The Mission of the Church, Pt. 4

I mentioned last week that I’m engaging Kevin DeYoung’s and Greg Gilbert’s book, What Is the Mission of the Church?  I’m sort of working in canonical order, starting with their handling of the beginning of the biblical narrative.

There is a second way in which DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s handling of Genesis 1-2 is problematic.  They impose an unnatural framework on the creation account, along with Genesis 3, that overshadows and marginalizes essential elements of the biblical narrative.  This leaves them with an incomplete account of the creation and the fall and leads to an inadequate depiction of God’s work of salvation and the mission of the church.

Now, to be fair, DeYoung and Gilbert note that in discussing Genesis 1-2 they’re not saying all that could be said about the creation account.  It’s such a rich narrative that they can’t possibly talk about everything.  That’s exactly right.  I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing them for only focusing on one theme.  Every writer must be selective in developing any theme from Scripture.

The problem here is that they first emphasize features of the narrative that the text does not highlight.  That’s not necessarily wrong, especially with such a richly resonant story.  If one makes that move, however, one must be very careful.  But DeYoung and Gilbert make these outside-the-text features the main point of the narrative and set them over against features that are present in the text.

This move has massive implications for understanding the character of God, his relation to humanity, the character of the fall, and God’s mission to recover what was lost and reestablish his sovereign rule.  I’ll briefly describe how they handle Genesis 1-3 and then elaborate my criticisms.

In handling Genesis 1-3, DeYoung and Gilbert claim that missional thinkers have made too much of the connection between humanity and creation (p. 70).  They want to correct this by stressing the distinction between Adam and Eve and the rest of creation.  The first pair had a special relationship to God, enjoying “perfect fellowship and harmony” with God.  At the fall, this relationship was broken in a “legal and moral” sense (p. 73).

Because the main point of Genesis 1-3 is humanity’s relationship to God, according to the authors, the “themes of alienation from God and salvation by a Mediator” become central to the story line throughout Scripture (p. 75).  DeYoung and Gilbert set this central thrust of Scripture against another alternative.  They state that “the hope of salvation is not for Adam to work to return the world to its original ‘very good’ state, but rather for God to effect salvation through a Mediator” (p. 74, italics in original).  Again, “there is nothing in the early chapters of Genesis that would lead us to believe that the work of returning the world to its original ‘very good’ state falls to Adam.  God does not give him such a charge, and the reason is that Adam has already blown it” (p. 75).

There are several problems with this depiction.

First, DeYoung and Gilbert distinguish between humanity’s status before God and humanity’s function within creation.  As I noted previously, humanity’s relating to one another and managing creation’s flourishing constituted their worship of God.  They can’t be separated and set against each other.

Further, humanity is indeed the apex of creation and given the task of overseeing its flourishing.  But DeYoung and Gilbert inappropriately stress the distinction between humanity and creation whereas the narrative stresses their inseparability.  Adam was made “from the ground” (2:6) and was put in the garden for the purpose of cultivating and keeping it (2:15).  In terms of the creation account, human identity is defined in terms of relation to the creation.  Adam’s relation to the ground is both what makes him human and constitutes his worship of God.  DeYoung and Gilbert seek to separate what the text holds together.

This is crucial because it isn’t merely that Adam and Eve sinned against God in the abstract.  Their sin was a very specific failure, having everything to do with being the “image of God.”  They failed to subdue the serpent.  They refused to represent God to the creation, failing to properly be the image of God within the Creator God’s temple.

Pointing ahead, Paul picks up on this in Romans 1:23-25 and describes how God’s work of salvation restores humanity to the image of God, leading to restored worship (Rom. 12:1-2).  This has everything to do with image of God, which has everything to do with humanity’s relation to one another and creation.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

Second, DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize the “moral and legal” components of the fall.  Humanity has been alienated from God and this becomes central to the story line of the Bible.

It isn’t wrong, of course, to stress the brokenness of humanity’s relation to God.  But DeYoung and Gilbert do this in a way that minimizes the fact that this alienation takes a specific form.  What has gone wrong is that Adam and Eve are alienated from one another and from the ground.  The functions to which God committed them are now corrupted.

The central theme in the remainder of the biblical narrative, then, is that something has gone horribly wrong in God’s temple with direct reference to creation’s cultivation.  The “image” has been corrupted in some way and this is the problem that needs to be addressed.

