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.