First Things and Last Things
Have you ever seen a book that you knew nothing about, taken it off the shelf, opened it up to a random page, and read the first paragraph that your eyes happened to meet? Depending on the book, you may have been intrigued, or offended, or amused. But one thing is almost certain—you did not fully understand that paragraph. No matter how clearly the paragraph was written, you did not fully understand it because you read it in isolation, apart from its larger context. If the book was a novel, you did not know who the characters were or how the plot had developed to that point. If the book was a scholarly work making a careful argument for a controversial claim, you did not know what the author’s claim was or what the initial steps of his argument were. To understand part of a book well, in other words, we must understand something about the book as a whole.
It is no different with reading the Bible. The Bible is a very big book, written by many human authors, in several different languages, with a variety of literary styles, over more than a thousand years. Many of the individual parts of the Bible are very hard to understand and some of them even seem to contradict each other at first reading. Yet Christians believe that there is also one divine author of Scripture and that therefore the parts of Scripture are not contradictory but fit together into a single, unified story that proclaims the truth about God and his relationship with the world. In order to understand what Scripture teaches about any subject, we must appreciate both the particular things that it says about it at various places in the text and how those particular things fit into the larger story and unified truth that the Bible communicates.
These considerations should guide our reflection on the Christian’s relationship to human culture. Part 1 of this book considers some very big issues that provide the basics for thinking about Christianity and cultural activity. Many contemporary writers portray redemption as “creation regained,” as picking up Adam’s original task of developing culture with the goal of adorning the new creation, all so that God’s original plans for this world might be fulfilled. In part 1 we will see that God’s original plan for creation is indeed fulfilled—but not through the cultural works of Christians.
The Lord Jesus Christ, as the second and last Adam, has fulfilled Adam’s original commission once and for all. Christ has already attained the original goal by entering the new creation through his resurrection and ascension. And we already have a claim to this new creation by virtue of his work. We are citizens of heaven through faith in him.
This is crucial background for the rest of the book. If we do not understand the biblical theme of the two Adams and its corresponding doctrine of justification then it is impossible to hold a biblical view of Christianity and culture. Readers who think that Christianity is about picking up Adam’s original task and doing it better than he did should probably hold a redemptive transformationist view and proceed as if their cultural achievements will adorn the new heaven and new earth. But if you follow the discussion in chapters 2 and 3 about the two Adams—the first Adam and the last Adam, in Paul’s language—then you have the foundation for understanding the development and importance of the two kingdoms through the grand story of biblical history.
The First Adam: Creation and Fall
Paul’s epistle to the Romans has long held a special and well-deserved place in the hearts of Protestant Christians. Like no other biblical book, Romans unfolds the devastation of human sin, the inescapability of God’s judgment, the amazing gift of salvation, the outlook for the eschatological future, and the character of the Christian life. About one-third of the way through the book, in Romans 5:12-21, Paul brings a key argument of Romans to a dramatic climax before moving on to the next stage of his epistle. In these verses Paul repeatedly compares “one man” with “one man.” The first man, he explains, committed “one trespass” which “led to condemnation for all men” while the second man performed “one act of righteousness” that “leads to justification and life for all men” (5:18). Because of the first man’s “disobedience” the “many were made sinners” but by the second man’s “obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:19). Two great figures, Adam and Christ, overshadow the whole of human history. The fate of every other individual depends upon the two of them.
This was no slip of Paul’s pen. The same theme appears in 1 Corinthians: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (15:21–22). Later Paul adds: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:45, 1 Corinthians 15:49).
Two Adams stand over the whole of human history. The first Adam was the pinnacle of God’s original creation and held the destiny of the world in his hands. By his disobedience the world was plunged into sin, condemnation, and death. But the second and last Adam came from heaven into the midst of this fallen world, fulfilled the task of the first Adam, endured the death and judgment due to sin, and entered into the new creation by his resurrection and ascension.
There is no better way to summarize the story of Scripture, and hence the story of world history. Christians must understand their responsibilities in human culture within the context of this bigger story. Redemption is not about regaining the original creation but gaining the new creation by the work of Christ alone. Christians’ cultural activities should not be construed as picking up Adam’s original task. This chapter describes the opening part of the story, creation and fall, as it revolves around the first Adam.
The Creation of the World
Athletic events and musical performances generally begin with a warm-up. Athletes need to get their hearts beating and their muscles limber. Musicians need to loosen their fingers, lips, or vocal cords. But Scripture does not begin slowly. Genesis 1 is no warm-up, but begins with an astounding account of God’s work of creation that, In a beautiful literary style, describes the origin of all things, the ordering of this world’s many parts into a harmonious whole, and the climactic act of human creation in the divine image. Many features of Genesis 1 are striking, especially when compared with the creation myths of many ancient peoples. Genesis 1 reveals that there is but one God, not a pantheon of gods who will share the work and compete for the glory. This one God, furthermore, was the only being who existed before creation. In the beginning God created “the heavens and the earth”—everything owes its existence to God’s creative power. As the New Testament puts it, “the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). Thus, unlike many creation myths, there was no one or no thing that opposed God when he created. Another striking feature of Genesis 1 is the almighty power of God. Nothing is difficult for God, nothing is a struggle. He simply speaks, and whatever he says comes to pass.