Once again, I’m not criticizing DeYoung and Gilbert for stressing humanity’s alienation from God.  This is clearly central in Scripture.  But they do so in a way that distinguishes this from the manner in which this relation is embodied and excludes humanity’s relation to creation.

Third, the rhetoric DeYoung and Gilbert employ here is very unhelpful.  I had intended to work through the substance of their work first and then later address their rhetorical strategies.  I’ve talked with others who have read the book and were very frustrated by its rhetoric and argumentation.  I’ll comment later on how I believe their rhetoric relates to their perceived audience.

For now, however, I’ll call upon my undergraduate logic class and note that the authors here run into the fallacy of the excluded middle.  This fallacy involves presenting one’s own position against an extreme version of another position, ignoring more reasonable options that may constitute a middle position.

As DeYoung and Gilbert begin their book, they cite several other writers, such as Christopher Wright, David Bosch, John Stott, and N. T. Wright.  For the remainder of the book, however, they stop citing other writers and begin setting their own view in opposition to an extreme position that I don’t think anyone holds.

This strategy associates missional thinkers with a misguided quest to return to the pre-fall creation condition.  This is very unhelpful and I tend to think it’s a bit unfair.  I don’t know of any evangelical who would talk like that or advocate such a position explicitly.  This strategy unfairly skews the discussion and prevents fruitful reflection on a properly biblical engagement with a broken creation.

This post has already gotten too long, but I believe that Scripture portrays God’s work of salvation in terms of the restoration of creation rather than its abandonment.

16 thoughts on “The Mission of the Church, Pt. 4

  1. John Thomson

    Not long enough. Your reflections are engaging. A few further points and queries.

    1. Although I accept the temple imagery, I don’t think it jumps out at you from the text. I wonder if it is being made to say too much in its current popularity.

    2. ‘Adam’s relationship with the ground is what makes him human.’ I have doubts about this. The animals are also made from the ground. What makes him human (and God’s image) appears to be God breathing into him the breath of life. At least this is what distinguishes Adam from the creatures in the narrative of Ch 2.

    3. I think what constitutes ‘human’ is an interesting question. In my view we must allow for different conditions/states of humanity. Adam’s original estate IMO was innocent (child-like?). He had no knowledge of good and evil, that is, he had no intrinsic moral determining compass. His duty, as a child’s, was simply to obey. Adam in sin belongs to another ‘state’ (like the angels who sinned he lost his first estate). Christ in incarnation is yet another state (he is the Holy thing, something that is not and could not be said of Adam. Finally, there is humanity glorified; Christ humanity. As I noted in a previous comment 1 Cor 15 makes radical distinctions between Adamaic humanity (fallen or unfallen) and Christic-humanity (in incarnation and in resurrection). It seems to me that both Col and Ephesians see the image in Christ as different from that of Adam. It is made in true rightoeusness and holiness’ something that is never said of Adam.

    4. The main point I wish to make is that, as those who have died with Christ and live on the other side of death in new creation, our first loyalties are to new creation. The creation stands or falls in its head. The ground shares in the judgement (like the land shared in the judgement on Israel). In the fall of Adam the creation itself faces radical renewal (though its own judgement and regeneration). Thus we live in the old creation as those who belong to the new. We honour and uphold God’s order in it (as aliens the laws of a foreign country in which they live) but our true origin and destiny (and so loyalty) is to new creation, the creation to which we belong. We are not ‘those who dwell upon the earth’ but citizens of heaven (however understood).

    Is new creation restoration of the old or is it radical reconfiguration? Depending on where one falls here lies one’s driving theology on the place of the old in the life of the believer. I see in the Adam/Christ metamorphosis a paradigm for the creation/new creation transformation; creation shares in the experiences of its head, thus continuity is married to radical discontinuity.

    Sorry Tim, this comment is probably longer than your post. Please excuse any assertive tone. I am happy to be corrected.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, John! Don’t know that I can hit everything here, but a few thoughts:

      (1) Modern readers may indeed miss the temple notions here, but for ancient readers, this would have been what Gen. 1-2 were all about. This is a growing consensus among biblical studies people over the last few decades. Walton is just the latest, and probably most accessible, version.

