern related to the gods, he turned to Atomism which posited a purely materialistic perspective on the world. Atomism taught that matter was eternal and all that happened was the result of blind laws working in a cause and effect sequence. Ancient atomism thus shared similar sentiments with modern naturalism. Humans were simply part of a larger mechanism subject to various impersonal forces.

There was a significant revival of Epicurus’ hedonism and atomism in the Roman world just prior to the birth of Christianity in the writings of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (d. 55 BC). While some aspects of evolution were occasionally used to explain humanity and other aspects of the natural world, the primary driver of this system of thought was that this world was composed of eternal material elements, largely self-governed by laws of cause and effect, in an endless cycle of creation and growth, decline, death, and rebirth. The gods, if they existed at all, were simply higher forms of life that should cause no concern for us as we live our lives.

The other major cosmogony in the ancient Roman world was that of a disinterested, passive, and accidental creator God. As the Greco-Roman world moved away from earlier polytheism, they recognized a higher order than the physical world. The believed contra the atomists that reason and moral virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty though reflected in nature must come from a higher source. The best representative of this view is the Greek philosopher Plato (d. c. 350 BC). Plato believed that the physical world composed of matter, subject as it was to mutability and destruction, could only be explained by a greater and higher existence. He therefore asserted that there was a scale of ontological reality that moved from matter on its lowest extreme to rational ideas (forms), and ultimately the Good (God) which was the source of all other existence. For Plato the Good was the ultimate form of existence. This Good or God, was perfect existence having neither beginning nor end, pure actuality. This Good was so transcendent and its essence (ousia) so full that its very existence, its very contemplation of itself, naturally produced lesser existences like the forms, which then naturally and accidentally produced matter and the world.

These concepts would lead to a radical perspective on matter that would plague the church and contribute to a number of early Christian heresies. Plotinus (d. 270 AD), the Roman popularizer of these concepts, would further expand the ideas and add spiritual and mystical components to them dividing the categories into a descending hierarchy including the One, the Nous, the Soul, and matter.

Early Christian Descriptions of Creation

The early church came to understand and define the biblical references to creation against the backdrop of these predominant views. Much of their teaching worked to counteract particular tendencies from these worldviews that the church perceived as problematic.

Over against atomism, the Church taught that the source for the order and structure of creation was dependent upon God’s purposes. They asserted that Scripture taught that matter had a beginning in time and its regularity was part of a pattern established by God. In other words, because God is a rational being, all His works are rational and ordered. At the same time, they understood God’s care in the world to be pervasive. God was transcendent and beyond the material plane in which humanity resided, but from the beginning had purposefully interacted with His creation. God was interested in the world and was working to fulfill His purposes in it.

The early Christian response to the Platonists was somewhat different. Many early Christians adopted a number of platonic and neo-platonic perspectives. Plato and Plotinus had insisted on the existence of one ultimate divine being. Many Christians saw their focus on the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues as higher ideals as a different expression of Christian living. Platonism also underscored the Church’s beliefs about God’s ultimate transcendence, aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and immutability. Many of the categories used by Plato to describe the Good were adopted or recognized as legitimate categories of ultimate ontology and embraced by the Church as appropriate descriptions of God consonant with the Biblical text.

There were, however, very important differences. Primary among them was the insistence that God was a personal God. God’s purposes in redemption mean that God cares and is intensely interested in the world. God engages in the world to sustain it and ultimately to redeem it. God’s activity and purpose were determined before creation and they describe God’s act of creation as purposeful and intended. Rather than Plato’s passive, accidental creation, the Christian church posited that God actively and purposefully created the world with a goal in mind. God desired a relationship with His creatures and is now working to restore a relationship broken by sin.

Another important distinction from platonic perspectives was the recognition that God’s creation was good. Matter, though it was ontologically less than God, was not evil (contra Gnosticism). In fact, God’s creation of matter and the world was a work of divine ennoblement over which God had pronounced His blessing. After creating the world and humanity God himself had declared it “very good.” In fact, even though the world had been impacted by sin, God’s purposes in redemption were not only spiritual but physical in nature. Paul had presented this concept in Romans 8 and the early church referenced the promised restoration of creation in eschatological terms. Ultimate salvation was not spiritual enlightenment in a heavenly realm, but eternal life in a renewed body on a renewed earth in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all good things.

Part two of this article will appear next Tuesday.

 

Showing the Good God to Pagans: A Review

Thomas Marberry

Dr. Jeffrey L. Cockrell serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at Welch College. He is currently the Program Coordinator both for Theological Studies and for the M.A. program in Theology and Ministry. He has served our denomination in a variety of different capacities, including almost thirty years of experience as a local church pastor.

Paul, Peter, and other early Christian preachers generally proclaimed the gospel to audiences that were Jewish in character, but occasionally they had the opportunity to share the Good News with the worshipers of pagan gods. Paul did so on two occasions in Acts; the first took place in Lystra as recorded in Acts 14:15-17. The second is his famous sermon before the Areopagus in Athens as found in Acts 17:22-32. As Bruce correctly notes, “Probably no ten verses in Acts have formed the text for such an abundance of commentary as has gathered around Paul’s Areopagus speech.”