The psalmist later comments: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalms 33:6).
Finally, Genesis 1 highlights the unadulterated goodness of God’s work. Six times this chapter says that God looked at what he had created and saw that “it was good.” Then, after creating man last of all, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (1:31). It is no wonder that the rest of Scripture looks back upon the work of creation and marvels at such a God. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24). Even in the final book of Scripture the wonder of creation continues to amaze the heavenly host: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11).
While we are admiring the work of God described in Genesis 1, we do well to peek ahead for a moment to the opening of Genesis 2. There we see a curious thing, but something that is immensely important for understanding Christianity and culture today: a seventh day on which God does no creating at all. Genesis 1:31–Genesis 2:1 explains that in the work of the six days God made “everything” and thus the heavens and earth were “finished.” But then on the seventh day God “rested . . . from all his work that he had done” and “blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (2:2–3). God sits down, as it were, enthroned above the world that he has made, rejoicing in his accomplishment. For six days God acted again and again in this world, but on the seventh day he withdraws his hand of creation from the world and takes up his royal rest in the heavens above.
It is evident that the main actor in Genesis 1 is God himself. He is front and center. But within the created world one creature stands out from all the rest: “man,” whom God made “male and female” (Genesis 1:26-27). Every other creature clearly has its place and contributes in its own wonderful way to the glory of the Lord. But Genesis 1 tells us about the creation of all other beings before it gets to the creation of human beings, and with this climactic act its story of creation is complete. Several aspects of Genesis 1 indicate that the creation of human beings is unique. For example, on several occasions God calls upon things that he has already made to assist him in the production of other things: “Let the earth sprout. . . . Let the waters swarm. . . . Let the earth bring forth . . .” (1:11, 20, 24). But when it comes time to make human beings the language changes: “Let us make man . . .” (1:26). Furthermore, on several occasions God speaks creatures into existence “according to their kinds” (1:11–12, 21, 24–25). But when he makes man he creates them “in our image, after our likeness” (1:26).
Bearing the image and likeness of God is the thing that sets apart human beings from the rest of creation most clearly and dramatically. What did it mean for the first Adam to be created in God’s image? Ephesians 4:24 and Genesis 1:1-25 provide some clues about how to read Genesis 1:26-27. In these two verses Paul writes about the Christian’s renewal in the image of God through faith in Christ, thereby indicating that the image of God in Christ is not something entirely new but reflects the image as originally created by God. So what does Paul say about the image? He speaks of it in terms of “knowledge” (Col. 3:10) and “righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Knowledge, righteousness, and holiness refer to moral and rational capabilities put to good use. Thus Paul indicates that bearing God’s image is about who we are and especially what we do.
Back in Genesis 1 we find exactly what Paul’s words lead us to expect. For many nonhuman things, such as the expanse in the midst of the waters and the lights in the heavens (1:6, 14), what God made them to be is inseparable from what he made them to do.1 The same is evidently true for Adam. God made the first Adam a moral and rational creature who must put these capacities to work. Unlike all the other creatures, Adam can hear and understand God’s words, is put under obligation, and must render account to God. What exactly were Adam and Eve to do as knowledgeable, righteous, and holy creatures? Genesis 1:26 explains: “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Exercising dominion was not something tacked on to image-bearing: to exercise dominion is part of the very nature of bearing the image.2 Genesis 1:1-25 reveals a God who has exercised supreme dominion over this world, calling it into being, ordering its various parts, and giving names to his creatures. Then he creates man in his image and likeness—what could be more like God than exercising dominion in the world? This dominion must be exercised, of course, under the sovereign dominion of God. The first Adam is an under-lord serving the supreme Lord. But in carrying out this responsibility he shows forth the likeness of his Creator in a way that far surpasses the work of any other creature.
In other words, to bear the image of God was to be entrusted with an office or a commission. God made Adam to be a wise, holy, and righteous king. He was to pick up where God left off. God named many created things (1:5, 8, 10), but he commissioned Adam to name many that he had not named (2:19–20). God brought the first human beings to life, but he commissioned Adam and Eve to populate the world with a multitude of descendants (1:28). God made Adam with a host of latent abilities that he was to develop and put to use in benevolent rule over all other living beings (1:26, 28). Hence, we see already in the first chapter of Scripture that human beings were made for cultural activity. God gave to them a cultural task that they were to pursue in faithful service to him. Telling the biblical story of Christianity and culture must begin in Genesis 1.
A good summary of the image of God thus far may be something like this: the first Adam was made in the divine image as the royal son of God, commissioned to exercise wise, righteous, and holy dominion over this world.
But there is still one thing missing in this definition of the image. The conclusion of the creation narrative, Genesis 2:1-3, teaches that after God finished his work he sat down enthroned in the heavens in royal rest. God worked—and then he rested. If the first Adam was made in God’s image and likeness, and was commissioned to work as God had worked, was he also to rest as God had rested? Was the image of God not only about working (and working and working and working . . .) but also about finishing the work and resting like God himself? Genesis 1:1–Genesis 2:1-3 does not exactly say it, but it leads us to suspect that this is the case. Other places in Scripture confirm this suspicion and show us how important it is. The first Adam did not bear God’s image in order to work aimlessly in the original creation but to finish his work in this world and then to enter a new creation and to sit down enthroned in a royal rest.