      (2) Adam’s name is adam, connecting him to ‘the earth’ — adama. That’s not just the ‘stuff’ that makes him up, but it’s his name because that’s his identity. He’s the one from and for the ground, having a unique relationship to the ground and the rest of creation. He’s its caretaker, charged with cultivating it and overseeing its flourishing. His very life comes from God, indeed, but Adam’s identity is tied directly to the earth. He’s distinguished from the other creatures by his role as caretaker and cultivator on behalf of God. This may sound mundane and demeaning for contemporary readers who seek to transcend our earthiness, but the creation account dignifies this identity and role.

      (3) Lots to say here, but I’m only dealing thus far with Gen. 1-3. Haven’t even gotten to Gen. 4 yet, let alone 1 Cor, etc.!! But just to say briefly, Adam was indeed naive and was to grow in wisdom, just as creation was in a dynamic condition of growth. This went bad. But God’s mission — and I still need to prove this — is to restore our condition, not eliminate it. Jesus takes on humanity to rid it of “sin-in-the-flesh” and to radically advance our humanity with new creation realities. But all of this is done to bring us back to our original task of overseeing creation’s flourishing and to enjoy it along with one another to the glory of God.

      (4) We do indeed dwell in this present age as those who belong to the new creation. It seems that you’ve got a good bit of discontinuity between the old and new, and that tied to creation’s ontology. It seems to me that the creation itself won’t be destroyed but freed from what enslaves and perverts it. The radical discontinuity is between the present fallen age and its perversions, on one hand, and God’s redeemed order, on the other. So, we live on earth as part of God’s restored order (new creation), awaiting the consummation of all things and fullness of new creation. That makes us live “with the grain of the universe,” not against it. That dynamic makes us relative strangers in this world, but only because we inhabit it truly.

      1. John Thomson


        1. I’ve read Walton but mainly Beale re temple imagery. I worry that it is not explicitly picked up in the rest of Scripture, though I do see force of parallels with priesthood.

        2. Regarding ‘adama’, I agree this is true of Adam. But my point is this is not intrinsic to being human. Here 1 Cor 15 and the Second Man (in whom as believers we have our identity) come into play. He is ‘heavenly’ in origin and destiny. Now, I am not 100% decided in my own mind what this means. But again and again this ‘heavenly’ trajectory is used to draw our hearts away from ‘earth’ and ‘a passing world’ to ‘a new heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells’. Abraham saw beyond theearthly to the heavenly city/country. We have an ‘upwards call’ in Christ. We have to set our minds/affections on things above where Christ is and not on things on the earth’. Our life is hid with Christ in God… and so on. Christ has gone to the father’s House to prepare for us a home there that where he is we may also be… all point to a heavenly destiny. Indeed there is much more in the NT to suggest our future is in heaven than on earth. I tend to understand the eschaton as being in some sense heaven and earth becoming one.

        3’But God’s mission — and I still need to prove this — is to restore our condition, not eliminate it’. Yes, I await this with anticipation. Genuinely. From my point of view new creation is not restoration but regeneration/transfiguration/metamorphosis; the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. I base this on 1 Cor 15 and the difference between the sown and resurrected body. The present ability of Christ to live at his father’s right hand. The moving from flesh to Spirit (flesh being not simply fallen humanity but humanity in weakness – Christ being put to death in the flesh and made alive in the Spirit (1 Pet 3). Of course, by ‘alive in the Spirit’ I do not mean immateriality but physical life of a different order of existence. Marriage is no more and we are in some sense ‘as the angels in heaven’.

        4. ‘It seems to me that the creation itself won’t be destroyed but freed from what enslaves and perverts it.’

        Yes, there is continuity as creation groans in childbirth (itself an image of recreation). Yet it is the continuity between weakness and power; humility and glory; perhaps infancy and maturation (Hebrews). And it seems to to be a result of destruction as the flood prefigured (2 Pet 3; Hebs 1). I know that for example NT Wright seeks to modify these expressions and make them almost socio-political but they seem to me much more cataclysmic than this.

        Many thanks for taking time to respond.

      2. timgombis

        Slow down, I’m working diachronically not synchronically. Can’t deal with all the texts at once. But you’ve got to start at the start and emphasize the earthy character of humanity. The eschatological vision is of heaven and earth being rejoined and all creation being made new. Humanity is restored with bodies ‘from heaven’, but not non-physical, heavenly bodies. They’re glorified bodies like Jesus’ glorified body.

