THE BIBLICAL DOCTRINE OF THE WORLD

- by the Reverend Henry Corbett

The Created World

The creation of the world by God is assumed by the Bible. It is not a matter for proof, but of faith. It is "by faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God" (Hebrews 11; 3). But such faith is not irrational: as a professr of Biology has put it, "the probability of life originating from an accident is comparable to the probability of a dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing works." The assumption of a creator behind the world's order and life is far from unreasonable, and the apostle Paul argues that "God's power and deity can be clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Romans 1; 2O).

The method of God's creation of the world is not described in scientific detail, but the Genesis account states that the world was created out of nothing, and that the totality of the universe owes its origin to God. There was no pre-existent matter out of which God fashioned the world, and there is nothing in the world that is innately evil: when God saw everything that He had made, "behold it was very good" (Genesis 1; 3l). Further, God not only created the universe, He also sustains it. In Athens, Paul speaks not only of the God who "made the world and everything in it " but of the God who "is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17; 25 & 28).

Such a view of God's creative and sustaining relationship to the world rules out as unchristian four old and popular world-views . Deism first is out, the view of God as the clock-maker who makes the clock, winds it up and leaves it: on the contrary God is involved in His world, not even as an intervening clock-repairer but continually, and if He wasn't, the world would cease at once to exist. Secondly Pantheism is ruled out, the view that God is identified with His creation, that everything from a soul to a stone is in some sense God, that the world equals God: on the contrary, destroy the world and you certainly do not destroy God. God is not shut up in His creation. Gnosticism thirdly is ruled out, the view that the physical world of matter was created not by the good God but by an inferior bad deity: on the contrary everything, matter included, was made by the one and only God. And fourthly a thorough-going materialism is out, the view that there is no Creator at all: on the contrary the world is not the result of accident but of the creator's design. The Christian view is that of theism: that God is neither contained in His world nor divorced from His world. As so often in Christian thought, it is a case of both - God is both in and beyond His world.

This Christian understanding of the world has important consequences. Because we see the whole created world as made by God, we should not hive God off into a particular `religious' or `sacred' area. God is not an ecclesiastic interested only in vicars and churchy matters. Nor is He an aloof Creator who only occasionlly intervenes `supernaturlly' and othewise remains apart. There is no `secular' area that is not of concern to Him, just as there is no `natural' realm where He is not at work. And because "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24; 1), we are to be concerned for it, not neglectful of it. Just as we respect people as made in God's image so we are to respect the world as God's creation. St. Francis of Assisi may have gone a little too far in calling the birds of the air his "brethren" but his respect for them was right. We are of more value than the birds, but that does not mean they are valueless. To shrug our shoulders at the needless suffering of animals, the pollution of land, the widespread rape of nature is to be less than Christian in our concern for God's creation. To slight the world is to slight its creator. We are to manage the world as wise, responsible stewards, not exploit it. "A fundamental duty which man owes to God," wrote Archbishop William Temple, "is reverence for the world as God has made it." And such reverence should not be idle, but active.

As well as caring for God's world as His stewards, we are also to enjoy it as His children. "Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving", writes Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 4; 4), and later Paul appeals to the "God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6; 17). Psalm 104 glows with appreciation and enjoyment in the face of God's manifold creation, mountains, valleys, trees, birds, lions, sea and all. The human body, far from being the prison to incarcerate the soul, is a gift from God, not an evil enemy, but a temporal partner. Food, sex, mind, body, all are part of God's rich provision to us in creation and their right use in eating, marriage, literature, art, sport, drama is a healthy way of saying thank-you to their Giver. The christian believes in the world, and is to be a caring steward of it and a joyous child in it.

A Fallen World

But our stewardship, vice-regency even, had a catastrophic start. Man fell, and as the viceregent fell out of harmony with God so the whole created order fell into disarray and into an unharmonious "groaning in travail" (Romans 8; 22). The usurper stepped in between man and God. Thus Satan is "the prince of this world" (John 16; 11), his evil spirits roam the earth, and "the whole world is in the power of the evil one" (1 John 5; 19). The word "world" in Scripture is found now with a sinister meaning (especially in John's writings), and a this-worldly utopianism is ruled out. The Christian is to see the world as marshalled by its prince against God and we are to be on our guard against its spirit and its standard. The world's outlook is against God and not for Him.

In practical terms, good is too often abused with gluttony, sex with immorality, the mind with intellectual arrogance, and the body in general is used for evil deeds not good. Materialism is for too many the new religion, money the new god. The Christian is still rightly to enjoy God's creation and to care for it, but the fact of the world's fallenness means we must be careful not to follow its course. "Do not be conformed to this world" says Paul (Romans 12; 2), and "Do not love the world or the things in the world" , commands John (1 John 2; 15). The world's approach and attitude ignore God or take Him too lightly. Further the world may hate the Christian as it hated Christ (John 15; 18), and the Christian is promised "tribultion in the world" (John 16; 33). The church and the world are two distinct groups; the Greek word for `saint' in the New Testament means `separate', and `church' means `called out'. The world of fallen men is in rebellion against God, and the world of nature is brought into bondage.

A Reconciled World

But though the world is hostile to God, God is not hostile to the world. Indeed "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son" (John 3; 16) and "in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5; 19). Christ took the sins of the world on Himself and disarmed the evil powers of the world. The whole created order awaits redemption (Romans 8; 19).

And as Christ was sent by the Father into the world to reconcile it to God, so Christ sends His disciples into the world (John 17; 18). In this fallen, disordered world therefore the Christian has a vital part to play. Because the world is fallen, we are to be separate in attitude from its ways, but because the world is to be reconciled we are not to be separate in distance from its needs. An other-worldly monasticism is therefore ruled out. The same verse that tells us to keep ourselves "unstained from the world" also sends us into the world "to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction" (James 1; 27). We are to be involved in the world, concerned for its condition, active like both salt and light. As John Stott says, "we have no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt-cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop its going bad." As light we are of no use in dispelling darkness and pointing to the One who is the Saviour of the World if we are invisible, hidden away. Both a concern for social justice and a concern for evangelism are part of our Christian calling. We are to be active in this ministry of reconciling the world to God.

A New World

But despite all our efforts in His strength this world will never be altogether righteous. Our hope is not in this world's response to the Gospel and to Christian service but in the God who will set free the creation from its bondage to decay and who will adopt us with bodies redeemed as His sons (Romans 8; 21 & 23). As the apostle Peter says, "according to His promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3; 13). The first heaven and earth, this universe, will pass away (Revelation 21; 1). Thus the materialist's concern for this world only is tragically mistaken. The millionire who has calculated only in this world's terms is a rich fool at death. Temporary earthly glory fades, heavenly reward does not. Present suffering will disappear, future bliss won't.

We are therefore to cultivate this eternal perspective. Amidst despair of a fallen world, the Christian can maintain hope in a God who will bring in a new world, redeemed to its furthest corner. Amidst covetousness that grabs for all it can get we should be more open-handed with our possessions. Amidst suffering there is open to us a heavenly perspective and peace.

Conclusion

The Christian therefore is to be both intensely this-worldly and expectantly other-worldly. We are to be both passionately concerned for this world's condition, praying "Thy Kingdom come" , and yet free from its spirit and attitudes, realizing Christ's Kingdom "is not of this world" . In short we are to follow our Lord, who loved God's creation and gave His life to reconcile the world to God, and who also renounced the world's fallen ways and for the joy of the world to come endured the agony of the Cross.

Click here to go back to the previous page.