In this paper, Cockrell argues that Paul’s speech to this well-educated and sophisticated congregation can serve as a model for presenting the Gospel to secular audiences in today’s world. He begins by explaining that Paul was well prepared for this important task. Cockrell writes, “His background was cosmopolitan. He was a citizen of Rome and Tarsus.” While growing up in Tarsus, Paul experienced both Hellenistic rhetoric and Stoic philosophy. When he came to Athens as an adult, Paul was well prepared for the cultured pagan environment that he would encounter there. Yet these experiences did not lead Paul to abandon his Jewish, and later Christian, heritage. He remained true to the monotheistic faith that he had been taught as a child.

Cockrell demonstrates a thorough understanding of the intellectual conditions existing in the city of Athens during the first century. The Areopagus was an important court in the city that had jurisdiction over issues of religion and morality. The term “Areopagus” described both the court and their meeting place on the hill of Ares, the god of war. When the Romans took over the Greek gods, they gave the Roman name “Mars” to this location.

In the conclusion to his paper, Dr. Cockrell outlines several ways in which modern Christians can use this sermon as a model for presenting the gospel today. First, he points out that Paul knew how to adapt his remarks to the audience he was addressing. This does not mean that Paul compromised his message; it does mean that he presented the message in such a way that the Athenians could understand and appreciate it.

Paul introduced his sermon by pointing out several positive aspects of the religious practices of the Athenians. He did not ridicule or belittle them. He followed this instruction by presenting the true God who had created the universe. He presented this God as One whom they could know in a personal way.

It is true that some began to mock him when Paul began to preach about the resurrection, but it is also true that some did believe his message. This essay gives us an excellent understanding of the background behind Paul’s famous sermon. It also offers several helpful suggestions on how we can present the gospel message to our secular world.

On the Need for Theologically Rich Worship Songs

Matthew Pinson

Why talk about songs on a theology blog, one might ask. But a theology blog is the ideal place to talk about the church’s song. That’s because the reason the New Testament gives us for singing in church is primarily about theology.

The New Testament Reason for Singing in Church

As Colossians 3:16 tells us (and as Dr. Jeff Crabtree has ably exegeted it in his journal article in Integrity), the reason we sing to each other in church is primarily to let Christ’s teaching and the teaching of Holy Scripture dwell richly, deeply, copiously in the people of God.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16, nkjv).

The reason for worship songs in the new covenant church is to teach the congregation biblical theology and to admonish (nouthetountes: to counsel, warn, encourage, or exhort) them to live their lives in accord with that theology. This is done as we sing with grace, or thanks, in our hearts, making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). I’ve been emphasizing that recently with my class on Christian Worship at Welch College: The content of our worship music should very carefully fulfill this apostolic purpose for singing songs in church.

Form Matters

Of course, the form of our worship music supports this as well. The way we sing ensures that the people’s voices are heard (the “speaking to one another” of Eph. 5:19). It ensures that the teaching and admonishing function of a song is front and center. It ensures that the edification of the body—not the entertainment or private worship experience of individuals—is paramount. It ensures that the musical form unites and doesn’t divide the body. It ensures that God gets all the glory, not musical performers. This is all part of what it means to think theologically about the end, purpose, or telos of New Testament worship, specifically New Testament singing.

If our heart’s desire is to have an apostolically shaped worship service, one that relies on the pattern of Christ and His inspired apostles and seeks to let the ordinary means of grace that the Spirit has appointed in His all-sufficient Word shine brightly and guide and structure our worship, then we will carefully structure every aspect of our worship music. That will guide us, rather than the whims and trends of a handful of people in the music industry who make multiple millions of dollars from ever-changing worship fads every year.

Theologically Rich Texts

Key to developing the kind of worship services I’m talking about is choosing worship songs with theologically rich texts. And it’s wonderful that we can “sing a new song to the Lord” and still do this. There is now an abundance of material that either presents freshly written songs that have newly written, theologically rich lyrics, or traditional hymns with which we’re now unfamiliar, set to new music.

I was reminded of this recently when my son Matthew reintroduced me to a new song by my friend Nathan Clark George. The song is entitled “Calm Content.” When Matthew played me this song, I said, “I’ve heard this before. Nathan led us in this song in Welch College chapel a few years ago.”

If you are a pastor or music minister who’s interested in new music that features theologically rich lyrics, I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George. Much of his church music consists of older hymn texts that have been reset to freshly written music that he has composed. Often he will write a new chorus or an additional verse to go with an older hymn text. Sometimes he writes the text himself. (And sometimes he just sings great songs that aren’t really meant for worship, just for fun—for example, his recent “ode to the Carter Family,” Happy with You.)

In “Calm Content,” he takes a wonderful old text from the eighteenth-century hymnwriter William Cowper (most famous for “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) and adds a chorus and additional verse. Like most classic hymnody, Cowper’s text is replete with biblical and theological substance. It teaches and admonishes at the same time: Its subject matter is not only doctrinal, but also very practical: learning from the school of Christ to be calmly content in life’s most difficult circumstances.