  2. joey

    What you’ve said makes sense to me, Tim. (In my non-scholarly language), it seems to me that the curse God put on the land emphasizes the connection between the creation and its lord. The now fallen state of the creation reflects the fallen state of its lord, mankind. (This may be part of what John was saying above.)
    On another note, if the authors are seeking to describe the fall in legal terms, I think they are wrong. The fall is a relational issue – totally. It is a relationship we have violated, not some law that exists independent of God.

    1. timgombis

      There’s always a range of things going on in narratives, but the legal component seems an imposition. I think they emphasize it in order to speak of Christ’s atonement in largely legal categories. But the fall is principally functional and relational. The image is no longer functioning with the temple rightly — no longer cultivating creation, relating with other imagers, and all of this constitutes a breach in relation to God.

      1. joey

        Yes, if the fall (Sin) is a legal issue, then atonement must be a legal issue. This would be important for several Reformed doctrines.
        Your mentioning of the “functional” aspects of the fall resonates with me. I hadn’t thought of it specifically in those terms but as soon as you point it out I am able to see it.
        I’ve been hearing more and more about the Creation as Temple. Can you recommend a resource for that?

      2. John Thomson

        Adam ‘transgressed’ a divinely given ‘law’; there must be a legal issue.

        Rom 5:14 (ESV)
        Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

      3. timgombis

        Paul does indeed speak of what happened to humanity as a transgression of God’s command, but I’m not sure that’s enough to say that the issue was ‘legal.’ You may say that there is something of a legal dimension, but the NT writers focus on other things. Paul focuses on the worship aspect of humanity that has gone wrong throughout Romans, and the Gospel writers have Jesus reversing / overcoming Eve’s and Adam’s encounter with the serpent in his temptation in the wilderness. So, like I said, in a narrative rich with resonances, there’s lots going on, and may indeed be a legal component. It’s just that with an ANE text, that’s not in the foreground, however much modern Westerners want to have it there. This is especially the case for those who are heirs of a system of theology developed around Dutch legal theory (Dutch Calvinism’s covenant theology).

    2. joey

      Thanks for the reference, Tim. I’ll look for it.
      There is lots of juridical speech in scripture, but it’s a metaphor and not meant to be taken to an extreme. Sin is at its core a relational issue – it is relational infidelity. We have violated a relationship with our Father – not a judge. (Well, to be more precise, our Father happens to be the judge.) It helps to remind ourselves that Sin is not primarily the individual acts of evil that we commit. The bigger picture of Sin is that it is the condition of our hearts – Matthew 15. We commit “sins” because we are sinnERS. It is this heart issue that God had to deal with in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
      Reformed doctrine seeks to make sin out to be a legal issue. As a result, the Cross becomes a legal issue, and, hence, about punishment. But no amount of punishment reconciles hearts.
      Ah…There’s too much to be said about all of this and this is not what this post was originally about. The things you’re writing about, Tim, are just too rich and lead to all sorts of topics.

      1. John Thomson


        You are in danger of the very reductionism you are criticising. Justification is legal/law-court language (a picture Isaiah develops) and is at the heart of the gospel (as is punishment). God sits on a throne which is judicial. That it (justification) is not the whole gospel I fully agree. Justification deals with one aspect of the atonement and reconciliation with another (though both are related), redemption with another and so on; all are metaphors.

        Incidentally God is not the Father of unbelievers. Adam rebelled against God but he did not know him (even as unfallen) as Father. Only Christ reveals the Father (ontologically).

      2. joey

        Thanks for the dialogue. You bring up some valid points that would need to be addressed, However, this is not a one-or-two paragraph discussion and I’d not want to hijack Tim’s blog to pursue it. I’m happy to pursue this with you if you’d like – perhaps by email.
        In Acts 17, Paul, speaking to non-believers, says that we are all His offspring. In other words, we are His sons and daughters; children. I take your point but we’d need to work out what it means that we are “not all his children.”

  3. Matt Jenson

    Great work here, Gomby. I really like this. And I’ve never heard anyone make mention of the couple’s ‘failure to subdue’ the serpent. That seems immediately right, and well-integrated into the story. Thanks for that as our small group moves through Genesis 1-3!

    1. timgombis

      Dude, you’re huge! As is the fact that Eve and Adam were supposed to subdue the serpent. Informs major parts of Jesus’ ministry, too, as he goes about subduing creation (calming storms, healing sickness, etc.), setting a trajectory for the mission of the church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s