Resources for New, Theologically Rich Worship Music

I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George and his friend Gregory Wilbur. They are a part of a growing band of “new hymnodists” who are bringing theologically rich, gospel-drenched song back into the worship life of the evangelical church.

Others include Getty Music, Ligonier Ministries, Indelible Grace Music, Bifrost Arts, Sovereign Grace Music, Stuart Townend Music, Sojourn Music, and many other similar ministries. These ministries are not making money hand-over-fist like the top half-dozen labels that top the CCLI charts. In fact, many of them provide their music free of charge or for a nominal fee. They’re in it for the ministry, and they need your support!

I thank God for this explosion of theologically rich song for the twenty-first-century church, and I pray that it will help evangelical churches recapture their historic desire to use the church’s song for its biblically intend purposes of teaching and admonishing the people of God as they make melody in their hearts to the Lord!

Free Will Baptists at ETS

Jackson Watts

This week the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society will hold its annual meeting in San Diego, California. The theme is “Christ in the Old Testament.” Seven Free Will Baptists will participate in the program, including five who will share some of their scholarly work. Below is a brief overview of the presenters, paper titles, and sections:

Baptist Studies: Phillip T. Morgan of Welch College will present, “Seventeenth-Century General Baptist Use of the Old Testament.

Pentateuch: Matthew McAffee of Welch College will present, “The Documentary Hypothesis Revisited: An Assessment of the Neo-Documentary Approach.”

Systematic Theology: Matthew Pinson of Welch College will present, “Are Arminians Synergists?”

Ethics: Matthew Steven Bracey of Welch College will present, “Edmund Burke and the Moral Imagination in Christian Ethics.”

New Testament (Luke – Acts): Jeff Cockrell of Welch College will present, “Showing the Good God to Pagans: Paul’s Apologia in Acts 17.”

Additionally, several brethren will moderator various sections:

Jesse Owens of Immanuel FWB and Welch College will moderate a Church History  section focused on Baptist Studies.

Zach Vickery of Tippett’s Chapel FWB will moderate a section on Septuagint Studies.

Jeff Cockrell will moderate a New Testament Section.

Matthew Bracey will moderate a section on 18th – 19th Century Church History.

Matthew McAffee will moderate an OT  Backgrounds section, especially as it relates to Ancient Near Eastern studies.

After the meeting, audio recordings of the presentations will be available to purchase for a small price at www.wordmp3.com.

Paul’s Address to the Ephesian Elders: A Review

Thomas Marberry

Danny Dwyer has been an important part of Free Will Baptist work for many years. He has served as senior pastor for churches in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, and North Carolina, and taught Pastoral Theology and Biblical Studies at Southeastern Free Will Baptist College for 14 years.

This essay is a theological and pastoral analysis of one of the most well-known passages in the book of Acts, Paul’s address to the elders of the Ephesian church (20:17-38). Dwyer’s objective in his presentation was two-fold. First, he sought to analyze the content of this famous sermon to ensure that it is correctly interpreted. Second, he examined the lessons that modern pastors can learn from this important passage. The balance between interpretation and application which Dwyer maintains in this article is important. Biblical passages must be correctly interpreted; they must also be properly used in preaching and teaching. Preachers and teachers may correctly interpret a Scripture passage and still commit serious errors in applying the teachings of the passage to contemporary situations.

Dwyer argues that modern Christians should give serious attention to the sermons in Acts because they present essential Christian truths and make an important contribution to the progress of thought in the New Testament. He notes that speeches in ancient writings were often used to “embellish the character’s abilities and person.” Such was not the case with the sermons in Acts. The sermons in Acts were much briefer than those found in secular literature. They were also not designed to enhance the reputation of the speaker, but to convey a message.

Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders is one of ten sermons or sermon summaries recorded in Acts.  Dwyer notes that all of the sermons in Acts are brief and should probably be understood as summaries rather than as transcripts. Of these ten sermons, the address to the Ephesian elders is the only one that is addressed to an exclusively Christian audience. It contains none of the missionary or apologetic emphases that are found in the others sermons. Rather, it focuses the hearers’ attention on the responsibilities of pastors and other leaders in Christian communities.

In this sermon, Paul uses himself as an example which the Ephesian elders are to follow. He reminds these leaders that his ministry has been characterized by selflessness and sacrifice. He has not been concerned with the accumulation of wealth, power, or influence. His only concern has been to advance the cause of Christ. As Dwyer explained, “it is clear that Paul took his responsibility to proclaim the Gospel very seriously.” After this examination of his own ministry, Paul then gives a direct and personal challenge to the Ephesian elders. They must first take heed unto themselves and their ministries. They must exercise constant spiritual care and oversight over their flocks. Paul reminds these Christian leaders that they must faithfully preach the Word of God. As they preach the Word, they must be careful to interpret and apply it correctly. Dwyer reminds modern preachers and teachers that they are responsible beings. They are responsible to be the kind of leaders that can bring glory to God here on earth.